3 Stars Out Of 5
Some good thoughts on various themes in the Psalms
March 11, 2013
The Psalms is a book that I don't turn to as often as I should. I know that there is great theology in there. I know that, if ever I was looking for truth put into action in a person's spiritual life, the book of Psalms is it. And yet I find it a difficult book to wade in to. Crossway just recently published a book that I thought might be helpful in this arena - The Psalter Reclaimed by Gordon Wenham.
To be perfectly honest, this is a hard book to review, first off, because my expectations were a bit different than what the book delivered. While I was expecting a book that was a bit more devotional (though not in the light or fluffy sense) from the comments on the back cover, what I actually received was a book that is a highly technical introduction to some aspects of the Psalms. In that sense, the book was a far cry from what I was looking for as it was neither devotional nor introductory in a broad sense.
That said, I believe in judging a book on it's own merits, not on what I think the author should have said. So, what does The Psalter Reclaimed bring to the table? First off, the format. This book is comprised of eight chapters, each with a different topic. Many were given as lectures at various colleges and most take on the form of an academic paper.
The topics themselves are quite varied. From "What are we doing singing the Psalms?" to "Praying the Psalms" to "The Ethics of the Psalms" and ending with "The Nations in the Psalms." If you are interested in a thematic topic and how it is explored throughout the book of Psalms, then this work is probably one that you should look in to. Wenham does a wonderful job of expositing the text of numerous Psalms throughout the book and does so in a way that genuinely helps you to see themes throughout.
That said, I found a number of the chapters more abstract than helpful. It's not that Wenham was wrong in his exegesis, far from it. But rather some of the chapters were so technical and so distanced from church life that I found them to perhaps be more useful in an academic setting than in a pastoral one. For example, the various discussions of canonical criticism in chapter three. While helpful in an academic sense, and perhaps even useful from a bird's eye view for the pastor, this really isn't a topic that most in the pews will care much about, especially since it delves into academic minutiae. Most wouldn't see higher critical thought as a scintillating topic for church discussion.
Another point that I had hoped to see a bit more guidance on was solid applications of the given topic. I don't mean application in a "sermon" sense, but rather in a "now that I've proven my case, here's what we should do about it" sense. While each chapter most definitely has a handful of concluding paragraphs, more often than not the actual implications of any given teaching are left for the reader to grapple with. While that's not a problem overall, it would have strengthened the book to have a few solid suggestions in each chapter about any given topic's application to the life of the church or the individual believer.
Now that's not to say that there is no application, but instead simply to point out that it's not ready-made. I found several chapters quite helpful, "What are we doing singing the Psalms?" being one of them. This was a good challenge for folks like me who didn't grow up using the Psalms in worship and yet I also know full well that this is the actual purpose for which the Israelites did use them! So I've always wondered how to bridge that gap. I think that Wenham does a good job here of challenging both churches and individuals to take another look at the Psalms with an eye towards incorporating them into the life of the church and it's worship of God.
Another chapter I found helpful was Wenham's discussion of "Praying the Psalms". No surprises are to be found here, but I see that as a good thing. I was encouraged by the solid exegesis and understanding of how to use the Psalms in our prayer life. One application that I came away with was that the Psalms provide a rich vocabulary to use when praying to keep my prayers from getting stale or rote, not to mention the repeated portrait of deeply honest prayers before our God (no fluffiness here!). There is much growth that can come from looking to the Psalms as a book of prayer, and this was a welcome encouragement to do exactly that.
All in all I would say that this is a useful work if one goes into it understanding what it's limitations are. If you are looking for an academic work that addresses various topics with regards to the Psalms, it would be worth glancing through the table of contents to determined if this book touches upon your questions. If it does, then it would be highly recommended as Wenham's scholarship is to be commended for it's adherence to Biblical truth. If, however, you are a looking to a more broad-based introduction to the Psalms or for something that will have more of a devotional character to it in the sense of challenging exegesis backed up by solidly connected application, then you would probably be better served by looking to other works.
(In the interest of full disclosure, I wish to note that the publisher of this book, Crossway, provided it to me at no cost as a review sample. That said, my review is in no way influenced or controlled by them and thus I write my review of this book with honesty and integrity.)