The Fathers on Psalm 119

This post is part of an ongoing series offering translations of various early Church father’s commentaries on the Psalms.

Psalm 119

Athanasius: “In anyone is concerned for those who suffer, let him speak these words. In this way, he will show his true and firm faith and help them because when God sees this, he offers the perfect remedy to those in need. Knowing this, the holy one said in Psalm 119….”[1]

But that the providence and ordering power of the Word, over all and toward all, is also attested by all inspired Scripture, this passage suffices to confirm our argument, where people who speak of God say, Through all generations your truth endures; fixed to stand firm like the earth. By your judgments they stand firm to this day…[2]

Diodore of Tarsus: “In any approach to holy Scripture, the literal reading of the text requires some truths while the discovery of other truths requires the application of theoria. Now, given the vast difference between historia and theoria, allegory and figuration (tropologia) or parable (parabole), the interpreter must classify and determine each figurative expression with care and precision so that the reader can see what is history and what is theoria, and draw his conclusions accordingly…. Now if one understands Psalm [119] in this way, namely, as fitting (the circumstances) of those who first uttered it as well as those who come after them, one is entirely correct. But this is not a case of allegory; rather, it is a statement adaptable to many situations according to the grace of him who gives it power.”[3]

Hilary of Poitiers: “But the hope instilled by the Lord consoles him in these wars endured in his weakness, and he is lent life by the utterances of God. By these he knows that the glory of his weakness is outstanding in heaven. He knows that his soul, renewed by the utterances of God, contains within it, so to say, the nourishment of eternal life. He lives by God’s utterances and is untroubled by the empty fame of the proud, for he knows that his need is richer than their wealth. He knows that his fasting is abundantly fed by the blessing of heaven and the gospel, that his humility will be rewarded by the glorious prize of honor. So he added, Though the arrogant utterly scorn me, I do not turn from your law.”[4]

Pseudo-Athanasius: In this psalm, David delineates the entire way of life of the saints like a skilled painter: the struggles, the torments, the conflicts, the attacks of the demons, the victory over them by endurance and through support from above, the crowns, and the reward. Blessed those whose way is blameless, who walk by the law of the Lord. Blessed those who keep his testimonies, who seek him with all their heart…. May my ways be firm in the observance of your statutes…. I will praise you with sincere heart as I study your righteous judgments. And he says that blessed are those who are without spot, who travel in the way (that is, in Christ), who act according to his law (that is, the gospel), who ask in prayer that their paths be straightened to observe his decrees, and who offer him their right confession. How can the young keep his way without fault? Only by observing your words. And because youth is full of ramblings, he shows that he who is a child in knowledge thus straightens his path by keeping the words of God….

I know that your judgments are conducted in righteousness and instruct us for our benefit. May your mercy comfort me in accord with your promise to your servant…. Shame the proud for leading me astray with falsehood, that I may study your testimonies. But send also your mercy to console me, in order that the arrogant demons and those who wrong me may be put to shame. May I be wholehearted toward your statutes, that I may not be put to shame. But may me own heart be without blemish. My soul longs for your salvation; I put my hope in your word. My eyes long to see your promise. When will you comfort me? Furthermore, my soul was consumed in your salvation and my eyes in your word, as it is said, “When will you console us through your mercy, through our Lord Jesus Christ?” Indeed, he is our consolation and the atonement for our sins.[6] I am like a wineskin shriveled by smoke, but I have not forgotten your statutes. For his sake I even made myself like a wine-skin in hoar-frost, as through the toils of constancy I kill the old self in order that I may be suitable for the new teachings of the Gospel. The arrogant have dug pits for me; defying your law. As for those who told me nonsense—that is, the old Jewish wives’ tales, the teachings and commandments of men which are not in accordance with your law, O Lord—these also I despised with the wisdom of this world, for I know that your word eternally remains in heaven, your truth from generation to generation….

Your word gives understanding even to infants, but heretics do not comprehend them. And he urges: Free me from human oppression, that I may observe your precepts. Let your face shine upon your servant; teach me your statutes. Save me from their slander and make your face shine upon me (that is, your only-begotten Son). You are righteous, Lord, and just are your judgments. Because his judgments are righteous and very just, he imposes fitting compensation on every man. My eyes shed streams of tears because your law is not observed. Therefore, my eyes will shed rivers of tears for those who do not keep your law, who for that reason will be sent to eternal torments….

I cried out to you with all my heart, and even in the trails that surrounded me, I did not cease to seek your decrees. My eyes greet the night watches as I meditate on your promise. I shall rise early in the morning and meditate on your worlds. Though my persecutors and foes are many, I do not turn from your testimonies. And if those who persecute and torment me are many, yet I have not turned away from your testimony….[5]

[1] Benjamin Wayman. Make the Words Your Own: An Early Christian Guide to the Psalms (Brewster, M.A.: Paraclete Press: 2014), 21.

[2] Contra gentes 46:2 ὅτι δὲ καὶ ἡ διὰ πάντων καὶ ἡ εἰς πάντα τοῦ Λόγου πρόνοια καὶ διακόσμησις ἀπὸ πάσης θεοπνεύστου γραφῆς μαρτυρεῖται, ἀρκεῖ τὰ νῦν λεγόμενα δεῖξαι τοῦ λόγου τὴν πίστιν, ᾗ φασιν οἱ θεολόγοι ἄνδρες· Ἐθεμελίωσας τὴν γῆν, καὶ διαμένει· τῇ διατάξει σου διαμένει ἡ ἡμέρα·

[3] Copied from Karlfried Froehlich, Biblical Interpretation in the Early Church (Edited by William G. Rusch, Sources of Early Christian Though, Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1984), 87, 93.

[4] Homily on Psalm 118, MFC 17:184. Copied, not translated from Psalms 51-150 (IVP), 322.

[5] Syriac. CSCO 387, SYRI 168V. Page 77-80. For Greek and Latin, cx. PG 478-510.

[6] Cx. 1 John 2:2


Published by Jacob J. Prahlow

Husband of Hayley. Dad of Bree and Judah. Lead pastor at Arise Church. MATS from Saint Louis University, MA from Wake Forest University, BA from Valparaiso University. Theologian and writer here and at Conciliar Post. Find me on social at @pastorjakestl

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