Exposing the Psalms

Exposing the Psalms: unmasking their beauty, art, and power for a new generation, Milton Keynes: Authentic Media (2014).

There are a lot of books available on the biblical Psalms. So do we need another? Is a book that aims to expose them, claiming too much? I am pleased to say that this book fulfils a real need and it is a genuine expose. Nevland’s premise is straightforward: In our day the Psalms have fallen into disuse and something needs to be done about this. As the subtitle indicates this is about unmasking the beauty, art and power of the Psalms for a new generation.

‘Exposing the Psalms’ provides a creative and reflective way in which to engage with 30, or so, of the Biblical psalms. I found that this book achieved what all books on the Psalter should, it made me want to engage with the Psalms themselves. In my view, and experience, this is not a book that is best read in just a few sittings. I found each engagement with a psalm meant that I wanted to pause, reflect and pray before progressing to the next. I have heard from others who have found this too. This is a key strength of the book. It has the potential to make a lasting impact rather than simply be a ‘nice quick read’.

One of the most attractive features of this book is that it does not attempt to be the last word on each psalm. Instead it typically explains some of the ‘strangeness’ of the psalms and then quickly proceeds to a creative exploration of the psalm or issue/question which arises from the psalm. There are stories and poems here which are creative and imaginative ways to bring the Psalms alive. They invite the reader to attempt their own creative engagement with these ancient songs and prayers.

Some readers might wonder why the psalms have been tackled in what appears to be a random order. The intention appears to be an engagement with all the psalms as the project unfolds. Whilst I am personally a fan of reading the Psalms in order and as a book, this book has made the right choice in tackling them in a more ad hoc manner. If they had been tackled in canonical sequence the book might have been misunderstood as a commentary in the strictest sense, and it is not that. The more ‘random’ order enables the author to introduce diverse creative insights in a way that covering the first 30 psalms would have made tricky.

Another reviewer has questioned the lack of solid scholarly works cited in the bibliography. As a reader who has read widely on the Psalms and their interpretation, I don’t see that Nevland’s approach requires scholarly footnoting. Indeed his creative insights, which bridge the gap between ancient context and faith today might be stifled by some scholarly approaches. This book is a book that exposes the Psalms for the reader who wants to be creative and prayerful in their engagement. Many other books exist which cover the more technical aspects of psalms interpretation, very few attempt anything like ‘Exposing the Psalms’. Nevland has chosen to ‘dive into’ the Psalms and this is to be commended. His project aims is revive interest in the Psalms, and scholarship, however vital, is not what is needed in the first book of Nevland’s project.

I found the sections on psalms 45, 71 and 88 especially engaging. I wholly recommend this book and the wider project of which it is the start.

“The Psalms” ESV – A Review

The Baker Deep End Blog

I often get requests for a copy of just the Psalms. There aren’t many out there and so I was really pleased when I heard Crossway was going to do an edition of the Psalms. When the ESV first came out they did do a small imitation leather edition but it has gone out of print. This week we received our first copies of the new edition and it is very nice. It currently comes in three styles: Top Grain Leather, Black; TruTone, Brown, TruTone Over Board, Brown/Walnut. The latter two sell for $17.99 and the leather edition sells for $49.99.

The size is 4.5″ x 6.5″. The width is about 3/4″ which makes it a bit bulkier than what some might expect for just the Psalms. The interior is very nicely laid out with a single-column format. The paper is heavier than Bible paper and is ivory…

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David and the Psalms

This short post was inspired by some tweets I stumbled across which jarred with me. They implied either that David wrote all the Psalms or expressed surprise at the claim that he did not. No scholar has, to my knowledge, defended Davidic authorship of all 150 canonical psalms for well over one hundred years. Not all scholars are hard-nosed critics, there are many who serve Christ and hold the Bible as Scripture; if Davidic authorship of the whole collection could be defended someone would have done so recently. So why do so many Christians want to hold onto the idea that David authored all of them, or even feel that the Bible is under attack if this view is questioned?

Jesus, of course, famously refers to David as the author of psalm 110 as recorded in Matthew 22:43-45 (paralleled in Mark 12:36-37 and Luke 20:42-44). This is one of the 73 psalms that are described in their heading as ‘of David’. We can note three points here:

1. ‘Of David’ does not necessarily imply authorship. It might imply some other type of connection with David.
2. Jesus does imply Davidic authorship of psalm 110.
3. Many psalms are not titled as being ‘of David’ and some are clearly associated with other people or groups of people.

At this very cursory level the Bible seems to claim that the Psalms are in some sense associated with David, with David being the author (some might suggest the implied author) of a number of them, for example note the historical episodes from David’s life in some 13 psalm titles (although again some would see this in different terms). Many individual psalms are, however, not directly associated with him. This does not contradict the label of the Psalter as the ‘Psalms of David’, but simply that the meaning of this description is more nuanced than wholesale authorship by King David.

The psalm headings, which are part of the transmitted and preserved text, give us this more complex picture. Strangely those of a more fundamentalist Christian view tend to ignore the subtlety of the titles and the more critical of scholars also dismiss them as late and unhelpful additions to the Psalms. As a Christian I am compelled to take the psalm titles seriously, but I don’t want to rule out the possibility of editing, including some title additions. One of the aims of this blog is to draw attention to the idea that editing of the Psalms, rather than being hostile to understanding the Psalter as Scripture, opens up an exciting and dynamic view of how these songs and poems were cherished and used by the community of faith and thus became Scripture. To use an old fashioned theological concept we have God’s providence at work in a process of authorship, collecting and editing. This is an exciting and indeed incarnational way in which God’s Spirit worked amongst his people over centuries. Such a work seems more naturally coherent with a God who became a man that we might know him more fully.

To say that David did not write all the Psalms still means he wrote some. Maybe all those that are described as ‘of David’ or a subset, opinions will vary. David’s situation within Israel as the second king, but in a sense the first true king in founding a dynasty, is unique. This together with his role in setting in motion the Temple and thus Temple worship in many senses make the Psalms Davidic. It is the case, I think, that this influence of David is much more theologically interesting than simple authorship of the Psalter!

Some of the psalms date from the time of the first ceremonies in the temple, such as the enthronement of the kings and other royal celebrations. These psalms are the Royal Psalms. Their significance has changed and perhaps this even encouraged editing. Words that celebrated the impressiveness of David and Solomon as they reigned over Israel become hollow words later in the time of the monarchy’s failure. Unbelievable claims about kings in the present became expectations of a new David, a new anointed king, or in other words the hope for a coming messiah. Words that spoke of the grandeur of earthly kings at their enthronement were preserved because they captured the prophetic expectation of God’s people that there would be a return of the king.

This Davidic, and ultimately messianic, thread within the Psalms is important for our understanding and use of the Psalms. There are some words within the Psalms that only make sense when seen as the words of a king of Israel and/or those of the coming king. David is also an ideal in some ways. Like us he is beloved of God, and also shares with us a frailty that can lead to actions abhorrent to God and contrary to His instruction (Torah). The fact that David retained God’s favour is encouraging to us. Similarly we have the good news that the Psalms contain so many words of the most diverse emotional nature. This fits with a king who lived a life before God to the full. The Psalms can serve us well as we attempt to live life to the full with all the potential for blessing on the one hand and the possibility of mistakes on the other. The way of righteousness that the Psalms take us on is not one of dead self-obsessed obedience, but a life lived in honesty before the God who both instructs and yet can also show mercy. The day-and-night meditation on God’s law, or instruction (psalm 1:2), is not legalism. Rather this is devotion to the one who leads and shelters us on a journey which ultimately leads to encounter with the messiah, Jesus Christ.

Psalmtweets 2

I think by now readers of this blog will have discovered that I enjoy posting a daily ‘psalmtweet’. I run through the Psalms, one per day, in canonical order. I am on the home run now for my third journey through the Psalter. My key objective is simply to use this as a spiritual discipline. The term psalmtweet is not my invention, although I have followed the daily practice longer than most. Ben Myers @FaithTheology originated the term and his psalmtweets are of a remarkably consistent theological and literary quality. Mine are somewhat more mixed. Myers’ project is, I think, to provide a tweet for each psalm with the goal of summarising each psalms key message/thrust/point succinctly, poetically and eloquently. My efforts sometimes attempt this, sometimes connect with my personal circumstances, connect with another text or simply home in on a key verse.

To illustrate these different approaches I have chosen 10 psalmtweets, from my last 100! Below. I have chosen them on the basis of retweet and favouriting frequency. I have added a brief comment to explain what I was attempting to do.

Psalm 13:
The journey from waiting in anguish to joyful praise, however long, turns upon trusting in Yahweh the faithful.

This tweet not only captures the flow of this psalm, but the basic journey of the life of faith described throughout the Psalter. In this life, though we find so much blessing from God, there are numerous times when we face difficulty. This can be the general problems of being human in a fallen creation or the challenge we face when we stand up for the gospel. the stance we should take in adversity is one of confident trust in Yahweh. The psalms are a key asset for us on this path.

Psalm 23:
When Yahweh is your shepherd you lack nothing;
Goodness pursues you everywhere.
May He lead and comfort you.

It seems bordering on the inappropriate to tweet this psalm, however, the goal of all of these efforts is not replacement but a pointing to, and reflection on the original.

Psalm 28:
Yahweh:
Rock,
Listener,
Holy,
Judge,
Active,
Blessed,
Strong,
Protector,
Helper,
Saviour,
Shepherd
and Eternal.

This tweet is a reminder that despite the Psalms being both prayer and worship, one of their most helpful achievements if to teach us about the nature and character of Yawhweh the God of Israel and creator of the universe.

Psalm 30:
I praise you Yahweh, for you have lifted me up.
You have brought me back into your life-giving presence.

The simple truth of this psalm can enable us to look upon a specific recent experience or that decisive moment when we owned Christ for the first time. The psalms themselves function to enable this connection and relationship with the living God.

Psalm 41:
And so the first book of psalms concludes:
Blessed be Yahweh, the God of Israel,
from everlasting to everlasting.
Amen and Amen.

This is a direct quote from psalm 41.So often these sorts of snippets within the psalms are ignored, but I think they are essential for seeing marvellous work of the editors of the Psalter. It is these nameless collectors who gave us this canonical gift.

Psalm 83:
O Yahweh, God most high, be not silent we pray.
Instead may you rise up in a tempest against those who rage against your people.

One of the challenges to modern sensibilities is the emotional rawness of a lot of the language of the Psalms. Such prayer language is arguably essential for our honesty as emotional beings and a way forward for dealing with the same. The petitions of the psalmist are generally tempered, as here, by asking God to deal with the enemies and/or oppressors.

Psalm 87:
His foundation is in the holy mountains.
Our springs of joy are in Him.

A poetic reworking of the imagery of this psalm. The conciseness and language is meant to promote a closer engagement with this psalms and just what it might be claiming.

Psalm 91:
Dwelling and shelter.
A shade to abide under.
A fortress of refuge.
A shield from terror.
Yahweh our protector.

Like so many psalms this one focuses on how we can be found in Yahweh. This language prempts the remarkable claims of the NT and what it means to be in Christ.

Psalm 93:
The tides are ordained by God.
The coast erodes year by year.
Yahweh, creator, only you have no beginning or end.

This psalmtweet picks up on the language of the psalm and focuses on Yahweh as both creator and sustainer. It also hints at the ‘natural processes’ that work in creation. As a scientist and Christian I delight in the scientific project to understand the mechanisms of creation without seeing a conflict with the claims of Scriptural revelation about God, us and the created order.

Psalm 98:
Whether we sing a new song or not, the seas, rivers and mountains will do so. For wonders He has done.

The response of creation to our God, described in this psalm, puts us in perspective. Whilst the human race might be central to the very point of creation, each of us individually is a very small part of this plan. This is no denial of our individual value, but an an important reminder about our significance.

If you are interested in the idea of psalmtweets you can find a number of such projects on twitter:

Mark Wagner @DrMarkWagner is almost at end of his tweeting the whole Psalter as haiku poems.
Steven Robertson @OtisRobertson is on second journey through the Psalter.
Marc La Porte @mlaporte74 is in Book II now.
Patrick Hoffman @HoffmaNomad4 is two-thirds through.
And don’t forget Ben Myers @FaithTheology or why not have your own take on psalmtweets? If you do have a go using #psalmtweets will help others find your contributions.

Lessons from The Wall and The Psalter

This short post was inspired by Pink Floyd’s The Wall. You might be wondering, at this point, if you are reading the right blog. Please trust me for just a little longer! The Wall is a concept album that was released in 1979. It is the story of a life, a sad narrative of decline. It deals with an experience of abandonment and loneliness, and in exploring these aspect of Western culture, it asks profound questions about:

1. Life after death. For example, in the song Vera a question is asked:

“Does anybody here remember Vera Lynn? Remember how she said that we would meet again some sunny day?”

The implication is that any hope for a satisfactory conclusion to the pains of life, perhaps more specifically any eschatological hope, is a naive fallacy.

2. Authority. The famous refrain from Another Brick in the Wall part 2: “We don’t need no education”, is just one line, of many, which questions where authority comes from. In this song the inference is that the protagonist, Pink, has experienced an education system in which the figures in authority had sinister motives of their own, that had little to do with the nurture and teaching of those in their charge.

3. The ethics of life. Much of the album questions: ‘Just where are we meant to find direction in this life?’. Various aspects of hedonism, including drug use and extra-marital sex, are explored, but all are found wanting.

4. Judgement. In the penultimate song, The Trial, Pink is subjected to a courtroom trial. It is perhaps meant as a parody of the Last Judgement. In a universe in which there is no God, Pink is charged with “showing feelings . . . of an almost human nature”.

The very title of the album summarises the disturbing premise of the album: some of us go through life, like Pink, in a way that experience after experience builds a barrier between us and others. For Pink these events include the death of his father in the Second World War, a stiflingly protective mother, a failed marriage and the sadistic attention of teachers.

When compared with the concept album that is The Psalter we see that The Wall presents an alternative Way, a rival eschatology and a denial of the possibility of a faithful God. What it gets broadly right is a negative anthropology – as it portrays a convincingly lucid picture of some people’s experience of the human condition.

Likes the Psalter, The Wall, is a holistic whole. It is a work written to be experienced from beginning to end. When The Wall is heard in a single sitting, the power of its claims build-up into a disturbing whole. The Psalter in contrast, in its journey from Psalm 1 to Psalm 150, provides a vocabulary and a theology for dealing with the trials of life, such that their power over us is broken. This journey also provides the right vision with which to see the blessings of Yahweh, which abound in His Word, His actions in history and His glorious creation.

We live in an age in which the concept album and the Psalter have both been reduced to a 3 minute quick fix. Both The Wall and The Psalter, when heard/read/experienced add up to much more than their component parts. One of them portrays the dangers of building a wall, from behind which we cannot relate to others or our creator, the other is a lifelong companion of prayer which ensures we can build on the creator’s instruction and wisdom. Rather than building a wall we end up ‘rebuilding’ ourselves as a flourishing tree (Psalm 1:3).

The Wall concludes with Pink’s wall being torn down, though the significance of this is unclear. The faithful reader of the Psalms knows that the wall that separates us from God has been demolished by our Father through His Son, with no need for artistic poignant ambiguity. The Psalter, thus in stark contrast to The Wall, ends with emphatic praise, as will those who travel the Life of Faith with the living God named Yahweh.

In memory of the dearest of friends, Roy Jephson, who ended the Life of Faith 7th March 2014.

Psalms for the New Year

The Christian life has many challenges. One of the common problems encountered, in our devotional life, is a lack of passion and enthusiasm for finding time to spend in prayer and Bible reading. This malaise rarely appears overnight. More usually it is a slow process helped by a self-deception that does not want to admit that all is not right in our relationship with God.

One way of addressing such a problem is to attempt something new. I cannot claim that the Psalms are in any sense a panacea to address spiritual malaise, but they are a sensible choice. If is not without reason that so many believers have found comfort and sustenance in these songs, prayers and poems.

This New Year why not try something new with the Psalms? It might be worth making the psalms the centre of your devotions, or simply to supplement a more established devotional pattern. The attraction of the Psalms is that they can just as well be used for a season or for a longer period.

Some might find it refreshing to read and reflect on the whole Psalter in a month, or so. This is perhaps rather demanding and not to be undertaken unless a serious amount of time can be given over each day. Others might want to take a more leisurely 150 day pilgrimage. A psalm a day for 5 months. It sounds like a long haul, but it passes with surprising speed. I am strongly of the opinion that reading the Psalms in canonical order has a number of advantages, not least because it seems that there is some purpose in their order (see some previous posts here). The slow journey of a psalm a day is perhaps too slow for those unfamiliar with the Psalms. If you are new to the Psalms then three a day might be better.

My experience with the Psalms has been that ongoing cycling through them is rewarding. Rather than ‘familiarity breeding contempt’ they become a world, a series of familiar prayers and poems. They also retain vitality; frequently a fresh insight is gained or a new depth encountered.

The advantage of starting out with the Psalms afresh in the New Year is of course the simplicity of keeping an eye on ones progress. Whilst legalism is not the normal recipe for escaping the spiritual doldrums, self-deception and a lack of personal accountability are no friends to spiritual recovery either.

Psalms 1 and 2 are both, in very different ways, marvellous prayers to start the New Year. They are arguably nothing less than central parts of the worldview of the Psalter. This worldview will stretch our mind, heart and spirit so that we might learn to see freshly and aright this creation in which we dwell before our gracious creator who imparts life through His word.