The Psalter Reclaimed: Praying and Praising with the Psalms

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Psalm 91:1–6 (ESV):

He who dwells in the shelter of the Most High will abide in the shadow of the Almighty.
I will say to the LORD, “My refuge and my fortress, my God, in whom I trust.”
For he will deliver you from the snare of the fowler and from the deadly pestilence.
He will cover you with his pinions, and under his wings you will find refuge; his faithfulness is a shield and buckler.
You will not fear the terror of the night, nor the arrow that flies by day,
nor the pestilence that stalks in darkness, nor the destruction that wastes at noonday.

A fitting, hopeful and comforting Psalm for these difficult times. But there is more to the Psalms than your favourites. Have you read all 150 of them? And if you have, have you made sense of them? Today’s book might just show you how.

Hi, my name is Terence and I’m your host for Reading and Readers, a podcast where I review Christian books for you. Today’s book is “The Psalter Reclaimed: Praying and Praising with the Psalms” by Gordon Wenham. 208 pages, published by Crossway in 2013.

Gordon Wenham is a British Old Testament scholar famous for his Word Biblical Commentary on Genesis and New International Commentary on the Old Testament on Leviticus. If you browse his books in Amazon, you will see a list of academically leaning Old Testament work.

The book, “The Psalter Reclaimed” is a collection of eight essays, drawn from separate lectures over the years. Thus, there is understandably some overlap between the essays.

What Are We Doing Singing the Psalms?

The first essay, “What Are We Doing Singing the Psalms?” describes how the Psalms was used in Temple Worship and later in synagogues and churches. Also, Wenham suggests the Psalms was designed to be memorised. And he doesn’t just mean your favourite Psalm 23, “The Lord is My Shepherd”. Some psalms were acrostic or alphabetically structured to ease recall. Psalm 119 is acrostic. It’s also the longest chapter in the whole Bible with 176 verses. That’s a lot to memorise. But that’s not all, based on ancient literature and practices, Wenham suggests that the entirety of the Psalms, all 2,527 verses, could be intended to be stored in memory, which makes your memorisation of Psalm 23 a lot less impressive now.

You could counter that the ancients had to memorise because they had no Bible. There was no printing press so obviously everything had to be stored in memory. But memorisation has it’s own reward as Wenham writes:

As a reader memorizes a text, he becomes textualized; that is, he embodies the work he has committed to memory.
This does sound like the act of eating the Bread of Life or living out what is meant to abide in him as he abides in us for we embody the Word that we have committed to memory.

Through Speech Act Theory, Wenham shows the increasing level of involvement; moving from a lower level of involvement when we listen to a sermon, to a higher level when we say amen to that sermon, to an even higher level of involvement when we sing or pray the psalms.

In our experience, we know that our songs shape the church. What Wenham did in his first essay is to show that Speech Act Theory applied on the Psalms proves our experience is biblically supported. That should be a frightening and/or promising prospect to church and worship leaders.

Praying the Psalms

The second essay is titled, “Praying the Psalms”. Wenham lists the types of psalms: Psalms of Praise, Lament, Penitential, and Messianic Psalms. The book of Psalms is more than “Everything that has breathe praise the Lord”. It contains a spectrum of emotions: from joy to grief. The wide variety of psalms points to a much wider biblical response to the human experience.

However, for an essay titled “Praying the Psalms” Wenham is heavy on the variety of psalms and why they are important but too light on how to pray with them. How does a Christian pray the psalms in celebrating a newborn or mourning a death? How do we pray the psalms in Covid or Afghanistan, in marriage or in our careers?

I expected this chapter to be more practical like Donald Whitney’s “Praying the Bible”. In his book, Whitney shows readers how to pray our everyday prayers in an always fresh way. For example, every day I pray for my children’s salvation. Today I read Psalm 23. From Psalm 23, I pray, “The Lord is my shepherd, may you O God be the shepherd of my children” and I continue praying to God with that psalm. If that piques your interest, I encourage you search for “praying the Bible”. You will find Whitney’s book, articles and videos.

Reading the Psalms Canonically

Coming back to “The Psalter Reclaimed”, the third essay in this collection is the most eye-opening. “Reading the Psalms Canonically”. What does canonically mean?

Imagine if I printed each psalm on separate cards. So I will have 150 cards. For suits, instead of diamonds, clubs, hearts and spades we would have praises, laments, penitentials and messianic.

Now I deal all the cards in front of you. And I take a pen and label the cards: Psalm 1, 2, 3 until 150. Eventually, what you have in front of you on the table is all 150 Psalms labeled accordingly.

Some scholars say that there is no method in the arrangement of the psalms. The cards were dealt randomly. Psalm 103 being in front of Psalm 104 is a coincidence. Accordingly, the appropriate way to interpret a Psalm is to take one card off the table, and find out everything you can about that one card. We ignore the label, Psalm 103, and we ignore it’s position in the book.

The canonical approach says something different. While it doesn’t dispute studying the psalm itself, it asserts that the cards were not laid out randomly. Similar to how you would arrange a playlist in Spotify. One playlist is different from another, and there may be a story behind the playlist.

The canonical approach says that the editors have arranged it so that there is a story to tell from Book 1 to Book 5. Yes, there are five books in the Psalms. And Book 3 ends with Psalm 89, which is a lament. Wenham writes:

However, books 4 and 5 respond to the lament of Psalm 89 with the call to trust in the Lord’s rule, not in human rulers, “without giving up the hope in the eternity of the Davidic covenant.”

There are more insights but the main thing is as Wenham puts it:

If, as I think has been demonstrated, the psalms have been arranged thematically, by title, and by key words to form a deliberate sequence, it is imperative to read one psalm in the context of the whole collection and, in particular, in relationship to its near neighbors.

If this is the first time you have heard of this way of reading the Psalms, then you should buy me coffee, cause I have just introduced you to a brand new way of reading the Psalms that will last a lifetime. Previously, you thought the only way was to pick and choose out of a set, now you learn that it can be read cover to cover with a story behind the sequence for you to discover.

Reading the Psalms Messianically

The fourth essay is “Reading the Psalms Messianically”. Some scholars argue the king in the Messianic Psalms is not referring to a future Messiah. The king mentioned is a historical king in that time.

On the cross, when Jesus said, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” He was quoting the first line of Psalm 22. According to these scholars, Jesus was not claiming a prophetic fulfilment. He was simply singing a song, just like how we would pick a song to sing to fit an occasion.

Wenham quotes Hans-Joachim Kraus a proponent of this view:

Jesus, by praying this psalm on the cross, “enters into the deepest suffering of God-forsakenness, that those who pray the Old Testament experience . . . that is, Jesus declares his solidarity with the whole fullness of suffering.”

Do you agree with that? Do you agree that Jesus was merely declaring his solidarity with the whole fullness of suffering rather than explicitly fulfilling prophecy and making a theological point. Well, I don’t agree. It sounds like a rationalistic reluctance to admit supernatural prophecy.

In this essay, Gordon Wenham sidesteps the question of the original setting in Psalm 22 to reemphasise the prophetic fulfilment, I quote:

We can read it historically as a lament of a royal figure on the verge of death with his enemies looking on, hoping for his imminent demise. But the New Testament clearly sees it as more fully realized in the crucifixion.

And later he concludes:

This seems to me an excellent case of sensus plenior, of realizing the full meaning of the psalm long after it was first written and the crucifixion had been seen.

Oh no! Sensus plenior! If you listened to my previous review of Recovering the Unity of the Bible by Walter C. Kaiser Jr., you would have heard my wrestling with this sensus plenior or verses can have more-than-one meaning way of intepreting. Kaiser insists there is only one meaning, not two or more.

Does it make a big difference? If you read Kaiser and teach there is only one meaning and next week you read Wenham and then teach the NT gives a fuller meaning to the OT, you have just twisted yourself in a knot. You are inconsistent in the way you interpret the Bible. While, I can’t comment on whether there is a big or small difference, I suggest that it’s good to be aware and to be deliberate on how you interpret the text.

We are now halfway through the book, four chapters in. Notice that I have mentioned scholars a few times and I just discussed Bible interpretative methods. This is a scholarly book that prompts and welcomes such conversations.

For the rest of the review, I’ll quickly go through the fifth, seventh and eighth essay and circle back to the sixth essay because the sixth is the best of the collection.

The Psalter Reclaimed Gordon Wenham

The Ethics of the Psalms

The fifth essay is “The Ethics of the Psalms”. In this essay, Wenham shows how neglected the Psalms are when it comes to ethics. The Psalms, just as well as Proverbs, teaches us so much of what is right or wrong in God’s eyes. He systematically goes through each of the ten commandments and where it’s seen in the Psalms. Interestingly, there are a lot more psalms condemning lying. Wenham suggests why, I quote:

the Psalms themselves are examples of the positive use of the tongue for the praise of God. This makes the tongue’s negative use to destroy one’s fellow man especially reprehensible.

The Psalms doesn’t just amplify the ten commandments, a main theme is to contrast the righteous and the wicked. Let me read Psalm 1 in it’s entirety and I’m sure you would agree:

Blessed is the man who walks not in the counsel of the wicked, nor stands in the way of sinners, nor sits in the seat of scoffers;
but his delight is in the law of the LORD, and on his law he meditates day and night.
He is like a tree planted by streams of water that yields its fruit in its season, and its leaf does not wither. In all that he does, he prospers.
The wicked are not so, but are like chaff that the wind drives away.
Therefore the wicked will not stand in the judgment, nor sinners in the congregation of the righteous;
for the LORD knows the way of the righteous, but the way of the wicked will perish.

That was Psalm 1. The canonical approach, which if you remember, emphasises on the arrangement of the Psalms. Psalm 1 being programmatic means the main theme of the entire book includes the way of the righteous and the wicked. If you want to know more, you’ll be happy to know that Gordon Wenham wrote an entire book on this subject. “Psalms as Torah: Reading Biblical Songs Ethically”, 250 pages, published by Baker Academic in 2012.

Psalm 103: The Song of Steadfast Love

The seventh essay is “Psalm 103: The Song of Steadfast Love”. If you want to know how to expound a psalm using the canonical approach, this is your chapter. I give you one example insight.

Psalm 103 and Psalm 104 are connected. They both start with the line, “Bless the Lord O My Soul”. That is obvious. What is not so obvious is Psalm 104, 105 and 106 form a set. Psalm 104 is Creation. Psalm 105 tells the story of Abraham to Exodus. Psalm 106 continues from Exodus to Deuteronomy. Knowing now that Psalm 103 is a prelude to Israel’s history (Psalm 104 to Psalm 106), this gives us a fresh insight to God’s steadfast love, God’s hesed. When we read verse 8-9:

The LORD is merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.
He will not always chide, nor will he keep his anger forever.

We remember that the next few Psalms echo the steadfast love of the Lord in God’s dealing with Israel.

The Nations in the Psalms

If the seventh essay is an example of an exposition of one psalm, then the eighth essay is an example of a topical study of the Psalms. The essay’s title is “The Nations in the Psalms” and Wenham exemplifies how topical studies should be done.

If I can plea to you, and I don’t just mean a pastor or preacher, I mean the everyday Christian, if you want to know what the Bible says about any one topic, whether it’s marriage, apostles, homosexuality, spiritual gifts, any topic common or controversial, you must know what the whole, I emphasise whole, Bible says on that topic. You should not do what many people do which is to limit your study to a few verses and rashly conclude from those few verses.

“Wow. That means I’d have to read the Bible from Genesis to Revelation to find all the relevant verses and study them.” Yes!

“That will take a lot of time.” Yes! But we have a lifetime to be humble and learn.

Which is why this eighth essay is so precious in its precision. The title is not “The Nations in the Bible”, it is “The Nations in the Psalms”. The Psalms has much to say about the nations, and this essay explores the different aspects. Judgment. Promise. The positive and negative aspects. This essay is an excellent example on how to do a topical study using the canonical approach.

The Imprecatory Psalms

Lastly, I want to talk about the best essay in the book: “The Imprecatory Psalms.” The Psalms are not all “Bless the Lord O My Soul”, there is a category of Psalms that does not bless but rather curse. Listen to this portion from Psalm 58:

O God, break the teeth in their mouths;
tear out the fangs of the young lions, O LORD!
Let them vanish like water that runs away;
when he aims his arrows, let them be blunted.

And this Psalm ends with:

The righteous will rejoice when he sees the vengeance;
he will bathe his feet in the blood of the wicked.
Mankind will say, “Surely there is a reward for the righteous;
surely there is a God who judges on earth.”

Break the teeth in their mouths?! Bathe his feet in the blood of the wicked?! Is this coming from the beloved book of Psalms or from a bloodthirsty monster? Imprecatory means to call down evil or curses. Examples include Psalms 12, 44, 58, 83, 109, 137 and 139. It’s not one, two or three, there are a few.

They are so problematic that some churches have taken them out of reading schedules. The idea is to skip them because the content is so out of sync with ‘proper’ Christian teaching.

Wenham summarises the views of various people on the imprecatory psalms. Calvin said it is right for the righteous to hate wickedness, yet also to remember that it may be God’s purpose to bring them into repentance. Kirkpatrick said the sentiments shown in the imprecatory psalms do not belong in the age of Christ. Calvin and Kirkpatrick are older voices, so Wenham helpfully presents some contemporary thoughts from Derek Kidner who is closer to Kirkpatrick and Alec Motyer who is closer to Calvin.

Wenham devotes much of the chapter to the Roman Catholic Erich Zenger’s work. He explains why:

Zenger’s exegesis is careful, thorough, and sensible. Here I should simply like to quote his initial plea for taking these texts seriously if we are to understand them. He pleads for dialogue with these violent psalms, and true dialogue involves taking the other side seriously. We must understand them before we can express our disagreement. These psalms may seem very foreign to us on first acquaintance, but we need to ask ourselves why that is so. Could it be something in us that makes it difficult for us to appreciate their standpoint? Such honest introspection could lead to a lively struggle with the text and even to seeing them as friends, not as enemies. Indeed that could lead to a change in our perspectives.

My reflection after reading this essay is the imprecatory psalms simply show in painful and graphic detail what other psalms and prophecies mean by judgment. If you are a Christian who is put off by the imprecatory psalms, what do you expect when Christ returns to judge the evil? A slap on the wrist? Then what is the salvation from judgment that we are so grateful for?

If we are shocked by the violence in the Psalms, let that be a warning to evil-doers of the wrath of God to come. Because for us who are covered by the blood of Jesus, these verses are a relief for we have been passed over from that violence. And more importantly, these verses are a comfort to those presently suffering that God is indeed the Judge of all the Earth.

The idea that churches are removing selected psalms from scheduled reading is troubling. How does that align with the teaching that all of Scripture is God-breathed, inspired and inerrant? If we can take some out of reading circulation, what stops us from removing the uncomfortable parts from the Bible?

The imprecatory psalms are not difficult to understand, hence why it’s so distressing. Instead of removing it, we should teach it. Wenham’s essay here is helpful and just for this essay alone, you should download the free book as offered by Faithlife for November. This essay would be a useful reference for anyone who stumbles at the imprecatory psalms.

Recommendation

Who is this book for? Personally, I think this book should be a Logos Free Book of the Month instead of a Faithlife Free Book of the Month, because it’s more technical than Faithlife’s usual offerings. Some readers might protest because they read it just fine, “It’s okay!”, and would recommend it to anyone.

Let’s take the analogy of cameras. Some cameras are like the phones you use, they are point-and-shoots. You click one button and it takes the shot without fuss.

Professional cameras like DSLRs require you to fiddle with the aperture, shutter speed and ISO settings. These are technical terms. This might shock you but the professional cameras do not have auto mode. You have to learn the technical terms to use the cameras.

Then there is the prosumer camera. They sit between the professional DSLRs and consumer point-and-shoots. This book is like a prosumer camera. It is written by a scholar for a scholarly-ish audience. However, if you don’t let yourself be intimidated by the tone and form, the essays are accessible enough for remarkable insights.

Criticism

And this leads to my main criticism. I question the decision to publish this as a collection of essays. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy reading a good collection of essays. My next book review is the Logos Free Book of the Month for November, “Scripture and Truth” which is a collection of 12 essays from 12 authors.

Gordon Wenham is the sole essayist in this book which consists of essays on one topic, the Psalms. And the essays has been arranged so that the first tells us how the Psalms was used, the third introduces us to the canonical approach and seventh and eighth apply that canonical approach. So there is clearly an editorial move to link one essay to the next, which begs the question, “Why not rewrite the essays to be a regular book?”

A rewrite will remove the repetitions of background and quotations that appear between essays. An introduction and conclusion chapter will cement the ideas presented here. When I finished reading the last essay, I felt the ending was too abrupt.

It is ironic that I’m calling for a stronger editorial hand for a book that emphasises and celebrates the role of the editor behind the Psalms.

Conclusion

In conclusion, this book will help you read and learn from the Psalms. It will help you reclaim an appreciation and love for how the whole book comes together but because of the scholarly tone and emphasis, it is not clear to the casual reader how to reach the goal of praying and praising with the Psalm. For that I recommend you get Donald Whitney’s book, “Praying the Bible”, it’s only 112 pages.

This is a Reading and Readers review of “The Psalter Reclaimed: Praying and Praising with the Psalms” by Gordon Wenham. Listed for USD11.99 in Amazon Kindle and USD16.99 in Faithlife but it’s now for November, this month and this month only, a free book from the good folks at Faithlife.

If you like the idea of reading the Psalms from first to last, you might appreciate EveryPsalm by Poor Bishop Hooper, a husband and wife music ministry. EveryPsalm is a three year project to release a song based on a psalm every week. From Psalm 1 to Psalm 150. A great complementary listen while you pray and praise with the Psalms.

Let me end today’s podcast with a clip from Psalm 1. Please search Poor Bishop Hooper for the whole song and more.

Book List

  • The Psalter Reclaimed: Praying and Praising with the Psalms by Gordon Wenham. Amazon. Faithlife.
  • Praying the Bible by Donald S. Whitney. Amazon. Faithlife.
  • Recovering the Unity of the Bible by Walter C. Kaiser Jr. Amazon. Logos.
  • Psalms as Torah: Reading Biblical Songs Ethically by Gordon Wenham. Amazon. Logos.

Reference

  • Sound Effects. zapsplat.com
  • EveryPsalm by Poor Bishop Hooper. Website.