Praying the Psalms by Thomas Merton

Having actively prayed and studied the Psalms regularly for more than fifteen year, I have been meaning to read Merton’s small book for much of that time. For some reason, his work has taken a long time to work its way to the top of my reading list. This is odd because this book has been mentioned to me positively on a number of occasions.

Thomas Merton (1915–1968) was an American Cistercian. Unusually for a twentieth century monk he become a household name in the late 1940 to late 1960s. This fame was in part because he was a prolific writer—author of more than fifty books. His autobiography, Seven Story Mountain (1948), is said to have motivated many young Americans to turn to the monastic life. He was also a poet and social activist—his writings often reflected the latter. He was very active in dialogue with followers of Eastern religions with a strong meditative and mystical dynamic. In this respect he was a pioneer, as few Catholic monks had ever attempted such wide-ranging and open-ended interfaith discussions.

It will be clear as you pick this book up, from its diminutive size and mere 45 pages, that it is not going to be a thoroughgoing introduction to the Psalter. So, what do we find in these pages?

The book opens with the question, ‘Why has the Church always considered the Psalms her most perfect book of prayer?’ (p.7). His answer is a one of ressourcement. He argues that rather than being old they are young: ‘we drink divine praise at its pure and stainless source, in all its primitive sincerity and perfection’ (p.7). Because of this the psalms are the means to full participation in the liturgy and the deepening of the interior life (p.9).

The next section considers what it means that the Psalms teach us how to praise (p.10). He concludes that this requires us to be simple, that is to set aside our modern tastes and prejudices and to ‘be, to some extent, “Orientals”’ (p.12). He goes on to explain, following Augustine, that we are united with Christ as we pray the psalms contemplatively (p.14). He then develops this further, calling all Christians, clergy and lay, to use the Psalms daily (pp.15–19).

Merton claims that few really appreciate the psalms. This

small minority, consists of those who know by experience that the Psalms are a perfect prayer, a prayer in which Christ prays in the Christian soul uniting that soul to the Father in Himself. They have entered into the Psalms with faith. They have in a sense “lived” out the meaning of some of the Psalms in their own lives. They have tasted and seen that the Lord is sweet. Or, indeed, they have been privileged to share with Him the chalice of His Passion (p.21).

The latter half of the book briefly examines some key psalms. Merton gives priority to Psalm 1 because he sees the call to delight in the law (Psalm 1:2) as a call to pray the Psalter. Other psalms are mentioned in groups which accord to their mood and approximate to form-critical groups.

Finally, we must ask, what value is there in reading this short book? For anyone already convinced of the spiritual value of the Psalms this book does little more than rehearse in eloquent outline what they already know. It will be valuable to those who have an interest in Merton or still need convincing of the spiritual value of the Psalms today.

Ian J. Vaillancourt’s ‘The Multifaceted Saviour of Psalms 110 and 118’: A Book Review

Ian J. Vaillancourt, The Multifaceted Saviour of Psalms 110 and 118: A Canonical Exegesis, Sheffield: Sheffield Phoenix Press, 2019

Given this book’s subtitle it will come of no surprise that the canonical approach is at the heart of this book. What might be less obvious is just how wide-ranging this work is given its apparent focus on just two psalms. The central aim of this review, therefore, is to highlight its importance to anyone interested in the ongoing development of canonical criticism of the Psalter.

The early pages of this book rehearse a story that will surely be familiar to anyone choosing to read this volume. This account of the origins of canonical criticism is told concisely and with refreshing clarity. The genesis of the ‘new’ interpretive paradigm for psalms studies, with the work of Brevard Childs, is explained along with an acknowledgement of others who pointed in a similar direction before him. The work of Gerald Wilson who explored ancient Near Eastern parallels to the Masoretic Psalter, and more fully unpacked so many of the areas that Childs highlighted, is introduced with equal verve. Vaillancourt focuses on a key aspect of Wilson’s understanding of both the formation and form of the Psalter—the distinction, at the macrostructural level, between Books I, II, and III of the Psalter, on the one hand, and Books IV and V, on the other (pp.19–24). It is not that Vaillancourt fundamentally disputes that there are both diachronically and synchronically-based distinctions between these two ‘halves’. Rather, the disagreement lies over whether the editors of Books I, II, and III had distinctly different conceptions of the future role of the king than those who edited Books IV and V. These different views make for different readings of the significance of Psalm 89, which closes Book III. Wilson famously saw Psalm 89 as the final death knell for a hope in a future Davidic king. For Wilson, at least in the majority of his work, Books IV and V tell a story that side-lines the Davidic king in favour of a return to pre-monarchical reliance on Yahweh and his torah (pp.21–24). Vaillancourt wants us to reconsider this—to be open, as it were, to a further plot twist in the story of the promised anointed one.

Vaillancourt considers a raft of scholars who have built on Wilson’s approach. He singles out J. Clinton McCann Jr., Nancy deClaissé-Walford, Erich Zenger, Bernard Gosse, Martin Leuenberger, Egbert Ballhorn, James Luther Mays, David M. Howard Jr., and Michael K. Snearly. He helpfully distinguishes their different assessments of the nature of the human saviour figure portrayed in Book V of the Psalter. His assessment culminates in the conclusion that there are essentially five distinguishable conceptions of this figure in Book V. These five views are held by eleven (Childs and Wilson are added to the other nine) major scholars of the canonical approach. The nuance and complexities are such that four of these scholars see the key figure conceptualised in two of the five categories concomitantly. This provides the context in which Vaillancourt develops his hypothesis that Psalms 110 and 118, viewed in canonical context, provides an array of evidence that there is still an expectation within Book V of the Psalter of a future salvific figure—Vaillancourt’s point is that previous scholars have missed his multifaceted nature. One, of the many, interesting points made by the author as he unpacks Psalms 110 and 118 is that form criticism’s inability to perceive Psalm 118 as a royal psalms has been a barrier to appreciating just how important is the eschatological expectation of the anointed figure to the theology of Book V (p.130).

A large part of Vaillancourt’s argument centres on his claim that confusion has arisen because of the variety of facets that belong to this one figure. It might be argued that the Qumran community made the same mistake as some of Vaillancourt’s interlocutors given their expectation for more than one anointed one, each embodying different characteristics. This matter is interest for its wider interpretive implications. Why did the final editors of the Psalter combine the promise of a Son of David (cf. 2 Samuel 7) and a prophet like Moses (Deuteronomy 18:18) into a single figure and the Qumran community hold to more than one anointed eschatological figure? To be fair this lies outside the clearly defined scope of this book.

There is much to commend in this book. Throughout, the reader is firmly signposted as to where they are in this interesting journey with Psalms 110 and 118. Vaillancourt pays head to the interplay between the Psalter’s macrostructure and microstructure. This is vital, as although we always know the working hypothesis that is being tested, the underpinning presuppositions are always made clear. Those who wish to consider the author’s work in detail are helped enormously by Appendix B which details the key word links for Psalms 110 and 118 with other texts. The extensive array of literature and information provided in the footnotes is also helpful for those wanting to go beyond simply reading this work. Appendix A, on other readings of Psalms 110 and 118, is also useful. I would have preferred it to have been integrated into the opening sections of this monograph. The book also provides five tables at key points in the argument. This might not sound like a big deal but such aids, seldom used in biblical scholarship, make for convenient summaries of what is obviously a complex problem. On the point of clarity there is only one disappointment. Clearly many readers of this book are likely to have knowledge of NT Greek, biblical Hebrew, French, and German but to assume that every reader has all four to technical fluency seems a little optimistic. Whilst clearly the technical discussion needs to be in the primary languages, an author’s translation in some places would have been helpful to this reader at least.

I will leave other readers to make their own judgement as to whether Vaillancourt’s canonical reading of Psalms 110 and 118 is compelling in describing the role of ‘the anointed’ in Book V, and thereby the Psalter as a whole. Of course, as Vaillancourt briefly notes, the authors of the New Testament were in little doubt that Psalms 110 and 118 both firmly attest to the future coming of the messiah at another level of canonical story (pp.160 and 182).

Book Review: David Taylor’s ‘Open and Unafraid’

W. David O. Taylor, Open and Unafraid: The Psalms as a Guide to Life, Nashville: Nelson Books, 2020

In light of how positive my review is, I feel I should say at the outset that David Taylor is not related to me, he is not my friend, and I paid for my copy of this book!

It is apparent on every page of this book that David Taylor himself, experiences the same delight for the subject matter that the psalmist extols (Psalm 1:2). As I read it, I continually thought that this is just the book for those new to the psalms who need a competent, engaging, and clear guide. It is also apparent, throughout, that Taylor is humble before these ancient texts. There is a constant awareness that he both knows the psalms and yet he still journeys with them, in trusting expectation that they ‘are not done with him yet’. In short, he knows he is a disciple of Jesus; a pilgrim who needs these prayers on the way with Christ.

This book opens with a Foreword by Eugene Peterson, which must be one the last things that he wrote. You will then discover, or be reminded, of the remarkable encounter between Eugene Peterson and Bono which was facilitated by David Taylor. You can watch it here.

Each chapter has some real-life contextual settings. These are on some occasions personal to David Taylor. These work well as an anchor for the rich content of the psalms, and this way the reader is invited into something encountered in the psalms rather than a type of psalm. This is helpful as although psalms are obviously helpfully categorised, such genre work is more digestible when approached from a less abstract direction. The first three chapters concern the context that we need to bring to the psalms; our need for honesty and their use within the worshipping community. These opening chapters explain the title—the Psalter continually invites us in to be open with God and to trust in him. The nature of the psalms is explored under the themes of prayer and poetry. Other chapters pick up on their role in mirroring our emotions, such as fear, anger, and joy. The later chapters focus on themes and ‘things’ encountered throughout the Psalter such as the nations, enemies, and creation. Taylor, as he explains, has not attempted any exhaustive curriculum here, but he does teach us the major themes, ideas, and challenges posed by the psalms.

This is a book that should be read and then acted upon—although one suspects that Peterson might think Taylor overly suggestive on this front! To this end every one of the fourteen chapters has Questions for Reflection, Exercises, and a Closing Prayer. Each of these elements is a valuable addition and the questions and reflections are plentiful and highly creative. The closing prayers are insightful and profound, and each chapter puts you in the place to pray with integrity; to ask God for fresh grace in prayer and handling of the Bible. The reflective questions and exercises provide ample possibilities for the psalm theme to be followed up by individuals. It is here that Taylor appeals beyond the Evangelical tradition in which he has his home. The questions and exercises provide everything necessary to facilitate a small group that wants to work through this book and discover the psalms more fully together. I will be recommending it for precisely this within my church.

The focus throughout is very much on the psalms but it becomes clear that Taylor has a rich theology of Scripture and Christ’s work among his people. It is encouraging to discover that underpinning the engaging text is genuine theological depth. Taylor writes with an expectation of Scripture’s transformative potential. The reader of this book will not just see how the psalms mirror their soul; they can expect to be changed along the way. They will see how to praise, thank, and petition better—and with these ancient prayers grow in desire to do so, as the psalms do their work. They will deepen their self-awareness, their love of God, and their grace towards their enemies.

I have waxed somewhat lyrical and I would recommend this book to anyone who wants to become better acquainted with the psalms for enriched prayer and discipleship. Is this book perfect? Not quite, I have one quibble (and found one typographical error). My small niggle concerns the final section on Further Resources. This provides an extensive range of possible ‘next stop’ books. This is a really helpful end point, but it would have been even better for there to have been more guidance as to the nature and value of these resources. For example, for many people, reading Wenham’s The Psalter Reclaimed would be a firm next step in understanding the Psalter theologically—it is more demanding than Taylor’s book but a sensible ascent. But Mowinckel’s The Psalms in Israel’s Worship, recommended in the same subsection, would be like ascending the hill of the Lord in a hailstorm by comparison. I have picked out the most extreme example and this small point is totally eclipsed by a work which is beautifully written, engaging, and illuminating in equal measure.

So, what are you waiting for? Read Open and Unafraid. It might well be the most helpful step on your spiritual journey in these unusual times. Of course, it is more important you pray the psalms, but I am in no doubt you will want to at the end of every chapter of this book.

Brad Pribbenow’s ‘Prayerbook of Christ’: A Review

Brad Pribbenow, Prayerbook of Christ: Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Christological Interpretation of the Psalms, Lanham, Maryland: Lexington Books, 2018

PrayerbookThis book will appeal to those interested in several different aspects of Christian history, theology, biblical interpretation, the Psalms and doctrine. All these different areas intersect when Bonhoeffer’s interpretation of the Psalter is explored. Although there has been immense interest in Bonhoeffer’s life, theology and ethics for several decades, the centrality of the Psalms to his devotional life and thinking has not been fully appreciated. This book sets out to provide a thorough analysis of Bonhoeffer’s use and understanding of the Psalms in order to remedy this deficit. Right at the outset Pribbenow makes the surprising claim that ‘the literature we have from Bonhoeffer provides convincing evidence that his treatment of the Psalms yields an interpretation that is, in certain key aspects, new in the history of Psalms interpretation’ (p.xix). One of the purposes of this review is to evaluate the extent to which this claim is substantiated.

The book comprises three parts. The first section considers the different ways in which the biblical psalms have been interpreted Christologically, across two millennia, in order to provide a context for Bonhoeffer’s approach. The second part considers Bonhoeffer’s early writings—i.e. those from the period of his formal theological education and his preparation for ministry—in order to understand how his approach to the Psalms took shape. The third section examines the period of his life in the Finkenwalde community to his time in prison and untimely death.

The first section opens with the briefest of sketches of the paradigm shift that the earliest Christian interpretations of the Psalms represented compared to First Century Jewish approaches to the Psalter. As Pribbenow points out, the New Testament authors read the Psalter with Jesus Christ as the focus. He goes on to show how this trajectory evolved into Augustine’s totus Christus hermeneutic in what was African Bishop’s thirty-year project, the Enarrationes in psalmos. Pribbenow makes it clear that Augustine’s approach became a central plank of interpreting the Psalms up until the Reformation. Luther’s understanding of the Psalms is then examined. Pribbenow outlines how Luther’s interpretation of the Psalms underwent a dramatic shift. His earliest work on the Psalms places a strong emphasis on Augustine, tempered with the fourfold sense of interpretation that emerged in the medieval period. The content of Luther’s later work is however distinctly different in that Christ is no longer the initial foundation for interpretation. Luther became open to understanding the Old Testament on its own terms, i.e. as prior to Christ. This enables him to take the psalmist seriously rather than simply equating him with Christ. In this way Luther reads the Psalms such that the experience of the contemporary Christian is analogous to that of the psalmist. The first section closes with a very brief survey of the impact of historical critical approaches on interpreting the Psalter. Here, Pribbenow argues that the very possibility of Christological interpretation is eclipsed by the focus on an individual psalm’s Sitz im Leben (life situation) or cultic setting.

In section two, Pribbenow opens with a brief survey of the place of the Old Testament in German Christian theology at the time of Bonhoeffer’s formative theological education. He presents the stark choices made by German scholars around this time between (i) a rejection of the Old Testament (OT), (ii) a limited retention of the OT, or (iii) an acceptance of the OT. Bonhoeffer clearly adopted the third stance. Further than this, he was part of a small, but growing, group who challenged the modern critical methods that had became the basis for so many other theologians adopting stances (i) and (ii). In this way he marks one way in which both pre-critical and critical insights can be combined. Pribbenow traces something of the development of Bonhoeffer’s thinking in this regard—based on early sermons he argues that there was an early shift from encountering specific psalms in terms of the psalmist’s Sitz im Leben, to seeing the incarnate Jesus as the context. As Bonhoeffer’s theology matured, he placed increasing emphasis on Jesus praying the Psalms and the church community’s need to pray these same prayers. He goes further in claiming that Jesus not only prayed the Psalms in his earthly ministry but continues to pray them as the Risen Christ. In Pribbenow’s words: ‘The Psalms are not just the prayerbook of the church, given to fill the mouths of the faithful as they make petition and cry out to God. The Psalms are fundamentally the prayerbook of Christ who prayed these prayers in his humanity and continues to pray them now on behalf of and in union with his church’ (p.65). Bonhoeffer’s relationship with pre-critical interpretation of the psalms is a complex one. Pribbenow suggests that despite (i) having typological elements, (ii) an understanding of David as a prophet, and (iii) sympathy with Augustine’s totus Christus, he eventually tends to articulate a consistent figural approach: ‘where he recognizes the “mystery of Christ” crucified’ (p.95).

The third part of Pribbenow’s study starts by considering Bonhoeffer’s love for Psalm 119. This psalm played an increasingly important role in his thinking after visits to various monasteries in England in 1935. This psalm was, for Bonhoeffer, special in terms of its unceasing commitment to God’s word. This commitment provided a lens through which the Psalms could be understood as of vital importance to the prayer life of believers. Bonhoeffer’s incomplete commentary on Psalm 119 is examined with a view to any evidence as to his understanding of the nature and role of the Psalter. Implicit within this short work is the understanding that the faithful disciple will use the Psalms in regular prayer. In his commentary, Christ’s relationship with this psalm is as the one who has made it possible for the disciple to pray the Psalms, rather than as the one who prays. Pribbenow presents Bonhoeffer’s use of the Psalms in a number of organised schemes in order to both substantiate his argument and provide a helpful summary of key material for those wishing to conduct their own study of Bonhoeffer and the Psalms. These include considering the use of Psalms by the genre in which he cites and uses them, by theme and by date. Pribbenow explains that during his time in prison, Bonhoeffer, ‘seems to place greater emphasis on the original context of the psalm, oftentimes a Davidic context. The connection Bonhoeffer then makes to the psalm is by means of analogy, not so much Christology’ (p.170). The reasons for this shift, if it is one, remain unclear as there is ambiguity given Bonhoeffer’s context and the necessary changes in the genres of his writings as a result of imprisonment.

In the conclusion to this book, Pribbenow examines the strengths and weakness of Bonhoeffer’s Christological interpretation of the Psalms. One of his concerns is that Bonhoeffer’s rejection of the historical critical method in favour a Christological hermeneutic is an overreaction in its singular nature. He argues that attention needs to be paid to the original historical context as well as the Christological lens. Another concern is that Bonhoeffer’s Christological lens is essentially ‘a Good Friday’ one, and neglects Christ’s resurrection and second coming.

I found the overall argument to be a compelling one—Pribbenow does do what he set out to do; demonstrating that Bonhoeffer’s approach does indeed offer something new to the interpretation of the Psalms. For Bonhoeffer the Psalter is ‘the prayerbook of Christ’ hence the name of this volume. Pribbenow has also laid out his work meticulously, and his compilation of tables summarising Bonhoeffer’s use of the Psalms is a helpful starting point for those wishing to either test Pribbenow’s conclusions or to take the work forward in the other directions suggested at the conclusion of this book. Sometimes the clarity was actually a little overdone, in that the closing and opening ‘signposting’ in some sections was rather repetitive. I was also a little disappointed with the first three chapters. I would have like to have seen a little more detail and therefore nuance in the coverage of the interpretive methods that have been applied to the Psalms over the last two millennia. There also appears to be a mistake in the section title on p.26 which mentions interpretation in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries but discusses Gunkel and Mowinckel, both of whom did their scholarly work in the first half of the twentieth century. Perhaps this title hints of material that was removed at some stage? These are minor niggles with what is a valuable contribution to the study of both Dietrich Bonhoeffer and interpretation of the Psalms. I very much hope the publishers are able to print a more reasonably priced paperback in due course, to open up this book to a wider audience than specialist scholars and/or those with a specialist theological library on their doorstep.

Psalmody by Maria Apichella: A Review

Maria Apichella, Psalmody, London: Eyewear Publishing, 2016

How does one review poetry? The critical propositions of analysis seem ill at ease when juxtaposed with lyrical beauty. And yet review I must. How else can I have any chance of persuading another to imbibe this book? And like scripture it indeed deserves to be eaten.

Who would have thought that a collection of poems could mirror the psalms that are themselves a reflection of our own souls? And yet this is exactly what this collection does—as its name implies it is a Psalter. But do not think for a moment that this is some crass like-for-like echo of each-and-every psalm. No. These ninety-three poems are so similar and yet oh so different to canonical psalmody.

In one way they are much alike, for there is a narrative here, from beginning to end. Yes, a story. A story that is initially difficult to discern. But discern it the reader will as the hermeneutical circle spirals ever-on. Piece by elegant piece the unself-similar bricks fit together to work a greater synergy than any anthology of poems.

The attentive reader will delight as intertextual connections with the Psalter of Psalters are made. The faithful reader will share the psalmist’s journey betwixt failing and faith. The unpublished reader will wish they had such a psalmody in print. The trusting reader will understand that before Jehovah Jirah they are already themselves a Psalter as important to Adoni as that of King David.

Eat this book it won’t turn your stomach sour.

 

A Review of the Two Psalm Volumes in the Brazos Theological Commentary Series

Jason Byassee, Psalms 101–150, Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible, Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2018.

Ellen Charry, Psalms 1–50: Sighs and Songs of Israel, Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible, Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2015.

brazos

Background to the Two Volumes

Rather unusually this review concerns two books. The reason for reviewing both current volumes on the psalms in the Brazos Theological Commentary series together will become apparent as the review unfolds.

The Brazos Theological Commentary series has been around for just over a decade. There are a little over twenty volumes now available which means that the project is around fifty percent complete. The series is, in my view, very welcome. Many commentaries admirably fulfil the textual work expected of what might broadly be termed historical criticism, but few offer anything of help in the next step for those who see the Bible as Scripture and want to see it efficaciously at work in the Church. Whilst this commentary series is committed to such a stance of faith, it is also broadly ecumenical. The Series Preface, found in each volume, makes is very clear that the contributors have been given immense freedom by the editors regarding the approach they adopt and the version of the Bible they use. This welcome ethos does inevitably mean that the series will be both stylistically and theologically uneven—very much more  than most over series, given its deliberate theological intent. This unevenness is especially acute for the Psalter because of the multi-author approach adopted for this book. For understandable reasons the Psalter is not being authored by a single author. Rather more surprising is the singling out of Psalm 119 in its own volume, although it is covered in outline in Byassee’s volume. The other two forthcoming volumes are:

  • Psalm 51–100, written by Lauren Winner.
  • Psalm 119, written by Reinhard Hütter.

The two published books on the Psalter adopt very different approaches. In their respective volumes the authors justify their chosen hermeneutical methods. Ellen Charry, like many Christian Old Testament scholars, avoids christological interpretive approaches. Her introduction concisely, but clearly, sets out the rationale for this hermeneutical agenda. Jason Byassee’s approach could not be more different, as he puts it: ‘I offer here what we might call a “christologically maximalist” interpretation of the psalms’. This will not be a surprise to anyone who is familiar with his Praise Seeking Understanding: Reading the Psalms with Augustine published by Eerdmans in 2007.

Such is the diversity in the two approaches that some readers might anticipate wanting to read one and not the other. This reader, however, has found both books to be delightfully profitable in spite of their distinct differences. One reason why what appears to be a problem is only a minor issue is the very richness of the biblical material. Neither Charry nor Byassee come anywhere close to even outlining the immense theological riches of the fifty psalms they cover. Both, albeit in very different ways, examine the psalms theologically to help their readers on the way to appropriating the psalms. Neither aims at providing a final theological word on the psalms they explore.

Ellen Charry, Psalms 1–50: Sighs and Songs of Israel

Charry adopts a very consistent and structured approach as she examines Psalm 1 to 50 in turn. Each psalm s examined under three headings. The opening section for each psalm considers their Canonical Context and Themes. This is especially welcome in the light of recent scholarly developments. It has become clear over the last thirty years that the Psalter is purposefully edited and such an appreciation has significant implications for any theology of the psalms. The importance of this is evident at the outset as in the opening sentence on Psalm 1 Charry states that ‘The canonical authority of the opening poem of the Psalter is vast’ [p.1]. This is a breath of fresh air, as some older commentaries all but dismiss Psalm 1 as having no theological significance. Only a few more recent commentaries pay attention to the canonical setting of each psalm. The second section for each psalm Is headed Structure and Dynamics. Importantly, in these sections Charry does far more than look at the literary structure. Her concern is unpacking the rich interplay of the literary and theological dynamics of each psalm—each literary unit is explored in turn so as to discern its theological claims and significance. The third and final section is Theological Pedagogy. In this, usually short, section the overall theological implications of the psalm are outlined. In this way Charry leads her readers to the further work they need to do to appropriate the psalms for themselves. This works well given the inevitably wide range of perspectives, presuppositions and purposes that readers are likely to bring to the commentary. The book also pays fruitful attention to whose voice speaks the various psalms and subsections. Charry’s approach does mean that she stops short of seeing the psalms as ‘spoken’ by Christ or the reader.

Jason Byassee, Psalms 101–150

Byassee’s approach is far less systematic than Charry’s. He does not see the need for approaching each psalm in the same consistent manner—so gone are the headings and sub headings that Charry uses. Pointing out this stark difference is not a criticism but simply the acknowledgement that this is a wholly different enterprise. Some prospective readers might be deterred by Byassee’s commitment to christological maximalism. There are two reasons why such a hasty decision should not be made. Firstly, it is important to remember that until the last two centuries to a large extent all Christian interpretations of the psalms were highly Christological. Secondly, despite the Christological self-designation Byassee adopts, he has no desire to pursue the more allegorical approaches that have made modern interpreters so wary of pre-critical interpretation. In simple terms Byassee brings the Rule of Faith to the Psalter and expects to find Christ there—he leaves it to the reader to judge the success of some of the more imaginative interpretive choices. The real strength of Byassee’s volume will be for the preacher and teacher of Scripture who wants to use the psalms through a Christological lens. As I read the majority of chapters I felt like I was reading something akin to an excellent sermon or teaching outline—in this way reading this volume was a rich devotional experience. Byassee writes in such a way that his approach invites the reader in and leaves them wanting to run further with the rich intertextual and theological gems he presents.

Conclusion

I recommend both volumes despite the immense difference in the approaches they adopt. Given their respective hermeneutical choices, and the space limitations of the series, they both do an admirable job of encouraging the reader to continue to grapple with the theology and theological implications of the Psalter. One final comment is worth making; the immense freedom granted by the editors is, I think, a strength of this series, permitting works that are rich and stimulating, each from a coherent scholarly and theological tradition. Nevertheless, some readers will want to check the approach adopted before buying any one volume.

 

 

 

God and Wisdom, Part 3

In this third, and final, post that reviews Tremper Longman III, The Fear of the Lord is Wisdom: A Theological Introduction to Wisdom in Israel, Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2017 we look at the final three chapters and the extensive end materials.

13. Wisdom and Gender

In this chapter Longman concludes, perhaps unsurprisingly, that the wisdom elements of the Hebrew Bible are patriarchal. This patriarchy is however tempered by the very positive depictions of women wisdom which is a unique contribution of the wisdom elements. He then returns to consider the very specific challenge of the father-son dynamic of Proverbs and Ecclesiastes. Longman argues that the New Testament provides what he terms a redemptive-ethical trajectory which enables readers to re-read the patriarchal elements. For example, he suggests that

Listen, my son, to the teaching of your father (Proverbs 1:8a).

Can be re-read as

Listen, my daughter, to the teaching of your mother.

14. Intertestamental Wisdom from the Apocrypha to the Dead Sea Scrolls

In one of the longer chapters of the book intertestamental literature from the Apochrypha to the Dead Sea Scrolls is surveyed with a view to understanding the development of wisdom from Old to New Testament. The Book of Sirach, it is argued, makes a more explicit connection between wisdom and ethics than the Hebrew Bible does. In this way, however, the focus on practical everyday living is still very much to the fore. The Wisdom of Solomon goes further in this respect as the practical dynamic of wisdom recedes into the background with the ethical element becoming stronger with a clearer relationship to the law. The dead sea scrolls continue the wisdom traditions of practical teaching but a new development linking wisdom with an apocalyptic worldview emerges.

15. New Testament Wisdom

Longman demonstrates that there is a strong continuity in the understating of wisdom between the testaments. For Longman this centres on Jesus, who as ‘the epitome of God’s wisdom, or perhaps better, the very incarnation of God’s wisdom. He is the one on whom the Spirit of the Lord rests. His delight is in the fear of the Lord’ [p.256]. The book of James is foremost in Longman’s treatment as it is the book that most obviously echoes wisdom as central to all aspects of life. The contemporary church has perhaps often missed the opportunity to use this letter to celebrate the ongoing value of the Hebrew Bible’s wisdom material.

End Materials

This book finishes with two appendices which might equally well have been chapters. The first one, titled Wisdom in the Twenty-first Century, considers the challenge that wisdom, as a concept faces, in the contemporary Western world. This appendix makes a compelling case for our need of wisdom. The includes its veracity in helping to navigate modern life, live wisely, lead with wisdom, recognise wisdom’s place in education and its role in spiritual formation. The final section of the chapter looks explicitly at how the wisdom elements of the Bible show what a wise person looks like in terms of fearing God, knowing Scripture, interpreting well, forming good habits, knowing how to suffer and living with ambiguity (mystery).

The second appendix considers the question as to whether wisdom literature is a genre. It almost seems like a spoiler to answer this question, so I won’t.

 

 

God and Wisdom, Part 2

7. Sources of Wisdom: Experience, Observation, Tradition, Correction, and Ultimately Revelation
In this chapter Longman explores the expected role of experience and observation in wisdom. These are the sources that mark out the idea of wisdom, i.e. in this sense it differs from legal material, historical narrative and prophetic texts. Longman argues that despite these distinct points of departure of wisdom thought, they have a theological trajectory crystallised in the centrality of the idea of Fear of the Lord. Longman also explores the false claims to revelation within wisdom material, such as those of Eliphaz and Elihu, and he argues that though such views are found wanting they can also be instructive.

8. Wisdom, Creation, and (Dis)order
Longman explores the connection of wisdom with creation, a relationship which he points out is the subject of some scholarly disagreement. He starts out with a brief survey of various key wisdom texts in Proverbs, Job, Ecclesiastes, Wisdom Psalms and Song of Songs. He suggests that creation is a thread in all five texts, although he also points out that it is not a dominant concern. On this basis he makes that case that ‘the sages’ understand both the fact of creation and the existence of a creator as part of their worldview. Longman concludes this chapter by considering the role of wisdom in a world which is both ordered and yet broken.

9. Israelite Wisdom in its Ancient Near Eastern Setting
Israelite wisdom is more open to similar literature in other Near Eastern nations than is the case for prophecy and law. Longman argues that this openness is, however, not an uncritical one. He argues there ‘is, accordingly, no way that the Israelite sages who produced Proverbs, Job, and Ecclesiastes would think that ancient Near Eastern wisdom teachers were wise in the most important sense of the word’ [p.163]. This is of course unsurprising in light of Longman’s central argument that Fear of the Lord is a necessity as a foundation for wisdom.

10. Wisdom, Covenant, and Law
In this chapter Longman addresses the claim that was highlighted in chapter 9, namely that wisdom is concerned with universal matters and is in some sense distinct from the wider Old Testament. Anyone who has read the book, or even this review, up to this point will know Longman’s likely conclusion—he argues that there are connections between the various Old Testament covenants and the Law.

11. The Consequences of Wise and Foolish Behaviour: The Issue of Retribution Theology
This chapter is an important one in that it addresses some of the terrible category mistakes that have been made regarding the wisdom elements of the Old Testament. He addresses the fact that a proverb is not a promise and the even more insidious claims of those who articulate a so-called prosperity gospel. The way this is approached is helpful—the Books of Job and Ecclesiastes are both recapitulated in terms of their identification of a simple theology of retribution in this life as ‘wrong-minded’. On this basis he helps unfold a more nuanced appreciation of the Book of Proverbs. In this way the three books generally identified as wisdom literature are seen to be of one mind in rejecting the notion of retribution theology.

12. The Social Setting of Wisdom
This chapter is helpfully frank about the limitations of the data available about the social setting of wisdom. The evidence for both the existence of schools and sages in Israelite society is considered. Longman concludes that despite some evidence we cannot be certain of the existence of schools of professional wise people. There is judged to be sufficient evidence to conclude that the wisdom has a variety of social settings and the canon has made use of proverbial instruction from every stratum of society.

The third and final part of this review will follow very soon.

A Glimpse into Ian Stackhouse’s “Praying Psalms: A Personal Journey through the Psalter”

Ian Stackhouse, Praying Psalms: A Personal Journey through the Psalter, Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2018

This brief post is not really a review, more of a preview, of this book. I know Ian, and I find it difficult to be certain of impartiality regarding a book written by someone I count as a friend.

There are so many books on the psalms; even narrowing the field to the more personal, devotional and reflective genres means there are still tens of rivals to this volume. So it is natural to ask: Does this book offer something fresh? A second sensible question is: Just who are the intended audience? I hope to answer both questions below by describing the form of this book.

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After a very brief Preface and some intriguing Acknowledgements, the book opens with a four-page introduction. Short though this is, it provides a helpful explanation of Stackhouse’s presuppositions and personal context for this personal journey with the Psalms. Despite the brevity of the Introduction, it becomes clear that two paradigms will inform the interpretation of the Psalms in this volume.

The first is something akin to Brueggemann’s typology of function approach which finds that psalms tend to fall into three categories; psalms of orientation, disorientation and reorientation. Whilst Brueggemann formalised this interpretive model in terms of modern hermeneutical theory, it is the testimony of psalm readers across three millennia that these poems come to life as the disciple’s life experience fuses with the ‘function’ of the composition. Later in Stackhouse’s book we catch glimpses of the challenging realities of the life of faith which motivated this book’s creation.

The second interpretive approach is less obvious in the book itself but will be important to Stackhouse’s readers. He testifies to the value of engaging with the psalms in canonical order, or seriatim. Anyone who has done just this can echo Stackhouse’s satisfaction with this discipline. Rather oddly, psalms scholars have rediscovered this afresh only in the last thirty years or so—of course the monastic orders never forgot this most natural of approaches.

A third interpretive method emerges in the body of the book, where from-time-to-time, Stackhouse uses David’s life as a lens through which to engage with a psalm—although this approach is only adopted for the small number of psalms that have biographical Davidic headings.

The bulk of the book follows a delightfully simple form. Each psalm has a single page entry. On each page the psalm’s numerical designation is given, along with the form-critical category as per Brueggemann and Bellinger. A selection of one to four verses are quoted from the NIV, although Stackhouse makes it clear he hopes the reader will read the whole of each psalm. This is followed by the real meat of the book, a reflection, typically around 200 words in length. Each reflection is rounded off with a very short prayer.

Once this form is appreciated it becomes apparent how the book is likely to be used. It is not designed to be read in large chunks, but to be savoured like the psalms themselves. In this way, it lends itself to supporting a personal devotional practice of reading one to five psalms per day. I have found it helpful in supporting my personal practice of one psalm per day.

An unexpected aspect of this book’s straightforward personal engagement with the psalms is the invitation to do something similar. These reflections offered by Stackhouse set the bar high for heartfelt articulate testimony to the life-changing ‘grappling in prayer’ that the psalms offer all disciplined disciples of Jesus of Nazareth.

 

Book Review: ‘Psalms Old and New’ by Ben Witherington III

Witherington, Ben III, Psalms Old and New: Exegesis, Intertextuality and Hermeneutics, Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2017.

I came to this book with great expectations, having benefited over the years from a number of Witherington’s New Testament commentaries—in particular his The Acts of the Apostles and Letters and Homilies for Hellenized Christians (3 volumes). I also found the subtitle full of promise as the subject of how the New Testament authors use the psalms is a fascinating and complicated mass of interpretative issues.

At the outset of this volume, Witherington implies that there is a straightforward continuity in scholarship on the psalms with the trajectory initiated by Gunkel and Mowinckel (p.2). In a short paragraph he glosses over nothing less than a paradigm shift in psalms scholarship initiated by Wilson’s 1985 The Editing of the Hebrew Psalter. This work is not mentioned in Witherington’s bibliography nor are any other works by Wilson. A more thorough examination of the bibliography reveals very little of the recent work on what some term the canonical approach. This approach is important not least because it is now the scholarly consensus with regard to both the formation of the Psalter and the form of the Book of Psalms.

This sidelining of the canonical approach is puzzling for a number of reasons, two of which are worth noting here. Firstly, the canonical approach is enormously rich in its broader implications for intertextuality. The intertextuality within the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament) itself would surely have formed a promising point of departure for this study—as a minimum the New Testament writers stand in continuity with a community of faith that had continued to reread the psalms. Secondly, Witherington structures his book around the five-fold structure of the Psalter which implicitly affirms the recent paradigm shift. At the outset there is very little justification for why the five books of the Psalter are each treated in a separate chapter. The impression is that this is just to provide manageable ‘chunks’ of material.

By page 4, Witherington affirms by use of italics that “the Psalms, unlike various other parts of the OT, served four functions at once: . . .”. Whilst the four functions he goes on to state are sensible, this bold statement mutes important interpretive nuance and diversity in early praxis. The complex processes of writing, editing, forming of collections, combining collections and further editing over something like a millennium means that the fourfold functionality of the psalms is prone to oversimplifying the psalms. Such developments mean that psalms were used differently over time and by different parts of the Israelite, Judahite and Jewish communities, between the Monarchical period and the early Rabbinic period. Just how anachronistic this implied uniformity of fourfold function is, is revealed a few pages later, where Witherington identifies a fourfold Christian pattern where the four functions are alternatives and are not viewed as being simultaneously operative.

The second chapter is titled The Psalter in Early Judaism, and at this point the reader realises that there will be no space given to the shape and shaping of the Psalter despite the hermeneutical promise of such an endeavour. This short chapter rehearses some generic comments about the importance, or lack thereof, of the biblical psalms in the Qumran literature, the Apochrypha, etc. Witherington is at pains to dismiss Brooke’s rather unusual claims about a movement from poetry to history during the evolution of the Psalter. The best way to show how such an approach fails to account for the Psalter would, in my view, have been a thorough exploration of the one thousand year history of the psalms (the interested reader can find such exploration in, for example, Holladay’s The Psalms through Three Thousand Years and DeClaisse-Walford’s Reading from the Beginning).

Chapters three to seven consider the five books of the Psalter. Here Witherington is in his element as he explores how the New Testament picks up on specific psalms directly and exhibits more subtle intertextual dependence on the Psalter. These five core chapters contain a wealth of detail and Witherington explains carefully how he has built on the work of others as well as carried out his own extensive work (writing major commentaries on every book of the New Testament, for example). This near exhaustive re-examination of the use of the Psalms by the New Testament writers makes this volume essential for anyone wanting to understand this intertextual and inter-testament interpretive issue.

A key strength of all five main chapters is the careful exploration of the different ways in which the New Testament writers use the psalms. Sometimes the New Testament authors have been given hard time for not abiding by modern interpretive approaches and playing fast-and-loose with the Psalter. Witherington helpful considers the variety of approaches used by the New Testament authors and notes that much of their usage relies on a homiletical approach (see p.251, for example). This is the key element of the work which can be said to be new and it represents a genuinely useful insight.

Witherington helpfully points out that some of the usage of the Psalms relates to the identity of the resurrected Jesus as the Messiah and other usage is far more general, reflecting the life of Jesus’ followers in a world where following Jesus means experiencing suffering. On this latter point, Witherington seems to be advocating something like Brueggemann’s Typology of Function Approach although this is not considered. Throughout the book, the psalms are consistently viewed as poetry and the New Testament writers are judged to have appropriately developed and interpreted them in the light of the Jesus Event. Witherington’s exploration of the nuances of such interpretation heads of some of some dangerously naive approaches of reading the psalms. In a similar vein the appropriation of the imprecatory psalms is handled with care as Witherington explores these psalms as the words of those struggling in prayer and at times voicing prayers at odds with Jesus’ teaching.

There is still a question in my mind about the use of the five-fold structure of the Psalter. At one point (p.319), Witherington sounds either disappointed or surprised that he has not really found any clear difference in the use made of the psalms in the five books by the New Testament authors. I would have liked to have seen some clearer conclusions about Witherington’s findings in the light of different interpretive paradigms of the psalms but this is perhaps unfair given the scope of this book and the series to which it belongs.