The Case for the Psalms: Why They are Essential

Article by   February 2014
wrightpsalms93.jpgN. T. Wright, The Case for the Psalms: Why They are Essential. New York: HarperOne, 2013, 208 pp

There was a bit of hesitation when I was asked to write a review of N. T. Wright's book on the Psalms. People react differently to the work of N. T. Wright. Some love his reading of the apostle Paul, while others believe his view of Paul questions the traditional view of justification by faith. There is more of a consensus among evangelical scholars that his work on the historicity of Jesus and the resurrection is solid. The mixed response that many people have to the writings of N. T. Wright make a review of his book on the Psalms more difficult. A positive review might cause some people to think that the reviewer agrees with N. T. Wright on other positions. A negative review might cause some to dismiss the review as just a reaction against the person and work of N. T. Wright. Even though I have problems with Wright's view of justification, my goal is to present the basic approach and the content of this work on the Psalms, followed by an evaluation of the book.

Wright explains how the book came about in the "Acknowledgments" at the end of the book. He was scheduled to lecture at Calvin College in 2012 when he was invited to offer some reflections on the Psalms at a separate conference. This invitation gave him the opportunity to present some of his thinking on the Psalms within the context of first century Judaism and early Christianity. It becomes apparent that the Psalms have had a tremendous impact in his own life and ministry.

The book itself is small in size (about 5" x 7.5") with seven chapters of about 200 pages. The purpose of the book is to present a personal plea for the use of the Psalms today. Wright laments the fact that the church no longer uses the Psalms regularly in worship and that individual Christians are not as familiar with the Psalms as they should be. Although contemporary worship songs have their place, it is detrimental to the life of the church that they have replaced the Psalms. The regular singing and praying of the Psalms is transformative because it changes the way we think about life. The Psalms search our souls and change our view of the world. As followers of Christ we should be committed to the Psalms because they were important to him. They shaped Jesus' prayers and his vocation. The story the Psalms tell is the story that Jesus came to complete. Thus we understand Jesus better and we understand our Christian lives better if we know the Psalms.

There are three concepts or themes that run throughout Scripture that Wright uses to explain the meaning of the Psalms. These themes are part of a larger worldview that narrates the story of God establishing his kingdom, a story which Jesus came to complete. The three themes are time, space, and matter. Wright develops each of these themes in a chapter.

The Psalms invite us to stand at the threshold of our time and God's time. The reason we are perplexed in life is the difference between God's time and our time. By understanding God's time we better understand the royal Psalms (the installation and victory of God's chosen king) and some of the other more difficult things in the Psalms, such as suffering (Psalm 22) and violence (Psalm 137). In Psalm 89 the terrors of the past are approached through the trustworthy promises of the present. It helps us understand life if we place our time within God's time.

We as God's people are also called to live at the intersection of God's space and our space. This theme focuses on the temple as the dwelling place of God. Wright discusses the absurdity of the fact that God takes up residence in a small hill of the Judean uplands and that there are discrepancies of singing about the rule of God from Jerusalem in light of its tragic history. This tension is overcome by an emphasis on the necessity of prayer, by focusing on Yahweh as the true place of rest, and by the law that takes the place of the temple when it is destroyed. Both the law and the temple are a microcosm of the world. God comes to dwell among his people through the temple, and then through the study and practice of the law.

The third theme is the theme of matter with emphasis on the physical nature of creation as something which is good. Christians must see the material world as already caught up in the divine purpose and a basis for the new earth that is to come. Thus it is appropriate for us to praise God now for his works of creation as we look forward to the transformation of the earth. 

Wright summarizes his approach by asserting that once we understand the overlap of time in the Psalms (past and future both coloring the present), once we learn to understand the overlap of space in the Psalms (God's glory now in the temple, now in the Torah, now in the whole of creation), it is not too great a stretch to see that the material world is designed to be flooded with God's glory. The perspective of time draws together the past of creation, the future of judgment, and the present of celebration. In the notion of space what is promised for the temple is promised for the whole world. And for the aspect of matter we find ourselves standing at the fault line between the original material of creation and the new, restored, glory-filled material of the coming world. A regular singing of the Psalms develops in people this worldview and leads to the transformation of their lives. A final chapter shows how the Psalms have been beneficial throughout the life of the author by presenting personal examples from his life.

It is a positive thing when someone the stature of N. T. Wright is encouraging the regular use of the Psalms. People's lives will be spiritually enriched if they pray the Psalms. He even encourages the singing of the Psalms. Although not a major emphasis of the book, Wright does not cringe when it comes to the more negative Psalms, such as Psalm 137. He also wants to understand the Psalms in relationship to Jesus Christ.

Although Wright encourages people to use the Psalms, there is little help in the book on how to understand the Psalms so that people can use the Psalms. Apart from a brief, enigmatic statement on parallelism (the word itself is not used), there is little or no discussion of how the poetry of the Psalms work or how genre can help understand a Psalm. There are scattered references to how the Psalms relate to Christ, but there is a lack of precision in talking about typology and allegory. The Psalms are important because Jesus' use of the Psalms helped to shape his world and identity. Jesus read the Psalms in a new way in light of the understanding of his identity. However, there is little guidance on how to read the different types of Psalms in light of the person and work of Christ. These comments are not necessarily criticisms because addressing these issues were not part of the purpose of this book, but if the reader is looking for help along these lines, he will have to go somewhere else.

Wright's approach to the Psalms is a big picture approach. He uses the three themes listed above to paint a narrative and he uses the Psalms to fill out that narrative. There is nothing necessarily wrong with the narrative that Wright presents, but it is not always clear how the Psalms support it. The way Wright uses the Psalms makes it difficult to see the connection between the Psalms and the narrative he is presenting. Wright's approach is to quote large sections of a Psalm to support the narrative theme he is developing. He gives very little exposition of the meaning of the Psalms that he quotes and he does little exegesis of any Psalm.

One could always focus on a few minor irritations, such as a passing nebulous reference to "inspiration" and that Wright seems to have a bee in his bonnet toward American conservatives. Out of nowhere in his discussion of worldview he distances himself from Francis Schaeffer, who has been dead for almost 30 years. There are other books that are more helpful in understanding the use and the message of the Psalms. However, this book will be welcomed by those who love Wright's writing. He is very passionate about the Psalms, and if that passion can be passed on to others who will begin to take the Psalms seriously, we can be thankful.

Richard P. Belcher, Jr. is Professor of Old Testament, and Academic Dean at Reformed Theological Seminary in Charlotte, NC. 

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