Jean-Pierre Prévost, A Short Dictionary of the Psalms, translated by Mary Misrahi, Collegeville, Minnesota: The Liturgical Press, 1997, i–xiv, 90 pages.
This short béook has much to commend it. Its sizes makes it a rather unusual dictionary and it cannot be seen as a comprehensive introduction to the psalms. As its title suggests, however, it is not striving for completeness but aims to facilitate prayerful appropriation of the Psalter. Its strength is that it takes the psalms as they are and provides a manageable amount of technical detail in order to bring them to life. In breathing life into these ancient texts it never loses sight of either their antiquity or cultural and religious distance. As Fr. Prévost notes at the outset: ‘For us as Christians, trying to pray the psalms two thousand years after they were written, a certain effort is necessary to make them ours, even at the cost of some discipline’ [p.xi].
The way these ancient texts are brought into the present, as our fresh prayers, is by the examination of forty Hebrew words. As the author explains others might have been chosen, but these forty are well-chosen—an ideal balance between substance and conciseness. The reader who explores these forty words/roots will find that every psalm now takes on some new depth and clarity. The five excursuses in the book answer some of the most pressing questions asked by those who want to use these poems as their own prayers. These include issues around the inherent violence of some of the psalms, the identity of the psalmist’s enemies, their patriarchal world-view and their relationship to New Testament faith. The book concludes helpfully with seven different ways in which the psalms can be prayed.
Despite being a dictionary this is a book that should be read from beginning to end. Used in this way, this book will be valuable to anyone who wants to simultaneously deepen their technical understanding of the language of the psalms and the richness of their experience in praying them.