The Psalms have often been my favorite portion of the Bible for devotional time. I think fondly of the days where I could go out and away from the business of life and get alone with God in the Psalms, praying and singing and wrestling over truth. To my joy, Gordon Wenham’s book, The Psalter Reclaimed, has only increased my affection for the words written in those 150 chapters. His analysis has caused me to think more deeply about how the Psalms influence my Christian walk.
What do the Psalms contribute to the Christian’s understanding of the nature of worship?
Perhaps similarly to many Christians, the Psalms are the portion of the Bible I most often run to when I am in need of spiritual refreshment or some type of emotional engagement to God. While speaking with other prayer meeting leaders in college, a friend realized and admitted that his passage choice for meetings were by-in-large from the Psalms. “Is that because I am spiritually lazy?” he quipped but with a hint of honesty. I acknowledged the same was the case for me, and after a lengthier discussion, we settled on the notion that it wasn’t due to spiritual laziness but spiritual necessity. Given the setting—Sunday, the end of a busy school week, the beginning of new one, 30-40 close friends sharing, praying, and singing together—it was entirely befitting that we rejoice with the Psalms, lament with the Psalms, and worship with the Psalms.
I was delighted when Wenham offered a fuller, more insightful explanation to the sentiment we were wrestling over. He quoted Calvin in declaring the Psalms “The Anatomy of all the parts of the soul for … all the griefs, sorrows, fears, misgivings, hopes, cares, anxieties; in short, all the disquieting emotions … the Holy Spirit hath here pictured.” In the first chapter while discussing the nature of the Psalms, Wenham suggests that singing them helps us concentrate our whole being on their message. He quotes David Ford suggesting that singing the Psalms “takes them up into a heightened, transformed expression, yet without, at all, taking away their ordinary meaning.” I would argue that even without singing, the Psalms in and of themselves are intensified emotional expressions of deep theological truth. This is why we cling to them in times of joy and sorrow, we contemplate them, we study them, we recite them together, and we truly worship with them.
Yes, we come together around the Psalms to rejoice and contemplate the character of God and our relationship with him, but we also stow away to meet with him alone. Wenham’s discussion on the Psalms as speech-acts is perhaps the most powerful of the book. He demonstrates how the literary nature of the Psalms automatically call the reader into worship. “[Reading] them commits us in attitudes, speech, and actions,” he states. The Psalms are chocked full of commissiveand emotivestatements that self-involve the reader as a partaker in worship. The reader of Psalm 39 is conjoined with the writer in committing, “I will guard my ways, that I may not sin with the tongue,” and in Psalm 34, “I will bless the Lord at all times, His praise will continually be in my mouth.” The reader of Psalm 69 is conjoined with the writer emotionally when they cry, “Save me, O God!” or in Psalm 104 shouting, “Bless the Lord, O my soul! O Lord my God, you are very great!”
How miraculous that God through His Spirit led men to pen the Psalms thousands of years ago, yet even today we find ourselves in them everywhere, and even more importantly, we find God. Wenham powerfully notes that when we pray or recite the Psalms we are “taking their words on our lips and saying them toGod in a personal and solemn way.” Many more words could be spoken on the Psalms and their contribution to worship, but for now I hope that two points were presented effectively—that the Psalms pervade all human emotion intensifying spiritual truth and our worship, and that the Psalms in effect call the reader or reciter into (worship and) spiritual conversation with God.
What do the Psalms contribute to the Christian’s understanding of the Messiah?
One of the awe-inspiring elements of the Psalms are their frequent prophetic messages about the Messiah. Though by the nineteenth century theologians had moved away from viewing the Psalms as having a messianic sense, it is very clear to the plain reader of the Bible that Jesus is often being referred to. The Enlightenment thinkers despised the supernatural and thus rendered all royal psalms as pertaining to David or the present king, and that figure only. Wenham rightly argues against such a deficient studying of scripture. It is important to only assign meaning where God intends it (2 Peter 1:20) but that does not mean the student of the Bible cannot recognize God’s inspired, sovereign work through scripture. Many New Testament writers engage in this practice, after all! So let us study the Bible with our eyes and ears open for Christ—who is certainly written throughout it’s pages.
A reading of the Psalms with attentiveness for Christ is truly a life-changing endeavor. Psalm 2 sets the stage for the Messiah. The nations plot against the Lord and His Anointed, but God laughs at their attempts to foil His plan. “As for me,” He says, “I have set my King on Zion, my holy hill. I will tell of the decree … ‘You are my Son; today I have begotten you. Ask of me, and I will make the nations your heritage, and the ends of the earth your possession’” (Ps. 2:6-8). Psalm 2 also provides a perfect introduction for sensusplenioror fuller sense fulfillment, which is prevalent in the Psalms. This is where the writer speaks of a human event but God has also intended a deeper meaning through the text. In Psalm 2 this plays out as David writes of God’s favor towards Israel and His promise to establish an everlasting kingdom through the Davidic line. Yet, the reader in the church age will undoubtedly see that God was speaking of His Son, the Messiah, who would ultimately fulfill the Davidic promises. This element is also beautifully on display in Psalm 22 where David cries “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Of course, Jesus would later echo these words while hanging on the cross. The Davidic psalms are particularly interesting when viewed through a messianic lens (as is befitting).
Recognizing sensus pleniorwhen reading the Psalms is my first major takeaway from Wenham’s work. The second major takeaway builds on that foundation. When we see prophetically in the Psalms that Jesus was the greater David, we not only know theoretically, but hear literally. That is to say, we gain a much more vivid picture of our Savior as we hear him speak through the Psalms. Wenham points out that there are essentially two Davids spoken of in the Psalms. The first being the conquering king of Psalm 2, 72, and 110, and the second being the suffering David portrayed in the thanksgivings and laments. This David “survives unjust assaults of his enemies only by the gracious intervention of God.” Psalm 3 offers a juxtaposition to the conquering David in Psalm 2 with a suffering David whose enemies surround him. Wenham ponders the likelihood that Old Testament readers read Psalms 3 and on perceiving that the Messiah would suffer before he triumphed. This is certainly an interesting, and not unfounded contention.
What do the Psalms contribute to the Christian’s understanding of biblical ethics?
I appreciated Wenham’s rundown of ethics within the Psalms, frankly because I had rarely assessed them in such a fashion before. I can think of one specific occasion where classmates and I at Bob Jones University wrote an essay on Psalm 101 and political ethics in a political science class. It seems to me that the whole of the Psalms are primarily a call forethical behavior rather than a description ofethical behavior. The Psalms frequently make mention of the righteous and the wicked and the two opposite paths and destinations that these groups endeavor on and to. Psalms such as 1 and 119 urge readers to delight in the law and focus on God’s statutes, but rarely mention specific ethical conduct. Similarly, the whole of the Psalms demonstrate to readers the greatness of the Lord. Mentors of mine throughout my college years challenged my peers and I to read through the Psalms and build a “biography of God.” The Psalms have much to say about God’s character and, as Wenham suggests, we are called to imitate his character. This is the true ethical strength of the Psalms.
To the more controversial of the Psalter’s contribution to ethics are the Imprecatory Psalms. Undoubtedly, all readers of the Psalms, along with Kirkpatrick express a sense of shock as they pass from lofty spiritual meditations to passionate prayers for vengeance upon enemies. It seems out of place to the modern reader in the age of Christianity. Wenham provided extremely helpful excerpts from many different commentators on the subject, and I found myself agreeing with bits of almost every one’s explanation. Calvin is right to not soften the blow of the imprecatory psalms as sub-Christian or sub-biblical for that matter. If his energies were more pointedly directed to the necessity that we hate sin like God hates sin, then I would find myself in agreeance with him almost entirely. There is certainly an element missing in our Christianity that hates sin, that seeks to kill sin. But his commentary misses an essential point that Kirkpatrick hits on—Old Testament context. To supplant the church age’s understanding on the text of the Old Testament is often dangerous territory, and this is one of those cases. Old Testament writers were seeking justice in the world, they wanted God to act on his promises. Remember that, by some estimates, God withheld his judgment on the people groups who occupied and debased the land of Canaan for nearly three millennia. This, of course, is not a perfect analogy because the Psalms were written much later. But the point is that pre-Christ it is easy to understand that the Israelites were longing for God to defeat their enemies. Post-Christ, the mystery of God’s salvation has been revealed to the nations and we have a call to spread the good news all over the earth.
So are these imprecatory psalms off-limits to the Christian? By no means! Let us filter them through the proper context and express their passion and truth to a word of sinners. Zenger notes that judgment can lead to repentance, but we know from scripture that vengeance is not ours but for the Lord (Deut. 32:35; Rom. 12:19).
Wenham’s work is masterful and has inspired me to read more fervently the Psalms, which by itself is a wonderful influence. I had never before so intensely considered the structure and literary features of the Psalms. In the Psalms we find spiritual release, spiritual food, joy, anguish, grace, prophecy, and so on and on. In the Psalms we find people like us with our struggles. But most importantly, we find Christ, and we find the character of God.
All quotations from scripture will be from the English Standard Version.