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Wrestling with the Psalms: 1512-1513

When Jacob feared a violent reunion with Esau, he took his struggle before God and wrestled with Him, demanding a blessing. God blessed him, but the ordeal left Jacob with a disjointed hip.

Luther wrestled with God, too. Monastic life had proven the futility of outward works of penance. His trip to Rome had shown that hypocrisy pervaded the entire church. And his theological studies immersed him in authors who reduced God’s Word to petty concerns.

Monastic theologians twisted everything into moralism. Academics of the rabbinic schools turned the Old Testament into mere Jewish history. And the scholastics philosophized the Scriptures into multiple, esoteric meanings. Luther found comfort in none of these schools of thought.

So, giving up on all of them, he sought a blessing directly from God. Jacob had wrestled with the Angel of the Lord. Luther wrestled with the Scriptures. And just as Jacob spoke as he was wrestling, so did Luther in his public lectures.

His first great undertaking as a Wittenberg professor was a teaching series on the Psalms, in 1513. Wrestling to find truth amidst the error that abounded, he made some bold claims.

The scholars had taught that righteousness was something man could achieve through works. Luther rejected this, teaching that David spoke of Christ’s righteousness, not his own.

The scholars saw the Psalms primarily as David’s words. Luther said the Psalms “must be understood as referring to Christ the Lord, except where it is clear from plain words that someone else is spoken of.”

Wrestling to find comfort in the Psalms, the future Reformer aimed to find Christ in them, but he would later admit that this eager desire led him to overreact and interpret certain psalms apart from God’s intended sense. For example, he had taught that the “blessed man” of Psalm 1 was Christ instead of the Christian. Also, at this time he still believed that there could be multiple layers of meaning to a passage.

Luther was certainly headed in a good direction with these lectures, but he was still wrestling. Remember, the Ninety-Five Theses would not be posted until several years later, and even then his clarity would have a way to go.

Later, in 1519, Luther chose to return to the Psalms, writing a formal commentary. He said he had owed much to that previous work but was glad he was delivered from it. This time, he could “teach the Psalms in all respects according to their real sense and meaning.”

What happened in between? His clarity on justification removed that divide between David’s righteousness and Christ’s. He now understood that Christ’s righteousness became man’s by faith. He rejected multiple meanings in favor of the single intended sense of the inspired words. No longer trying to make Christ the first-person speaker of every psalm, Luther taught that many of the Psalms represent the heartfelt prayers of the Christians, whose faith clings to Christ.

His 1513 lectures show a wrestling Luther—a Luther blessed by God but with a hip out of joint.

His 1519 commentary shows a teacher at ease with what his Master has to say. Such was his confidence in the Psalms that he was led to turn several of them into his first hymns, beginning our rich heritage of Lutheran hymnody.

Luther’s early teaching had some mistakes, but he had to make those mistakes as he wrestled with the Word. It was through the Word that the Spirit was working in him, in order that the Gospel might again be taught in its truth and purity.

Fear of making a mistake keeps many Christians from speaking in Bible class or from sharing the Gospel with others. But Luther’s mistakes—his disjointed hip—can give you confidence. Wrestling with the Scriptures out loud is a way to learn and grow. You will make mistakes along the way, but when you submit to the Word, as Jacob and Luther did, the Lord will always win out in the end.

Timothy Daub is pastor of Prince of Peace Lutheran Church in Hecla, South Dakota.