We are happy to bring to you a one-year devotional by John Calvin (1509-1564) on the Psalms. We are indebted to P & R Publishing for permission to use this copyrighted material from John Calvin: A Heart Aflame on the OPC Web site. In addition to viewing the daily devotional reading here, you may like to purchase a copy of the book A Heart Aflame from P & R Publishing or your local bookstore.
John Calvin, A Heart Aflame: Daily Readings from Calvin on the Psalms, is copyright © 1999 by P & R Publishing Company, all rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means—electronic, mechanical, photocopy, recording, or otherwise—except for brief quotations for the purpose of review or comment, without the prior permission of the publisher, P & R Publishing Company, P.O. Box 817, Phillipsburg, New Jersey 08865-0817.
Unless marked by an asterisk, italic Scripture excerpts preceding Calvin's exposition are from the HOLY BIBLE, NEW INTERNATIONAL VERSION®. NIV®. copyright© 1973, 1978, 1984 by International Bible Society, used by permission of Zondervan Publishing House, all rights reserved. Phrases of Scripture within Calvin's exposition are based on an unidentified older translation, or in rare instances modified to conform to the NIV excerpts preceding Calvin's exposition.
Following is Sinclair B. Ferguson's "Foreword" to the book:
You may have mixed feelings about a book of daily readings from John Calvin's writings. His name is not the first that comes to the minds of most Christians as the ideal companion to give the wisdom, encouragement, and direction that most of us are looking for each day. We use books like this one to 'prime the pump' spiritually, and Calvin's name is not often associated with giving people a 'quick start'! Was he not a towering genius, intimidating in his theological acumen, rather than the kind of person whose daily company we might naturally seek?
If those questions are in your mind, I suspect you will experience a delightful surprise as you read through these well-chosen daily meditations. For your companion for the year was not only a man who found the Psalms a mineral-rich quarry of theology, but someone who discovered his own experience mirrored in them. You will find him to be a sure-footed and wise guide, and I suspect you will come to love him - as well as the Psalms - better before the year is ended.
Calvin vividly described the Psalms as 'an anatomy of all the parts of the soul.' The description is a very apt one, since every experience, every emotion, all the heights and depths, all the joys and sorrows, all the mysteries of human life, are here.
To the reading of the Psalms (and to the rest of Scripture, for that matter), Calvin brought a remarkable gift. He possessed a skill in biblical understanding and spiritual intelligence akin to that of a brilliant medical diagnostician: an uncanny knack of seeing the real issue - an unlearnable combination of understanding, logic, sensitivity, and illumination.
In fact, as Calvin tells us in rare autobiographical comment in the introduction to his Commentary on the Psalms (from which this material is drawn), shortly after his own conversion people were flocking to him asking him to explain the message of the Scriptures:
Before a year had passed, all who had a desire for purer doctrine were continually coming to me to learn - although I myself was just a mere novice and tyro!
In later life, as pastor-theologian in Geneva, Calvin was preaching and lecturing so many times each week, and maintaining such a huge correspondence as well as a strenuous personal ministry, that it is clear his preparation time must have been minimal. Yet, his tremendous knowledge of the Scriptures, his gift of illumination, and the depth of his personal experience combined - as in this material on the Psalms - to enable him to give his people (and now us) rich treasures of biblical exposition.
So, at least in my own view, in these pages you will find the Spirit-inspired biblical anatomy of the Psalms and the hands of an outstanding physician and surgeon of the spirit. Reading them on a daily basis can hardly fail to bring you spiritual health and strength.
There are several reasons why this devotional book deserves an enthusiastic welcome.
First of all, these select comments from Calvin's much larger work will take you through the book of Psalms in an orderly fashion. The Psalter used to be the basic diet of Christians. In many churches for centuries the Psalms were the only items of praise. Believers would sing them daily at home around the table. Almost without thinking about what they were doing, they were hiding God's Word in their hearts and learning not to sin against him; it was a lamp to their feet, a light to their path (Ps. 119:11, 105). That kind of knowledge of Scripture is now unusual among God's people, and we are weaker and poorer for it. If all this book did were to encourage us to read the Psalms on a daily basis, it would be worth its weight in gold.
Second, Calvin's own exposition of the Psalms is remarkable in the way in which he follows the flow of the text, seems to catch the developments in it, and leads us with deceptive simplicity from statement to statement. He does not leap from the text into a story or an illustration; rather, he takes a deep breath and holds it until the truth of a passage, and its application, have been grasped. In our short attention-span age, surrounded by influences that create mental flightiness and an inability to concentrate and meditate, we badly need instructors who will help us to do this.
Third, Calvin knew what he was talking about. In much that is written today by Christian scholars - valuable in the contribution it makes - one gets all too little a sense that they know what the psalmist actually experienced. Literary genres, brilliance of linguistic use, weaving in of earlier biblical material, tracing of patterns - these elements of literary analysis in which contemporary commentators shine fascinate and engage the intellect. But Calvin offers us much more. He spoke of substance more than form and style, for he had sat where David sat, and had experienced hurt where David had hurt.
There is something even more striking about Calvin's exposition. Modern scholars and preachers endeavor to expound the message of the Bible, and preach on or about the Bible. But Calvin seems to come to us from within the Bible, from inside the reality described in the text. He had learned the meaning of the command to love God 'with all your mind.' The result was that God's Word had begun to dwell in him richly (Col. 3:16), and he learned to live his life from within it.
Fourth, Calvin's way of reading the Bible was deeply influenced by Luke's marvelous account of the disciples on the road to Emmaus (Luke 24:13-35). He was gripped by the idea that the whole Bible was somehow related to Christ ('Christ is the scope of all the Scriptures' was how he expressed it). He had meditated long and hard on this, and the fruit of it shows in the natural way in which he brings us to see Christ in all the Scriptures, including the Psalms (cf. Luke 24:44-45).
Shortly before his death in May 1564, and conscious that it could not be long in coming, Calvin dictated a brief letter to William Farel, the long-time colleague and friend who had been instrumental in first bringing him to minister in Geneva. Reflecting the words of Paul in Philippians 1:21, Calvin movingly expressed the deepest longing of his own heart: 'It is enough that I live and die for Christ, who is to all his followers a gain both in life and death.' A little over three weeks later he breathed his last, leaving his colleague and successor Theodore Beza to write by way of epitaph, 'It has pleased God to show us in the life of a single man of our time how to live and how to die.'
That is the kind of Christian faith these readings will encourage.
Sinclair B. Ferguson
St George's-Tron Church
Following is the compiler's "Preface" to the book:
This book of daily readings contains key portions of John Calvin's Commentary on the Psalms. Calvin wrote commentaries on most of the books of the Bible. The Rev. James Anderson, who translated into English the volumes on the Psalms, said of these volumes in June 1845,
Such is the acuteness of judgment, and success in discovering the mind of the Spirit which distinguish these prelections, that they are not superseded by any modern Commentary on the same subject: and though it is nearly three centuries since they were written, there are few separate works on The Psalms from which the student of the present day, who wishes critically to examine them, will derive more important assistance.
Such volumes are most often found in the libraries of pastors and theological scholars. They are used for in-depth study and exegesis of each psalm or for quick reference.
This book of daily readings, however, makes Calvin's exposition more accessible to the average Christian reader, thereby sharing more widely the varied and splendid riches contained in this treasury of inspired poetry called the Psalms. It offers a faithful rendering of Calvin with only the slightest emendation in order to weave excerpts from larger passages into seamless, concise meditations. The style and language of Anderson's faithful translation of Calvin has been faithfully retained, his English not really too ancient or cumbersome for most readers today.
It did seem a good idea, however, rather than to use the old translation of the Psalms that appears in Calvin's commentary, to use instead the NIV rendering in most cases, with which today's readers are more familiar. In a few instances, marked by an asterisk or brackets, the older Scripture version is retained when Calvin's argument requires that wording, or when the original is more consistent with his tone and sentiment. In such cases a modern translation may have distracted from the clearest sense or departed from Calvin's own way of expressing and illustrating ideas.
Care has been taken not to effect the slightest change in the exact meaning of Calvin's teachings. Therefore alterations in wording, spelling, or punctuation have been kept to the barest minimum, and then only for syntactical purposes. For the most part his commentary has been copied verbatim, with an eye toward extracting only the lessons in Christian faith, doctrinal remarks, and evangelical sentiment from the larger, more technical discussions.
Omitted here are discussions such as Calvin's comparing a variety of probable interpretations of the text; or his commenting on the precise grammatical and literal sense and use of certain words and expressions in the Hebrew text; or his giving details of history, customs, and philosophy; or other profound criticisms. Thus the parts left out are mainly those which serve scholars who do critical analysis of the Psalms. As these make up the greater part of the commentary, it seemed best not to clutter the book with ellipsis points to indicate where sentences or passages have been omitted as excerpts have been woven together.
Calvin's own devotion to the Psalms finds expression in the following excerpt from his July 1557 preface to his commentary:
I have been accustomed to call this book, I think not inappropriately, 'An Anatomy of all the Parts of the Soul;' for there is not an emotion of which any one can be conscious that is not here represented as in a mirror. Or rather, the Holy Spirit has here drawn to the life all the griefs, sorrows, fears, doubts, hopes, cares, perplexities, in short, all the distracting emotions with which the minds of men are wont to be agitated. The other parts of Scripture contain the commandments which God enjoined his servants to announce to us. But here the prophets themselves, seeing they are exhibited to us as speaking to God, and laying open all their inmost thoughts and affections, call, or rather draw, each of us to the examination of himself in particular, in order that none of the many infirmities to which we are subject, and of the many vices with which we abound, may remain concealed....
We see on the one hand, the flesh manifesting its infirmity; and on the other, faith putting forth its power; and if it is not so valiant and courageous as might be desired, it is at least prepared to fight until by degrees it acquire perfect strength. But as those things which serve to teach us the true method of praying aright will be found scattered through the whole of this Commentary, I will not now stop to treat of topics which it will be necessary afterwards to repeat, nor detain my readers from proceeding to the work itself. Only it appeared to me to be requisite to show in passing, that this book makes known to us this privilege, which is desirable above all others—that not only is there opened up to us familiar access to God, but also that we have permission and freedom granted to us to lay open before him our infirmities, which we would be ashamed to confess before men.
Besides, there is also here prescribed to us an infallible rule for directing us with respect to the right manner of offering to God the sacrifices of praise, which he declares to be most precious in his sight, and of the sweetest odour. There is no other book in which there is to be found more express and magnificent commendations, both of the unparalleled liberality of God towards his Church, and of all his works; there is no other book in which there is recorded so many deliverances, nor one in which the evidences and experiences of the fatherly providence and solicitude which God exercises towards us, are celebrated with such splendour of diction, and yet with the strictest adherence to truth; in short, there is no other book in which we are more perfectly taught the right manner of praising God, or in which we are more powerfully stirred up to the performance of this religious exercise.
Moreover, although The Psalms are replete with all the precepts which serve to frame our life to every part of holiness, piety, and righteousness, yet they will principally teach and train us to bear the cross; and the bearing of the cross is a genuine proof of our obedience, since by doing this, we renounce the guidance of our own affections, and submit ourselves entirely to God, leaving him to govern us, and to dispose of our life according to his will, so that the affections which are the bitterest and most severe to our nature, become sweet to us, because they proceed from him. In one word, not only will we here find general commendations of the goodness of God, which may teach men to repose themselves in him alone, and to seek all their happiness solely in him; and which are intended to teach true believers with their whole hearts confidently to look to him for help in all their necessities; but we will also find that the free remission of sins, which alone reconciles God towards us, and procures for us settled peace with him, is so set forth and magnified, as that here there is nothing wanting which relates to the knowledge of eternal salvation.