Bonhoeffer and Luther on the Psalms

Dietrich BonhoefferI’ve just been reading the last book published by Dietrich Bonhoeffer in his lifetime, before his arrest in 1941: The Psalms: Prayer Book of the Bible.

It’s a very short book – really only an essay, 24 pages long – but full of profound reflections on the psalms as a model for Christian prayer. Martin Luther was also a great lover of the Psalter, and Bonhoeffer quotes him on a number of occasions in the book. The interaction between Bonhoeffer and Luther is a good way to get a flavour for the book as a whole.

Bonhoeffer begins by reflecting on how the psalms are prayers that God has given us in his Word to pray back to him, just as Jesus taught us the Lord’s Prayer. As such, the two are closely interrelated:

All the prayers of the Bible are gathered together in the Our Father, taken up into its measureless scope. The Our Father does not make them superfluous, but they are themselves its inexhaustible riches, even as the Our Father is their crown and unity. Luther says of the Psalter: ‘It is interwoven with the Our Father in such a way that we can understand each through the other very well and see their happy harmony.’ (p.4)

This relationship between the psalms and the Lord’s Prayer is, incidentally, reflected well in the Daily Office, whose twin poles are the chanting (or reciting) of psalms and the praying of the Lord’s Prayer, just as the two poles of the Mass are the ministry of the Word (supremely, the Gospel lesson) and the ministry of the Sacrament.

A little later, Bonhoeffer is discussing the musical nature of the psalms (the word “psalms” itself being derived from the word “psaltery”). Again, he is able to call on Luther in his support:

Many of the rather baffling headings of the psalms are directions for the choir master. Equally, the ‘selah’ which frequently occurs in the middle of a psalm probably indicates an interval. ‘The selah is telling us to pause and reflect diligently on the words of the psalm; for they require a calm and tranquil soul who is able to grasp with understanding what the Holy Ghost is presenting to his thought.’ (Luther). (p.7)

One of my favourite Luther quotations from the book comes when Bonhoeffer describes what a blessing it is for a church to have a liturgical life that is built around the psalter:

In many Churches the Psalms are recited or sung antiphonally every Sunday, or even daily. These Churches have preserved a treasure of incalculable value, for only through daily use do we grow into that divine prayer book. If we read them only now and again we shall find these prayers so overwhelming in thought and power that we shall always want to turn back to lighter fare. But anyone who has begun to pray the Psalter regularly and in earnest will soon have done with his own easy, ‘trifling little devotions and will say: Ah, here there is none of the sap, the strength, the fervour and fire that I find in the Psalms, this is too cold and hard for me.’ (Luther). (p.8)

Moving on, Bonhoeffer quotes Luther’s description of Psalm 110 as “the foremost among the chief psalms of our dear Lord Jesus Christ” (p.13). He also cites Luther on the penitential psalms (6, 32, 38, 51, 102, 130, 143) as “the Pauline psalms” (p.18), for the way in which they “take us to the very depths of what it means to acknowledge our sin before God, they help us to confess our guilt, they direct our whole trust to the forgiving grace of God.”

In his conclusion, Bonhoeffer describes the purpose of his book as follows:

We have undertaken this short journey through the Psalter in the hope of learning to pray some of the psalms better. […] [A]ll that really matters is that we should begin afresh faithfully and lovingly to pray the Psalter in the Name of Our Lord Jesus Christ. (p.24)

He then gives the last word to Luther:

May our dear Lord, who has given us the Psalter and the Our Father and taught us how to pray them, grant us also the spirit of grace and supplication, that we may with delight and resolute faith truly pray without ceasing, for thus it behoves us. He has commanded it and desires that we should. To him be praise and honour and thanksgiving. Amen.

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