Augustinian Studies

Volume 53, Issue 2, 2022

Oliver O’Donovan
Pages 131-152

Augustine’s Treatment of the Great Psalm

An ancient Hebrew poem of uncertain background and fastidiously subtle formal technique is made the subject of a commentary by a fifth-century Latin bishop with no Hebrew, working with a poor Latin translation, who, moreover, dismisses the formal complexities of the composition as irrelevant to interpretation. Claiming to detect hidden depths beneath the Great Psalm’s limpid surface, Augustine uses it as an opportunity to revisit some of the favorite themes of his own later writing. Has he read the text with sufficient sympathy to discover anything in it that might correspond to the poet’s intentions? Comparing his approach with Ambrose’s earlier and very different one, we notice some unexpected interpretative strengths in the earlier work. But Augustine’s attentiveness to connections between lines and stanzas and to the repetition of key vocabulary reveals a close attunement to the emotional movements of the poem. His contention that the Psalmist’s “law” is to be understood as Saint Paul’s “law of faith” is not imposed on the text, but allowed to emerge from its sequential development, and especially from its opening and closing lines.