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Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Book Review: The Psalter Reclaimed by Gordon Wenham

The Psalter Reclaimed: Praying and Praising with the Psalms
Gordon Wenham
1300 Crescent Street
Wheaton, IL 60187
ISBN-978-1-4335-3396-9; $15.99; 2013.
Reviewed by Rev. Dr. Michael Philliber for Deus Misereatur (4/13)

Pondering the Psalms (4.5 stars out of 5)

Over the years I have watched Christians use, and misuse, the psalms in various ways. Many voice an internal conflict about the appropriateness of using them, and several shy away from the Psalter almost entirely. Therefore I was delighted to read Gordon Wenham’s new 205 page paperback book, “The Psalter Reclaimed: Praying and Praising with the Psalms.” In this easy-to-read book, Wenham has pulled together several lectures he did over the years, and reworked them. “The Psalter Reclaimed” is a good introduction into reading the psalms in their canonical context, how it is correctly done, and the benefits of approaching the Psalter in this way. This work is mildly technical, but still very accessible for laymen, while being extremely useful to pastors. The material is slightly repetitive, which is actually helpful in hammering home his major points.

In the first chapter, Wenham gives basic background material on the psalms’ composition, their intended employment, and how the Psalter has been used historically. In Wenham’s analysis, the Psalter is something of a mini-Bible, a memorizable anthology of the story of God. As the reader memorizes it “he becomes textualized; that is, he embodies the work he has committed to memory” (22). This then leads the author to address the psalms as “Speech Acts”, sacred texts that are sung or spoken and impact the reciter in various ways. One aspect of praying or singing the psalms is that worshipers are declaring “their faith and their commitment to God’s ways” (25). Also, as a believer takes up and voices the psalms he enters into the prayer of the sacred song writer in an intimate and earnest manner. Wenham concludes this chapter by pointing out that the person engaging the psalms is actively committing himself to following the God-approved life (35).

“The Psalter Reclaimed” next moves deeper into praying the Psalter. The author gently builds a case for the practice of regularly reading and employing the Psalter in the home as well as in corporate worship. Wenham especially focuses on the utilization of the lament and penitential Psalms. His reasoning seems to me to be spot on, especially in the real-life setting of ministering to people who are walking through some valley of the shadow of deep-darkness. Similarly, for those who are untroubled and unruffled, Wenham describes how these specific psalms draw them into caring for others who are troubled and ruffled, “if we care about the suffering of our fellow Christians, we should pray these psalms” (49). We are joining our hearts and voices to those groaning under their grief, and on their behalf.

The author then draws the reader into how to understand the Psalter canonically. This chapter is the most technical chapter of the whole book, and yet keeps the reader on task and engaged. Wenham interacts with select authors on this subject, showing their deficiencies and where they are at their best. In doing so, he builds up to his own position and outlines the way to read the Book of Psalms canonically. First, a specific psalm must be read within the framework of the whole Psalter; where it is in the flow from Psalm 1 to 150, and how it sits in relation to the psalms close to it. Next, we must see a particular psalm’s relation to the whole Hebrew canon. Wenham wants the reader to take the historical notations that preface several of the psalms seriously. He will address this multiple times in the remainder of the book. Finally, each psalm should be thought of in the Christian canon of Old and New Testaments. The author will use this three-fold outline regularly in the following chapters, giving examples of how it looks and what benefits it brings to the person using the psalms.

In the fourth chapter, Wenham shows how to comprehend the psalter messianically and why. He proves that reading the Psalter in this way is not a New Testament imposition, but that the very way the editors arranged the psalms denotes this was their intention. The author demonstrates how Psalm 2, the triumphant king, and Psalm 3, the persecuted David, are paradigmatic for the whole psalter, and that the arrangers of the psalms had a future David in mind, who would “suffer before he triumphed” (99). If Wenham is correct, and I think he is, this chapter explains why Jesus saw the psalms as pointing to the “Christ” that “should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead” (Luke 24:44-45). The author’s work in this chapter moves the Psalter reader away from simple proof-texting to seeing how the whole tenor of the psalms announces Christ crucified and resurrected.

With the fifth and sixth chapters, the author approaches the didactic benefit of the psalms, specifically in the area of ethics and injustice. With regard to the ethical teaching of the psalms, Wenham follows the axiom, lex orandi, lex credendi est and how the believer reciting the psalms is drawn into God’s moral law, as rehearsed and lived. In the area of justice and injustice, the author is tackling the valuable place of the imprecatory psalms, along with the why and how of their use. It is here he explains, touchingly and sensitively, how the psalms teach us and call us “to care for other people, to bear one another’s burden, to stand in solidarity and in suffering with the poor and needy” because God stands by them (145).

Wenham moves into chapter seven, where he demonstrates the way to read a psalm canonically, by taking up Psalm 103. He goes through the three-fold process mentioned above, explaining his deductions step-by-step. The author wraps up the chapter with a beautifully rousing conclusion where he ties all the strands together, bringing the reader to a place of reflective prayer. His closing sentence, which comes out of his reading of Psalm 103, is very telling, “A church that fails to uphold a biblical ethic cannot expect to enjoy God’s covenant blessing” (159).

Finally, the author wraps up “The Psalter Reclaimed” with a chapter on “The Nations” in the psalms. This careful exploration from Psalm 1 to 150 covers the hostility of the nations to God’s covenant people, and also their surprising future inclusion into the commonwealth of Israel. As I read this chapter, I couldn’t help but hear the words of Paul when he wrote, “This mystery is that the Gentiles are fellow heirs, members of the same body, and partakers of the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel” (Ephesians 3:6) and “if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to promise” (Galatians 3:29).

“The Psalter Reclaimed” is an enjoyable, readable work establishing the reasons to read the Psalter canonically, and exhibiting how it is done. This would be an excellent piece for Old Testament Seminary professors to walk their students through. It would also be worthwhile for pastors to use who want give their parishioners a wholesome grounding in the psalms. And for churches that chant, recite and sing the Psalms regularly, here is a fine work to give worshippers a rousing boost in their worshipful employment of the Psalter. I highly recommend the book.


{A copy was provided from the publisher for this review. Thanks Crossway!}

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