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

Originally posted on Baker Book House Church Connection:

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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My Favourite Psalms of Ascent Tweets

Pause:
The Songs of Ascents (psalms 120-134) are pilgrimage songs.
Why not make your own 15 day ‘pilgrimage’ with them?

Psalm 120:
The Life of Faith is often opposed by lying lips.
It is the way of peace in the midst of hostility.

Psalm 121:
Yahweh is with us on our pilgrimage.
Look to him on the journey and you will not stumble.

Psalm 122:
Pilgrims arrive with joy in Jerusalem.
How much more will this be true when we enter the heavenly city?

Psalm 123:
Yahweh, how your servants look to you in need.
We lift our eyes to you.
Grant us grace.
Lord, grant us grace.

Psalm 124:
The Lord is for His people.
We are like birds that can tweet in freedom, having escaped captivity.

Psalm 125:
Stirred not shaken!
Trusting in Yahweh means not being shaken.
Looking to Yahweh means being stirred to do his work.

Psalm 126:
The Lord has done great things for us.
For our tears will turn to laughter.
We are children of the dream.

Psalm 127:
Both God’s house and our homes need to be built by God.
Both can be broken by human vanity.

Psalm 128:
Blessed is everyone who fears Yahweh; those who walk in His ways.
The Lord bless you from Zion.

Psalm 129:
A reminder to pray for those ploughed into the earth by others.
The ploughed will reap, rather than those who plough.

Psalm 130:
Cry, wait, hope.
Heard, loved, redeemed.

Psalm 131:
A content weaned child.
The ultimate goal of intentional Christian spirituality.

Psalm 132:
The Psalms contain many themes.
David and Zion are key and in this psalm their stories intertwine.

Psalm 133:
Living together as God’s united people is good.
It is the pleasant way into Yahweh’s blessing from Zion.

Psalm 134:
Praise the Lord.
Lift your hands.
May Yahweh bless you from Zion.

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.

Psalmtweets

Around one year ago I decided to tweet once a day on the Psalms. The idea was to work through the Psalms, one-by-one, starting with psalm 1 and working through them in canonical order. The main reason I decided to do this was to give me a focus each day for engaging with Scripture as a spiritual discipline. I have missed eight days, one day in sympathy with a twitter boycott and seven days as a mark of respect after the sudden death of a close friend.

Having done the whole Psalter almost two and a half times, I am still fascinated by the task of capturing a psalm in a tweet. What criteria does one go for? There are a number of possibilities and questions behind the enterprise:

1. Do you try and capture the whole psalm in the tweet?
2. Do you home in on a key aspect which many readers will be familiar with?
3. Might you focus on something more obscure in the psalm? Perhaps to ensure your reader goes to the psalm?
4. Could you use captivating and inspiring poetic language?
5. Do you use some key words, or even actual text, from the psalm?
6. Might you just choose a representative verse?
7. Perhaps you should just give a title to the psalm?
8. Should the tweet offer a challenge or ask a question?

Of course none of these are right or wrong, they have different value for different people in the twitter-sphere.

One of the great things is that there are a number of people who are doing this. Many of them adopt #psalmtweets to make their tweets easy to find. Below I have cited some examples to illustrate what can be done with a psalmtweets.

Ben Myers@FaithTheology:
Psalm 1: The bad life is a busy life, full of bluster and bustle; the good life is a reading life, full of the joy of Torah #psalmtweets

This tweet captures much of the point of psalm 1 and what makes it special is that its language echoes that of the original. The bluster and bustle connects with the wind blown chaff of the original, and the ‘reading’ parallels the static rootedness of the tree in psalm 1. If there was a prize for bringing poetic life to psalmtweets @FaithTheology would receive it.

Mark Wagner@DrMarkWagner:
Where’s God when life’s tough?
Bad guys get out of jail free?
Seems so. But God sees.

#haiku #Psalm10
#GodsLoveChats

How to make the enterprise really tricky, write your tweet as a haiku. @DrMarkWagner’s tweets tend to capture the heart of the psalm with clarity and verve.

Patrick Hoffmann@HoffmaNomad4:
I lift my voice–in songs of praise and songs of lament. My voice breaks with the effort, passion, and emotion. Until… Silence. #psalm28

This is a great example of a thought provoking tweet when read in conjunction with the original psalm. The tweet ends were the psalmist in psalm 28 has asked not to be, but the silence of the tweet is not the consequence of a deaf deity.

Steven Robertson@OtisRobertson:
Psalm 45: The Warrior-King reigns and rejoices in majesty; He welcomes His glorious Bride into His joy. #psalmtweets

This simple tweet captures what is a tricky psalm with wonderful conciseness, to the point of being a commentary for the confused. It even preserves the two strophes of the original text!

Ben Myers@FaithTheology:
Psalm 56 (for Philip Seymour Hoffman). You seek me in my wanderings. You have counted all my tears; You keep them in a bottle #psalmtweets

They can also be timely; here reflecting on the tragic death of a great actor and a wonderful man. He was in my favourite film Magnolia (not all Christians will be comfortable with this film, but it is ultimately profoundly theological).

Marc La Porte@mlaporte74:
Psalm 21: Look back: celebrate past victories. Look ahead: anticipate future victories. Look up: exalt the LORD of victories #psalmtweets

This tweet recasts the whole psalm in a new and memorable light. This is a good reason for psalm tweeting, a good one can make a psalm memorable.

Robert W Moore@robmoore0330:
Psalm 105 “Seek the Lord and his strength: seek his face continually.” Entering the #Easter season, let’s cling to him daily. #eveningprayer

These psalmtweets can be, not only timely, but can also be an exhortation to prayer. This is sensible as surely the whole point of the Psalms is to help us pray.

Why not join in tweeting the Psalms. Reflect on and retweet those that you find rewarding. Have a go at writing your own. It has to be blessing to meditate on the Psalms day and night.

‘The Psalms: Strophic Structure and Theological Commentary’ by Samuel Terrien

Samuel Terrien, The Psalms: Strophic Structure and Theological Commentary, A Critical Eerdmans Commentary, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2003.

This large single volume commentary has been available for just over ten years. I have only recently read it. I am reviewing it here as I think it merits wider attention than it appears to have received. The author, Samuel Terrien, devoted much scholarly attention to the Psalms throughout his long academic career. He passed away, at the age of 90, in 2001, just before the publication of this commentary. His longevity and scholarly interest mean that he is unusually placed to have experienced first hand a number of key developments in Psalms scholarship. He saw how Gunkel’s form-critical approach all but destroyed the nineteenth century’s scholarly consensus on the late date and origin of the Psalter. He witnessed firsthand the impact of Mowinckel’s call to take the original cultic context of the Psalms seriously. More recently he was able to observe a very different movement for interpreting to the Psalter, as Wilson spearheaded what Terrien, and others, refer to as the canonical approach.

Why is this long period of engagement with hermeneutical approaches important to readers of this commentary? Well, so often scholarship can be coloured by either a resistance to change, or the opposite problem, of a grasping after the latest fad. Terrien is well-placed to offer insightful wisdom on the merits of psalms interpretive paradigms, both old and new.

So often in biblical commentaries, the obligatory introduction, can be a bland rehearsal of the expected topics, but this is not the case here. Terrien’s introduction is detailed enough, and yet also concise and fresh enough, to allow the reader to quickly orient themselves on both the Psalms and Terrien’s approach to them. He starts by pointing out the remarkable longevity and vitality of the Psalms; explaining helpfully that this is all the more surprising given the complex ancient near-eastern cultural background to the Psalms. He helpfully surveys the origin and growth of the Psalter. This is important as it indicates that he gives serious attention to some recent developments in scholarship which explore the formation of the Psalter as an intentional, rather than haphazard, collection. He moves on to look at both the music of the Psalms and what he calls the strophic structure. This detailed attention to structure, where each psalm is examined in its own right, is highly unusual, at least in my commentary collection. Terrien then moves on to discuss the form-critical aspects of the various individual psalms. It is clear that Terrien wants to use the fruit of form criticism, but it is also apparent that such an approach is a backdrop to the individual psalms, rather than operating centre stage as an end in itself.

Towards the end of the introduction is, what I found the most illuminating section, a discussion of the Theology of the Psalms. It looks at the Psalms in a way I have recently found rewarding; as being profoundly theological in what they reveal about the nature of Israel’s God. Terrien is aware that, to a large measure, any such attempt at systematisation of the Psalms, is always approximate and provisional: “On account of their extreme diversity, the 150 Psalms do not lend themselves easily to theological synthesis” (p.44). He offers the following headings as one way in which the theology of the Psalms can be organised without imposing a straight jacket on interpreting them:

A. God’s Presence and Absence.
B. The Creator of Nature.
C. The Sovereign of History.
D. The Judge of the Enemies.
E. The Protector if the Poor and Healer of the Sick.
F. The Master of Wisdom.
G. The Lord of Life.
H. Theology and Doxology.

So what of the commentary proper? How does Terrien organise his work on the individual compositions? This is where we see just why the commentary has the subtitle of ‘Strophic Structure and Theological Commentary’. For each Psalm, he offers a new translation. I personally found these exhibited a good balance of faithful translation and poetic elegance. He also provides a very thorough bibliography for each psalm. This will be particularly helpful for those wishing to follow-up his arguments based on literary and strophic structure, as much of the key literature which supports his arguments are journal articles and monographs. Terrien does, of course, acknowledge the textual differences within the MT of the Psalter. He is, however, generally conservative in avoiding hypothetical emendations of the text, which is commendable in my view.

Terrien then looks at the form of the psalm. This is not a simple revisiting of Gunkel’s form-critical categories, although these are often mentioned. Rather Terrien is keen to ensure that the unique nature of each psalm is not eclipsed by a small number of categories, he therefore pays close attention to the specific, as well as generic form of the compositions. He then moves on to look at the individual strophes (already clearly identified in his translation). I frequently found the identification of these literary units insightful for understanding the psalms and engaging with them. This was true in the vast majority of cases. Some readers, might join me, in being less convinced in some cases. Despite some reservations, I think this focus on structure is a key strength of the commentary and this approach means it makes a fresh contribution to the large number of available commentaries. In this sense, it very much does what a commentary should do, in presenting a proposal that engages the reader in grappling with the actual text.

The examination of each psalm then concludes with a section titled ‘Date and Theology’. Placing the two topics together is a very sobering reminder that to some extent the two issues cannot be easily separated. The theological reflection is very helpful, this is particularly so in an age where some commentaries seem very thin on theological reflection.

The twin features of a close structural analysis of each Psalm and the willingness to look at the theological contribution of each psalm makes this an excellent resource for the thorough teacher and preacher. I would however suggest that it be complemented by a second commentary to see an alternative expert judgement on the shape of the text.

In my view the commentary makes a sensible use of the vast body of form-critical and cult-critical studies. Terrien refers to literary forms and contextual information which is illuminating, and he most helpfully avoids the more tentative overarching hypotheses which do little to help interpret the Psalms for use in the Church. He also helpfully pays attention to the canonical method, although, I am not entirely convinced he has worked out all the implications of this interpretive approach. For example, he alludes to the importance of psalms 1 and 2, as psalms that function as an introduction. He also sees both psalms 73 and 90 as being twin poles within the Psalter. Neither of these ideas is really worked out or seriously referred to within the commentary on individual psalms.

As well as preachers benefiting from this work, scholars of the future will want to address the case for the certainties of identifiable strophic structure that Terrien finds in all the canonical psalms. I am very grateful for the many fresh insights I have gained from this work. This commentary is also available relatively cheaply because if it’s publication date, which makes it am excellent supplement to an existing library on the Psalms.