Textual, Epochal, Canonical: Do The Three Horizons of Interpretation Apply to the Psalms?

horizonWhen I teach hermeneutics, one of the key points I make is the need to read each passage with three horizons in mind. These horizons have been labeled by Edmund Clowney and Richard Lints as the textual, epochal, and canonical horizons. And careful attention to them help the interpreter keep an eye on the the grammatical structure of any given text, the relationship of that ‘text’ to the larger context of the book or covenant in which it is found, and the final connection between that text and the whole of the Bible—hence, textual, epochal, and canonical horizons respectively.

In books like Exodus, Ezekiel, and Ephesians, it is makes sense to read the Bible at these three horizons. But what about the Psalms? Does this approach apply to them? Indeed, if the Psalms are a book purposefully arranged, it does. And so, I do believe we should employ these three horizons when reading any given Psalm.

Reading the Psalms Textually, Epochally, and Canonically

As we study the Psalms, we should look not only at the immediate Psalm, but where it fits into the Psalter and the storyline unfolding in this eschatologically-charged book. On this point, Psalm scholar John Crutchfield has rightly observed that a faithful reading of the Psalms must consider three levels of interpretation. Under a section entitled ‘Methodology and Presuppositions” (Psalms in Their Context: An Interpretation of Psalms 107-118), here’s what he says:

If the current theories of the composition of the Psalter are to be taken seriously and applied to Psalms study as an exegetical method, then the interpreter must seek to answer questions which surround a given psalm in a canonical context as opposed to an historical or a linguistic context. It is our contention that this kind of approach to the Book of Psalms must ask contextual questions at three levels:

(1) the immediate context (i.e., surrounding psalms);
(2) the context of the entire book;
(3) the context of the entire Canon.

[The Textual Horizon]
The interpreter begins with a careful analysis of the Psalm, employing all historical, literary and linguistic tools at his or her disposal. What are the themes of the psalm? How does the psalmist treat these themes? The next step is to compare this psalm to the surrounding psalms as they appear in canonical order. This is the first concentric circle mentioned above. How do the themes and concepts of the surrounding psalms compare to the psalm in question? Is there any development? contrast? disagreement?

[The Epochal Horizon]
The interpreter must also ask how the immediate context fits into the overall plan of the Psalter. Have the themes and subjects been treated earlier or later in the book? Is there an overall development? How does the present context further the theological purpose of the Psalter?

[The Canonical Horizon]
The most remote contextual circle is that of the entire canon of the Hebrew Bible. How do the themes and concepts compare with other canonical treatments? Is there a conscious allusion to “antecedent scripture,” i.e., to passages that appear earlier, literarily speaking, in the Hebrew Bible? Other canonical contexts? How do these intertexts relate? Is there development? supersession? disagreement? How does the present context contribute to the canonical development of a given theme?

These are what we propose are important questions to ask in the exegesis of any psalm. The interpreter should respect and attempt to recover the purpose of the authors/redactors of the Psalter as we now have it.

Obviously, I think he is right. And as I preach through the Psalms right now, these habits of interpretation will be in full effect, as I seek to understand the Psalms textually, epochally, and canonically.

May the Lord give us help as we read the Psalms, and may we see how each Psalm is not an isolated text in itself, but a well-ordered song placed in an eschatological symphony made to provide the soundtrack to God’s royal story of redemption.

Have any other thoughts or resources on reading the Psalms? Please share. Reading the Word of God is best done in community—even if mediated through the pixels of digital technology.

Soli Deo Gloria, ds