In 1530, Martin Luther spent six months at the Castle Coburg. He set out from Wittenberg in late March, accompanied by a small band of colleagues and two of his sons. He spent a few weeks at Torgau, where he was joined by others. At Torgau, Luther hammered out what would come to be known as the Augsburg Confession of Faith. From Torgau, this group of theologians and princes and attendants started the journey to Augsburg. By mid-April the group made it to the Castle Coburg, and that’s as far as Luther could go.
Luther was not promised safe passage to Augsburg. From the time of the Diet at Worms, Luther was an outlaw. Augsburg was outside of Saxony, Germany.
The Castle Coburg is a charming place, one of Germany’s largest castles. It looks rather like a place in a fairy tale. But, for Luther, being there for six months was anything but charming. He would have much preferred Augsburg. He wanted to be there. He felt like he absolutely needed to be there.
This enterprise of the Reformation in Germany was only a dozen years old. It was vulnerable and frail. There were enemies all around. Luther intended to travel to Augsburg, but he was an outlaw, and not being granted safe passage and not having that full protection meant that Luther could not to go. Instead he would spend the next six months in Castle Coburg.
Luther was prone to anxiety even in good times. These six months could have been unbearable, and they were likely punctuated with moments of anxiety. Rather than fret away this time at Coburg, Luther turned to writing. Luther wrote somewhere in the neighborhood of fifty texts of varying lengths during this six-month stay at the Castle Coburg. One of these texts was a treatise on Psalm 118. He would come to call this Psalm his “beloved Psalm.” Luther on Psalm 118 teaches us how to read the Psalms.
Before going further with Psalm 118 in particular, it is helpful to note Luther on the Psalms in general. Luther loved the Psalms, first lecturing on them in 1513–1516. His immersion in the Psalms certainly impacted the events of 1517. After the Ninety-Five Theses, Luther returned to the Psalms again and again. He started a practice of reading the Psalms through the day at seven designated times. This enabled him to read through the Psalter in two weeks. He kept disciplined at that practice throughout most of his life. He read the Psalms hundreds of times. He studied and lectured on the Psalms. He translated the Psalms into German. It is fair to say that Luther lived in the Psalms. And his most dear, most beloved of these 150 hymns is Psalm 118.
READING THE PSALMS TO SEE OURSELVES
Psalm 118 has bookends. The beginning and the ending are the same: “Oh, give thanks. Oh, give thanks to the Lord, for he is good. For his steadfast love endures forever” (118:1, 29). When the biblical authors use this literary device, they not only emphasize the beginning and the end, sometimes they also point to the middle.
The psalmist expresses absolute despair in the middle of this Psalm. The psalmist likens the enemies surrounding him to a swarm of bees (118:11). Then the psalmist says, “I was pushed hard so that I was falling” (118:13a).
Luther felt like this. I don’t know how many times in his life Luther felt like the world was closing in on him. Before he saw the beauty of the gospel, he thought God was out to get him, that God had made it his agenda to squash him like a bug. He felt Satan’s attack so acutely that Luther wondered sometimes if he could see the devil himself materialize before his very eyes. Luther had enemies. Many of his friends turned on him. He must have felt like he was surrounded by a swarm of bees.
This is the first thing we learn from Luther on to how to read the Psalms. We read the Psalms personally. The experiences recounted in the Psalms are not only somebody else’s experiences. These aren’t only Israel’s experiences. These are our experiences. Every high and every low of the human spectrum of emotions is in the Psalms. The psalmists rival any of the great blues men and women. They could sing in the minor key. Utter despair is found in the Psalms. The Psalms also resound in a major key. Pure joy is in the Psalms. And everything in between despair and joy can be found, too. Success and victory are in the Psalms. Defeat and desolation are in the Psalms. The vagaries of human experience and of human emotion is in the Psalms. And Luther wants us to find ourselves there.
Luther latched on to this in Psalm 118. He especially latched on to Psalm 118:17, “I shall not die, but I shall live.” Now, on the one hand, the psalmist does eventually die. The psalmist is not saying, “I’ll never die. I’m invincible.” Instead, the psalmist has come to the realization that he is squarely and fully in God’s hand, and squarely and fully hedged in by the protection of Almighty God. The psalmist can say that nothing will befall me that my heavenly Father has not ordained and has not orchestrated and brought to pass. And in that, the psalmist has confidence.
To utter, “I shall not die,” is not human bravado. This is trust in God. This is exactly what Luther needed at Coburg while he was fretting away and wondering if this whole thing was about to fall apart, and what would come of his beloved church and his beloved Germany. Luther, prone to anxiety, could say, “I shall not die.”
Luther always thought he was going to die. He talked about his death frequently and took every illness as if it were going to be the cause of his last breath. His asceticism in the monastery caught up with him as he grew older. Anybody who lived into their 40s and 50s in this moment in history would have had intestinal parasites, failing eyesight, gout, and arthritis. Luther was beset by these things. What’s more, he carried the burden of reforming the church. At times, he was under siege. Additionally, he was prone to exaggeration. Luther needed to hear the words of Psalm 118:17.
Luther is, ultimately, a preacher. He started in 1513 at the Marienkirche, Mary’s Church in Wittenberg. He preached right up until his death in 1546. That’s why Luther also resonated with how Psalm 118:17 finishes, “and [I shall] recount the deeds of the Lord.” That is what a preacher does. He stands up and recounts the deeds of the Lord.
Now we can see why Luther took Psalm 118:17 so personally. He knew he was firmly in God’s hand, that every single tick of the clock is controlled by God in His in his sovereign goodness. Luther would fill every moment of his life recounting the deeds of the Lord.
Luther would say to us, when you read the Psalms, read them for yourself. They are your psalms.
READING THE PSALMS TO SEE CHRIST
The second way we read the Psalms is to see Christ in the Psalms. God is there in the Psalms. He is righteous and holy, full of power and might. He is ready to crush you. His justice demands it. His righteousness demands it. And his power enables him to do it. God is ready to crush you with the power of his right arm, but for Christ. And as Luther sees God in the Psalms, the God shrouded in glory and mystery, the God who dwells in light inaccessible, the God of pure holiness and justice and righteousness, Luther sees Christ.
Luther speaks of God as knowable and unknowable at the same time. God reveals himself in nature and in His Word. Ultimately, God revealed Himself in the incarnation. The Word become flesh is the manifestation of the glory of God. Yet, God remains hidden, shrouded in glory, beyond our comprehension. Theologians sometimes use two Latin phrases to express this: Deus Absconditus, the Hidden God, and Deus Revelatus, the Revealed God. From his first lectures on the Psalms, Luther was seeing this construct in the Psalms. Sometimes God hides his face (Psalm 13:1, 88:15). On the cross, Christ quotes Psalm 22:1, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me.” At one point the Psalmist speaks of God as surrounded by clouds and thick darkness (Psalm 97:2). God is transcendent, beyond our reach, beyond our sight. The Psalms speak of God as the Deus Absconditus. The Psalms also speak of the Deus Revelatus.
As Luther read the Psalms, the messianic texts came into clear focus. In these texts, Luther saw the Revealed God, the One who is full of grace and truth, who would come to make God known (John 1:14–18). As we move from verses 19 to 26 of Psalm 118, we enter into one of the most messianic texts of the Old Testament.
Psalm 118:19–16 begins with a petition, “Open to me the gates of righteousness, that I may enter through them and give thanks to the Lord. This is the gate of the Lord. The righteous shall enter through it” (118:19-20). Therein lies the problem. We are not righteous. How do we enter through a righteous gate into the presence of a righteous God? Luther is going to stop right there. He can’t go any further. He can’t enter these righteous gates.
Luther had a love-hate relationship with this word, righteousness, and with this concept of the righteousness of God. At one point, Luther exclaimed, “I hated the righteous God.”
But then we read 118:21, “I thank you that you have answered me, and you have become my salvation.” Where does this salvation come from? The answer is verse 22, which should sound familiar to you from the New Testament: “The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone.” This verse gets quoted five times in the New Testament, making it one of the most quoted Old Testament texts. We must see Christ in the Psalms, because, otherwise, God will crush us—but for this stone, but for this Christ.
We tend to read verses 23 and 24 out of context. We apply them to great moments or to every day. Luther would do the same, but he also wants us to see a specific context in view in these verses. Verse 23 declares, “This is the Lord’s doing. It is marvelous in our eyes.” Again, we can apply that to any number of experiences. Luther wants us to see that this is Good Friday. This is the cross. This is the resurrection. This is God’s work of redemption through Christ.
Consider verse 24, “This is the day that the Lord has made. Let us rejoice and be glad in it.” We use this verse in speaking of every day as the day God has made. And that’s likely a good interpretation. Again, Luther would want us to see something specific here, however. It’s the day of salvation. The day in which God provided a way for us to go through a righteous gate, and into the arms of a righteous God. This is the day that the Lord has made. We wept because all we had was the strong right arm of God to crush us, but now we rejoice because we have the strong right arm to scoop us up like a little lamb and hold us to himself. This day of our salvation is the day that God has made. Let us rejoice and be glad in it. Luther can’t read verses 23 and 24 without thinking of the cross.
Then we come to the familiar words of verse 26, which appear again on Palm Sunday in Jerusalem, “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.” In Psalm 118:19-26, we see Christ.
READING THE PSALMS TO SEE GOD
Once we see ourselves in the Psalms, we very quickly need to see Christ. And once we see Christ, we then see God in His Trinitarian splendor and majesty. So, we come to the declaration in verse 27, “The Lord is God.” Here the Psalmist points us to the God-ness of God. This redundant expression, “The Lord is God,” is a way of stressing God in His infinite perfections. The psalmist will use the expressions, glory, holy, and majesty to describe this God Who is above all and beside Whom there is no other. The ancient philosophers spoke of God as pure act, pure being. Or as that wonderful Latin expression has it, ens perfectissimus.
We don’t pile on superlatives in English. We don’t say the “mostest,” and we don’t say the “bestest,” and we would never say the “perfectest.” But Latin does. Ens perfectissimus is a piling on of superlatives. Ens means being. Perfectissimus is the superlative form of the superlative word, perfect. The most “perfectest” being would be bad grammar, but a good translation. This is Who we are talking about when we are talking about God.
This God has “made His light to shine upon us” (118:27). Prepositions are important. It’s not against us, it’s not away from us, it’s upon us. Is there anything more beautiful than that? That’s what we see in the Psalms. We see God in the splendor of his majesty, the eternality of his being, the infinitude of his perfections, shining his face upon us. His face is not hidden; He has not forgotten us, nor forsaken us.
Now, this is only possible because of a sacrifice. God stayed the hand of Abraham as Isaac was bound, but God did not stay the hand as His own beloved Son was bound and put on the altar, given for us. Christ is our festal sacrifice, bound with cords and put upon the horn of the altar (118:27b). That’s how God can cause His face to shine upon us. There is no skirting of justice here. There is no sweeping of our sins under some cosmic rug so that we can somehow sneak past those righteous gates. God poured out His wrath on His Son in our place. The Son was crushed. We stand clothed in His righteousness. That is how God causes His light to shine upon us.
All of this brings the psalmist to a declare, “You are my God.” This is the God we see in the Psalms. So Psalm 118 ends exactly as it begins by turning our eyes to behold our God:
“Oh give thanks to the Lord, for He is good; for His steadfast love endures forever.”
And this is the God Luther wants us to see in the Psalms.