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.

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.

A Review of ‘The Hebrew Bible: A Critical Companion’, Edited by John Barton

 

The Hebrew Bible: A Critical Companion

Edited by John Barton

Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2016.

632pp. hb. £34.95, ISBN 978-0-691-15471-8

Barton

Introduction

At the outset of this review I need to declare one presupposition and a potential source of bias—I read the Hebrew Bible as Christian Scripture and I was supplied with a review copy of this book by the publisher.

John Barton’s The Hebrew Bible is a guide, or as its subtitle indicates, a companion to the Hebrew Bible. Like its namesake it has diverse contributors, with each chapter having a different function within the whole. It differs from the Hebrew Bible in an important way—the religious presuppositions of the authors are diverse. The diversity of the twenty-three authors was an editorial choice. Barton explains this choice of contributors in the very short Introduction: ‘some are Jews, some are Christians of various kinds, some have no religious commitment at all’ (p.x). Any reader wanting a consistent authorial stance should look elsewhere, but those wanting to be challenged and enriched would do well to choose this volume.

The book is divided into four major sections:

I. The Hebrew Bible and Its Historical and Social Context

II. Major Genres of Biblical Literature

III. Major Religious Themes

IV. The Study and Reception of the Hebrew Bible

I have used these four section headings below to facilitate navigation of this review.

I. The Hebrew Bible and Its Historical and Social Context

John Barton’s opening chapter, The Hebrew Bible and the Old Testament, covers some thorny and complex issues of definition in an engaging and even-handed manner. He not only covers the obvious challenge of what we should call the ‘Hebrew Bible’, but also explores the presence of Aramaic sections in the Hebrew Bible. The diverse textual traditions in Hebrew, Greek and Latin are outlined and finally Christianity’s understanding of the nature of the Hebrew Bible is considered.

Francesca Stavrakopoulou’s The Historical Framework: Biblical and Scholarly Portrayals of the Past which is the second chapter is an engaging and stimulating exploration of what can be established about the voracity, or otherwise, of the Hebrew Bible’s historical claims. As Stavrakopoulou points out the reader of the Hebrew Bible makes a choice about the relative privilege given to the text itself or extra-biblical data such as other texts and archaeology. Stavrakopoulou clearly privileges nonbiblical sources and provides a challenging analysis for readers who have greater confidence in the historicity of the Hebrew Bible’s account of the pre-monarchical period.

Katherine Southwood explores the use of social sciences in biblical studies in The Social and Cultural History of Ancient Israel. Her essay considers the potential gains and pitfalls of such approaches. The potential value of these methods is demonstrated by reviewing recent work on key themes such as ethnicity and kinship. Anthony J. Frendo’s Israel in the Context of the Ancient Near East lacks the narrative clarity of the other three contributions in this opening section. This essay is essentially an appeal for the need for both a diachronic and a synchronic analysis of ancient texts in order to better understand the Hebrew Bible, but this is far from obvious from the chapter’s title.

II. Major Genres of Biblical Literature

A reference work of this type will often be used by those wanting an up-to-date introduction to the specific types of literature in the Hebrew Bible. Part II divides the Hebrew Bible’s content into (i) narrative books, (ii) prophetic literature, (iii) legal texts, (iv) Wisdom Literature and (v) psalms and poems. Whilst other ways of classifying the Hebrew Bible could have been chosen this five-fold division works rather well, with a small but helpful degree of overlap in the contributions. Thomas Römer’s exploration of the narrative books provides an appropriate opening chapter. He helpfully, brings the idea of the ‘Enneateuch’ as a narrative unit to the fore—the Enneateuch comprising Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy, Joshua, Judges, Samuel and Kings. The clear narrative coherence of this large unit forms the basis for a diverse exploration of the implied editing processes that produced the Hebrew Bible. He concludes with a tantalizing glimpse at recent scholarship on the emergence of Jewish novellas.

G. Kratz’s The Prophetic Literature focuses on the question of how oral prophetic activity produced literary products such as the three major prophetic books and the twelve Minor Prophets. Kratz makes much of the complex editing process, or Fortschreibung, and concludes with what he labels a ‘costly business of interpretation’ in which a text is continually re-shaped and added to by later interpreters. I was surprised that Kratz did not make more of the textual journey which gave rise to The Book of the Twelve. Despite his conviction regarding the massive distance between historical prophet and biblical text, Kratz does not see this as a closed door to understanding the prophetic books as scripture.

Assnat Bartor’s exploration of Legal Texts was refreshing because of its breadth and scope. Throughout the essay, the role of legal texts, both within and beyond the Pentateuch, is made clear. The suggested inter-relationship between some of these texts and wisdom literature is shown to be fruitful in making sense of the final form and content of much of the legal material in the Hebrew Bible. Jennie Grillo’ article follows with chapter 8’s The Wisdom Literature with an opening statement that this category ‘has no currency in the Old Testament or, . . . any ancient Near Eastern literary culture’. This opening salvo and the chapter as a whole provide a refreshing reminder that scholarly categories (and indeed popular ones) can constrain understanding and hinder seeing an object of scrutiny on its own terms. Grillo goes on to look at Proverbs, Job and Ecclesiastes and then the trajectory of ‘wisdom literature’ elsewhere in the Hebrew Bible, in the later books of Ben Sirach and the Wisdom of Solomon and finally Qumran.

In the final chapter of this section of the book, Susan Gillingham examines The Psalms and Poems of the Hebrew Bible. This contribution is something of a tour de force of the current scholarly consensus on the Psalms. In this sense the title of the chapter is a little misleading as little attention is given to ‘other poems’ and these are very much in the shadow of the psalms. What I found especially helpful was the clarity with which Gillingham explores what we do know about these ancient songs/poems and, just as importantly, what we do not know.

III. Major Religious Themes

Perhaps the most unconventional but welcome feature of this volume is its strong emphasis on the major themes found in the Hebrew Bible. Whether the Hebrew Bible is approached from a ‘descriptive perspective’ or with a religious commitment the weight given to these broad topics works equally well. Benjamin D. Sommer’s exploration of Monotheism (chapter 10) is the first of these seven thematic chapters. Sommer argues that this subject has often been oversimplified. He argues that while the Hebrew Bible exhorts Israelites to exclusive loyalty to Yahweh, it is less clear whether Yahweh is understood to be a unique god or one of many deities. His essay concludes that the terms monotheist and polytheist are only a starting point for discussing this theme in the Hebrew Bible.

Hermann Spieckermann’s task is to unfold what the Hebrew Bible says about Creation. In this contribution Spieckermann leads the reader through the full breadth of Hebrew texts which deal with creation with verve and passion. The two features that make this contribution especially helpful are the discussion of divine rest in Mesopotamian culture and the attention given to wisdom theology. This chapter is scholarly work at its best—the Hebrew text is freed so as to allow it to speak afresh. In this case providing an ample basis for an appropriate doctrine of creation, something to which Spieckermann provides a small pointer by way of conclusion.

Hilary Marlow considers what the Hebrew Bible implies about The Human Condition. In doing this she outlines the rich claims made about the nature of human beings and their relationships with each other and with God. As Marlow does this the reader can appreciate how this theme provides insight into the Hebrew Bible’s worldview. Marlow closes her contribution with a brief glimpse at how the values that emerge from this worldview can stimulate insight into the current impact of human beings on the world.

Dominik Markl’s God’s Covenants with Humanity and Israel is a helpful assessment of just how central covenants are in the Hebrew Bible. In some Protestant church traditions the series of covenants that God makes in the Hebrew Bible are used as a rigid interpretational matrix. Markl writes without this preconception but ably demonstrates the importance of the covenants with Noah, Abraham, Israel, David, etc. The wider Ancient Near-Eastern cultural importance of covenants provides the point of departure and Markl shows that the concept is important not just at key junctures in the biblical narrative but throughout the writings of the Hebrew Bible.

C. L. Crouch examines Ethics in the Old Testament and starts by pointing out the distinction between the goals of understanding the biblical text, on the one hand, and informing contemporary ethics on the other. The role of genre is explored before the essay concludes with a brief explanation of the different answers to the question of where ethical thinking and prescribed praxis come from.

Stephen C. Russell considers the witness of the Hebrew Bible to the function of Religious Space and Structures in Ancient Israel and Judah. In this account archaeological evidence is used throughout to enrich what the biblical texts say about structures and religious observance. Russell argues that it is instructive to consider the scale of the structures in which religious practice occurred. He considers the household, and here the archaeological evidence is especially constructive, explaining how religious activities were permed there on an occasional basis. The role of larger scale structures, which are the result of larger social structures, such as clan and tribe, are shown to be more focused on religious activities at the city gates and altars. Temple worship is explored with surprising brevity before ‘space’ in the religious imagination is explored. This contribution is, however, an important one precisely because of its emphasis on religious praxis at the level of domicile and town—scales that can be so easily missed in the text as they often implied rather overtly considered.

Seth D. Kunin’s contribution on Ritual provides the concluding chapter of this section. Lévi-Strauss’ structuralist analysis is used to discern the overarching structural system that underpins the rituals portrayed in the ‘editorial present of the text’. The areas explored in some depth are food rules, purity rules and the ritual practice of the sacrificial cult. Whilst these contributions are shown to fit into a coherent whole, little attention is given to temple worship in terms of psalmody, apart from a brief section on pilgrimage. This is problematic for the stated goal of the essay—surely this is a major aspect of the ‘final’ text of the Hebrew Bible.

IV. The Study and Reception of the Hebrew Bible

Anyone reading this volume from cover to cover has been prepared for this section by the wealth of questions raised throughout the first three sections. Of course others might choose to start here depending on their purpose in reading this book. The first contribution, Alison Gray’s Reception of the Old Testament, is a timely piece in its own right as well as providing a useful opening essay for Part IV. As she explains, the ‘reception’ of the Hebrew Bible is very much at the centre of current biblical studies. She provides a welcome guide to the various approaches, clarifying key terminology along the way. The essay helpfully demonstrates how the Hebrew Bible owes its existence to the reception of texts and how this ongoing cycle of generative reception continued in later Jewish Midrash. In this way Gray crystallises a key challenge which has been continually in the background and oft times in the foreground of this book—the clearest conclusion of critical scholarship is that the Hebrew Bible owes its origin to a plethora of contributors through a complex process of authorship, selection and editing. This has profound consequences for some traditional conceptions of scripture.

Christoph Bultmann picks up on this in his contribution Historical-Critical Inquiry. Whilst this essay is informative, its focus on the origins of historical-critical enquiry in the sixteenth to the early nineteenth century does not fit well with the rest of the contributions. It feels rather like a follow-up to this chapter is missing. David Jasper’s Literary Approaches commences with the various mid-twentieth century impulses that led to a new wave of scholarship concerned with the Bible as literature. He uses some pithy insights from T. S. Eliot to frame developments such as cultural criticism, narrative criticism, ‘political’ readings and deconstruction so as to showcase the potential of literary approaches.

W. L. Moberly’s Theological Approaches to the Old Testament builds directly on the previous three chapters. He succinctly highlights the inevitable choice of making Old Testament Theology either primarily a descriptive or a prescriptive task. This contribution is a model of clarity and it sympathetically explores the divergence between the two approaches. The rich possibilities afforded by theological approaches are illustrated with the various proposals and insights of key figures such as Walter Brueggemann, Brevard Childs, David Clines, Jon Levenson and Karl Rahner.

Eryl W. Davies continues the ‘prescriptive agenda’ in the next chapter titled Political and Advocacy Approaches. He explains how advocacy approaches arose, at least in part, as an answer to the observation that traditional critical methods do little to disturb the status quo—a status quo which is blighted by the experiences and struggles of the marginalised. Feminist, Liberation, Postcolonial and Queer approaches are each briefly outlined. The book of Ruth is used to showcase some of these specific advocacy readings.

Carmel McCarthy’s Textual Criticism and Biblical Translation examines the complexity of the history of textual transmission by explaining the nature of the sources: the Dead Sea Scrolls, the Masoretic Text, the Septuagint and other versions. In the short space available McCarthy ably communicates the challenge of deciding on which textual variants are to be preferred. The three current major projects, each producing critical editions of the Hebrew Bible, are explained along with the different presuppositions employed by each. The chapter concludes helpfully with a selection of challenging short textual units and a comparison of how these are handled in four English translations.

The volume is rounded off rather appropriately with Adrian Curtis’ To Map or Not to Map? This contribution considers whether supporting maps are an aid to biblical interpretation. Curtis concludes with a ‘yes’, although along the way he points to some potential pitfalls and challenges. This final chapter, like Chapter 1, highlights the difficulty of selecting appropriate terminology when terms like Palestine and Israel bring with them religious and political freight.

Conclusion

The twenty-three contributions that make up this volume do, on the whole, work well together. As with all multi-contributor works of this kind the reader experiences some inevitable unevenness, but in the spirit of this work this probably has as much to do with the reader as with the contributors. The contributions of Stavrakopoulou, Gillingham, Spiekermann and Moberly stand out, despite their very different presuppositions, as exemplars of both academic form and content.

I would have liked to have seen a longer introduction which put each of the contributions in the wider context of the project, but John Barton has presumably resisted this by way of respecting the diverse background of the chosen contributors. Two further chapters might have been helpful, one on the Hebrew language and another on historical-critical approaches in the period c.1850–1960 CE.

This volume sets a high bar for the suggested ‘non specialist reader’. It will work very well as a refresher for those who studied the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament in the past, or for those in the later stages of a degree who have already encountered some material on the Hebrew Bible, historical-critical approaches and hermeneutics.

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.

A Review of ‘A Short Dictionary of the Psalms’

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.

Psalms for People under Pressure

Jonathan Aitken, Psalms for People under Pressure, London: Continuum (2004).

This book is difficult to classify. In part this is because of the fame of the author. It is part commentary, part introduction to praying the psalms and part biographical. Many readers, i.e. those who know something of Jonathan Aitken’s ‘fall from grace’, will read it with biographical interest. Of course this volume is not a biography, but the biographical elements are interesting. No doubt Jonathan Aitken had some difficult choices as to how to handle these aspects of the book. In my view he has made good judgement, in that there is enough biographical reflection to answer the curiosity of some readers. The biographical elements are, however, never distracting, but rather they are helpful in illustrating the relevance of what Aitken refers to as psalms for people under pressure.

It is for this latter reason that the book is I think helpful. Like a number of popular books over the last decade, or so, this book raises the profile of the large number of psalms that are concerned with the difficulties of life. That Aitken has this objective is clear from the book’s title, but unlike many who write about the Psalms, Aitken has clearly had to deal with immense personal challenges. Does the book succeed as a commentary on the selected psalms? Does it function helpfully as a facilitator to prayer?

Each of the twenty seven, or so, psalms covered are presented in the NIV. The text of each psalm is followed by sections titled: reflection, additional notes and personal comment. Each is finally followed by a short prayer. The first of these sections is what we might term a devotional commentary and the second gives concise background commentary. I found the reflections to be helpful in showing how the ancient text can ‘work’ today. In most cases I found that the additional notes to be ill-placed. In my view, the notes might have functioned better as a prelude to the more applied reflections. Of course anyone reading can choose to do this, or perhaps omit the additional notes. The personal comments are interesting; not only in the obvious biographical sense, but also in showing how readily Aitken’s experiences as a new convert resonate with the reader’s experience. This can encourage the reader in seeing the Bible’s potential for transformation. The short prayers, whether prayed or simply read, are a helpful reminder that the Psalms are meant to inspire us to pray rather than to ‘do theology’.

In summary, this book is ideal for someone who has an interest in Jonathan Aitken or wants some encouragement and direction in how to pray the Psalms. The reader who has an interest in both will find that there is a helpful synergy between these two concerns.

 

Review of ‘Reflections on the Psalms’

Reflections on the Psalms, Adams, Cocksworth, Collicutt, et al., London: Church House Publishing, 2015

This small book is a devotional companion to the Psalms. It has a page per psalm, with some of the longer psalms being broken into more convenient ‘chunks’, e.g. psalm 18 has three pages, each of which is an individual page-long entry. The contributions are authored by 18 different people. The number of contributors makes for diversity (although largely within the context of the Anglican Communion) which is a good thing in a devotional resource. Contributors include Steven Croft (Bishop of Sheffield), Paula Gooder (Theologian in Residence for the Bible Society), Barbara Mosse (retired Priest and onetime lecturer in spirituality at Sarum College) and John Sentamu (Archbishop of York).

Despite the diversity of the contributions the work has been carefully edited with a helpfully consistent structure. Each psalm is given a lengthy heading which is a part of the psalm which captures a key aspect of its content. Next a fragment from an important verse is quoted. The reflective contribution develops this verse fragment. Each entry concludes with a refrain and a short prayer. The consistency of style enables the reader who uses this for a daily reading to settle into a devotional pattern that suits them. As a helpful focus for morning and/or evening prayer it works well. The entries can be used quickly or are able to inspire longer contemplation and prayer. Either the title, verse fragment or refrain could be taken and used throughout the rest of the day.

I have found this helpful. Whilst it is quite expensive for a small book, used daily it can last half a year and it will be reusable at a later date. Whether you are new to using the Psalms, or an old-hand, you will find the concise introductory material helpful. Paula Gooder’s The Psalms and the Bible is nothing less than a masterpiece of summarising key features of the Psalms. Steven Croft reflects helpfully on The Psalms in the Life of the Church. There are also some reading plans: all of the psalms in 30 days or psalm 119 and the Ascents in the course of a month.

This book has a lot to commend it and no drawbacks that I can see. The attentive reader might want a commentary too, as the psalms often raise questions as to their content and how we appropriate their claims today. I purchased the work as a book but it is also available as an App for both Apple and Android. Additionally, it is available in the eBook formats: Kindle and epub.

I am using this book in a leisurely way – one psalm per day. After 19 days I am very happy with it and the fresh experience of reflecting on the Psalms which is has enabled.

From Whom No Secrets Are Hid: Introducing the Psalms

Walter Brueggemann, From Whom No Secrets Are Hid: Introducing the Psalms, editor: Brent A. Strawn, Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2014.

This book is Brueggemann at his very best. Earlier this year I was disappointed with his long-awaited commentary on the Psalms, but this tome surpassed expectation. What makes this book so exciting is that it manages to be scholarly as well as approachable, engaging and lively. This makes for such a potent combination that the book defies easy classification in terms of its audience. I would recommend it to anyone who wants to think through what the Psalms are, and how they should be used holistically in worshipping communities. It is the latter concern that is at the forefront of Brueggemann’s thinking and passion.

Arguably, Walter Brueggemann’s most significant contribution to Psalms scholarship is his famous essay: The Psalms and the Life of Faith: A suggested Typology of Function. This essay is helpfully reproduced in an appendix. Readers new to Brueggemann on the Psalms might profitably start here. Although they should note that the rest of the book is a less demanding read in terms of the necessary scholarly background.

Whilst every chapter of the book is engagingly written and profitable in understanding various facets of the Psalter, the first two chapters are especially insightful. Both of these opening chapters covers a lot of ground. Chapter 1 is an Introduction to the Book of Psalms. The chapter opens with a masterful definition of the Book of Psalms, which the chapter first unpacks and then explores. I quote the definition here, to wet the appetite:

‘The book of Psalms, complex in its formation and pluralistic in its content, is Israel’s highly stylised, normative script for dialogical covenantalism, designed for many “reperformances”‘.

In this opening chapter, the emotional extremes of lament and praise are explored. Brueggemann argues that these two extremities of emotion, which are affirmed by the Psalms, ensure that faith cannot become either ‘rigorously moralistic, on the one hand’ or narcissistic on the other. This conviction of the Psalms’ transformative capacity typifies Brueggemann’s conviction as to their ongoing efficacy.

The second, and longer chapter, echoes the claims of Karl Barth and his ‘Strange New World of the Bible’. Brueggemann argues that the Psalms provide a counter-world to the world that others present to us. He works this out by suggesting seven underlying tenets of our ‘closely held world’. Those familiar with Brueggeman’s work will not be surprised at the issues highlighted here or the inherent critique of what might be termed Western values (my phrase). The second half of the chapter presents seven claims of the Psalms, which are variously a counter, antidote and denial of the seven worldly myths. The existence of this counter-world is reason enough to make time for the Psalms in their entirety.

The other fourteen chapters are an eclectic mix, and yet despite the fact that this is an edited collection it has cohesiveness in style and content. Throughout the whole collection, the same passion for hearing all the Psalms, and embracing their challenge and complexity is displayed. Although Brueggemann rarely refers directly to his orientation, disorientation and reorientation paradigm, of the Appendix, its consequences are there throughout.

Particular highlights include:

1. How Brueggemann brings the Enthronement Psalms (47, 93, 96, 97, 98 and 99) to life, something which traditional form criticism often fails to do.
2. An honest assessment of both the ‘glad’ and the ‘sad’ psalms on Jerusalem, showing that an appreciation of these competing dynamics prevents any naivety concerning modern Jerusalem.
3. An exciting proposal to reclaim psalm 137 for use in worship in a chapter on the Rhetoric of Violence.

I am pleased to recommend this book to anyone who who wants to engage with the Psalms seriously with a view to using all of them in worship. The book does assume some familiarity with theological ideas and terminology but is less technical than Brueggemann’s previous collection of Essays on the Psalms (The Psalms and the Life of Faith, edited by Patrick D. Miller). Whether you read this book, or not, do make sure you enter the counter-world of the Psalms.

A Broken Hallelujah: Leonard Cohen’s Secret Chord

Liel Leibovitz, A Broken Hallelujah: Leonard Cohen’s Secret Chord, Dingwall: Sandstone Press, 2014.

Liel Leiovitz, assistant professor of Communications at New York University, argues that his book on Leonard Cohen is not a biography. In a similar vein this post is not a book review. Whatever else Leibovitz’s book is, it is certainly a sympathetic account of Cohen. Throughout reading it, the reader is continually reassured that the author has a concern and warmth for his subject. In the preface we read that:

“You feel the same hum at a Cohen concert that you do in a church or a synagogue, a feeling that emanates from the realization that the words and the tunes you’re about to hear represent the best efforts we humans can make to capture the mysteries that surround us, and that by listening and closing your eyes and singing along, you, too can somehow transcend.”

We soon learn that Cohen is not a simple traditional religious type, however, given the fact that rock and roll, and orgasms, make up, along with theology, the three core themes of his canon. After the brief Prelude, the rather lengthier Preface portrays Cohen as the the only person with a sense of perspective and wisdom in a massive Festival (the first Isle of Wight one) gone seriously bad. The account has all the marks of a Legend, yet like all the best legends it has that ring of truth that gives you confidence that Cohen is in a somewhat special league of popular musicians, or indeed human beings.

The story of Cohen’s Jewish upbringing is warmly described, perhaps working especially well given our narrator is also a Jew. A Gentile would have found difficulty in expressing some of the captivating perspective given here:

“It’s a terrific cosmic joke, but it makes for great theology, too. Exiled for millennia, scattered across all corners of the world, the Jews have survived as a nation, outliving so many of antiquity’s proudest peoples, because they had the strange question to ponder: Why us? And what now?”

Cohen’s Jewishness is the key reason what I was drawn to this book. I wanted to find out more about a singer/songwriter whose lyrics exuded the Psalms of Israel, which are a passion of mine. I am still convinced that, Hallelujah, Cohen’s truly iconic song, is a profound meditative reflection on the Biblical Psalter. Surely this is a Holy and yet broken Hallelujah; the words of ‘men’ become the word of God in this treasured collection. Like Cohen’s work they are both poems and songs. Whether my reasons make sense, or not, I have certainly a greater knowledge of, and I hope insight into, Cohen. The reader like myself, who knew little of Cohen, will not be surprised to find out he was a poet long before he was a songwriter. Those like me who have enjoyed the echoes of the soul of the Psalms will find support for their experience in Leibovitz’s claim that duende (a Spanish term for ‘deep song’, similar to the concept of blues) is a key force behind his poetry and songs. For those that know the Psalms this is of course the thread of Lament, or Complaint, so prevalent there.

Throughout the book there are some cameos from major figures of popular culture from the 1960s to the 1980s. Two stand out in particular. When Bob Dylan enters the story you can’t help but feel for Cohen who discovers that Dylan write’s his songs in minutes, whilst Cohen trims and refines over years. When Phil Spector crosses Cohen’s path to work on an album, the reader is moved again. Spector’s ‘Wall of Sound’ was always going to being incoherent with Cohen’s minimalism. Why did on one realise this at the outset?

At one point I felt that the episodic nature of Leibovitz’s account yields a picture of Cohen as a intellectual Forrest Gump. For it is not only the big players like Dylan and Spector who arrive on stage, but big world events too. Cohen was the only Westerner in Cuba at the time of the Bay of Pigs debacle who could claim he was just there on a prolonged holiday. Some twelve years later he spent months touring for the Israeli armed forces engaged in the Yom Kippur War.

When the reader reaches the final chapter, A Secret Chord, they are surprised that Cohen’s most infamous song was written as recently as 1984. This song is so many things, not least it is perhaps the most explicit vehicle for the quest for redemption that, Leibovitz suggests, underpins Cohen’s ongoing critique of Jewish and Gentile culture through poetry, novel and song.

I am grateful to Leibovitz for this book, and I commend it to anyone with a passing interest in Cohen as well as those already familiar with this unique artist. On the 23rd September 2014, 2 days after his 80th birthday, he will release his 13th album. Lucky for us.

The Psalms: Language for All Seasons of the Soul

The Psalms: Language for All Seasons of the Soul, Andrew J. Schmutzer and David M. Howard (editors), Chicago: Moody Publishers, 2013.

With an edited collection like this the reader will probably look at who the contributors are as their first engagement not with the book. The list of contributors is encouraging indeed. Whilst all the contributors are based in North America they are some of the very best Old Testament scholars of the Evangelical tradition. Many have already made highly significant contributions to psalms scholarship. Importantly there is also the right balance of some newer voices here too.

Such collections are prone to be somewhat uneven. In my view this is very much the case here. Some of the papers contribute little that is new, with very similar material available elsewhere. This is not necessarily a major problem as the book, quite naturally aims to capture something of a snapshot of the latest consensus on psalms scholarship and thus some overlap with previous work is inevitable. What I found more problematic was the idiosyncratic or cursory nature of a small number of the contributions. I will single out two which I found less helpful, before making some more positive comments on what I found to be the strongest chapters in this collection.

The collection opens with a contribution from Bruce K. Waltke titled Biblical Theology of the Psalms Today: A Personal Perspective. This chapter certainly achieves its subtitle, it is a highly personal account, indeed the word autobiographical springs to mind. I am not sure I’ve encountered something quite like this before in a serious work of this type. The personal approach would not be a problem if it lived up to its main title. Putting the matter bluntly it really does not leave the reader with a clear appreciation of what a Biblical Theology of the Psalms looks like today. Given the very nature of the consultation, of which this volume is the fruit, it is puzzling that so little is made of the canonical approach to the Psalter by Waltke. Michael K. Snearly’s contribution on Book V as a Witness to Messianic Hope in the Psalter is problematic for quite different reasons. His paper is a highly intriguing proposal and yet the use of the five keywords in book V, critical to his argument, occupies less than half a page! The interested reader will have to obtain a copy of his thesis.

I am pleased to say that this book has far more good contributions than idiosycratic ones. Chapter 2 by Willem A. Vangemeren is an excellent overview of some key contributions to the more literary aspects of Psalms scholarship. Anyone embarking on serious engagement with the Psalms would do well to heed his selection and evaluation of some key scholars. His call to an appreciation and use of the imagination in theological interpretation is in my view also of vital importance. Both the older form-critical approach and the more recent canonical approach, championed in this book, can lead to a distancing between biblical text and the present without such an awareness. Appropriate use of the imagination in theological interpretation enables the Bible to be used as Scripture and ensures that the word of the academy is coherent with the life of the Church. Although of course as Vangemeren makes clear some scholars, such as Barton, would see such an approach or goal as illegitimate.

The five chapters on the Psalms of Lament are diverse in nature, and together highlight just how central these psalms are to the Psalter. Each of these chapters contribute to emphasising that any account of the Psalms for today must enable a fuller engagement with the more difficult seasons of the soul. The theme of lament is also ably picked up later in the volume by David M. Howard Jr.’s examination of that most peculiar of psalms, psalm 88.

For me, the two highlights of the book both focus on the Psalter as a book. Robert L. Cole, who has written a magisterial monograph on psalms 1 and 2 (reviewed in my previous post), convincingly explores the role of these two psalms as an introduction to the Psalter. He helpfully highlights how the two psalms have been meticulously integrated and yet remain distinct in their specific introductory roles. The list of verbal parallels is especially helpful for those who are not familiar with Hebrew and would otherwise find it difficult to spot this intentional linking of the two psalms in English translation.

Cole’s chapter leads very helpfully into David M. Howard Jr.’s examination of how the motifs of Divine and human kingship are central concerns of the Psalter. Although a short contribution it demonstrates the importance of the motif of kingship within the Psalter. He shows that the theme goes beyond being just pervasive and, as the title of his chapter indicates, is a key organisational principle. In this way he points back to the seminal contribution of Gerald Wilson, who in a sense initiated the movement of which the current volume is one outcome. Unlike Wilson, however, Howard captures a more convincing overall narrative of the development of the theme of kingship in the Psalter. Indeed Howard helpfully captures the messianic expectation which was so prevalent in Israel at the time of the Psalter’s final editing. In this way the motifs of divine and human kingship understood aright help establish a bridge between the Testaments, rather than the gulf opened up by some adherents of form-criticism.

Coles’ chapter and Howard’s two contributions in this volume, in particular, have made me go back to the Psalter afresh, and what more could a book on the Psalms hope to do for its readers?