The Flow of the Psalms: A Book Review

Palmer Robertson, The Flow of the Psalms: Discovering Their Structure and Theology, Phillipsburg: R&R Publishing (2015).

At the outset Robertson explains that his aim is to explore the psalms as a book. He argues that the idea that the Psalter has a plot is one which is well worth exploring. He even goes so far as to propose that an Ezra-like scribe might have arranged and edited the Psalter—giving it both literary and theological coherence. In this way, Robertson is making a conservative tweak to a well-known scholarly hypothesis that the Psalter was shaped over a prolonged period by multiple hands.

Chapter 2 examines the basic structural elements that are evident in the Psalter. Robertson looks at the five books which comprise the Psalter, the grouping of psalms by title and the importance of both torah psalms and messianic psalms. There is much to commend here in the succinct clarity with which the reader is shown the evidence. What I found frustrating is that despite lots of footnotes Robertson’s indebtedness to others does not emerge with clarity. Readers familiar with the literature on the psalms will appreciate our, and Palmer’s, enormous indebtedness to the likes of Brevard Childs, Robert Cole, Nancy deClassié-Walford,  David M. Howard, J. Clinton McCann, Patrick Miller, Gerald Wilson and others. They did nothing less than overturn the decades-long consensus which had done little to enable the Church to utilise the Psalter.

In Chapter 3 Robertson argues that the Book of Psalms has a redemptive-historical framework. Robertson’s opening argument (p.23) that viewing the Psalter as Davidic is fruitful. This combined with the necessity of understanding the impact of the exile (p.24) makes enormous sense. This is not, however, followed through in the manner that this reader anticipated. Rather than any consideration at this point of the impact of post-Davidic developments, Robertson considers the various covenants that Yahweh made with Noah, Abraham, the Patriarchs, Moses and David. This marginalises the very clear failings and ultimate failure of the Davidic monarchy and does not, in my view, offer the richness of much recent scholarly literature. Robertson’s starting point, is of course a very natural point of departure for someone from the Reformed tradition. In this way Chapter 3 marks a shift from the self-evident nature of the Psalter, considered in Chapter 2, to a specific intentional hermeneutical approach.

Chapter 4 is very short—being only three pages in length. Despite its brevity the chapter is critical to Robertson’s approach. In the lengthy footnotes he somewhat tangentially engages with both Gerald Wilson and Nancy deClassié-Walford. Despite what these footnotes indicate, his proposal to trace a story-line through the Psalter is only a variation on the approach of these and other scholars who adopt a canonical approach.

Robertson proposes the following themes for the Psalter’s five books:

Book I: Confrontation (with enemies)

Book II: Communication (with the nations)

Book III: Devastation (by foreign powers)

Book IV: Maturation

Book V: Consummation

Chapter 5’s consideration of Book I of the Psalter under the heading Confrontation is largely convincing. Anyone familiar with the psalms in canonical order will agree that this one word goes a considerable way to capturing a core dynamic of the first 41 psalms. Again, in my view, Robertson does not fully acknowledge the large number of people who have grappled with Book I previously. This can be seen with his correct assertion about the foundational role of Psalms 1 and 2—after mentioning Jamie A. Grant’s excellent book on the shaping of the psalms he does not even mention the work of Cole,[i] Miller[ii] and others who worked so hard to challenge the unhelpful marginalisation of these two introductory psalms by Gunkel and Mowinckel. In this chapter the role of Psalm 19 and the acrostic psalms are helpfully explored. In fact the real novelty of Robertson’s work is the role he ascribes to acrostic psalms and what he terms quasi-acrostics (Psalms 33, 38 and 103, each with their 22 verses matching the 22 consonantal phonemes of the Hebrew alphabet). This aspect of his book has been published in the Journal for the Study of the Old Testament.[iii]

The idea that Book II is all about communication with the nations (Chapter 6) is less convincing. Clearly the nations play a central role, being essentially a character in the Psalter, but seeing Book II in this way seems to flatten a more complex role for the nations and is arguably a rose-tinted reading back into the Psalter from a post-Easter perspective.

Reading Book III, in Chapter 7, with the theme of Devastation fits well with the contents of Book III and coheres with Wilson’s original 1985 proposal. Yet even here there is a danger that Robertson’s schema over-simplifies the picture by laying the devastation solely at the hands of foreign nations. I suggest that a reading of this short series of psalms, pss.73–89, lays the blame with Yahweh and the nation of Israel’s failings.

Chapters 8 and 9 move on from the consequences of exile in Book III and examine Books IV and V respectively. Here Robertson helpfully unpacks both the literary structure and the theological narrative. Again I think that Robertson errs on the side of making his case to the extent of smoothing over the full complexity and richness of the content of these two books. His hypothesis of a single editor leads to an over confidence regarding the possibility of reliably recovering editorial intent—the evidence, i.e. the Psalter, reveals a much more complex challenge that resists a simplistic interpretative straight-jacket.

In Chapter 10, Robertson ends up where he started. This is my major concern with his book. I am broadly persuaded that the canonical approach he has articulated, following a large school of scholars from the 1980s onwards, is a fruitful way to read the Psalter. What I am not convinced of is that a Reformed redemptive-historical framework does justice to the rich tapestry of the Psalter. The proposal of a single Ezra-like scribe editing the Psalter fails to convince. Such a proposal might seem more palatable to some, but I find the idea of a more complex process where Yahweh has worked through multiple editors over a longer timescale to produce Scripture an exciting prospect.

Despite the reservations outlined above, I would heartily encourage preachers, small group leaders and church leaders to work through this book. Whether you agree entirely with Robertson or not the reader will have a firmer grasps of the remarkable Book of Psalms—which is so much more than a hotchpotch anthology of ancient songs. The Church today sorely needs the psalms and those who have spent time immersed in the Psalter.


[i] Robert L. Cole, Psalms 1–2: Gateway to the Psalter, Sheffield: Sheffield Phoenix Press (2013) and Robert L. Cole, ‘Psalms 1 and 2: The Psalter’s Introduction’ in The Psalms: Language for All Seasons of the Soul, Andrew J. Schmutzer and David M. Howard (editors), Chicago: Moody Publishers, 2013.

[ii] Patrick D, Miller, ‘The Beginning of the Psalter’, pp.83–92 in J. Clinton McCann (editor), Shape and Shaping of the Psalter, Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1993.

[iii] ‘The Alphabetic Acrostic in Book I of the Psalms: An Overlooked Element of Psalter Structure’, 40 (2), 225–238, 2015.

Author: PsalterMark

Psalm addict, disciple, son, husband, father, academic, theologian, cacti grower, steam enthusiast and ale drinker

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