Monday, August 25, 2014

Review: Psalm 118: Commentary, by St. Theophan the Recluse


Psalm 118: Commentary, by St. Theophan the Recluse; trans. Archpriest Gleb Wleskov; edited by Seraphim Englehardt.

Psalm 118 (119 in Protestant Bibles) is the longest chapter of the Bible, and is a unique psalm in many respects. It is an acrostic psalm (it has 22 sections, corresponding to the 22 letters of the Hebrew alphabet, and each section consists of 8 verses); and every verse uses one of about a dozen synonyms for God's law (testimonies, commandments, precepts, word, ways, truth, judgments, statutes, etc).

In his introduction, St. Theophan notes that St. Augustine was for a long time unable to write a commentary on this psalm: ""How often," said he, "was I asked to give its interpretation, but when I was ready to begin, I backed off, realizing that it was above my strength. For the simpler this psalm would seem to be, the deeper it actually turns out to be, and I am unable to say how profound it is. Other psalms have dark spots; this one is so clear that all one has to do is read or listen; there is nothing to interpret. And yet, getting ready to comment on it, I cannot say I will be able to do anything even now." St. Ambrose also wrote: "Other psalms contain moral issues, but they are like stars spread out in the sky; this one is like the sun, abundantly pouring forth its light at high noon."

Given that the Church has appointed this psalm to be read every day of the week (Monday through Friday) at the Midnight Office, on every Saturday at Matins, often also on the Sunday Matins, and at Funerals, the Church clearly wants us to spend time studying and meditating on this Psalm.

St. John of Shanghai, commenting on the importance of the Psalms especially drew attention to the importance of this psalm:

"Perhaps it will happen that you will die without having once in your life read in full the Psalter of David... You will die, and only then will good people read over your lifeless body this holy Psalter, which you had no time even, to open while you lived on earth! Only then, at your burial, will they sing over you the wondrously instructive, sweetly-wise-but alas, to you completely unknown-words of David: Blessed are the undefiled in the way, who walk in the law of the Lord... Blessed are they who search His testimonies. who keep His revelations, and seek Him with their whole heart. Do you hear: Blessed are they who search His testimonies, seek out the revelations of the Lord; and you had no time even to think of them! What will your poor soul feel then, your soul to which every word of the Psalmist, repeated by a reader or singer over your coffin, will sound as a strict reproach that you never read this sacred book?... Open now, before it is too late, this wondrous book of the Prophet King. Open it and read with attention at least this 118th Psalm, and you will involuntarily feel that your heart becomes humble, soft, that in the words of David are the words of the merit of God, and you will repeat involuntarily, many times, with sighing of heart, the verse of this Psalm: I have gone astray like a sheep that is lost; seek out Thy slave, Lord!" (from his weekly diocesan bulletin (Shanghai, November 24, 1941, no. 503).

St. Theophan's commentary on this psalm is a very comprehensive (this book is 351 pages), and weaves the commentaries of the Fathers of the Church together in a masterful, and spiritually edifying way. Each verse (there are 176 verses to this psalm) is commented on in depth. The translation has been in the works for many years, and is well done. It is also nicely bound. This text is not only a great reference work, but would be suitable as daily devotional reading. The price is a bit on the high end ($40.00), but it is well worth it.

You can order a copy by clicking here.


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