Reviewed by Edgar Johnston
Robertson’s fine book is one of many treatments of a growing issue: the shape of the Psalter and the interpretive implications of that shaping. Until the work of Gerald Wilson (1981 Yale dissertation) scholars interpreted individual Psalms or groups of Psalms (by genre). Wilson’s work began an attempt by many to understand the implication of such shaping. Examples of shaping are the five books of the Psalter, the superscriptions, Psalms 1 and 150 as brackets to the whole, and the so-called seam Psalms. This has led to efforts to interpret the meaning of such shaping. (It should be noted that there is considerable disagreement about whether this shaping points to a meaning of the Psalter as a whole.) Wilson’s looks at the shaping as an indicator that though the Davidic covenant has failed, God’s faithfulness has not, and He reigns. Mitchell points to an eschatological meaning of the Psalter, and Brueggemann sees the Psalter pointing to a transition from obedience to praise. In fact, he sees a shift from orientation to disorientation to reorientation (Michael LeFebvre, The Shaping of the Psalter, pp. 14-15).
Summary and Evaluation
Robertson begins by reviewing the basic structural elements of the Psalter: its division into five books or sections; groupings by individual, the significance of Psalms one and two as a gateway into the Psalter; the acrostic psalms, psalms of ascent, etc. Such groupings have long given students a reason to consider a more involved structure of the whole than as just a collection of 150 individual Psalms. At a minimum these groupings present as a collection of collections (many students).
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In chapter three Roberts turns to looking at the Psalter from a redemptive-historical perspective, in particular from the viewpoint of the covenants in the Old Testament. This is especially the case of the Davidic covenant, since, when David came, the kingdom came, the very apex of the Old Testament redemptive-history (p.24).
Chapter four is a brief introduction to his argument concerning the flow of the five books. He depicts the five books of the Psalter as each having an overriding theme it develops: Books I (ch.5): Confrontation; Book 2 (ch.6) Communication; Book 3 (ch.7) Devastation; Book 4 (ch.8) Maturation and Book 5 (ch.9) Consummation. Chapter 10 gives his conclusions.
He first discusses, in ch. 5, the role of Psalms 1 and 2 as a gateway to the entire Psalter. Psalm 1 points to the importance of law in the Psalter, as well as introducing the role of conflict between the wicked and the righteous. Psalm 2, of course, is all important messianic kingship due to the covenant with David. With this teaching we are at the apex of the Old Testament. One important issue that begins in Book 1 of the Psalter is that “Yahweh and his Messiah enter into inescapable conflict with the wicked…” (p.61).
The rest of chapter 5 (Book 1 of the Psalter) introduces the conflict between Yahweh, his Messiah, and people with the wicked who have a radically different response to God’s law and kingdom. “A uniting element of this early collection of psalms may be identified as David’s constant struggle with his enemies to establish the messianic kingdom of righteousness and peace…These central themes of constant confrontation and ultimate victory reflect the unending struggle of the ‘seed of the woman’ with the ‘seed of Satan’ that characterizes the whole of redemptive history” (p.65). Robertson looks, in turn, at the foundational role of Psalms 1 & 2, the structural role of Psalms 18 and 19 in book 1 (including Messianic-Kingship terminology before and after Psalms 18 and 19, 5 kingship psalms after 18 and 19, the terms for law and 18 and 19, “teaching” before and after 18 and 19), and the structural role of acrostic psalms in book 1.
In chapter 6 Robertson notes that book 2 of the Psalter consists of a collection of psalms by the sons of Korah (42-49), a single psalm by Asaph (50), a second collection of the psalms of David (51-71), concluded by a single psalm of Solomon (72). “This second collection of psalms attributed to David manifests a different attitude toward the nations and peoples of the world from the prevailing perspective in book 1. Even though they continue as David’s deadly enemies, the psalmist repeatedly expresses himself to the nations in a manner that indicates a desire to communicate more directly with them.” (p.85). The difference between books 1 and 2 is that now the Lord and his Messiah now rule from the throne. Now the nations are called to blessing through Abraham, and “through his royal seed all the peoples of the earth receive God’s fullest blessing as covenanted with David” (p.119).
With book 3 (psalms 73-89; ch.7, Devastation) we are introduced to a very different reading of the situation. In this section the nation has been devastated by international forces. David’s throne is cast into the dust, and it is Yahweh himself who has brought this about (Ps. 89:18, 39, 44-46) (p.123). The nation of Israel cries for help and asks why this has happened?
Psalms 90-107 (Book 4, Maturation) presents a different perspective on the devastation. “Instead of a rehearsal of the nation’s devastation at the hand of its international enemies, this book represents a more mature perspective on the ‘permanent dwelling place’ and the ‘perpetual dynasty’ promised in the Davidic covenant…God himself is his people’s dwelling place and Yahweh is their King” (p.147). The purpose of this presentation is to stretching the people’s faith through their experience of the exile. This includes not only trust in Yahweh as King but also a resurgence of hope in the Davidic Messiah.
The final book of the Psalter (Book 5, Psalms 107-150, Consummation) assures us that the Lord of the covenant will establish his kingdom despite all opposition. David’s dynasty will eventually be realized only through its perfected union with God’s rule. (p.183). So the Psalter presents the climactic praises of the consummation of the kingdom.
This is an engaging and provocative book. The book is not just eschatological; it is redemptive historical in treating the meaning of the Psalter as a finished and carefully shaped book. In book 1 I would suggest that more work needs to be done on the meaning of the acrostic psalms in that section. Robertson points to their redactional role but not to their role in shaping the meaning of book 1 (at least that is what I come away with). It is here that I have some issues with the author’s method. Yet his book is provocative and largely well argued. It is quite clear that he is proposing a redemptive-historical reading of the five sections of the Psalter, that is, the sections are progressing historically and redemptively through the preparation for the kingdom, the onset of the kingdom, Israel’s devastation, and the promise of a kingdom consummation under a future David. In my opinion this approach holds a good deal of promise for an interpretation of the Psalter as a whole.
It is an honor to review this volume by one of my former seminary professors.
Edgar Johnston is professor of Bible at Center for Urban Theological Studies (CUTS) in Philadelphia.