Archive E.J. Hutchinson Early Church Fathers Nota Bene

“I Am Utterly Ignorant What I Can Achieve in It”

Yesterday I cited part of one of Augustine’s sermons on Psalm 119 (118). Today, I thought I’d post his preface to that series.

As I mentioned in the previous post, he didn’t treat Ps. 119 until 422, when he had already commented or preached upon the rest of the Psalter. Why did he wait so long to exposit this Psalm, which he held in such high regard? He answers that question in the preface. In doing so, he refers to the apparent paradox of the Psalm: its meaning seems so plain and on the surface of the text, and yet there are depths there that he cannot plumb.1

I have expounded all the rest of the Psalms, which we know the Book of the Psalms containeth, which by the custom of the Church is styled the Psalter, partly by preaching among the people, partly by dictations, as well as I, by the Lord’s help, was able: but I put off the 118th Psalm, as well on account of its well-known length, as on account of its depth being fathomable by few. And when my brethren deeply regretted that the exposition of this Psalm alone, as far as pertaineth to the Psalms of the same volume, was wanting to my works, and strongly pressed me to pay this debt, I yielded not to them, though they long entreated and solicited me; because as often as I began to reflect upon it, it always exceeded the utmost stretch of my powers. For in proportion as it seemeth more open, so much the more deep doth it appear to me; so that I cannot shew how deep it is. For in others, which are understood with difficulty, although the sense lie hid in obscurity, yet the obscurity itself appeareth; but in this, not even this is the case; since it is superficially such, that it seemeth not to need an expositor, but only a reader and listener. And now that at length I approach its interpretation, I am utterly ignorant what I can achieve in it: nevertheless, I hope that God will aid me with His Presence, that I may effect something. For thus He hath done in all those which, though at first they seemed to me difficult, and almost impracticable, I have succeeded in adequately expounding. But I decided to do this by means of sermons, which might be delivered among the people, such as the Greeks term ὁμιλίαι. For this is, I think, more equitable, that the assemblies of the Church be not defrauded of the comprehension of this Psalm, by the singing of which, as much as by that of others, they are wont to be charmed. But let the preface end here: we must now speak of the Psalm itself, to which we have thought it right to make this Preface.

  1. One may be reminded here of his general comment on Scripture in Confessions 6.5: “For now those things which heretofore appeared incongruous to me in the Scripture, and used to offendme, having heard various of them expounded reasonably, I referred to the depth of the mysteries, and its authority seemed to me all the more venerable and worthy of religious belief, in that, while it was visible for all to read it, it reserved the majesty of its secret within its profound significance, stooping to all in the great plainness of its language and lowliness of its style, yet exercising the application of such as are not light of heart; that it might receive all into its common bosom, and through narrow passages waft over some few towards You, yet many more than if it did not stand upon such a height of authority, nor allured multitudes within its bosom by its holy humility.”

By E.J. Hutchinson

E.J. Hutchinson is Assistant Professor of Classics at Hillsdale College.