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The Psalm for Luther's Patmos

The apostle John was exiled to the Isle of Patmos where he wrote the splendid and final book of our Bible, The Revelation of Jesus Christ (Revelation 1:9).

Martin Luther spent a period of ten months under special protection in the Wartburg Castle – his personal 'Patmos,' during which time he translated the New Testament from its original Greek into German.

A lover of the book of Psalms, Luther laid a personal claim to the words of Psalm 118, saying he had, “struck a very special relationship with the psalm.”

“This is my Psalm, my chosen Psalm.

I love them all; I love all holy Scripture, which is my consolation and my life. But this Psalm is nearest my heart, and I have a peculiar right to call it mine. It has saved me from many a pressing danger, from which nor emperor, nor kings, nor sages, nor saints, could have saved me. It is my friend; dearer to me than all the honours and power of the earth.

… But it may be objected, that this Psalm is common to all; no one has a right to call it his own.

Yes; but Christ is also common to all; and yet Christ is mine. I am not jealous of my property; I would divide it with the whole world … . And would to God that all men would claim the Psalm as especially theirs!”

[ Luther, from his Dedication of his Translation of Psalm CXVIII to the Abbot Frederick of Nuremberg ].

Therefore the assessment of Bible commentator, Franz Delitzsch: this “was Luther’s favourite Psalm, his beauteous Confitemini [hymn of praise], which ‘had helped him out of what neither emperor nor king, nor any other man on earth, could have helped him.’ With the exposition of this his noblest jewel, his defence and his treasure, he occupied himself in the solitude of his Patmos.”

In the spring and summer of 1530, Luther was under the imperial ban, and subject to arrest if captured, he could not attend the Diet of Augsburg. Instead, he stayed at another castle, Coburg.

During this time, Luther became very depressed and believed his end was near. In this state, Luther sent a letter to a friend, the famous German composer Ludwig [Senfl], ... . He immediately sent Luther a copy of his motet on the 17th verse of the 118th Psalm: Non moriar sed vivam et narrabo opera domini ("I will not die, but live and declare the works of the Lord").

This text and music had an incredible effect on Luther. He wrote those words on the wall of his room where he could see it every day and came back to the fight with a renewed spirit. This verse assured him that he was perfectly safe until his work on earth was done.

Luther's Outline

Luther divides this Psalm into four parts, consisting of:

(1) The Beautiful Thanksgiving (118:1-4);

(2) The Calling on the LORD (118:5-16);

(3) God’s Saving Hand (118:17-27);

and (4) The Declaration of God’s Sovereignty over All Things (118:28-29).

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