Entering Deeper into the Psalms: a book review

I know that I’m not alone in loving the Psalms. Many of us have found comfort, strength and words for prayer. My own love for the Psalms was whetted years ago when I read Eugene Peterson’s devotional works (especially The Long Obedience in the Same Direction and Answering God). Since that time I’ve read many good many more books on the Psalms, some devotional, some academic. I have a short list of books I really like on the Psalms, and am happy to add a new book to my list!

The Psalter Reclaimed: Praying and Praising with the Psalms by Gordon Wenham

So I was excited when I saw Gordon Wenham’The Psalter Reclaimed: Praying and Praising with the Psalms. Wenham is one of my favorite commentators  and is an adjunct professor at Trinity College, Bristol. I have appreciated his writings but have never read his treatment of the Psalms. In the Psalter Reclaimed,  Wenham culls together his lectures on the Psalms delivered between 1997 and 2010. Despite the occasional nature of these essays, there is a remarkable cohesion to the book as a whole. Wenham examines the liturgical use of Psalms and their personal devotional use in prayer. He also discusses the Messianic nature of the Royal Psalms (and in what sense they are Messianic), the ethics of the psalms, the value of praying the imprecatory Psalms, the vision of God’s steadfast love as expressed in Psalm 103, and the Psalm’s vision of the nations (enemies of God who at last lift their voice in praise).

This may be one of the greatest introductory books on the Psalms for the sheer breadth of what Wenham is able to cover in a short book. He comes from a strong Reformed Anglican tradition and therefore has a lot to say about the liturgical use of Psalms  to enrich our corporate worship and to provide moral instruction.  He discusses the various genres of Psalms in his section on ‘praying the Psalms’ and demonstrates how the various types (i.e. Pslams of Lament, praises,  Royal Psalms, etc.) speak to the various seasons of the Christian life.  This emphasis on the liturgical and personal use of the Psalms makes this a great introductory book for anyone seeking to enter deeper into the Spirituality of the Psalms

But Wenham is not simply writing a lay introduction. These essays also discuss how current scholarship enriches our understanding of the text.  And so he shows how speech-act theory helps describe the performative nature of the Psalms, Canonical l criticism reveals the meaning behind the Psalm superscriptions and the internal organization of the book,  he proposes a theological hermeneutic which takes the Royal Psalms past their historical-literary context into the realm of New Testament fulfillment, and he reviews historic and current discussions  of the imprecatory Psalms and whether they may be  appropriately prayed by Christians. Wenham’s skill as an exegete and a scholar are evident throughout.

I especially liked his treatment on the ethical import of the Psalms because Wenham’s Story as Torah was the book that alerted me to the way ethics were embedded in Hebrew Narrative. In abbreviated form he gives a compelling case for the ethical use of Psalms to provide moral instruction and encourages modern readers to mine the Psalms for what it tells us about Biblical Ethics.

Because this book is an edited collection of earlier lectures there is some overlap in the chapters which you wouldn’t expect in a full length monograph. Wenham also doesn’t say everything that needs to be said on the Psalms (though he points us to some great resources). But this book is an introductory text and I think that anyone’s understanding of the Psalms will be enriched by reading this. I recommend this book to scholar, student, clergy and lay-person alike. I give it five stars: ★★★★★

Thank you to Crossway books for providing me a copy of this book in exchange for this review.

8 thoughts on “Entering Deeper into the Psalms: a book review

  1. This is one of my pet peeves. Psalms are songs -intended to be sung or chanted. Thus to really experience the psalms with all their depth and content, one might try doing them musically. From the Anglican sector, NT Wright has just recently released a book on the importance of the Psalms (The Case for the Psalms: Why They Are Essential), but I haven’t read it yet, so I don’t know his thoughts on the musical part. I have discovered a valuable resource for those who do want to experience the Psalms (songs) with their own voice – compiled by Tel and Witvliet, Psalms for All Seasons, see at Amazon: http://www.amazon.com/Psalms-All-Seasons-Complete-Psalter/dp/1587433168
    For those who want to explore music and singing as spiritual formation, try singing the psalms every day. It’s how the text was intended to be experienced and it will totally change your ideas re: “Christian music”. PG – He is good.

    • I have reserved a copy of Wright’s book at the library. He is always worth reading. For an older treatment of the same theme, I like Bonhoeffer’s Prayer book of the Bible. Of course many Christians have used the psalms as inspiration for song writing. There is a recent recovery of the theme of lament in Christian worship, contra my critique above. This has resulted in some fresh settings of some lament psalms (notably from Sons of Korah, Brian Moss, Gungor, Matt Redman).

      Just a reminder to keep the discussion civil. Music is something we are all passionate about and so we can all come on too strong or too defensive. Can music be idolatry? Sure. Is it possible to enjoy CCM or secular music as God’s good gift without it being sinful and idolatrous? Yes indeed. Do we need to be careful with what or how we listen to music? Yep, but the fact that music enables us to transcend our circumstance also points to the tremendous good, good music can do for our soul. I think we all understand this so keep the tone respectful. We are brothers and brothers hug. 🙂

  2. James,
    I would say your idea of music as transcending our circumstances and “good for the soul” is undoubtedly widely held by a variety of peoples, institutions, cultures, religions, etc., not the least, myself. However, when it comes to music and the church, someone wisely compared the relationship as similar to the situation humans have with fire. There is great potential for good, yet when fire is out of control, it can do great harm.This is a valid picture of music’s role in the church, past and present. However, the New Testament sheds light on the topic of music (song), which is quite specific – “Let the message of Christ dwell among you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom through psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit, singing to God with gratitude…” (Colossians 3:16). Ephesians 5:19 has similar content, reinforcing a strategic message to the church. Any believer who wants to understand God’s specific, stated will about the role of music in their life can start here – use song with your own voice to sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs to God. The passage does NOT say, ‘listen to music’ to God, it says ‘sing’ (how many people try to wiggle out of that one). Further, the passage says to do that with wisdom, and the ‘big picture’ idea is the message of Christ dwelling within us – richly – not in some haphazard way. The bottom line is, the New Testament teaches that music and song for Christians is primarily about spiritual growth and formation, not merely mood enhancement nor coping mechanisms (though it will accomplish those as well). There are a lot of lesser concerns that seem to occupy us in the current Christian culture about music, but these are really secondary. Today’s church would do well to teach people how to do psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs in their own private lives beyond church, and encourage that as the musical priority in our lives. God give us instruction in the Word for a reason, and it is always for our good. Might our “Christian” musical concerns be fueled by the energy of the Word. For more about this topic, visit my blog at http://musreader.wordpress.com/ and website: http://www.maximummusic.us/music-Word/index.html

  3. James,
    I would say your idea of music as transcending our circumstances and “good for the soul” is undoubtedly widely held by a variety of peoples, institutions, cultures, religions, etc., not the least, myself. However, when it comes to music and the church, someone wisely compared the relationship as similar to the situation humans have with fire. There is great potential for good, yet when fire is out of control, it can do great harm. This is a valid picture of music’s role in the church, past and present. However, the New Testament sheds light on the topic of music (song), which is quite specific – “Let the message of Christ dwell among you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom through psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit, singing to God with gratitude…” (Colossians 3:16). Ephesians 5:19 has similar content, reinforcing a strategic message to the church. Any believer who wants to understand God’s specific, stated will about the role of music in their life can start here – use song with your own voice to sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs to God. The passage does NOT say, ‘listen to music’ to God, it says ‘sing’ (how many people try to wiggle out of that one). Further, the passage says to do that with wisdom, and the ‘big picture’ idea is the message of Christ dwelling within us – richly – not in some haphazard way. The bottom line is, the New Testament teaches that music and song for Christians is primarily about spiritual growth and formation, not merely mood enhancement nor a coping mechanism (though it will accomplish those as well). There are a lot of lesser concerns that seem to occupy us in the current Christian culture about music, but these are really secondary. Today’s church would do well to teach people how to do psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs in their own private lives beyond church, and encourage that as the musical priority in our lives. God give us instruction in the Word for a reason, and it is always for our good. Might our “Christian” musical concerns be fueled by the energy of the Word. For more about this topic, visit my blog at http://musreader.wordpress.com/ and website: http://www.maximummusic.us/music-Word/index.html

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