The folks at Zondervan recently sent me a review copy of Brian L. Webster and David R. Beach, The Essential Bible Companion to the Psalms. This post is part of a larger “blog tour” for the book being hosted this week throughout blogdom. I will briefly review what I thought were some pro’s and con’s of the volume, and conclude with a thought about how the Psalms should be read as Christian scripture.
When I received this book, I was pleased with the format. Webster & Beach have done a nice job selecting and presenting the material to cover in the introduction. Their section entitled “Groups of Psalms in the Psalter” have made a fairly dry subject – i.e., genre classification – quite interesting! Likewise a topic often overlooked by lay readers is that of the sub-collections found throughout the book. Webster & Beach do a good job introducing the terminology and explaining the themes present in each sub-collection and book.
Two further introductory matters struck me as quite fine. First, a section devoted to the poetry of the Psalms looks at some of the parallelistic techniques used by the Hebrew poets, and aims to guide readers in recognizing and interpreting the significance of these features. Words like “synonymous parallelism,” “antithetic parallelism” and “synthetic parallelism” can often turn off a lay reader, but Webster & Beach have presented a nice guide here; not too wordy, but not too brief. Second, the “quick reference charts” on pgs. 29-33 are well selected and helpful. Of note is the glossary of unusual terms of the Psalter (e.g., Higgaion, Maskil, Selah, etc.).
As Webster & Beach begin to talk about each Psalm, they have made an excellent choice to limit themselves to one page per Psalm. While this means they needed to be efficient in their description of Ps 119 and creative in what to say about Ps 117, it keeps the book plugging along at a consistent pace. The items covered in each Psalm (Theme, [genre] Type, Author, Background, Structure and Special Notes) are well selected and I’m pleased to see the restraint used with regard to Authorship.
I can envision using a book like this in a Bible study setting where attendees could read this intro before or after reading through the Psalm on its own prior to coming to the study. It would alert them to some thematic and organizational issues, and assist readers in using some literary categories often not on the radars of most lay people.
A few items leave this volume open to some criticism. First, though the volume is colorful and pleasing to look at due to the formatting and inclusion of photographs on nearly every page, the photos themselves are at times a bit corny (e.g., a picture of kids making fun of another kid at Ps 10, a girl climbing up a rocky hill face at Ps 30, a person pulling a knife out of their pocket at Ps 54). When many of the photos are really excellent – i.e., when they show some historical or geographical item – there is no label explaining what one is seeing. Thus the Assyrian relief with slingers and archers at Ps 11 is unidentified. The bullet ridden Zion gate of Jerusalem at Ps 24 is unidentified. The steps at the south end of the temple mount at Ps 76 are also left unidentified. Many such examples occur. An index explaining the content of the more historical and geographical pictures would have been nice.
Second, a more substantial note, is the volume’s decision to avoid a systematically presenting a Christological interpretation of the Psalms. Several Psalms do include references to Christ (E.g., Ps 7, 11, 20, 22, 24, 47, etc.) but many Psalms are interpreted without explicit reference to his person and work. I did not find a note which drew attention to this methodological choice, but I wonder if it is part of the age old debate about the proper hermeneutic one should use when interpreting the Psalms. Should our hermeneutic of the Old Testament be Christocentric or is it sufficient to be Theocentric?
John Calvin, seeking first of all to interpret the Psalms historically and only afterward to interpret them with an eye to their Christological value, opted for the later option. The merits of his interpretive decision can be debated, though to be fair to the great reformer, Calvin believed that making reference to God more generally always included making reference to the God who is Triune, thereby implicitly making reference to the second person of the Trinity.
In favor of the Christocentric option, however, it is important to note that Theocentric interpreters often wind up in a sort of a hermeneutical conundrum. The reconstructed Theocentric and “historical” interpretation (the interpretation the original audience is said to have understood) winds up sounding fairly evangelical and Protestant! I’m not convinced that Theocentric exegesis of the Psalms has really provided an explanation for their meaning with which an actual Judean reader in the Iron Age would agree. Grammatical-historical exegesis, for all its helpful qualities, is notorious for being a bit artificially historical; i.e., it does not really describe a concrete historical interpretation, but rather a pre-Christian interpretation as imagined by a Protestant evangelical!
No, as we stand now the Psalms are Christian scripture and Christian interpreters do well to explicitly and systematically interpret the Psalms Christocentrically. Of course no ancient Judean interpreter would agree with this interpretation, but their word wasn’t the final word. For that matter, their word was the shadowy and incomplete word!
I feel I can do no better than to cite Graeme Goldsworthy at this point:
If [the Psalms] speak to us of God, they must speak to us of the God who has finally revealed himself in Jesus Christ. If they speak to us of sinners, they speak to us of those who are outside of Christ. If they speak of the judgment of God, they speak to us of the curse of the law that Christ suffered for his people on the cross. If they speak to us of the faithful, the godly, or the righteous, they speak first of Christ, and only then of those who are redeemed in Christ. In the light of what I have said in chapter 9 [entitled: “Can I Preach a Sermon Without Mentioning Jesus?”], I believe we should make this abundantly clear to our hearers and not leave it to chance. The preacher must constantly ask of the Psalms, “How do they testify to Christ?”
Preaching the Whole Bible as Christian Scripture, pg. 200 (Bold emphasis added)
While this omission of a systematic Christological approach does, in my opinion, stilt the comprehensiveness of this volume, Webster & Beach are nonetheless to be commended for a fine evangelical introduction to Psalms. Readers will need to supplement this volume with one that does address each psalm’s Christological reference, but will nevertheless find that Webster & Beach have given them a fine volume for use in their devotional use of these exquisite biblical texts!