Reviewed by Matthew David Searles
The goal of the book may be seen in two things that the authors deplore: ‘We deplore the confessional reductionism in much contemporary Biblical scholarship, which overlooks two thousand years of Christian devotion and orthodoxy or “right worship,” in the use of the Book of Psalms.’ (3) ‘We deplore the lack of authentic exegesis in the use of the psalms.’ (4) This book is an attempt to hold together serious study of the psalms, with devotional and Christ-centred richness.
As well as wanting to hold together scholarship and piety, the authors also want to hold together and hear ‘the two voices of the Holy Spirit, infallibly in Scripture and edifyingly in the church’s response.’ (2)
This should not be understood to mean simply that the book is a compendium of two different approaches, one exegetical, one historical. Indeed nor should it be heard to mean that exegesis takes priority over the historical, as whilst Holy Scripture may be infallible, any one given person’s exegesis of it is not. So this book contains two edifying (but not infallible) engagements with the infallible and authoritative word of scripture. This distinction is important, particularly in an age of an evangelicalism where history may be undervalued. It is not a choice between Scripture and the teaching of the church – rather the teaching of the church is an aid to good exegesis.
This is seen most clearly in the chapter on ‘Accredited Exegesis’ where Waltke seeks to learn from approaches to the Psalms throughout church history to build a robust exegetical method that he will use in the latter part of the book. As such then this book is not simply a resource containing two different approaches to the psalms, but a truly interdisciplinary study.
Overview and Analysis
The book divides into two sections, the first being a survey of how the psalms have been interpreted through history, and the second being commentary on thirteen selected psalms.
In the second section, for each psalm there is a survey of how different interpreters have understood the psalm through the ages (written by James Houston, and for which some new translations of Latin and Middle English texts were commissioned) followed by a translation of the psalm and exegesis of it, by Bruce Waltke.
In the first section the authorship is not quite so clearly delineated. Erica Moore contributes the chapter on Second Temple interpretation of the Psalms, before James Houston gives an overview of interpretation from the church Fathers to the present day. The third chapter, whilst touching on the history of Psalter interpretation (which would suggest it was authored by Houston) bears the marks of being written by Waltke, not least because of its focus on ‘accredited exegesis’. Indeed, there is some overlap between chapters 2 and 3, and possibly a slight theological difference in emphasis between them, to which we shall return later.
As noted above, the book has a doxological aim. The authors lament the ‘de-spiritualizing’ of the psalms, and any approach to the psalms that neglects ‘two thousand years of Christian devotion and orthodoxy or “right worship” in the use of the Book of Psalms.’ (3) They state that one of the goals of the book is ‘To restore the role of the Psalms in spiritual formation.’ (10)
History of Interpretation: ‘Spiritual’ v. ‘Literal’ Readings
One tension that the authors trace through church history is that between ‘spiritual’ and ‘literal’ readings of the Psalms. (58)
In the first centuries of the church, ‘spiritual’ readings tended to dominate (except perhaps in the Antiochene school) and might be exemplified by the allegorical readings of Augustine. The authors certainly celebrate the Christ-centred passion and devotional aspect of these readings (in particular in contrast to more critical readings from recent centuries where the psalms are ‘de-spiritualized) but the method is not accepted. ‘To be sure they thought they were doing Biblical interpretation by starting with Christ, but in truth they muffled the voice of the inspired writers who gave them their Bibles.’ (6) Waltke and Houston will search for a method that is every bit as theologically rich as the Alexandrine approach, but also takes the text seriously in its historical context.
After Augustine, the next ‘hinge-period’ in the study of the Psalms came when Hebraism and scholasticism in the high to late middle ages led to a method that was more anchored to the text itself. However, with this we see the beginnings of a repeated move in Psalm studies, that of serious engagement with the text leading to a less spiritual engagement. ‘This new impetus reflected the transition from “monastic theology,” where lectio divina expressed the identity of the monk as homo participans, to the secular model of the scholar as more detachedly homo spectans.’ (54)
After the middle ages which were characterised by a fourfold interpretation: ‘literal, tropological, eschatological and moral’ (59) the next hinge-point is the ‘plain text’ of the reformers. Calvin in particular wanted to move away from allegorical interpretations, and wanted to let the text rule. Calvin saw no need to impose any forced Christology on the psalms – rather he saw David (the historical figure) as a type of Christ, and also a representative of our humanity. ‘Like no other commentator, Calvin finished what Augustine had begun by eliminating the perennial confusion about the merits and demerits about what is “literal” and what is “spiritual,” or indeed what is “historical” also. The four levels of medieval interpretation are finally reduced to the “plain meaning” of the text.’ (64)
Houston does suggest though that Calvin’s emphasis on the ‘plain meaning’ would end up being twisted in future centuries, leading to a very different approach to the psalms. This is seen in the fourth period considered by Houston: that of Biblical Criticism beginning in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, where the text was again prioritised, but (in a similar way to that of the scholastic period, though Houston does not make this comparison) the spiritual dimension of psalm study was again lost, due to scepticism concerning Biblical authority and the separation of the ‘literal’ from the ‘historical’ in Biblical studies. (67)
Houston does not give any conclusions to his historical survey, these are left to Waltke in the next chapter as he seeks to draw on historical approaches in forming a method for exegesis. However, it is somewhat surprising that Waltke does not interact with the survey given by Houston, but rather gives his own survey historical development, and draws his conclusions for exegesis from this.
‘Accredited Exegesis’ – Learning from Different Historical Approaches to the Psalms
Whilst being no advocate of historical biblical criticism, Waltke does note how it has led to some approaches to the psalms that can bear fruit for the exegete, and he surveys these different approaches.
Form-criticism – that of recognising that psalms fall into different types with somewhat predictable structure – has merit for Waltke for at least two reasons. Firstly, Scripture itself identifies three different types of psalms: petition, public thanksgiving and praise. (94) Secondly, these ‘forms’ are part of the context in which psalms were written, and thus ‘a recognition of forms guides one’s reading strategy.’ (94) This also applies to a more modern version of form criticism known as ‘rhetorical criticism’ that pays particular attention to the linguistic, poetic and rhetorical features of the text, on the recognition that ‘the exegete does not know what a text means until he knows how it means.’ (98) What Waltke does not accept from form-criticism is ‘its conjectured history of tradition within a conjectured Sitz im Leben.’ (95)
Mowinckel’s cult-functional approach is also discussed, where the setting for the psalms is seen as the first-temple worship, not their final setting in the synagogue post-exile. Waltke accepts the importance of the setting of the psalms in the first temple, but follows Eaton’s extensive royal interpretation of the psalms, and so sees the psalms in this light, as being primarily the words of the king in the temple worship, and he rejects the notion of a supposed fall festival as the setting for these psalms.
Waltke’s own canonical process approach, together with Eaton’s extensive royal interpretation are never far beneath the surface, even in analysis of other historical approaches to the psalms. This therefore feels like a more polemic account of different historical approaches than that of Houston in the previous chapter, who has a more objective take on things. There is insufficient space to fully explore the argument for a pervasive royal interpretation of the psalms (following Eaton), which may leave some readers unpersuaded.
The Canonical-Messianic approach is given more discussion than previous approaches, as Waltke suggests it is often ignored, even by conservative exegetes. (101) Waltke is an advocate of this approach, not least because it ‘lays a firm historical foundation for the church’s continuing interpretation of the psalms as referring to Jesus Christ, although they often did so apart from a historical consciousness.’ (101) As we shall see, a lot turns on what is meant by ‘referring to Jesus Christ’ in the above quotation.
First Waltke considers the editing of the Psalter (following in the steps of Brevard Childs) and concludes that ‘The editor’s two introductory psalms prepare those who meditate on his anthology of petitions and praises to interpret the psalms both with respect to the king and to themselves as individuals within his kingdom.’ (103) It thus seems that Waltke does not want to choose between whether the individual or the king is in view in the psalms, but accept both. Yet he does seem to prioritize the king: ‘Psalm 2 introduces the Psalter’s principal subject, the king in prayer. (…) Beginning with Psalm 3 we hear the king’s prayers.’ (103)
This leads to an overall messianic and future orientation to the psalms, which Waltke expresses beautifully: ‘In Israel’s temple liturgy, the successive heirs of David’s throne were draped with the magnificent robes of the psalms, but generation after generation, the shoulders of the reigning monarch proved too narrow and the robes slipped off to be draped on his successor.’ (107) However, we must ask what Waltke means when he says ‘the editors of the psalms re-signified the psalms from the historical king and made them Messianic – that is to say the eschatological king.’ (107) Is Waltke suggesting this ‘re-signification’ means that the psalms point directly forwards, and hence have no historical referent? If we compare Waltke’s exegesis of Psalm 2 to that of Calvin, we find Calvin giving slightly more weight to the historical circumstances of David before moving to future messianic interpretation.
So whilst wanting to preserve the historical horizon (the plain sense of the reformers), Waltke is led by his canonical process to prioritize the eschatological and messianic reading of the psalter. Also, whilst maintaining that the psalms are to be interpreted with respect to both the king and to individuals within his kingdom, the emphasis again seems to shift towards the king. For example in discussing New Testament use of the psalms there is no reference to the times the apostles use the psalms to speak of the experience of believers (e.g. Rom 8:31, 35-37; 2 Tim 4:17; Heb 13:6.)
Waltke does make on very helpful distinction that would prevent both of the emphases above from collapsing into absolutes. When speaking of how psalms speak of Christ, Waltke distinguishes between Psalms that are prophetic (where there is from the beginning a future focus and no historical referent before Christ) and psalms that speak of Christ typologically, as well as some that are typico-prophetic. (111-112) Not only does typology seem to be the way the New Testament sees the Old Testament as pointing to Christ most often, it also preserves both the historical setting and the personal appropriation of the psalms. Typology (as used so well by Calvin) means that we need not choose between the historical meaning and any messianic meaning – the one serves the other, as through David we learn of the coming kingdom of Christ.
Typology also preserves the possibility of individual appropriation of the psalms (which undergirds the use of psalms in personal devotion and corporate worship that the authors desire). Words that are purely prophetic of Christ may not properly be applied to the life of the believer, but words that point to Christ typologically may also be applied to an individual. This is particularly the case if – a theme that is unexplored in this book – many psalms point to Christ not by virtue of his kingship, but by virtue of him being the ideal believer, the true Israelite, the second Adam. Indeed when we think of it this way, this leads us to see all the psalms as pointing to both Christ and his people, for the king was always supposed to be a representative and ideal Israelite, so what is said of the people may be applied to the king and vice versa.
This is a well written, wide ranging and scholarly work. Even the collection of historical commentary on the Psalms provided by Houston, allied to the fine exegesis of Waltke, would make this book well worth reading. But what makes this book more significant is the interaction between the disciplines of historical theology and exegesis.
In particular, the overview of how the psalms have been read over the centuries puts many current debates into perspective, as the issues have been discussed many times before. In contemporary British Evangelicalism, Messianic readings are often preferred to historical ones where the Psalms’ primary referent is David – yet understanding how Calvin’s ‘plain sense’ allowed for both the historical and the Messianic is a helpful corrective, as is Waltke’s discussion of the difference between prophecy and typology.
Moreover, the historical survey urges upon us a hermeneutical humility, as we see how opinions have differed over time, and indeed just as previous interpreters have been conditioned by their time and circumstances, the same will be true of interpreters today.
Waltke’s analysis of different forms of psalm criticism is very helpful in neither accepting wholesale the critical presuppositions of many recent scholars, nor rejecting without consideration their best insights. He is also a model for us today of irenic interaction with those with whom he disagrees.
At times Waltke is a little more polemical than Houston, and the history he gives is more obviously chosen to support the view that he holds. Not all readers will be persuaded by his insistence on one particular version of the historicity of the superscriptions, nor indeed his rejection of the imprecatory psalms as being ‘inappropriate in the mouth of the church in the present generation.’ (97)
This is not a book where application seems prominent. Instead the authors seek to lay foundations that will lead to a right engagement with the psalms, by individuals and churches: ‘Our basic concerns in this book are to enrich the daily life of the contemporary Christian and to deepen the church’s community worship in hearing God’s voice.’ The historical survey in particular bears witness to how we view the psalms will impact how we use the psalms. The critical approaches that the authors reject are those that will discourage personal and spiritual engagement with the psalms. And of course, good exegesis (via Waltke’s ‘accredited exegesis’) should lead to rich engagement with the psalms. The authors desire good application, but expect some hard work before we get there.
In British Evangelical circles this book (Houston’s contributions more than Waltke’s) reminds us not to be forced to choose between Christological readings of the psalms, and personal appropriation. Also, churches and individuals would do well to learn from history that the neglect of the psalms in private and corporate worship is a relatively new development, one that has been occasioned by critical scholarship and the move from the reader as homo participans to homo spectans. (54) How this might be put into practice is beyond the scope of this book, but this book lays the groundwork for it to be done, for the psalms to be rediscovered as ‘Israel’s prayer book, and the church’s source of orthodoxy, as “truthful praise.”’ (37)
Matt Searles is an ordained Anglican and works as Director of Training for the South Central Gospel Partnership, an informal network of evangelical churches in Oxford (UK) and the surrounding area. He is also pursuing a Doctor of Ministry qualification in Biblical Theology, through The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.
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The Psalms as Christian Worship: A Historical Commentary