Delightful Book of the Psalms – Ambrose

Ambrose explains how the delightful book of the psalms provides a true gymnasium for the soul with exercises to develop every virtue, and condenses all parts of the Old Covenant – law, prophecy, and history and foreshadow the New Covenant as well, predicting as they do the passion and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

A lthough the whole of Scripture breathes God’s grace upon us, this is especially true of that delightful book, the book of the psalms. Moses, when he related the deeds of the patriarchs, did so in a plain and unadorned style. But when he had miraculously led the people of Israel across the Red Sea, when he had seen King Pharaoh drowned with all his army, he transcended his own skills (just as the miracle had transcended his own powers) and he sang a triumphal song to the Lord. Miriam the prophetess herself took up a timbrel and led the others in the refrain: Sing to the Lord: he has covered himself in glory, horse and rider he has thrown into the sea.

History instructs us, the law teaches us, prophecy foretells, correction punishes, morality persuades; but the book of psalms goes further than all these. It is medicine for our spiritual health. Whoever reads it will find in it a medicine to cure the wounds caused by his own particular passions. Whoever studies it deeply will find it a kind of gymnasium open for all souls to use, where the different psalms are like different exercises set out before him. In that gymnasium, in that stadium of virtue, he can choose the exercises that will train him best to win the victor’s crown.

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If someone wants to study the deeds of our ancestors and imitate the best of them, he can find a single psalm that contains the whole of their history, a complete treasury of past memories in just one short reading.

If someone wants to study the law and find out what gives it its force (it is the bond of love, for whoever loves his neighbor has fulfilled the law) let him read in the psalms how love led one man to undergo great dangers to wipe out the shame of his entire people; and this triumph of virtue will lead him to recognize the great things that love can do.

And as for the power of prophecy – what can I say? Other prophets spoke in riddles. To the psalmist alone, it seems, God promised openly and clearly that the Lord Jesus would be born of his seed: I promise that your own son will succeed you on the throne.

Thus in the book of psalms Jesus is not only born for us: he also accepts his saving passion, he dies, he rises from the dead, he ascends into heaven, he sits at the Father’s right hand. The Psalmist announced what no other prophet had dared to say, that which was later preached by the Lord himself in the Gospel.

The delightful book of the Psalms was a favorite subject of commentary by the Early Church Fathers.  Ambrose, in this excerpt from his Explanations of the Psalms (Ps. 1, 4.7-8; CSEL 64, 4-7) explains how the psalms encapsulate the whole of the Bible, providing a true gymnasium and medicine for the soul. This selection is used in the Roman Catholic Divine Office of Readings for Friday of the 10th week in ordinary time with the accompanying biblical reading taken from Joshua 10:1-14; 11:15-17.

Click here for more on the Psalms from St. Ambrose.

Ambrose of Milan, St.

St. Ambrose of Milan’s life (Sant Ambroggio de Milano in Italian) is a particularly fascinating story. St. Ambrose was born around 339 in what is now Trier, Germany, the son of the Roman prefect of Gaul. Following his father’s footsteps, Ambrose embarked upon a career in law and politics and by 370 AD, he had become the Imperial governor of Northern Italy. When the episcopal see of Milan became vacant in 374, the people demanded that Saint Ambrose be made their bishop. The neighboring bishops and the Emperor convinced him to accept this call as the will of God, and so the catechumen Ambrose was baptized and ordained first deacon, then priest, then bishop, all in a single week! This politician-turned churchman was profoundly aware of his lack of preparation for this great responsibility and so set himself immediately to prayer and the study of Scripture. His deep spirituality and love of God’s Word married together with the oratorical skill acquired in law and politics made St. Ambrose one of the greatest preachers of the early church. St. Ambrose proved to be a fierce opponent of heresy, paganism, and hypocrisy. He battled to preserve the independence of the Church from the state and courageously excommunicated the powerful Catholic Emperor Theodosius I for a massacre of innocent civilians in Thessalonica. St. Ambrose also had a significant impact on sacred music through the composition of hymns and psalm tones that are known to this day as Ambrosian chant. Besides numerous sermons and treatises on the spiritual life, Saint Ambrose is responsible for two of the first great theological works written in Latin, De Sacramentis on the Sacraments and De Spiritu Sancto on the Holy Spirit. Around 385, an ambitious professor of public speaking named Augustine came to hear Saint Ambrose preach in order to study his technique, and in the process, was attracted to the Catholic faith. In 386 Augustine was baptized by St. Ambrose and went on to become bishop of Hippo in North Africa. Ambrose and his pupil, Augustine, together with St. Jerome and St. Gregory the Great, make up the four original Doctors of the Latin Church. Saint Ambrose, the great bishop of Milan, died on Holy Saturday (April 4) in the year 397 AD. His feastday in the Roman calendar is December 7, the day he was ordained bishop. From the Roman liturgy for the Feast of St. Ambrose: “Lord, you made Saint Ambrose an outstanding teacher of the Catholic faith and gave him the courage of an apostle. Raise up iin your Church more leaders after your own heart, to guide us with courage and wisdom. We ask this through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God forever and ever. Amen.”  (bio by Dr. Italy)