Reading the Psalms Canonically: Neither Undisciplined Allegory nor Christ-less Historicism

psalmsHow did we get the Psalms? And how do we get into the Psalms? Meaning, how do we apply the Psalms of ancient Israel to ourselves today? And in applying them, how do we avoid undisciplined allegory and mere historicism devoid of Christ?

These are important questions for reading the Psalms. And few have answered these questions better than Bruce Waltke.

In his essay, “A Canonical Process Approach to the Psalms” (found in Tradition and Testament: Essays in Honor of Charles Lee Feinberg, 3–18) he observes four historical phases in the development of the Psalms. And rightly, I believe, he helps us to see (1) how individual authors wrote Psalms, (2) how these Psalms were gathered into various collections (perhaps stored in Solomon’s temple), (3) how these collections were arranged at a later period by a (Levitical?) editor, and (4) how this collection of Psalms serves to point forward to the Messiah, the Lord Jesus Christ, who has now come and fulfilled the Law, the Prophets, and the Psalms (Luke 24:44–47).

A Canonical Process Approach

Arguing against “the nonhistorical and undisciplined allegorical method of interpreting the psalms” and “the Antiochian principle of allowing but one historical meaning that may carry with it typical significance,” Waltke posits a “canonical process approach” that “does justice both to the historical significance(s) of the psalms” and “to their messianc significance” (7). In other words, as John Crutchfield has described some thirty years later, Waltke is attempting to read the Psalms at multiple levels, something that follows the very flight path by which the Psalms arose.

In other words, just as the Psalms moved from individual psalms, to small collections, to one arranged Psalter, to one book among many in the Hebrew Bible, so we must consider the various stages of history which frame the Psalms. As Waltke notes, “Just as redemption itself has a progressive history, so also older texts in the canon underwent a correlative progressive perception of meaning as they became part of a growing canonical literature” (7).

Is This Sensus Plenior?

Now, the informed reader may think: This sounds a lot like sensus plenior and the elevation of the divine author over the human. But this is exactly what Waltke does not mean. He is not urging us to find hidden meanings in the text. He is rooting himself in biblical history and textual exegesis, but he is aware that Bible in general and the Psalms in particular developed over time. Therefore, in his essay dedicated to Dispensational giant Charles Feinberg, he explains himself with regards to sensus plenior.

The canonical process approach is similar to the approach known as sensus plenior in that it recognizes that further revelation brought to light a text’s fuller or deeper significance, but it differs from that approach in several ways. [emphasis mine]

First of all, in contrast to the normal sense of sensus plenior that God intended a fuller meaning in a text than that intended by the human author, the canonical process approach does not divorce the human authorial intention from the divine intention. According to the canonical approach, the original poets presented their subjects in ideal forms, that is, in prayer and in praise fully acceptable to God. Progressive revelation, however, fleshed out this vision and made more clear the exact shape of the ideals always pregnant in the vision.

Second, sensus plenior, although insisting that the text’s true historical significance was always present in the mind of God, tends toward an allegorical method of interpretation by regarding later writers as winning meanings from the text quite apart from their historical use and significance. By contrast, the canonical process approach underscores the continuity of a text’s meaning throughout sacred history along with recognizing that further revelation won for the earlier text a deeper and clearer meaning.

And third, the canonical process approach consciously recognizes and represents the distinct stages in the development of the canon rather than viewing the New Testament writers as ‘supernaturally’ discovering the fuller, divine meaning of the text. (8–9)

It is important to see how Waltke is grounding his interpretation in the text of Scripture and the history of that text. He is not seeking a hidden meaning under the text. He is not calling for a method of interpretation divorced from the grammar of the Bible. He is keeping his finger on the line of Scripture as he observes the development of the text over time. This is not allegory, but faithful exegesis at the canonical level.

Reading the Psalms from Four Places in History

Applied to the Psalms, the faithful interpreter must read each Psalm in its historical context. However, this is where we need to be wise. As Waltke explains, there are at least four historical contexts. Again citing his work,

The four distinct points in the progressive perception and revelation of the text occasioned by the enlarging of the canon are: (1) the meaning of the psalm to the original poet, (2) its meaning in the earlier collections of psalms associated with the First Temple, (3) its meaning in the final and complete Old Testament canon associated with the Second Temple, and [4] its meaning in the full canon of the Bible including the New Testament with its presentation of Jesus as the Christ. (9)

Interestingly, Waltke is not the first to think of the Psalms in this way. He cites from Franz Delitzsch classic commentary on the Psalms:

The expositor of the Psalms can place himself on the standpoint the poet, or the standpoint of the Old Testament church, or the standpoint of the church of the present dispensation–a primary condition of exegetical progress is the keeping of these three standpoints distinct and, in accordance, therewith, the distinguishing between the two Testaments, and in general between different steps in the development of the revelation, and in the perception of the plan of redemption. (Biblical Commentary on the Psalms, trans. Francis Bolton, 64)

Indeed, whether from three “standpoints” or four “stages,” the New Testament believer must give attention to the way in which the Psalms have various historical contexts. Only then can we avoid extra-textual allegory and Christ-less historicism.

How Do We Keep This All Straight: Singing the Psalms in Four Keys

I can imagine that the prospect of reading the Psalms with four stages in view might seem a little daunting. So here is a memory device that might help. Just as songs can be sung in different keys, so we might think of attending to four key changes in the Psalms. Indeed, in any given moment we may only read the Psalm in one key, but we must be aware of the others. Only when we have all four keys do we attend to each phase of redemptive history and explain how the ancient psalms relate to us today.

  • The key of D sets the individual Psalm in its original setting. ‘D’ stands for David or any of the other historical authors of the Psalms. Psalms which have historical superscripts help us immensely here. In some cases, we do not know the details of the historical setting. But we know from the other Psalms, that each Psalm originally possessed an historical setting where the Psalm originated.
  • The key of E sets the individual Psalm in the context of the Psalter itself. ‘E’ stands for Exile, the place where the Psalter in its canonical form arose. Whereas the ‘D’ key focuses on the original historical setting, this key focuses on the literary setting. The whole Psalter was written to post-exilic Israel, so there is an historical setting. But this key helps us most carefully with the arrangement and messianic message of the Psalter.
  • The key of C sets the individual Psalm in the context of the Bible as a whole. ‘C’ stands for Christ, the Messiah of whom the Psalter speaks. While many Psalms speak of David or his son Solomon, the ultimate aim is that of Christ. It is this reason why Acts 4:25, quoting Psalm 16, can say that David spoke of Christ (“For David says concerning him”). In the key of D, Psalm 16 may not have spoken of Christ, but very shortly, as David’s song was put the key of E, it would soon be pointing forward to the messiah. Accordingly, when Jesus proved to be the Messiah, the messianic intentions of Psalm 16 are clear.

    In this way, we do not read the Psalms cherry-picking messianic psalms. Rather, as Waltke rightly observes, “In all fairness, it seems as though the writers of the New Testament are not attempting to identify and limit the psalms that prefigure Christ but rather are assuming that the Psalter as a whole has Jesus Christ in view and that this should be the normative way of interpreting the psalms” (7). The whole of the Psalter is messianic and should be read accordingly.

  • The key of F applies the Psalms to God’s people in union with Christ. ‘F’ stands for fellowship and represents the spiritual union we have with the Christ, of whom the Psalms are ultimately directed. Truly, we may often intuitively translate the Psalms into this key. It would be laborious to always work through each key to get here. Daily devotions may and should live in this key. Still, it is important to know how and why we can sing and pray the Psalms for ourselves. Likewise, in applying them to ourselves, we should not miss who the king is and who the worshipers are. Without attention to the previous keys, we may easily employ messianic psalms for our own kingdoms (see Pss 20–21). However, by increasing our awareness of keys D, E, and C, we should avoid praying, “My kingdom come.”

Indeed, only as we read the Psalms in these four contexts can we rightly understand them. Again, we may not always attend to every key in our preaching or our prayers. But the reason why we can apply these temple songs of Israel to ourselves today is because of their progressive nature. What was written by David was taken up and collected in the temple (2 Sam 23:1), then in time it was arranged as we have it in the Psalter, then it was read in light of Christ, and finally applied to everyone—Jew or Gentile—who have found life in him.

Today, therefore, we should read the Psalms as our own (cf. Col 3:16), but only because of the way Christ brings them to us. Accordingly, as we interpret them, we should be aware of the way the Psalms spoke of him and, in turn, to us. To make this kind of application is in no way allegorical, it is Christian. It honors the history of the Psalms and the wisdom of God who inspired, preserved, focused (in Christ), and amplified their message.

Soli Deo Gloria, ds