In an age of TikTok and Christian pop music, the Psalms can seem like a dusty relic in a poorly visited part of a museum. Sure, many modern choruses are snippets of Psalms or rough paraphrases of them, but their tunes and musicality can be so incongruous from the actual Psalm, it is like putting pickle brine in your orange juice. The central role that the Psalms have occupied in the worship of the saints, ever since they were written, has been largely jettisoned in the past fifty to seventy years. For this reason, efforts to increase the church’s use and knowledge of the Psalms in worship and devotions are welcome and needed, and it is at this target that this book–150 Questions About The Psalter: What you need to know about the songs God wrote–is aimed.
Brad Johnston is the pastor of Topeka Reformed Presbyterian Church, a congregation of the RPCNA (Reformed Presbyterian Church in North America). For those unaware, one of the distinctives of the RPCNA is exclusive Psalm singing without musical accompaniment (a cappella). Hence, the publisher Crown and Covenant is the denominational publishing house. As relayed in the preface, these 150 questions were developed and tested in the family devotions of the author and others. The questions are not intended to be memorized, but to be used along with singing the Psalms to increase both one’s knowledge and love of the Psalms.
The nature of the questions range from the devotional to the pastoral to the academic. There are background questions like who wrote the Psalter (#5), how it is arranged (#48), and what are the Songs of Ascent (#67). The questions are aimed at the heart as he asks why should we sing the Psalms (#92) and Psalms to sing when our faith is weak (#102). The author also includes a whole section on how Christ is present in the Psalter (#21-40). Other topics he covers deal with the various genres of the Psalms, how the Psalms connect to other parts of Scripture, the arrangement of the Psalms, and advice on how to sing the Psalms.
The general strength of the book, though, is hampered by a curiosity and a weakness. These questions were developed in family catechism and is intended for family devotions, but the questions are not fitting for all ages. The questions on genre (#53-60) and the classes of psalms (#73-81) are good material, but for most little kids it is beyond their reach (even more so the final questions which are long quotes from theologians, #141-146). The pushing of our children is fine, but there is no help from the author on how to navigate this for a family with young kids or a variety of ages. This curiosity about audience leaves the parents to fend for themselves, which isn’t bad but it makes you wonder.
The consistent weakness with which this books limps is its regular use of hyperbole and simplification that feels misleading. Without a doubt, family devotion questions should be simplified for the appropriate ages, but this should not tend towards confusion or dishonesty. The examples abound. In #8, it says that “no one book of Scripture has been more helpful to the Christians saints in all the ages of the church than the Psalter.” But, how can the author know this? Besides, is it a competition? At best, this is an unprovable exaggeration, at worse it is false. In #25, it says that the Psalter is quoted in the NT more than any other OT book, which is debatable and an unnecessary detail. Isaiah is favored by the NT authors just as much or more. In #39, the answer states that we should understand a particular psalm in its historical context. Yet, most the Psalms have no referent to a particular history and are highly debated. In #41, it says David arranged for the composition of the Psalter, but how does this work when the psalms date from Moses to post-exilic times? There is much we do not know about the historical development and arrangement of the Psalter. To credit its arrangement to David is misleading simplification. In #95, he defines the original use of the Psalm as how it would have been used in the First and Second Temple period, but again this is often not known and sometimes the NT church used a Psalm differently than it would have been used in the Second Temple period. In #106, he refers to Psalm 92 as being a song for the Sabbath by referencing its title, which is only found in the LXX, not in the MT, and is most likely not inspired. One final example, in #131, he asks, “What about the Psalter makes it supremely majestic?” Why the hyperbole? Since when is the Psalter any more majestic than Isaiah, Exodus 15, or the letters of Paul? Indeed, the most troubling things about the author’s regular exaggerations is that they elevate the Psalms while putting down the rest of Scripture (sure, the author would deny this, but it is felt throughout this book). This is not helpful. Without a doubt, we should be singing and using the Psalms more in worship and in our lives, but we can encourage this without being hyperbolic about it.
Overall, this book is a fine introduction to the Psalms and the singing of them. It is thorough in its scope, readable in its language, and practical for both worship and piety. And maybe most importantly, it directs the reader to the Psalms themselves. As Johnston notes again in the preface, you cannot love a classic piece of art by reading books about it. You have to go to the original and take it in. Therefore, the final question in each of its seven sections has as its answer a Psalm. The answers are full of references to individual or groups of Psalms to go read and sing. The questions and answers are constantly pointing us to the Psalms as the Word of God so that we might love them and our Triune God more.
© Zach Keele. All Rights Reserved.
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