Luther on Psalm 118

Stephen Nichols (SN): Today we have a very special guest with us. Dr. W. Robert Godfrey and I are at a conference together in Wittenberg, Germany. Dr. Godfrey, we have been talking about Luther’s writings in particular, and a very important set of those writings is Luther’s commentaries. What were some of the key biblical books that Luther lectured on and wrote commentaries on?

W. Robert Godfrey (WRG): Well, particularly in his formative years, he looked at the Psalms, at Romans, at Galatians, and at Hebrews, and you can imagine what a wonderful preparation that is to be a Reformer. What better books could you spend time with? Then, later in his life, he wrote a very long commentary on Genesis. So, Luther moved through the whole Bible, but those are books that were of particular importance to him.

SN: Let’s home in on one of his treatises within one of those commentaries: his commentary on Psalm 118. Luther wrote this in 1530. Would you mind giving us a little of the context from Luther’s life while he was writing his commentary on Psalm 118?

WRG: Well, he wrote that commentary on what he called his own beloved psalm during a period that was very difficult for him. For six months in 1530, he was somewhat isolated in the Castle Coburg. He was there because he wanted to be as close as possible to the city of Augsburg, where the imperial diet was meeting to decide the fate of the evangelical religion in Germany. The emperor was back in Germany for the first time since 1521, when he had outlawed Luther. He would not give Luther safe conduct to come to Augsburg, so Luther, four days’ journey away, had to wait anxiously for news. So, this was a very difficult time, but Luther was not immobilized by it. He wrote some fifty works while he was there, one of them being this marvelous commentary on Psalm 118.

SN: So, he wasn’t just whiling away the time; he was keeping himself rather busy. I remember you mentioning at one point that he was doing some translation work that would become part of his German Old Testament. Is that right?

WRG: That’s right. He was translating the Hebrew prophets into German and eventually would translate the whole Bible into German. The Luther Bible would serve as a foundation for Lutheran Protestantism in Germany much as the King James Version did for English Protestantism.

SN: As we’re looking back again at Psalm 118, it seems that Luther embraced especially verse 17 of Psalm 118 as a bit of a motto. Why that verse?

WRG: That verse became precious to him because it was a verse that he lived in and lived out of, and it spoke deeply to his heart; it spoke deeply to his spiritual experience as well as his life in general. And that verse is, “I shall not die, but I shall live, and recount the deeds of the LORD.” “I shall not die” was his confidence that God would not abandon him to his enemies before His timing. Luther was under no illusion that he would never die physically, but he knew that the Lord would preserve him as long as He wanted to use him. And then, “I shall live.” I shall live by the grace of Christ, I shall by the grace of the One who was rejected for my sins and who was raised to be the head of the corner for my justification. And then, connected to Luther’s profound sense of his own calling to be a preacher and a teacher, “I shall recount the deeds of the LORD.” That psalm so wonderfully begins, “Give thanks to the LORD, for he is good; for his steadfast love endures forever!” That was the heart of Luther’s gospel. The Lord is good, as we see in Jesus Christ our Savior. The Lord’s steadfast love that we see in Jesus Christ endures forever. And so, Luther bore that message to the world and that verse strengthened him in almost all the circumstances of his life and encouraged him to go on.

SN: Thank you, Dr. Godfrey. That’s Luther on Psalm 118.

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