The famous ABCOBARMA principle is “always be closing other books and reading more Augustine.” Okay, it’s not a famous principle. But it is good advice. And it’s the advice I’ve been following over the past several years.
This year I’m spending time in Augustine’s Expositions of the Psalms. From time to time, I hope to share observations, quotations, etc. from these theologically rich, spiritually wise sermons.
In his introduction to a sermon on Psalm 145 (Psalm 144 in the Vulgate), Augustine comments on the usefulness of the Psalms as a guide to Christian praise.
Augustine observes that Christians need a guide to praising God lest we “offend the one whom we praise.” Our praise tends toward excess verbosity (cf. Matt 6:7), or else to wander from the straight and narrow path. Thankfully, God has “marked out” a “path of praise” in the scriptures “in order to give human beings a pattern by which they can praise him in a seemly fashion.”
The Psalms have a special place in this regard. The Psalms are not merely God’s Word to us, they are God’s Word to God, God’s Word about God, God praising God. And that is why they are a reliable guide for our praise of God. “God has praised himself” in the Psalms, Augustine tells us, in order that “men and women [might] know how to praise him.”
This raises a question. Do not the scriptures forbid us from praising ourselves? “Let another praise you, and not your own mouth; a stranger, and not your own lips” (Prov 27:2). Does God do wrong, then, in praising God? Augustine addresses this question head-on: “If a human being praises himself, it is arrogance, but if God praises himself, he does so out of mercy.” According to Augustine, “it is to our advantage,” not to God’s, that we learn to praise him. Why is that? “Because, by loving the good, we become better.” He continues: “Knowing that it is good for us to love him, God has made himself lovable by praising himself, and in making himself lovable he has our good at heart.”
God certainly does not need our praise (Acts 17:25; Rom 11:35). But we do. Therefore God praises himself in the Psalter in order that we might better learn to know, love, and praise him. We should therefore follow the merciful “path of praise” he has laid before us in the Psalms, allowing them to train, direct, and guide our affections to God the supremely lovable good.
Here’s the passage in full:
It was our wish to praise the Lord together with you, and he has granted us this privilege. We must take care that the praise we offer him proceeds in good order, with no kind of excess creeping in which could offend the one whom we praise. We therefore think it best to follow the path of praise marked out in God’s scriptures, not declining from the way either to the right hand or to the left. I would go so far as to say to you, beloved, that God has praised himself in order to give to human beings a pattern by which they can praise him in a seemly fashion. Because God has kindly praised himself, men and women know how to praise him. It cannot, of course, be said to God, as it is to humans, Let not your own mouth praise you (Prv 27:2). If a human being praises himself, it is arrogance, but if God praises himself, he does so out of his mercy. It is to our advantage to love him whom we praise because, by loving the good, we become better. Knowing that it is good for us to love him, God has made himself lovable by praising himself, and in making himself lovable he has our good at heart. Here therefore stirs up our hearts to praise him, and he has filled his servants with his own Spirit, to enable them to offer him praise. And if it is his own Spirit, present in these servants, who is praising him, what else can we conclude but that God is praising himself?”