I have long wondered why it seems hard for the psalms to get better traction in our worship services. Although some things might suggest the tide is turning, by and large the psalms seem to be met with at least disinterest, if not sometimes opposition. Regarding the psalter, it might be that we need updated tunes with melodies more singable for modern voices—there is no doubt catchy music drives the popularity of much modern praise music, regardless of whether we like or dislike its content.
I do wonder if part of why people are reserved about singing psalms is because the psalms are not immediately familiar to them. There are a few layers to that unfamiliarity as I see it. Likely, the psalms are not the go-to book for private devotionals among many modern Christians. As a result, the content in a direct sense is not familiar. We often do not know the words of the psalms like we know other parts of Scripture.
Furthermore, the content of the psalms is likely foreign to people in the sense that the content is, at first glance, removed from their personal experience. Few members gathering in western churches will be contemplating the traps that their wartime enemies are plotting against them. Even if some of the language of lament and praise surrounding those examples resonates, the circumstances themselves land oddly in comparison to how most of us, unless we are presently serving on deployment in the armed forces, think about the challenges we face in life. Thus, the psalms might be unfamiliar in the sense that the setting is somewhat removed from our experience.
This foreignness also makes the words, pleas, thanks, and everything expressed seem unfamiliar in an indirect sense. Modern praise choruses speak about doctrines and experiences directly in a register and with language that coheres with what we know in daily life. The kingship, temple, sacrificial, and military aspects of the psalms, along with all the other features therein, can make the psalms feel like songs less for us and more about someone else.
Since we are supposed to sing the psalms, at least inclusively, what is the way forward?
Enter Bruce Waltke and Fred Zaspel’s new book aptly titled How to Read and Understand the Psalms. If unfamiliarity with the psalter is part of the problem, becoming familiar with it is part of the solution. This book is a major help on that front.
Even apart from commentaries, there are many books about interpreting the psalms. Of all those I have read, this one is my new favorite. It is readable and helpful. It avoids getting bogged down in the tediousness that traps some other books which try to multiply examples of the points that they argue. Moreover, it does more than what many other books emphasize.
Many books on the psalms focus on interpreting a psalm internally (that is, how to exegete the poetic text) and/or on understanding the various genres within the psalter. Both emphases are necessary and good contributions. These nuts-and-bolts issues, however, get us only so far in bridging the gap of unfamiliarity. Waltke and Zaspel provide chapters walking through the interpretive issues for the various genres of psalms, often in some of the most helpful ways I have seen. This book should be the first port of call for many form-critical exegetical issues.
Above and beyond addressing such needed topics, this book also provides a wide-angle lens for understanding the psalter. The chapter on the royal orientation of the psalter places the king as the main character throughout the psalms. This point is the foundation of the authors’ argument that the entire psalter has Christ in view since he is the culminating Davidic king. In this respect, one thing we need to learn from appreciating the psalms, in contrast to modern praise choruses, is that the psalter is not about us, but it is for us as we need to see Christ and sing of him.
Further, the chapter on the final arrangement of the psalter is worth its weight in gold. Although we can preach a psalm in standalone fashion, it is good to see that the psalter is about something more and communicates a bigger picture when taken as a combined book. The authors highlight connections about particular groupings of psalms and about the thematic development throughout the book which will help everyone understand better what the psalter holistically is about. At the least, this chapter will remain close at hand as I prepare to preach on the psalms.
Drawing upon all these issues, it seems this book provides answers that point toward a specific solution for overcoming the unfamiliarity of the psalms to many. Pastors should be preaching the psalms. The more we preach the psalms to show people how Christ is the substance of these songs—even as he is revealed through types and shadows—the more people will grow in their fondness for the message of the psalms. The more we help people understand how the circumstantial issues that make many psalms seem foreign have reference points in their own lives, the more they will be able to have a more immediate appreciation for how these divinely inspired songs give voice to their own experiences.
Waltke and Zaspel highly emphasize the king as the speaker of all the psalms. Although this point is critical and useful in getting us to Christ in the psalms, I think we should also hold onto the practice of seeing how the psalmist’s words help us raise our experiences personally and appropriately before the Lord. There is a way to transpose the psalms into our own lives so they can teach us how to walk before the Lord in godly ways when we bring the full range of the human experience to him in prayer, from highest rejoicing to deepest lament.
This book is a wonderful resource. Pastors should get it and use it to preach the psalms. Church members should get it to help them see the riches of the psalter. We can be thankful for such a helpful, and possibly definitive, introduction to interpreting the songbook which God himself has given to his church.
© Harrison Perkins. All Rights Reserved.
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