David A. Booth
The Psalter Reclaimed, by Gordon Wenham. Wheaton: Crossway, 2013, 205 pages, $15.99, paper.
The production of a new Psalter-hymnal underscores the obligation we share as ministers and elders to explain why we are singing the Psalms while rightly interpreting them to God’s people. This is no easy task. We need a reliable guide who will show us not only why the Psalms have always been treasured by God’s people but also how they can be used to shape our piety and worship in the twenty-first century. Ideally it would be a non-technical work yet attuned to the very best historical and biblical scholarship. It would be a volume that enlightens our understanding while inspiring us to draw nearer to our Lord in both public and private worship. This is that book.
Wenham begins by quoting the Scottish politician Andrew Fletcher: “Let me write the songs of a nation, and I care not who writes its laws.” Wenham continues:
[Fletcher’s] comment is the more intriguing in that as a member of the Scottish parliament he was very active in promoting legislation. Yet he recognized the power of song to capture and mold people’s imaginations and attitudes to life. This insight, though, seems to have eluded most biblical scholars. The significance of the Psalms for biblical ethics has been surprisingly overlooked. (13)
The faith and piety of our congregations is formed more through the psalms, hymns, and songs that we sing than through our official catechisms. Therefore, it makes sense to include the singing of God’s Word as a regular part of our corporate worship.
The book is divided into eight fast-moving chapters: (1) What Are We Doing Singing the Psalms?; (2) Praying the Psalms; (3) Reading the Psalms Canonically; (4) Reading the Psalms Messianically; (5) The Ethics of the Psalms; (6) The Imprecatory Psalms; (7) Psalm 103: The Song of Steadfast Love; (8) The Nations in the Psalms.
Wenham draws on church history to demonstrate how pervasively the psalms were used in prayer for the first thousand years of the church. One striking example is the rule of St. Benedict which “prescribed the reciting of psalms at the eight times of prayer each day. In this way the monks prayed every psalm at least once a week” (40). The rule of Benedict became very popular in the Middle Ages and many lay people adopted the practice of praying all of the psalms once per week or once per month. The historic principle of lex orandi, lex credenda (“the law of praying is the law of believing”) is clearly sounded. We should therefore expect that the regular singing and praying of the psalms in ancient Israel and the early church would have profoundly shaped the faith and piety of God’s people. Wenham persuasively argues that immersing ourselves in the psalms through song and prayer would make a similar impact today.
One of the highlights of this volume is Wenham’s robust defense of the Messianic nature of many psalms. Commenting on the use of Psalm 72:8 in Zechariah 9:9–10, Wenham writes:
Whatever the exact date of Zechariah and the editing of the psalms, this quotation clearly shows that messianic interpretation of some psalms occurred long before the Christian era, because Zechariah is clearly prophesying a future ruler, not commenting on a past one. (83)
Wenham also points out the interesting fact that:
The early Jewish translations of the Psalms into Greek and Aramaic indicate that Jews understood the Psalms messianically too. Again the date of these translations is a matter of some conjecture, but the Septuagint of the Psalms may date from the early second century B.C. and the Targum and Syriac a few centuries later. For example, the Targum paraphrases Psalm 21:1 as “King Messiah shall rejoice in your strength, O Lord,” and the Syriac heads Psalm 72 with the title “A Psalm of David, when he had made Solomon king, and a prophecy concerning the advent of the Messiah and the calling of the Gentiles.” (83)
Wenham follows Gerald Wilson in commending a canonical reading of the Psalter. Reading the Psalms canonically is the effort to understand the Book of Psalms as a whole rather than simply as a collection of individual Psalms. Just as we wouldn’t read Romans 9 without considering its relationship to Romans 1, 4, and 8, those who argue for reading the Psalms canonically insist that paying attention to the structure of the book of Psalms is an important tool for interpreting any individual psalm. Wenham makes numerous interesting observations about the organization of the Psalter. For example, the earlier Psalms tend to focus on the nations as God’s enemies while the later Psalms tend to focus on the nations being gathered together with Israel to worship the true God. The transition between these two foci is Psalms 66–68. While acknowledging that the Psalter has been purposefully structured by an editor, this reviewer takes a more minimalist view and would see thematic parallels as being illustrative rather than determinative of the meaning of any particular psalm. Nevertheless, Wenham helpfully presents what is the majority view among contemporary Bible-believer experts on the Psalms.
The most disappointing chapter in the book is on singing the imprecatory psalms. Wenham provides helpful background material both for and against the Christian use of imprecatory psalms but fails to make an unequivocal recommendation in favor of doing so. While many of us might be sympathetic to his struggle, it would have been helpful if one of the world’s leading Old Testament scholars had taken the risk of getting off the fence.
This is a very helpful and stimulating introduction to some of the issues around reading, singing, praying, and studying the psalms. It is well suited for all officers as well as thoughtful laypeople. Highly recommended.
David A. Booth is an Orthodox Presbyterian minister serving as pastor of Merrimack Valley Presbyterian Church in North Andover, Massachusetts. Ordained Servant Online, March 2015.