Reading the Psalms from the Beginning: How Reading the Psalms Canonically Is More Ancient Than Modern

focusIs a canonical approach to the Psalms a new creation, or the invention of modern scholars? Or do we do we find anything like it in church history?

This important question was raised recently and I didn’t have a one-stop, go-to resource to provide an answer in the affirmative. Indeed, most studies advocating the canonical reading do not spend great time on interpretive strategies in early church. Rather, most focus on, in the words of Hans Frei, the “Eclipse of the Biblical Narrative,” and the biblical-theological need and warrant to read the Psalms as a literary whole.

Still the question lingers. Is a canonical approach merely a recent invention. Providentially, my reading on the Psalms took me to David Mitchell’s work , The Message of the Psalter: An Eschatological Programme in the Book of Psalmswhere he spends fifty pages tracing the history of psalm interpretation. In his first chapter, he give a resounding ‘yes’ to the question, order and arrangement have always been taken into consideration until the modern period of hermeneutics. Only since the Enlightenment, with its skepticism towards the supernatural inspiration of the Bible, has an atomized approach to the Psalms been the norm.

In what follows I summarize his research and outline why we can have great confidence that a canonical approach to the Psalms is not just a modern invention, it is a recovery and an amplification of the Christian practice of reading the Bible as God’s inspired word.


The canonical approach is not only intensely biblical, it is also overwhelmingly historical. In fact, from “a historical perspective at the end of the twentieth century . . . western scholarship from c. 1820–1970 is, in some respects, a hiatus in Psalms interpretation, during which scholarly opinion diverged sharply from what must be considered, historically speaking, the dominant views” (David C. Mitchell, The Message of the Psalter, 65). After surveying the data from the Septuagint to the present, this is David Mitchell’s conclusion about the Psalms, that the dominant views have always considered the arrangement and ordering of the Psalter.

Though possessing various emphases, the most common approaches to the Psalms have always read the Psalms as one unified book, intentionally arranged to communicate a messianic message. Indeed, as David Mitchell makes plain in his 50-page history of psalm interpretation (“A Review of Psalms Interpretation”), he shows how the  reception history of the Masoretic Text (i.e., how the Psalms have been translated, interpreted, and explained) has always favored a canonical approach. Indeed, only in the period of the Enlightenment with its anti-supernaturalism and critical views of the Bible, did the canonical approach go out of fashion.

Put the other way, our modern approaches to the Psalms (i.e., reading Psalms in isolation, categorizing Psalms by genre not order, etc.) are products of “Enlightened” scholars. They are not the approach of the Septuagint (LXX), the Jewish Rabbis, or the early, medieval, or Reformation church. In fact, when we go back to look at those original sources, what we find is a consistent approach to the Psalms that observes, preserves, and considers its arrangement, even if it doesn’t always understand it.

For instance, Mitchell shows how the LXX, “the first monument of Jewish exegesis,” preserved the order of the Psalms and even interpreted them eschatologically, i.e., looking for a coming messiah (19). Likewise, the Dead Sea Scrolls also give evidence to the importance of arrangement (21ff.), as their scrolls both keep the arrangement of the Psalms and demonstrate the importance of arrangement in other scrolls that combine biblical and extra-biblical Psalms. Such findings follow the point made by Gerald Wilson, that ancient communities who collected Psalms would expect their collections to have an intentional ordering (The Editing of the Hebrew Psalter).

After the LXX and the Dead Sea Scrolls comes the New Testament. Does it reflect an awareness of Psalm arrangement? Mitchell answer positively. First he cites Acts 1:20, which refers to the Psalms as the “Book of the Psalms.” The singular “book” denotes a unified entity, much like Luke 24:44 speaks of the Psalms as one of three parts of the Tanak—Law (Torah) + Prophets (Naviim) + Writings (Ketuviim)—where the Psalms stand in for the Writings. Then he lists four other proofs for an intentional arrangement (and here I’m quoting):

  1. The known prominence of that arrangement, as demonstrated in its being selected as the basis for all the translations [e.g., LXX, Peshitta Psalms, etc.], would make it likely.
  2. The majority of New Testament quotes from Psalms come verbatim from LXX, which, of course, has the MT-type sequence.
  3. All New Testament citations from ‘psalms’ are found in the MT-type Psalter; the term is not used of non-biblical lyrics, such as those in 11QPsa.
  4. Acts 13:33 cites from Psalm 2 and refers to its being written en the Psalms . . . the second [= “the second Psalm” ESV].
  5. No other arrangement of Psalms has passed into Christian tradition. (26)

From these proofs, he makes the point that the “New Testament seems to regard the MT-type Psalter as definitive” (26). Because his thesis is to prove the eschatological nature of the Psalms, he also gives ample evidence to describe how the New Testament read the Psalms as a forward-looking eschatological book (27). In this way, we find that a unified message of the Psalms is also evident—namely, the Psalms tell the singular account of God’s covenantal relationship with Israel that is looking for a new messiah arising from David’s house. Such a theological emphasis adds credence (and necessity) for reading the Psalms as one unified whole.

Moving from the nascent Christian community to early Jewish communities, he shows how both “have the same psalms as MT in the same order” (28), but also how they repeatedly defend that order and arrangement (28–30). Mitchell cites countless examples of this.

After the Rabbis, Mitchell turns to the early church, where he also finds evidence of endorsement for the Psalms arrangement.  Though less prominent than the rabbinical tradition, he cites Origen, Augustine, Gregory of Nyssa, and Hippolytus as examples of pastor-theologians that considered various aspects of the Psalms’ arrangement. In fact, Jerome reports that Athanasius “wrote a commentary now lost, De psalmorum titulis,” which is presumably about the titles or superscriptions in the Psalter.

Next, Mitchell turns to the Reformation. Here, he cites Luther, Bucer, and Calvin as recognizing the arrangement of the Psalms and the inspired nature of the Psalm superscripts. For instance, Calvin commented on the placement of Psalm 1 as an introductory psalm (40), Luther observed various author tendencies in the Psalms (39), and Bucer “regard[ed] the headings, especially those containing historical information, as relevant to correct interpretation” (40).

Thus, until the Enlightenment and the introduction of higher-criticism, the uniform approach to the Psalms in church history was more or less canonical. Sadly, that changed when methods of interpretation changed and the interpreter began to treat the Bible like any other book. With a hermeneutic of suspicion, biblical scholars began to look for and posit different collections of Psalms behind the Psalms. Thus, as Mitchell reports, “revisionist approaches” to the Psalms began to isolate and extract individual psalms. The superscriptions were believed to be fabrications by later scribes and the overall unity of the Psalms was rejected. Hence, throughout the 18th and 19th C, the New Testament and rabbinic respect for the Bible was lost.

What was the effect? Until the end of the twentieth century, most Psalm studies refused to consider the Psalms as a whole. A few exceptions persisted (e.g., Hengstenberg, J.A. Alexander, F. Delitzsch), but on the whole every commentary until the mid- to late-twentieth century rejected or just ignored a canonical reading.

As I have documented elsewhere, this changed with the likes Brevard Childs and Gerald Wilson, but the effect was that even (or, I’d say, most) Bible-believing evangelicals have approached the Psalms as individual, isolated songs. Predominant among revisionist scholars was the belief that the Psalms were a temple hymnbook. But the same is true among conservatives. After the Enlightenment, few evangelicals explained the Psalms like the early church. Most treat the Psalms like a collection of praises and laments, and thus holding firm to a theological doctrine of inspiration and inerrancy, they employ a method of Psalm interpretation that is almost identical to higher-critical scholars.

In fact, it may go even further. Today, because so many in the evangelical church are steeped in Enlightenment methodology (if not doctrine), there may be slight or strong pushback on a canonical approach to the Psalms. “This a modern fabrication,” defenders of the Bible insist. Yet, as Mitchell demonstrates, the opposite is true. Those who take Scripture most seriously have always approached the Psalms as one unified book, a messianic text inspired by God to prepare the way for Jesus the Son of David.

For this reason we must insist on reading the Psalms canonically. It is not some newfangled academic fad. Rather, coming out of the Enlightenment’s darkness, we are recovery the light which early Christians and Hebrew Rabbis once had. Indeed, in the Spirit of Reformation, a canonical reading of the Psalms is simply a recovery of biblical truth. And for this reason we must continue to press into the text, to see its order, arrangement, and poetic structure that unfurls the narrative story of the Psalter. Only by doing this do we learn what the original message of the Psalms is, such that we modern followers of Jesus Christ might forsake our modern notions of the Bible (and Bible reading) and learn to read the Scripture like Jesus did when taught his disciples.

To that end we must labor and be willing to let Scripture and the biblical wisdom of church history teach us how to read books like the Psalms. And thankfully, books like The Message of the Psalter and The Flow of the Psalmsa more accessible book by O. Palmer Robertson, help us see that the rise in canonical studies is not a new creation. Rather, it is a return to a faithful reading of God’s Word.