Augustine on Psalm One
If it is true that the first and last psalms in our psalter serve as bookends to the whole, the first standing as an introduction to the entire collection and the last as a concluding doxology; then what we may learn about these psalms in particular will color our understanding of all that comes between. The 150th psalm certainly teaches us that our ultimate purpose, and the end for which we ought to employ the psalms, is, as the catechism instructs us, â€œto glorify God and enjoy him forever.â€ But what may we learn of the first psalm that will assist us more accurately to understand and apply all which follow it?
When I first began to read Augustineâ€™s monumental Expositions of the Psalms, my attention was immediately arrested at the very first sentence, in which I encountered an observation which, if true, must have a profound impact on my interpretation of the entire collection of the psalms. This observation was rendered all the more captivating by the fact that, in all the explanations I had ever heard of Psalm One, this proposition had never been suggested; and yet, as I paused to consider the manner in which the New Testament authors unexceptionally seem to use the psalms, I became convinced that it must be the truth. The profoundly simple assertion to which I refer is this: â€œâ€˜Blessed is the man that hath not gone away in the counsel of the ungodlyâ€™ (ver. 1). This is to be understood of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord Man.â€
The basic reason that I find Augustineâ€™s assessment so compelling is that the psalm lays out, in essence, a blessed result contingent upon a meritorious condition â€“ if it should be determined of the man in question that he is in no way susceptible to the counsel of the ungodly, that his nature perfectly and unceasingly delights to do according to the perfect law of God, and so on, then his ultimate state will include security, fruitfulness, and the ability to stand before God as righteous. Now, although the conditions given may, and indeed will, be present to some degree in the lives of the saints, they will in no case characterize one sufficiently to give him confidence in standing before the judgment seat of the holy God. Only an unswerving perfection in these qualities will qualify one to be accepted by God; because, â€œall who rely on works of the law are under a curse; for it is written, â€˜Cursed be everyone who does not abide by all things written in the Book of the Law, and do them.â€™ Now it is evident that no one is justified before God by the law, for â€˜The righteous shall live by faithâ€™â€ (Galatians 3:10-11). And, â€œwhoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become accountable for all of itâ€ (James 2:10). Furthermore, the psalmists themselves recognize that men without exception are unmeritorious before God; for instance, Psalm 14:2 affirms that â€œ[The children of men] have all turned aside; together they have become corrupt; there is none who does good, not even one.â€ The psalmists may lay claim to being righteous in a relative sense, when contrasting themselves with the wicked; and they may exhort themselves and others to pursue a more perfect state of practical righteousness; but as soon as a life of righteousness is seen as constituting the grounds for Godâ€™s blessing, the psalmists dare not set their lives before God as a plea for favor. For so great a request, only a perfect righteousness will do. And the only perfect righteousness is a righteous alien to any of them. The only perfect righteousness is the righteousness of Christ.
The gospel to which we all cling, as Evangelical Christians, demands that this must indeed be the case. But in interpreting the psalms, we often seem to forget the great gospel truths, as though they are merely New Testament truths, and not truths which undergird and give meaning to all of scripture. That this unsatisfactory understanding of the psalms should characterize the expositions of Arminians or Dispensationalists, whose theological systems are already inherently flawed, while sad, is to be expected. But it is a more disturbing truth that, even among good Reformed scholars, this superficial treatment of the psalms may be found; this due, as I suspect, to the influence of the naturalistic hermeneutic popularized by the so-called Enlightenment. I would propose that, any time a psalmist lays claim to Godâ€™s favor, calls for deliverance on the basis of Godâ€™s justice, expresses his confidence in the blessings of Godâ€™s presence, and so on, he is intentionally referring to the person and work of Christ, and using that express or implicit reference as the basis for his plea. Against this proposition, even so capable a Reformed scholar as Geerhardus Vos has proposed analyses such as the following:
The Psalmists sometimes claim that they are righteous, and appeal to Jehovah to acknowledge this and treat them accordingly. This has caused difficulty with interpreters on account of its seeming to run athwart the principle of unmeritoriousness in Godâ€™s dealing with His people. The difficulty is relieved by giving such statements their proper setting. It is not over against God in the abstract, that the pleaders claim to be righteous, but over against their adversaries, who persecute them, not, however, for private reasons, but on account of their identification with the true religion.
The problem with this analysis is not that the psalmists are not more righteous than their adversaries â€“ indeed they are. Nor is it that they never recognize this condition of relative righteousness â€“ indeed they do. The problem is that they never use this relative righteousness to lay claim to Godâ€™s justice. They never request of God any reward because of their conviction that they are righteous unless they intend to bring before him the righteousness of Christ imputed to their account. To lay hold of Godâ€™s vindication on the basis of oneâ€™s own righteousness would not merely seem â€œto run athwart the principle of unmeritoriousness;â€ it would run athwart such a principle in very fact. The only overtly clear example of Vosâ€™s proposal that I am aware of is the case of the prophet Habakkuk asserting that it would be unrighteous of God to use a relatively more wicked nation (Babylon) to punish a relatively more righteous (Israel). But Godâ€™s response to Habakkuk demonstrates that his reasoning was unacceptable. All nations are guilty before God. He is just to punish Israel as he sees fit, and he will certainly be just enough to punish Babylon as well. No relative comparison among sinners would move God to reward a person or a nation: on the contrary, â€œThe just shall live by faithâ€ (Habakkuk 2:4). Believing in Christâ€™s absolute righteousness alone, to the exclusion of any plea conditioned on oneâ€™s own relative righteousness, was given as the one basis by which one could confidently presume upon Godâ€™s favor.
I have become convinced, not only that this assessment of the psalms is correct, but also that it is an interpretation which holds forth a vastly more extensive array of joy, hope, and comforts of every sort to the Christian who employs it â€“ that is, to the Christian who intentionally looks to the psalms with the underlying reality of the pervasive presence of Christ and his righteousness always in his heart. In the remainder of this post, I hope briefly to point out, first, how it is to the readerâ€™s great benefit to recognize Augustineâ€™s principle of applying directly to Christ that which could never be said of man still in his sin; and second, some ways in which the psalms may legitimately be applied directly to sinful men, together with the blessed results that must flow from this legitimate application.
I. Benefits resultant from the pervasive presence of Christ in the psalms
â€¢ A more certain hope and confidence in Godâ€™s favor
If it were indeed the case that the psalmists pled for Godâ€™s vindication on the basis of their own relative righteousness, their confidence could only be relatively certain. David may be able to plead his case in relation to Doeg, but how could he plead his case against Uriah the Hittite? How could he expect to find mercy and forgiveness upon his confession? Certainly, such mercy would not strictly be just, unless a deeper principle were operative. And in so egregious an instance, the only principle which could suffice is that of the meritorious righteousness of Christ imputed to him through faith. That this gospel-principle of imputation was indeed his plea is made unarguably clear by Psalm 32.
â€¢ A much greater array of blessings in which to be confident
A more difficult problem yet is that the psalmists could only lay claim to relative benefits, if their own relative righteousness were their plea. They could presume that they would triumph over their enemies in the temporal conflicts of this life; but they would have no confidence in any absolute or eternal blessings. But a hope of this limited extent is foreign to the psalmists. On the contrary, they are confident that, because of their righteousness, they will abide in the shadow of the Almighty (Psalm 91:1), enjoy rest under his feathers (Psalm 91:4), experience the protection of God as a shield and strong tower (Psalm 18:2), even dwell in the very presence of God, on his holy hill (Psalm 15:1). It is evident that the righteousness which could lay claim to such rewards cannot be a relative righteousness. Moreover, this is the clear testimony of the psalmists themselves, who plead for these things on the basis of a non-comparative, absolute righteousness (cf. Psalm 17:1-5). This sort of righteousness could not be anything but the imputed righteousness of Christ.
â€¢ A deeper comfort in trials of every sort
One of the outstanding reasons that Christians of all times have found so much comfort in the psalms is no doubt due to the fact that in them they find a deep and lasting empathy in every trying situation of life. It is eminently comforting to know that the heartache, oppression, despair of soul, and so on, that confront Christians in innumerable ways have been felt and understood by saints that have gone before them; and that, ultimately, these saints have triumphed and gone on to an eternal and immutable joy and peace. But consider how much more comforting it would be to realize that, when we are in any difficulty, Christ himself, and not just other sinful men, knows what it is to be in just such a situation. When we suffer as Christians, we are suffering in fellowship with Christ. He is a sympathetic high priest, for he has experienced all our sorrows and been triumphant over them. The psalms in which the psalmist pours out his soul in anguish and sorrow, if they have ultimate reference to Christ, must be comforting indeed. Christ is the only one who could bring true victory out of despair. That is precisely what he did on the cross. Many of these sorrowful psalms (e.g. Psalm 22, Psalm 88) can ultimately only be referring to Christ. They are the response of the psalmist to difficulties in his own life, because of which he looks ahead to Christ, suffering yet triumphant, and derives comfort and hope for his own soul. If it is comforting to find empathy in the experiences of other saints, how comforting it must be to find empathy in Christâ€™s own experiences! Christâ€™s suffering gives meaning and perspective to our suffering. To read the sorrowful psalms as poignantly personal accounts of Christ suffering in our place could not help but to succor our souls, no matter what our trials may be.
â€¢ A vastly clearer understanding of the meaning and goal of life
David, in all of the difficulties and trials to which his psalms give testimony, surely would have been given over to despair if he had not kept a perspective on life which can only come by intentionally looking to Christ. He could not have been so hopeful, for example, that the grave would not prevail over him, were he merely looking to himself. But â€œbeing...a prophet, and knowing that God had sworn with an oath to him that he would set one of his descendants on his throne, he foresaw and spoke about the resurrection of the Christ, that he was not abandoned to Hades, nor did his flesh see corruptionâ€ (Acts 2:30-31, speaking of Psalm 16:9-10). Knowing of the person and work of Christ allowed David to understand and embrace the meaning and purpose of his own life. So must it be with all of us.
II. Ways in which the psalms may legitimately be applied to sinful men
â€¢ The typical roles of the psalmists
The book of the psalms, far from being a detached theological treatise on Christ, is thoroughly grounded in human experience and thoroughly applicational to sinful men. This is not in spite of the pervasive presence of Christ, but because of it. The most obvious way in which this is true is the role that the psalmists in general, and especially the outstanding psalmist, David, had of portraying Christ in typical fashion. In other words, many of the things of which David speaks are inspired by events in his life. It is no doubt true that his own familiar friend, in whom he trusted and who ate of his bread, lifted up his heel against him (Psalm 41:9). But that happened in order to foreshadow an event in the life of Christ, an event which would vest Davidâ€™s own experience with true meaning. Hence, by their lives and their words the psalmists spoke of Christ. The psalmists portrayed Christ to their contemporaries by foreshadowing him, and Christians today portray Christ to the world by exemplifying him in their lives â€“ but in each case Christ is portrayed not only by words, but also by the actions and lives of the saints.
â€¢ The union of all the saints with Christ
Another way in which the psalms become exceedingly applicational to all believers is the consideration of the union that exists between Christ and all those who are in him. It would be of minimal comfort to reason, â€œBecause David received Godâ€™s temporal blessings on the basis of his relative righteousness, maybe I could receive some blessings as well.â€ Even if that were the case, who am I to suppose that I am as godly as David? But if we say, â€œChrist is here pleading to God on the basis of his own righteousness. I am in Christ. Therefore, if Christâ€™s plea is accepted, I am accepted together with himâ€ â€“ that is comforting indeed. Our union with Christ gives meaning and comfort in the midst of trials, and a sure hope of future blessedness. As Richard Sibbes once noted in his classic work, The Bruised Reed, â€œWhat a comfort is this, that, seeing Godâ€™s love rests on Christ, as well pleased in him, we may gather that he is as well pleased with us, if we be in Christ! For his love rests in a whole Christ, in Christ mystical as well as Christ natural, because he loves him and us with one love.â€
â€¢ The practical pursuit of essential reality
As long as we are pursuing sanctification with a respect to meriting favor, becoming righteous, and so on, we are doomed to fail (see Galatians 3:1-6). When we recognize that, by virtue of the imputation of Christâ€™s righteousness, we are essentially righteous; only then will we be able, with some success, to pursue practical sanctification in our lives. Sanctification, as justification, comes only by grace working through faith. We must recognize that we are essentially righteous before we can become practically righteous. Therefore, only the eyes of faith, which look to the psalms as portraits of Christ winning for us a perfect righteousness, which can stand as a sufficient plea for Godâ€™s favor, will see the psalms in a light that will surely aid us in our growth in grace. As in the rest of the Bible, learning facts about Christ and the gospel in the psalms has great applicational value for us. This because to know him is to reflect him (II Corinthians 3:18).
I certainly do not intend to imply, by this critique of such exegetical giants as Vos, that he or any other evangelical scholar would disagree with the substance of what I have to say. I do think, however, that he would be somewhat loathe to derive these truths directly from the psalms. To me this is unfortunate. I fear that, without the willingness to look for Christ intentionally, we will be forced to stumble through the psalms in the dark, hoping by great exertions of labor to feel out the truths which are there on the surface, if we would but shine the light of the gospel on the pages. Nor do I intend to imply that my own exegetical abilities are on a par with the likes of Vos. I doubt that, in a lifetime of study, I could bring to light as many deep truths from the pages of scripture as he is able in a single day to uncover. And I am certain that I will never accomplish as much toward the end of protecting the gospel from corruption, in a world full of false teachers and antichristian theologies of every sort, as God has used him to do. But if I may for a moment plead a little experience, beyond those exegetical reasons that I falteringly attempted to bring to bear on the question, I would add this last consideration. Before I came across that blessed phrase of Augustineâ€™s, I derived some comfort, help, and spiritual knowledge from the psalms. But afterward, when I intentionally looked for Christ in my reading of the psalms, and refused to acknowledge any plea conditioned on righteousness as the personal righteousness of the psalmists, I have been amazed, overwhelmed, staggered, lost in wonder and awe at the surpassing greatness of Christ â€“ who he is, what he has done, and how my hope, peace, joy, and everything depends upon him â€“ and all this from the psalms alone. The benefit of the scripture is entirely exhausted in its ability to uncover Christ before our eyes and in our hearts. May the Holy Spirit continue to open the eyes of all of us to see Christ more clearly, no matter what portion of the blessed scriptures we may be meditating upon.