The Psalms are an odd bird in the biblical canon; not only do we have trouble in referring to them (is it Psalm 32 or Psalms 32?), we’re not even really sure what to do with them content-wise. Are they supposed to comfort us? A mere expression of our emotional state? If so, what do we do with the baby-smashing imprecatory psalms? Furthermore, the question of how we should view them this side of calvary is also a bit muddy in the popular-level Christian mind. Are they outmoded or just as relevant as the day they were written? Such simple, foundational questions unnerve some who might otherwise enter the world of the Psalms, and those who can enter generally do so on an entirely intuitive gut level with very little, if any, mental cognition. We dedicate very little of the hermeneutical rigor that we would devote to other passages of scripture (save for noting the presence of various poetic devices). There are some who would have it otherwise.
Released this year by Moody Publishers, The Psalms: Language for All Seasons of the Soul (edited by Andrew J. Schmutzer and David M. Howard Jr.) is a compendium of 19 essays written by top Old Testament scholars in the field of Psalms studies as a sort of survey of the current academic landscape. Though not aimed at a popular-level audience, the book aims to help Christian academics and clergy get up-to-date on the latest scholarship and research on the Psalter. Divided into five parts (Psalm Studies in the Twenty-First Century, Psalms of Praise, Psalms of Lament, Considering the Canon, and Communicating the Psalms), this book first takes a high-level look at the current tools and methods available today with which to study the Psalms, as well as their place in the life of the Christian and of the church at large.
Parts two and three zoom in to take a closer look at psalms of praise and lament, and how we are to understand and interpret them. The section on lament is the longest in the book, and perhaps rightly so—as noted in the introduction, the somber tone of lament isn’t exactly fun to talk about; it doesn’t “sell.” These two sections are a great help as a sample of how to interpret praise and lament psalms. Part four, Considering the Canon, steps back to a higher-level perspective and uses canon-criticism to analyze the shape of the book of Psalms to see if there is any rhyme or reason to its internal ordering or if it is basically “random” as has been thought for most of the twentieth century. The fifth part rounds out the book wonderfully with four modern psalm sermons. As a pastor and preacher, this was incredibly helpful to see what it might look like to preach on the psalms to contemporary audiences.
The Psalms is genuinely interesting, engaging, and challenging. Perhaps I was out of the loop, but I had always assumed that the canonical shape of the Psalms was rather hodgepodge. Section four, and especially chapter 14 (“The Return of the King: Book V as a Witness to Messianic Hope in the Psalter”)stands in direct confrontation to this notion. Examining the five books of the Psalter from a narrative-critical perspective, one actually does find some semblance of an editorial plot line in the Psalter about the Davidic kingship and his royal line. It even goes some distance in explaining potentially troubling questions such as why Psalm 72:20 says that it concludes the prayers of David when it clearly doesn’t (e.g. Pss 101, 103, 108-110, etc.). I won’t, however, spoil the resolution to that question!
The sections on lament and praise were also wonderfully interesting and helpful too, in the sense that they give a direction forward for how to responsibly use them in a church. For some more liturgical churches that follow the calendar this may be less helpful, but within my denominational world where the Psalms rarely get any air time, a course has been charted on how to understand and use them.
While I personally have experience in the art and science of modern evangelical hermeneutics, I do not know ancient Hebrew (yet). This was certainly a hindrance in my full comprehension of the book, though it by no means stopped me from appreciating it in part. Since many of the essays rely fairly heavily on Hebrew text, I would (as a reviewer) at least caution a potential reader to know that going in. Furthermore, if you do not have at least a passing acquaintance with modern critical methods of interpretation then this book will be even more opaque to you (especially section one). This is why I would not recommend it to a popular audience, but would to a theologically trained audience.
This is without a doubt an incredibly helpful and timely collection; perhaps this will signal a new day in the rigorous study of the Psalms for the life of the church. May we love the Lord our God through the Psalms not only with our heart and soul, but indeed also with our mind.
DISCLAIMER: I received a copy of this book from the publisher for the purpose of this review.