A very Lutheresque Psalm

In this quincentennial year, marking Martin Luther’s memorable act of defiance in Wittenberg, much has been said regarding his famous dictum about ‘the Word doing its work’. Far from attributing the impact and success of the Reformation on his own natural abilities or dogged persistence, he humbly acknowledged the Holy Scriptures in the hand of the Holy Spirit as the key to all it accomplished.

Given Luther’s love for the psalms, it is hard not to believe that one psalm in particular would not have resonated with him in relation to his convictions concerning the Bible as the living word of God. It was the psalm traditionally held as having been composed by David during his time in Gath when he sought asylum under King Achish – Psalm 56. And the comments Luther made on this psalm give some hints as to how it well expressed his own sentiments.

The background to David’s composition was one of extreme conflict as recorded in 1Samuel 21.10-15. Calvin in his commentary on the Psalms describes it as his being ‘caught between two packs of wolves’ – ‘the Philistines who hated him and the Jews who persecuted him.’ And, given the nature of the conflict in which Martin Luther found himself embroiled for much of his life, such a setting for the psalm was one with which he could readily identify. It was not merely that he found himself opposing and being opposed by the colossus of the Roman Catholic establishment, but that he also found himself in multiple conflicts with fellow-Reformers as well as those on the fringes of the Reformation. And behind both he was all too aware of the dark adversary in whom this opposition had its origin. Like David, he knew what it was to be misperceived and opposed, to have to defend himself both verbally and physically and even what it was like to have to flee for his life.

For those in Christian ministry it is perhaps a comfort – however cold it might be – to realise that our experience as lesser mortals is not that dissimilar to other faithful servants who have blazed the trail before us: not least to that of King David himself.

It is comforting to hear this great servant of God (who had already slain a giant) admit to being afraid; so too when we explore the life of the great Reformer. Despite his honest and noble declaration en route to the Diet of Worms that he was more afraid of his own heart than he was of the Pope of Rome, he was not immune to dark thoughts, anxieties and depression. He could easily identify with the psalmist’s admission, ‘When I am afraid…’ (56.3). Likewise with what David identifies as lying behind his fears: ‘All day long they [his enemies] twist my words; they are always plotting to harm me. They conspire, they lurk, they watch my steps, eager to take my life’ (56.5-6). Little wonder that the future king could ask his ‘lament’ and ‘tears’ to be placed on record by God (56.8). In his comments on this psalm, Derek Kidner speaks of David’s decision to go to Gath of all places (home of Goliath and with Goliath’s sword in his possession as he went) as being ‘”courage” born out of desperation’.

The desperate extremes to which Luther felt himself driven at times are candidly expressed in his admission to having thrown an inkpot and torn sheets in almost tangible encounters he felt himself to have with the devil. Yet vivid as they were for this man, they were nothing in comparison to the even more intense encounters with Satan experienced by Christ in his incarnate life on earth. Even to the point of his seeing through and saying to one of his most trusted disciples, Peter, and declaring – not to him, but to the one who was manipulating him – ‘Get behind me Satan!’ (Mt 16.23). The conflict and the fear it can so easily generate is all too real.

However, no matter how real were those things that caused David to fear, he knew what it was to trust a word that was realer still. The striking refrain that provides the focal thought in this psalm could not be more forceful. Having acknowledged his fear, David goes on to aver, not once, but three times, ‘I will trust in you. In God, whose word I praise, in God I trust; will not be afraid’ (56.3-4 cf 56.10-11). It was only on account of God as he is revealed in his word – that word that is utterly unique because it is God’s word – that David can punctuate this statement with the words, ‘What can mortal man do to me?’

Luther’s comment on these words sound somewhat autobiographical: ‘He [David] encourages and supports himself, however, with a constant and undaunted faith. “I will glory in the word of God: for I have a command, a declaration and a promise of God in my favour.”’ However much David may have felt alarmed by the fears generated by those who threatened him, they were outweighed and eclipsed by the promise of God in his word. Luther goes on, ‘We have a strong and Davidic consolation – the word of God is for us.’

Nowhere does the monk-turned-reformer express this truth more eloquently than in the words of Ein Feste Burg:

The prince of darkness grim, we tremble not for him;

his rage we can endure, for Lo! His doom is sure,

one little word shall fell him

Yet again the supreme demonstration and proof of this confidence is manifest nowhere more clearly than in the life, ministry, death and resurrection of Christ. From the scriptures he quoted in his head-to-head encounter with Satan in the wilderness through to the words of Scripture he gasped from the cross, he not only stood firm in the face of the grim prince, but he also triumphed over him.

The fact that Jesus declared his triumph in advance of its being actually displayed on that resurrection morning is a curious echo of how David ends this psalm. He declares with surprising confidence, in the past tense, what lay beyond the horizon of time in the eternity to come: ‘For you have delivered me from death and my feet from stumbling, that I may walk before God in the light of life’ (56.13). What for David was a declaration of faith about the future, Jesus confirmed to be reality in history when ‘It is accomplished!’ was vindicated by, ‘He is risen!’

Luther left this world on 18th February 1546 repeating the words, ‘For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son’ over and over again. The divine word that had sustained him in life, did so even in the face of death, trusting firmly in the promise of the God whose word he, like David, praised!


Mark Johnston