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The Psalter Reclaimed Paperback – 28 Feb 2013
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About the Author
Gordon Wenham (PhD, University of London) is an adjunct professor at Trinity College, Bristol. He previously studied theology at the universities of Cambridge, London, and Harvard, and taught Old Testament at Belfast and Gloucestershire Universities. He has also authored a number of critically acclaimed Bible commentaries and books. Gordon and his wife, Lynne, have four children.
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The book begins with the immediate questions, what it means for the church to sing and pray the Psalms, with an historical review of how they were used and understood in the practice of Christian spirituality, and why they have come to be neglected. J. L. Austin's speech-act theory is used in a very constructive way that appeals as well to the historic practice of the church.
Chapters on reading the Psalms canonically and messianically remind us that this is an edited, integrated collection with a structure and intertextuality that should be recognised in the act of interpretation. Wenham goes beyond the older, atomising work of the form critics and Weiser (who tied his interpretation to his reconstruction of the cultus), with many helpful insights from Brevard Childs and Gerald Wilson, considering how the five-book Psalter was understood in the post-exilic period, not least as the bearer of messianic hopes.
The ethics of the Psalms and their relationship to the Decalogue are considered in an introductory way in chapter 5, a subject which Wenham investigates at greater theological elsewhere, while on the perennially vexing question of the imprecatory psalms, he breaks new ground for English-language readers by mediating the scholarship of Hossfeld and Zenger.
Finally, the question of Israel and the nations is addressed in a chapter which, for this reviewer, brought out some unexpected nuggets of exegetical insight, showing how the eschatological vision of the New Testament is foreshadowed in the Old.
In all, this is an excellent introduction to the subject for seminary students (too many of whom, Wenham notes, can pass though their studies without seriously encountering the Psalms) and for others seeking a deeper grasp of the Psalms in their canonical place. Reading this has encouraged me to follow up the theological issues in the companion volume, "Psalms As Torah".
I've felt quite frustrated in the last couple of years in trying to find good evangelical books on the Psalms. I've worked in a conservative evangelical church for the last two years in student ministry, and have taught the Psalms over the past two summers. The only other book I could really recommend widely would be Eugene Peterson's "Answering God" - and his poetic prose style isn't everyone's cup of tea.
The things on offer usually seem to be:
- books by my fellow evangelicals which treat psalms like epistles (i.e. methodical theological essays, meant to be picked apart), and lack any engagement with USING the psalms as prayers, songs etc. They usually have a very poor breadth of scholarship. Also, an evangelical desire to exegete individual psalms well means books often fail to give tools to understand the Psalms as a whole.
- books from more liberal authors which have far superior scholarship and understanding of the USE of the psalms, but lack an evangelical doctrine of scripture so entail rejections of things like Davidic authorship, infallibility, Messianic fulfillment etc.
- technical commentaries - good for advanced Hebrew etc. but expensive and not accessible to most lay people/leaders
- devotional books - the good ones work for personal use, but don't resource you to teach or understand the Psalms as a whole. And there are a lot of bad ones!
But this book is exactly what I've been looking for over the last couple of years. Wenham has an evangelical doctrine of scripture, a generous and comprehensive engagement with scholarship from the last 150 years (lots of liberal German names pop up in the footnotes!) from which he takes the best, and a constant focus on the fact that the Psalms were written to be USED as prayers and songs.
For accessibility, I'd probably rate this a 3 on the below scale, so would hugely recommend it to those teaching the psalms in any capacity, whether they're in full-time paid ministry or are a lay leader.
1 - don't read much
2 - like to read Christian books
3 - like to go a little deeper/small group leader
4 - pastor/minister
5 - scholar/academically minded pastor
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In addition to the focus on canonical criticism, Wenham also includes a chapter that discusses speech-act theory. As we verbally pray and sing the psalms we commit ourselves to learning and doing the psalms. Regularly worshiping with these psalms will enable us to grow spiritually.
There is also a chapter on the ethics of the psalms, which Wenham notes is a neglected area of study. In this chapter, he compares the psalter to the Decalogue and discusses the treatment in Psalms of the righteous and the wicked.
Overall, the book is a very good introduction to Psalms. My own canonical reading and understanding of not only Psalms but of the entire Bible has been improved by reading this book.
I disagree with the earlier reviewers who note that the book is too technical and not devotional. I was repeatedly driven back to the Psalms and have renewed my daily reading of these great poems of faith. If one is looking for a devotional commentary, this is not your book. If you are a general reader and not versed in biblical criticism, this is not your book. But if you have at least a passing knowledge of criticism you will be fine with this book. It is technical to a point, but canonical criticism is very accessible and rewarding to those who work to understand its basic tenets.
Spend some time with this book. You will be driven back to the Psalms in faith and wonder.
I don't have much to add to what others have written here. That said, I think it should be noted that this book, while published in 2013 by Crossway, is in fact a collection of lectures given between 1997 and 2010 (some of which were republished elsewhere). He notes in the acknowledgments to this book that he was working on a book on the ethics of the Psalms, recently published as Psalms as Torah (Baker Academic, 2012). So while this book has a copyright date is later, it represents an earlier development of his thinking than what is set down in the 2012 book. I am now half way through that "earlier" book, and it is in almost every way a tighter and better developed argument, covering much of the same ground as the Crossway collection. The Crossway collection has a lot of overlap and repetition among the chapters, as you might expect for essays written to stand alone.
So my recommendation: Skip this one, and go right to the Psalms as Torah for Wenham's distinctive contribution to the study of the Psalms.
In The Psalter Reclaimed, Gordon J. Wenham gives us a brief, but somewhat in depth discussion of the book of Psalms. He discusses singing the Psalms and why we should do that. He speaks of praying the Psalms and why we should do that. There are a couple of chapters on how we should read the Psalms. I confess that those got a little over my head, because he began talking about different types of biblical criticism, which I have done little to no study about.
But one thing I did learn in those chapters is that Wenham, as well as other theologians, definitely believe that the arrangement of the Psalms into five distinct "books" is no accident. They are not randomly thrown together. There seems to be a reason for the order and placement of these prayers and songs. Therefore, Gordon believes that each of the Psalms should be read, sung, prayed in context with the entirety of the rest of the book.
There is even a chapter on "The Ethics of the Psalms," in which Wenham addresses an issue that has not been touched on very much, and that is that the Psalms are also good for teaching the law of God.
He also has a chapter on the somewhat controversial "emprecatory" Psalms. You know, the ones where the psalmist prays that the enemy's babies will be dashed against the rocks? These, he believes are necessary for us to pray and sing, as well. Even though we, ourselves, do not have such enemies as David and Israel had, when we pray these prayers, we could be praying them for people in the world who DO have such enemies, people who are oppressed in other nations. Gordon disagrees with those would completely remove these from their prayerbooks.
There is a Greek word that Wenham addresses in the next to last chapter, and that word is "hesed." This is a word that, out of all the times found in the Old Testament, more than half of them are in the Psalms. It simply means "steadfast love." And perhaps the best example of the usage of that word is in Psalm 103. Gordon provides us with an in depth look at that Psalm in chapter 7.
Finally, he addresses "The Nations in the Psalms." This topic turned out to be more complex for him than he realized it would be.
All of these chapters were given as lectures at various places in the world, and, I believe, edited slightly for book form.
This is a wonderful overview of Psalms, and I recommend it for anyone who is as fascinated with the book as I am. I do plan on reading this one again, more slowly and taking note of each individual Psalm that is referenced throughout the book.