Monday, December 30, 2013

"The Psalms: Language for all Seasons of the Soul": A Review

If the Bible is about God's in-breaking of his kingdom, that is to say, of his will being done on earth as it is in heaven, then the psalms are the faithful voice of the people of God in response to his saving history. In the Psalms we hear the voice of the faithful petitioning God to erupt into the world with his just rule; and of praising him for his faithfulness to his creation of the world that sustains them and for his faithfulness to them in their salvation history. More specifically, we hear the voice of Israel in corporate solidarity - that is to say in a covenant relationship - with their king who expresses their common voice of praise and petition. As such the historical king and Israel are a type of Christ and his church. (26-27)

The largest book of the Bible, the Book of Psalms, includes more chapters than any other book of the Bible and has the honor of having both the longest (Psalm 119) and the shortest (Psalm 117) chapter in Scripture. As a pastor, I have turned to this ancient hymn book to comfort hurting flock, to extol the wondrous works of God, to grow in my own personal prayer life, and to connect with those before me who have struggled with what life throws at them. The psalmists, from all walks of life, deal with suffering, defeat, hope, anticipation, promise, pain, Christ, judgment, repentance, sin, wisdom, and foolishness. All that the Bible teaches is expressed beautifully in the Psalms.

In spite of all that, I struggle mightily with it. I am by no means an expert on the Jewish hymn book. Having taught and preached from it on numerous occasions, its content, interpretation, and exegesis remains a constant challenge for me. For this reason, I invested in the book The Psalms: Language for all Seasons of the Soul edited by Drs. Andrew Schmutzer and David Howard. The editors have arranged a collection of essays, taken from the Evangelical Theological Society, from some of the world's greatest scholars and pastors. The list of contributors include Drs. Bruce Waltke, Walter Kaiser, and John Piper.

Being that the book originates with ETS this is certainly not a book for new believers or those new to the academy. The writers frequently refer to the Hebrew text and discuss topics commonly known among Hebrew poetry scholars. I have three degrees in theology and biblical studies and struggled with some of its content.

Nonetheless, this book is a great addition to any pastor and theologian's library. A few things are worth pointing out. First, one major issue that appears throughout the book regards the nature of the Psalms. Are they simply a random collection of psalms or should we view it as one unified book? Several contributors defend the latter thesis. For example, in his chapter on Psalms 1-2, Dr. Robert Cole, quoting Amos Hakham, suggests that The two first psalms serve as an introduction to the entire book of psalms (183). Likewise in his exegesis of Psalm 91, Dr. Andrew Schmutzer connects Psalms 90-92 together linguistically and in their placement in the canon. This theme is common throughout the book and has helped me immensely.

Secondly, the exegetical chapters are excellent. The two I found most helpful regarded Psalm 91 (the same chapter as discussed in the previous paragraph) and Dr. Robert Chisholm's essay on the common theme of the sea throughout the Psalms. In the latter chapter, Dr. Chisholm acknowledges clear connections between ancient near eastern motif's of a divine battle with the sea (75) and the Old Testament, especially the Psalms. Yet instead of buying the line that the Bible is simply a book that borrows from culture's around it and gives it a Jewish reinterpretation, the author suggests it reflects more clearly exactly what the ancient Jews really believed about Yahweh. He writes:
For ancient Israelites familiar with the mythological symbolism of the sea current in the ancient Near East (and reflected in some biblical texts), Genesis 1 and related texts would have made a startling assertion about the scope and nature of God's kingship. in Mesopotamia Marduk defeated Tiamat, the deified sea or ocean, in conjunction with creation; at Ugarit Baal subdued Yam as a prelude to assuming kingship (though the myth does not appear to refer to a creative act). In Psalms 74 and 89 Yahweh subdues the sea in conjunction with his creative work. But in Genesis 1, neither the primordial deep nor the sea poses any threat whatsoever to God's rule. On the contrary, the sea has its appointed place in the created order and is subject to God's sovereignty.

This image of God's universal and absolute kingship portrayed in Genesis 1 fits well in the psalms derived from it. Psalm 95 asserts Yahweh's incomparablility; he is the "great God" and the "great King" who is superior to "all gods" (v. 3). Psalm 146 portrays God as the eternal cosmic King who demonstrates his justice by caring for the needy (vv. 7-10). (79-80)
The exegetical essays alone are worth the investment. Pastors will benefit greatly from the exegetical, critical, hermeneutical, and literary work of the scholars in this book. They will also be given a front row seat in how to do it. I have preached through a number of the Psalms before and am now interested in doing it again as a result of this book.

One final note. Though the book is primarily an academic work, the final section helpful includes a number of exegetical sermons, like the one from John Piper, from the Psalms. Frankly, I could never pull off the content of some of these sermons in my own congregation, but they do tie the content of the book all together. The editors want the reader to connect academic precision with exegetical homiletics. Sound exegesis ought to lead to more powerful preaching. And, of course, it does.

In short, this is a wonderful book for those with some background in biblical studies. Pastors, theologians, and scholars will benefit greatly from this book. I will certainly be returning to it often.

This book was provided by Moody Press free of charge for the purpose of this review.

For more:
"A Sad, Sad Song" by Steve Lawson
"Against the Gods" by John Currid: A Review
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