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How to Read and Understand the Psalms by Bruce K. Waltke and Fred G. Zaspel

Charles Malcolm Wingard

Ordained Servant: February 2024

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How to Read and Understand the Psalms, by Bruce K. Waltke and Fred G. Zaspel. Wheaton, IL: Crossway 2023, xviii + 588 pages, $38.39.

The Psalms occupy a prominent place in the pastor’s life and work. He uses them to summon his congregation to worship. Their vocabulary and poetry shape the language of his prayers, both public and private. With them, he comforts the sick, gives hope to the despairing, and consoles the mourner. They supply cherished words to lead his flock in praises, thanksgivings, and intercessions. No pastor’s toolbox is properly furnished without the Psalms.

To be used effectively, any tool must come with instructions for its proper use. Experienced craftsmen must teach their apprentices—which is why pastors will find How to Read and Understand the Psalms a valuable resource. Like master craftsmen, Bruce Waltke and Fred Zaspel instruct readers about the structure of individual Psalms, explore their various forms, explain the arrangement of the Psalter’s five books, and offer suggestive outlines that will assist pastors and teachers in effectively communicating their message. After reading, pastors will be better prepared to employ the Psalms in their ministerial labors.

The authors’ share several convictions about the Psalms that readers of Ordained Servant will find attractive. They affirm the following:

  • The divine and human authorship of the Psalms: “To interpret Scripture rightly we must have a sympathetic understanding of God, the divine author, the human authors, and the text itself” (24).
  • The antiquity of the Psalms: The Davidic authorship of the Psalms attributed to him is affirmed (45).
  • The royal orientation of the Psalms: “The Psalms are both by and about the king. The Psalter can be thought of as a royal hymnbook, and its individual psalms have the house of David as its subject matter and point of reference” (73).
  • The Christocentric direction of the psalms: “The Psalms are ultimately the prayers of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. He alone is worthy to pray the ideal vision of a king suffering for righteousness and emerging victorious over the hosts of evil.” (81)

Early chapters (1–7) explore matters related to interpreting the Psalms, their historical and liturgical settings, Hebrew poetry, and psalm forms. Throughout these chapters, the authors are actively engaged in the interpretation of individual Psalms. For example, in “The Liturgical Settings of the Psalms,” several sacred temple activities are identified, including the offering of sacrifices (Psalm 107:21-22), prophetic declarations (Psalm 50:1,7–8), processions (Psalm 68:25–27), and pilgrimages (Psalm 84:1–12). Along with commentary, relevant portions of the text in English translation are printed in their entirety, making for easy use of the book (96–101).

Chapters 8–13 investigate various psalm forms—specifically praise and petition-lament psalms; individual songs of grateful praise; songs of trust; and messianic and didactic psalms. Because some Psalms contain more than one form, precise categorization is inexact (331).

Concluding chapters address “Rhetorical Devices and Structures” and “The Final Arrangement of the Psalter” (chapter 14–15). Helpful appendices review superscripts and postscripts, matters of canonical development, and a summary of psalm forms.

Understanding how to interpret the psalms is critically important, not just to pastors and teachers, but for all believers who prize God’s Word. Too readily readers assume that the first-person pronouns they encounter (“I” and “me”) refer to individual believers and that the promises of deliverance pertain directly to them in their trials and afflictions (74). But the direct application of the text to believers overlooks the “royal orientation of the psalms.” The authors argue that instead these are the psalms of the king that equip God’s people to sing about the king (80). For instance, in Psalm 84:9, God’s pilgrim people sing, “Behold our shield, O God; look on the face of your anointed!” The “shield” is God’s king, his Anointed One, and it is in him that God’s people take refuge. His setbacks are their setbacks, his victories are theirs too (77).

Indeed, not just the Psalms but the entire Old Testament points us to Jesus. The authors summarize that relationship succinctly when commenting on Psalm 72: “The Old Testament narrative directs us to look for an ideal son of David, and the Psalter presents him in just such idealistic terms” (381).

Waltke and Zaspel conclude that “the Psalms are ultimately the prayers of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. He alone is worthy to pray the ideal vision of a king suffering for righteousness and emerging victorious over the hosts of evil” (81; cf. 538).

As an ordained minister, I am especially grateful for the pastoral tone of this book. Truly, the right use of the Psalms binds believers to their Redeemer King. Their hope is bound up in him, their “only comfort in life and death.” And now, on this side of the heavenly city, God’s people interpret their experiences in the light of his sufferings, death, and resurrection triumph. Knowing that they are God’s beloved children, they are firmly persuaded that they are “heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided [they] suffer with him in order that [they] may also be glorified with him” (Rom. 8:17). From one perspective, the Psalms are an invitation to God’s pilgrim people to know their King “and the power of his resurrection, and the fellowship of his sufferings, being made conformable unto his death” (Phil. 3:10, KJV).

Just as certainly as the Psalms are a hymnbook that directs the praise of God’s people, it is also a “missionary hymnbook.” The words of the Psalter call “upon all people to know, love, and serve the Lord God of Israel for their own good and for his praise” (207).

The character of those who sing the Psalms counts. They must be sung with integrity. A purpose of the didactic Psalms is instructing God’s people in the righteous life that pleases him. “To sing his praise while rebelling against him with a life given to sin is a stench to him. It is an offense.” (182)

One would be hard pressed to contend with the authors’ claim that the book of Psalms is the most popular book in the Old Testament. Quoted by Jesus, its words are found in all but four of the New Testament books (1). Just as its words saturated the minds of the inspired writers and guided the praises of God’s people for generations, so it is our hope today that the language of the Psalter will take its rightful place in the worship of church. That pastors would experience afresh the power of the Psalms to fortify pastoral ministry is no less a hope.

Every pastor should count among his choicest tools the Psalter, the inspired hymnbook—the inspired prayerbook—of the people of God.

Charles Malcolm Wingard is minister of shepherding at the First Presbyterian Church of Jackson, Mississippi (PCA), and professor of pastoral theology at Reformed Theological Seminary. Ordained Servant Online, February, 2024.

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Ordained Servant: February 2024

Ethics

Also in this issue

Reproductive Technologies: Blessing or Curse, Dilemmas for Christians

Abuse: No Joke, No Myth

The Voice of the Good Shepherd: Remember Your Medium, Chapter 11[1]

Redemption in Christ: A Review Article

Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe

We Have Waited for the Snow

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