Oct 15, 2012

Luther and the Psalms: His Solace and Strength

4 Min Read

On 31 October 1517, Luther posted his historic Ninety-five Theses, launching his defiant protest against the vile perversions and grave abuses of the church in Rome. This decisive act became the hinge upon which history turned. And at the very core of this Protestant movement were the Psalms, which continued to play a defining role throughout Luther’s life and ministry. While being hidden by supporters in Wartburg Castle, the German Reformer translated the Bible into the German language. Included in this work were the Psalms, which Luther referred to as “the Bible in miniature.”

In future years, Luther would repeatedly turn to the Psalms for solace and strength. With the continent of Europe in upheaval, he found great comfort in the soul-lifting truths of the Psalms. Specifically, in 1527, Luther faced one of the greatest difficulties of his life as the Black Plague swept across Germany and much of the European continent. During this time, Luther’s son almost died and his own body was fainting under the mounting pressure. In the midst of this personal conflict, Luther found himself contemplating the promises of Psalm 46, an encouraging psalm of trust in the invincibility of the Lord.

Gaining new strength from this old song, Luther composed what is arguably his most famous hymn, “A Mighty Fortress.” Amid such adversity, this embattled stalwart found God to be his “bulwark never failing.” Though he had previously taught and even translated the Psalms, Luther now found himself living them as never before. Many times during this dark and tumultuous period, when terribly discouraged, he would turn to his co-worker, Philipp Melanchthon, and say, “Come, Philipp, let us sing the forty-sixth Psalm.” Together, they would sing:

A sure stronghold our God is He,
A timely shield and weapon;
Our helper He will be and set us free
From every ill can happen.

With unshakable confidence in God, Luther reflected upon and drew strength from this choice psalm:

We sing this psalm to the praise of God, because He is with us and powerfully and miraculously preserves and defends His church and His word against all fanatical spirits, against the gates of hell, against the implacable hatred of the devil, and against all the assaults of the world, the flesh, and sin.

Despite Luther’s intense inner turmoil, this valiant Reformer clung to the rock-solid truths of Israel’s ancient hymn book. Four years before he died, he wrote in his Bible the text of Psalm 119:92: “If Your Law had not been my delight, then I would have perished in my affliction.“ Such biblical truth empowered this spiritual leader and enabled him to persevere in the midst of his many struggles to reform the church. To the very end, this daring leader of the Reformation tenaciously held to the glorious revelations of the Psalms.

In critical periods of the church, certain books of the Bible have played a pivotal role in shaping the spiritual direction of those history-altering eras. These key biblical books have been used by God to launch reformations and spark revivals. They have strategically defined epochs and birthed movements in the church. One such book is the New Testament epistle of Romans. Another is Israel’s ancient hymn book, the Old Testament book of Psalms. These two monumental books of Scripture—Romans and Psalms—uniquely came together in the life of one pivotal figure in church history. Such a man was Martin Luther.

Since the time of the Protestant Reformation in the sixteenth century, this famed German Reformer has been largely identified with the book of Romans. In particular, one specific verse, Romans 1:17 —“The just shall live by faith” (KJV)—is the text that God used in the conversion of Luther. In his famous “tower experience,” this passage contained the truth that revolutionized his life and subsequently launched the Reformation. This verse became the theological cornerstone for this mighty movement. This doctrine, known as justification by faith alone, defined the very substance of the gospel in this historic movement. In short, sola fide is the means by which an unholy sinner may be right before a holy God.

However, it is often forgotten that before Luther was converted through his reading of the book of Romans, he first taught the book of Psalms. As Professor of Bible at the University of Wittenberg, he began expounding this inspired book of praise in the classroom on 16 August 1513. Later, in 1517, Luther published his first book, an exposition of seven penitential psalms. To be sure, the study of the Psalms infused his inner man with a transcendent view of God so great that, once converted, this German Reformer was fortified to stand against the world, if need be, for the message of the gospel of grace.

It was these two strategic books—Psalms and Romans—that Luther was predominantly studying and teaching in the years preceding his posting of the Ninety-five Theses.1 It was these two books of Scripture that radically affected Luther and changed the course of human history. While Romans would principally formulate his doctrine, it was the Psalms that dramatically emboldened him to proclaim God’s message to the world. In other words, Romans gave Luther his theology, but it was the Psalms that gave him his thunder. The Psalms gave Luther a towering view of God, so much so that in preaching the gospel, he was ready to fight the devil himself. In so doing, these two biblical books laid the scriptural foundation for the Protestant Reformation.