Reviewed by Matthew David Searles
The Psalter Reclaimed is a collection of lectures on the Psalms given by Gordon Wenham between 1997 and 2010. Wenham is a respected scholar of the Old Testament who has authored numerous academic books and articles, yet this work is more pastoral in nature, and scholarly interaction with differing points of view is briefer than in many of his other works. The goal of the work is to show the importance of the psalms (particularly in the church’s prayer and worship) and to give some hermeneutical guidelines to using them.
Whilst these eight chapters were originally standalone lectures given in various parts of the world and over a number of years, there are nonetheless themes that recur throughout this collection. Some chapters are focused on hermeneutical issues (canonical and messianic readings of the psalms), some are focused on particular themes (imprecations, the nations, ethics) and some are more overtly practical in nature (about singing and praying the psalms); what is common to all is a practical focus on how the psalms are to be used.
More specifically, there are two issues that are central to Wenham’s book: firstly he wants to persuade individuals and churches to rediscover the singing and praying of the psalms, secondly he wants to encourage canonical and messianic interpretations of the psalms.
Praying and Singing the Psalms
Wenham seeks not merely to impart information, but to shape his readers and change church culture: ‘I hope I have convinced you that we should use the psalms as prayers, whether said or sung. I hope that I have persuaded you that we should use all the psalms, not just the cheerful or sentimental ones that take our fancy. We need to expand the scope of our prayers to take in the hurts of the world, not just its joys.’ (55, emphasis added)
The first chapter of the book considers what we are doing when singing the Psalms. Wenham clearly believes that the Psalms were always intended to be sung: ‘Most, if not all, of the psalms were originally composed to be sung in temple worship, and through the centuries they have continued to be sung in church and synagogue.’ (13)
There is some discussion of these claims, though the first claim in particular – that the psalms were composed for temple worship – is disputed enough that in the space available, Wenham is only able to state his case, not prove it, and this chapter alone is unlikely to be enough to persuade someone of a different view.
The remainder of the chapter considers speech act theory, and the ‘self-involving’ nature of singing. Wenham notes in passing certain familiar benefits of singing: it helps concentration it ‘involves the whole personality’, it heightens our emotions and it helps us to memorize the song (17-18). However Wenham moves beyond these to consider how singing shapes us. By taking words on our own lips, we are involved in these words in a different way than if we simply hear them. Whilst a sermon may be ignored, or held at arms length, singing the Psalms ‘commits us in attitudes, speech, and actions.’ (25)
Drawing on speech-act theory, Wenham notes how even seemingly objective statements about God (especially in the first person, but also in the third person) do more than convey information; they are formative for the speaker: ‘Where I report my attitude in the present tense, my utterance is rarely a mere report, equivalent to your report of my attitude. It tends to commit me to the pattern of behaviour to which I am referring.’ (30-31 quoting Donald D. Evans, The Logic of Self-Involvement, 119)
This is developed in the chapter on the ethics of the psalms. As well as the psalms having numerous references to the commands of God, the self-involving nature of singing makes the psalms profoundly important in shaping our ethics: ‘If the lex orandi, lex credendi principle is correct, the Psalms must have had the most profound effect on Christian theology and ethics.’ (105)
To sing about God’s justice and judgment is not simply to state propositions – it should be formative for the singer: ‘he is implicitly putting himself firmly on God’s side and committing himself not to do anything that would put him in the class of the wicked.’ (120) This leads Wenham to ask the challenging question for the church today: ‘Is this perhaps why traditional Christians who used the Psalms so much lived in such awe of the last judgment?’ (121)
The second chapter considers praying the Psalms, and builds on the teaching of the first chapter. Again Wenham begins by noting how the Psalms were prayed in New Testament times and through church history. Intriguingly though, when noting the New Testament use of the Psalms, he only notes how Jesus prayed them – which for many in British evangelicalism would actually serve as a reason for us not to pray the Psalms, as they are (to give an oft quoted phrase) ‘Jesus’ words, not ours.’ We shall return to this issue later in the review.
The main section in this chapter is on praying the laments, and Wenham encourages the use of laments in church, both for those who don’t come to church ‘full of joy and happiness’ (47) but also, importantly, ‘By praying these psalms those who have no problems and difficulties in their lives can learn to sympathize with those in trouble and pray for those who are suffering or persecuted.’ (47)
This is true even for imprecatory psalms, where Wenham generally follows the argument of Zenger and concludes ‘if we care about the suffering of our fellow Christians, we should pray these psalms.’ (49) Here Wenham is suggesting a different rhetorical standpoint for the psalms: that we might not just pray them for ourselves, but with and for the persecuted church.
Canonical and Messianic Readings
The second major theme that emerges from this book is Wenham’s canonical approach to the Psalms, which leads very much into his messianic reading of the Psalter. We see this emphasis very explicitly in the chapters on these topics, but these approaches undergird his argument elsewhere: ‘So in this exposition of Psalm 103, I want to read it as the editors of the Psalter understood it. This will involve looking at its place in the Psalter, its connections with other psalms (especially those close to it), and its title’ (148, emphasis added)
Wenham’s canonical focus is a strong one: ‘The canonical approach does not ignore discussion of the original author’s understanding of each psalm, but it holds that the most accessible and authoritative sense of a psalm is that of the Psalter’s editor, as sense that is opened by reading the psalm within its wider context of surrounding psalms.’ (162, emphasis added.)
What initially seems to be a flaw in the book: that there is significant repetition of material across chapters (the canonical approach in particular is summarised in a number of chapters) is fruitful here, as we can see what the canonical approach looks like in practice. The canonical approach for Wenham is not merely one ‘horizon’ or ‘context’ among many for reading the psalm, but the most authoritative.
The chapter on reading the Psalms canonically traces the history of psalm reading in a familiar way: moving from psalms of personal devotion, through source and form criticism, to the work of Gerald Wilson. Wenham sees the arrangement of the psalter as very intentional ,and sees the psalm headings as authoritative and canonical.
The next chapter on messianic readings is rather more polemic than the rest of the book, as Wenham seeks to question the ‘assured’ results of scholarship he first encountered as an undergraduate, which said that ‘Psalms 2 and the other psalms traditionally held to be messianic were not that at all: they were about the king in Jerusalem. It should not be read prophetically at all.’ (82)
After tracing the Davidic kingship through the Psalter, Wenham concludes ‘it seems probable to me that the editors of the Psalter did hope for a revival of the Davidic house. In other words they read the royal psalms as prophecies, not just as prayers for the old Davidic house that God had failed to answer.’ (95-6)
Looking more closely at the Davidic psalms, Wenham sees two pictures of the Davidic house, and states: ‘If we put the two pictures together – the ideal king with universal sovereignty, and the innocent suffering David – we arrive at the picture of a David who through suffering inherits a universal kingdom.’ (99) This is what Jesus would have explained to the disciples on the Emmaus road, and this certainly explains how Jesus can say the old testament points to a suffering Messiah.
The length and nature of Wenham’s work means that at times he is only able to state his case rather than rigorously prove it, and so those who will benefit most from this work are those who broadly share Wenham’s theological presuppositions. The book is very readable, and he manages to survey a wide range of historical and contemporary perspectives on issues in a simple way, before giving his personal viewpoint. Every chapter has both theological and pastoral insights, and should prove a blessing to the church as people engage with Wenham’s arguments.
The biggest question we are left with after reading this book is this: how do messianic/canonical readings of the psalms fit with Wenham’s aim to get churches praying and singing the psalms? The question Wenham sees as most fundamental is, ‘What is the canonical context in which we read each psalm?’ (76) For Wenham the answer (as seen above) is the context of the whole psalter, which has a distinct messianic emphasis. But surely such a conclusion would discourage a personal appropriation of the psalms, if their primary purpose is to point towards a David to come?
Perhaps part of the problem is the way Wenham uses the term ‘prophetic’. The ‘assured criticism’ he wants to question says that psalms are prophetic in no sense, and thus do not point to Jesus in any way. Yet for Wenham, does a Psalm being ‘prophetic’ mean it has no historical referent? He notes for how Calvin this was not the case – that psalms can refer to ‘both the historical and the future David.’ (85) Yet at times for Wenham, the future focus seems to eclipse any historical sense.
Perhaps it would have been better either to explain more clearly what he means by ‘prophetic’ or to consider typology. A typological reading of the psalms can do justice to the historical referents (and make the psalms make sense in their original context) but also to the New Testament’s claim that the psalms point to Christ.
This leads on to a second question: does a messianic/canonical reading necessarily mean that the psalms cannot be appropriated by individuals? It would be strange if Wenham thought this, given his emphasis on individual appropriation in the first two chapters. There are hints in the chapter on canonical readings, where Wenham rather cryptically notes: ‘The Davidic titles, by identifying David as the speaker, allow the reader praying or meditating on the psalms to put himself in David’s shoes.’ (61) For many, the pervasive Davidic/royal interpretation would mitigate against individuals using these psalms (as noted above, that is certainly the prevailing view in contemporary conservative evangelicalism in the UK.)
Elsewhere Wenham’s prioritising of the viewpoint of the editors does seem somewhat at odds with his desire for individual appropriation, and it would be good to have greater explanation of how these relate, perhaps in the way of a summary and synthetic chapter.
Perhaps as well as ‘prophecy’ being defined more precisely, we might want more clarity on what is meant by psalms being ‘messianic’. Is this meant in a technical sense, i.e. pointing to Jesus as anointed king? Or simply psalms that point to Christ – as prophet, as Lord of the covenant, as true Israelite? Wenham is at pains to criticise the view that claims the psalms are not messianic in any way; but when he argues that they are messianic, perhaps the ambiguity of this term means he proves too much.
The nature of this work means application is never far from the surface. The analysis of speech-act theory is incredibly helpful in thinking through how we do church, particularly those in less liturgical traditions. Even those who choose not to sing psalms need to understand the formative nature of what is sung. Perhaps the loss of sight of future judgment and the blurring the lines between the righteous and the wicked might be linked to the loss of the psalms – or at least the loss of these themes – in church’s sung worship.
The emphasis on the place of lament and indeed imprecation in the life of believers is also a challenge. Wenham gives a robust theological defense of lament, as well as tracing how the loss of lament and imprecation might be contributing to the Western church’s comfort and complacency in the light of a broken and suffering world.
The chapters on canonical and messianic readings have less obvious direct application, though they do teach us an important hermeneutic. The psalms must be read in light of the coming of Christ, and as testifying to him. More work would need to be done on quite how they do this (prophecy vs. typology) and what this does to other readings of the psalms; nonetheless the psalms show us that scripture interprets scripture Christologically, and so we must look for and proclaim Christ in all the scriptures.
This is a wonderful book – or perhaps more properly, a book of wonderful essays. Each chapter has great insight and application, and they are a blessing to the church in that they link serious scholarship with very practical issues of Christian life and worship. The main weakness of this book is the format. Whilst each lecture stands alone very well, at times the book is a little repetitive, but more problematically, some of the tensions that seem to be present between the different lectures are left unresolved. It would have benefited from more synthesis and editing – perhaps a concluding chapter considering how a canonical and messianic approach fits with individual appropriation, and then very practically how believers should pray and sing words that (at one level) more properly belong on the lips of the king. Nevertheless, these essays will serve the church greatly, and encourage a deeper engagement with the psalms than is often the case in contemporary evangelicalism. Perhaps indeed the lack of tying up of every loose end will encourage readers to keep pondering these issues, and to keep thinking in rich theological and pastoral ways about the psalms, as Gordon Wenham clearly does.
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 Psalter Reclaimed: Praying and Praising with the Psalms