The Battle of the Psalter

Have you ever heard of the The Battle of the Psalter? Perhaps our generation has been so busy waging the so-called “worship wars” that we have often forgotten our history. Take a moment to enjoy the story of Columba and The Battle of the Psalter:

Columba (c. 521-597 A.D.), known as the “apostle of Scotland,” was born of royalty in Ireland in the generations following Patrick (c. 390-461 A.D.). Most of what is known of Columba has been passed down in Adamnan’s Life of Saint Columba and Bede’s Ecclesiastical History. These histories are full of legend – a mix of truth and error. Some modern historians question whether Columba’s missionary significance has been overrated simply because he had biographers while many of his contemporaries did not. In spite of our uncertainty of the truth of all the details, the story of Columba and the Battle of the Psalter is worth retelling.

He was raised in Ireland until he went to Scotland in 563. Legend has it that when Columba was a child, Cruithnechan, the man who had baptized him, was called on to recite Psalm 101 at a public festival. The boy Columba barely knew his alphabet, but when the old man’s voice faltered, Columba recited the rest of the Psalm from memory.

Later, Columba became a pupil of Finnian in a monastery on the shores of Strangford Lough in what is today Northern Ireland. Author Rowland Prothero writes in his work The Psalms in Human Life:

“There, so legend tells us, he copied his host’s Psalter by stealth, shutting himself up by night in the church where the book was treasured, and writing by the light which streamed from his own hand. Finnian claimed the copy; Columba resisted the claim. The dispute was referred to the king at Tara, who, in homely phrase, gave his decision against Columba: ‘to every cow her calf’: to the book its copy. In defence of his treasure, Columba armed the clans, and Diarmid was defeated at the bloody ‘Battle of the Psalter.’ Under the name of Cathac, or ‘The Battler,’ the O’Donnells, for centuries, carried to their battles the silver case containing Columba’s reputed copy of the Psalter as a pledge of victory.”

Perhaps driven out of Ireland in the aftermath of the battle, Columba founded a monastery on the island of Iona. From that lonely island, he and his followers launched missionary endeavors into Scotland and beyond for the final three decades of his life. Historian Philip Schaff says of Iona, “It was a lighthouse in the midst of heathenism. We can form no adequate conception of the self-denying zeal of those historic missionaries of the extreme North, who, in a forbidding climate and exposed to robbers and wild beasts, devoted their lives to the conversion of savages.”

Columba’s love of the Psalms and their use in his own devotion life is said to have been part of his witness. Bede writes, “He converted them by example as well as by word.” He allegedly chanted Psalm 45 during his evening devotions on one missionary journey near the mouth of the river Ness. A group of pagan Picts interrupted these evening prayers, and Prothero recounts, “His tremendous voice so amazed and terrified the heathens that they fled from his presence, and left him undisturbed in his devotions.”

His love for the Psalms here on earth did not wane to the day of his death. He transcribed Psalm 34 on the night of his death. He finally copied verse 10 which says, “The young lions suffer want and hunger; but those who seek the Lord lack no good thing.” Then, he laid down his pen and said “Here, I will make and end; what follows, Baithen will write.” Indeed, his pupil Baithen took up his task and was appropriately charged with verse 11, “Come, O children, listen to me; I will teach you the fear of the Lord.”

What can we learn from Columba’s testimony to apply in our day? A few brief observations:

  • Singing Psalms memorably implants the truth in young children.
  • Copyright laws matter.
  • Physical copies of Psalters may be treasured; more than that, the Psalter is treasured when its words are written on our hearts.
  • It is easy to make idols of historic Psalters.
  • The Psalms enflame in God’s worshipers a self-denying missionary passion to make Jesus known among those who sit in darkness.
  • The manner of singing profoundly impacts observers.
  • God gave these songs for use from birth to death and to transmit to the next generation.

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