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MARTIN LUTHER'S PREFACE TO THE
BOOK OF PSALMS.
MANY of the old and godly fathers have highly extolled the Book of Psalms, above all the other books of the Scripture, and have testified their exceeding fondness and partiality for them. And indeed this book, though small, deserves to be recommended above all others, (if a difference may be made): though the Psalms of David do not want the aid of borrowed encomiums, for they carry with them an abundance of self-recommendation; and in them is the old proverb verified, which says 'The work proves the workman.' Therefore, I have not put my hand to this book for the purpose of parading before the world an encomium upon it, since it so amply commends itself; but that I might, according to the best of my ability, present those that fear God with my judgment upon its all-excelling contents.
In the years that are past we have seen an infinity of books handed about in the world, but all most insipid and worthless; which, behind an apparently honest and plausible title, (for they were prefaced with the sentiments and examples of the saints) contained the most nugatory fables, and the most barefaced lies. The world, therefore, was everywhere so filled with writings of this kind, the most foolish,
and at the same time the most impious, that the Psalms themselves were disregarded and thrust into darkness, and we had not one Psalm rightly interpreted or understood. And yet, as this sweet book of David continued to be sung in all our churches, and to be chanted over so many thousand times in these incessant rounds and forms of prayer, -even by this frigid use of the Psalms, bad as it was, some small savor of life was diffused abroad among many that were of an honest and good heart; and from these words themselves only, though not understood, those that feared God drank in some little sweetness of the breath of life, and some small taste of consolation, like the faint fragrance which is found in the air that is not far from a bed of roses. Their experience was like also unto a simple man passing through a flowery and sweet-smelling meadow, who, though he knew not the peculiar nature and properties of the flowers and herbs, yet found his senses regaled with the general fragrance.
I would say what I think of the Psalms in a few words thus:-I believe, for my part, that there is no book under heaven, either of histories or examples, to be compared to the Book of Psalms. Wherefore, if it were right to ask of God, and, if such were our soul's desire, that all the greatest excellences and most choice experiences of all the true saints should be gathered and collected from the whole church since it has existed, and should be most briefly and appropriately condensed into the focus of one book; if God, I say, should permit any most spiritual and most gifted man to form and concentrate such a book from all the excellences of the saints, and from the flower of the facts recorded in the whole scripture (which might be done);—such a
book would be what the Book of Psalms is, or like unto it. For in the Book of Psalms we have not the life of one of the saints only, but we have the experience of Christ himself, the head of all the saints, for he is set forth in those Psalms: we have, moreover, the feelings and experiences of all the faithful, both under their sorrows and under their joys, both in their adversity and their prosperity: how they conducted themselves towards God, towards their friends, and towards their enemies: how they acted in various perils and afflictions, in the midst of temptations, and under the greatest necessities.
And moreover, in addition to the great and blessed doctrines and instructions in godliness which it embraces, the Book of Psalms ought to be most dearly and highly prized by us on this account;—because it contains such clear prophecies concerning the death and resurrection of Christ, and holds forth such great and gracious promises concerning the kingdom of Christ, the spread of the Gospel, and the state of the whole church. So that you may truly call the Book of Psalms, a little Bible; for in it all things that are contained in the whole Bible are given to us in the most wonderfully brief and sweet manner, and condensed into a most beautiful manual.
If God should himself hand down a book out of heaven and commend it to us with a divine voice, how highly would you prize and value it, how greedily would you seize it? Be assured then that the Holy Spirit himself has written and handed down to us this Book of Psalms, as a form of prayer, in the same way as a father would give a book to his children. He himself has drawn up this manual for his disciples; having collected together, as it were, the lives, groans, and experiences of many thousands,
whose hearts he alone sees and knows. If, therefore, thou canst not read the whole Bible, behold! thou mayest, by reading the Book of Psalms only, have not only a summary of all godliness, but all godly excellences, and the most spiritual experiences.
And again, another great excellency of the Book of Psalms is this. In other scriptures and histories, for the most part the works and bodily exercises only of the saints are described: you have very few histories which give you the words, expressions, and sighs of the saints, which are the indexes of the state of their minds. But it is in these things that the Book of Psalms may be a feast of delight for the meditations of the godly. In these respects, therefore, the reading of a Psalm is peculiarly sweet; because you have therein, not only the works and acts of the saints, but their very words and expressions, nay, their sighs and groans to God, and the utterance in which they conversed with him during their temptations; and all these are recorded in such a lively and descriptive manner, that those saints, though now dead, seem still to live and speak in the Psalms.
Thus all other histories and lives of the saints, which describe their acts and works only, when compared to the Book of Psalms, set forth to us nothing more than dumb saints; and every thing that is recorded of them is dull and lifeless. But in the Psalms, where the very expressions of those that prayed in faith are recorded, all things live, all things breathe, and living characters are set before us in the most lively colours: the saints are represented to us as standing supported by their faith, even in the midst of afflictions and tribulations. A dumb man, indeed, is rather a lifeless post than a man; for man is distinguished from the brute creation by nothing
more than by the power of speech. A stone even, under the hand of the artificer, may represent the figure of a man. And, as to eating and drinking, all dumb animals can do those things as well as he: they can use the organs of sense as well as he and indeed, as to strength of body, they have greatly the advantage of him. Hence, it is the power of speech that so distinguishes man from, and raises him above, the brute creation: and that speech is the index of, and the mirror that reflects, the mind.
As, therefore, the Psalms describe the words and expressions of the saints, they give us an exact picture of their minds. For the Psalms record not those common and every where-heard expressions of the saints, but those ardent and pathetic utterances, by which, in real earnest, and under the very pressure of temptations, and in the very wrestlings of their souls, they poured out their hearts like Jacob, not before man, but before God! The Psalms give us, therefore, not only the works and words of the saints, but the very hidden treasure of their hearts' feelings-the very inmost sensations and motions of their soul.
Wouldst thou see, then, the face and countenance of David, which he carried under all those perils and sorrows with which the Lord exercised him?-then read the Psalms; and they will give thee not only the outward David, but, more expressively still, the inner David; and that more descriptively than he could do it himself, if he were to talk with you face to face. What then are all other histories, which band about the singular works, and I know not what miracles of the saints? I can see all the works and the miracles of the saints in these everywhere-tobe-had records, but I can see nothing of the feelings and sensations of their hearts.