Is 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 Psalms, where 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. Continue reading
In his chapter on the Psalms, Paul House writes of Book 3, Psalms 73–89:
Subtle shifts in tone, superscriptions and content leading up to historical summaries in Psalms 78 and 89 indicate that part three [Psalms 73–89] reflects Israel’s decline into sin and exile. This national demise occurs in about 930–587 B.C. and has been described previously in 1 Kings 12–1 Kings 25 as well as in Isaiah, Jeremiah, and the Twelve. The view of history found here matches that in the Prophets: Israel’s covenant breaking led God to rebuke, and then reject, the chosen people and to expel them from the promised land. These Psalms portray this rebuke and rejection against a background of the remnants faith struggles and the Lord’s patience. (Old Testament Theology, 413–14)
In Sunday’s message I attempted to show some of the history of Judah that stands behind the events of Book 3. I argued that by learning the history of David’s sons and listening to the priestly heralds of Book 3 we come to learn about Israel’s hope and our own hope. Whereas the sins of David’s sons led to the demise of their throne, God would ultimately remain faithful, as it evidenced throughout Book 3 and even more in Books 4 and 5.
While fulling getting our hands on the history and poetry of Israel challenges us—we are, after all, removed from Israel’s history by over 3,000 years and differing languages—it is evident that devastating fall afflicts David’s house and the house of the Lord between the end of Book 2 and the end of Book 3. Psalm 72 shows the exalted throne of David, now given to Solomon; Psalm 89 shows the crown of David thrown into the dust.
In the infographic, I try to show some of the probable connections that make up the details of Book 3, as it gives the soundtrack of David’s falling house. Discussion questions below focus on Psalm 89. And sermon audio and sermon notes are also available. (You can find a list of observations related to Psalm 74 and 2 Chronicles 10–12 here). Continue reading
Among recent studies on the Psalms, one of the most linguistically rigorous is that of Robert Cole, (former?) professor of Old Testament at Southeastern Theological Seminary. His monograph The Shape of the Message of Book III (Psalms 73–89) shows just how carefully the editor(s) of the Psalms arranged the collection of the Psalms. And any student of the Psalms would benefit from his exhaustive study.
Devoting a chapter to each Psalm (17 in all), he shows how every psalm can and must be read in light of its surrounding context. His trench work shows that a canonical approach the Psalms is not just the product of an over-eager imagination that sees connection from a high altitude. Rather, he demonstrates how the grammar of the Psalms is intentionally ‘shaped’ to fit one Psalm into another.
For instance, he shows how Psalm 73, which begins Book III, develops verbal connections with Psalm 72 in the first strophe (vv. 1–12) and how the second (vv. 13–17) and third (vv. 18-29) strophes of the same Psalm anticipate words and events in Psalm 74 (pp. 15–28). In order, he follows this methodology through Book III, showing why a canonical reading of the Psalms is more than permissible. For those who care deeply about literary context, it is necessary.
For any pastor preaching through the Psalms or any student of Hebrew poetics or biblical hermeneutics, Cole’s book is an excellent technical study on how the Scriptures are knit together. At the same time, his opening section provides a number of quotations on recent research on the Psalms. Following Gerald Wilson and others, he provides more than half dozen block quotes arguing for the necessity of reading the Psalms as a whole. Continue reading
After three weeks away from preaching, and hearing three faithful sermons on Psalms 22–24, Psalm 73, and Psalm 88, I took to the pulpit again yesterday. And instead of jumping into Book 3 of the Psalms, I sought to answer one question: How do we get into the Psalms? Or more precisely, how does a canonical approach to the Psalms apply to our daily devotions?
Comparing the Psalms to Christ-anticipating parade, I made the case that we must read the Psalms
- With Christ as our guide,
- Consecutively, and
- With Christ as our goal.
You can listen to the message here or read the sermon notes. Discussion questions are below, as are a few resources. Continue reading
How do you know who you are?
For all of us stories, especially family stories, define who we are. While the world tells us we can define ourselves however we want, the truth is we need an overarching story to set the context for our lives. Apart from Christ, we seek to write a story with our lives that satisfies our cravings and bolsters our self-confidence.
When we come to faith in Jesus Christ, however, we not only receive the Lord’s righteousness and life, we also receive his name, his family, and his history. Importantly, Jesus’ family history does not begin in a Bethlehem stable, it goes back to Ruth and Boaz—another family in Bethlehem. And in the birth of their great-grandson David, we find the foundational patriarch who defines the royal family of King Jesus and all of human history. In the Psalms David is the central figure. In Book 1 he is the author and centerpiece of (almost) every psalm. And now in Book 2, he continues to have the leading role.
This week, building on the message from last week, we consider how the sons of Korah, Asaph, and Solomon all factor into David’s later life. As I argue in the sermon, Book 2 begins with the highpoint of David’s life in Psalms 45–46; it then plummets into the conflicts that arise following David’s sin with Bathsheba in Psalms 51–71; it concludes with God intervening to save David and establish David’s son Solomon on the throne in Psalm 72. In this story we find the family story of David, of Jesus, and of every child of God who has entered into David’s story by way of trust in David’s Son.
You can listen to the sermon online or read the sermon notes. But perhaps most helpful are two infographics that display the story of Psalms 1–72. Here are the infographics, also in PDF (Book 1 and Book 2). Below are discussion questions and resources for further study.
How 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). Continue reading
The Psalters is comprised of 150 Psalms, divided into five books. Is this incidental? Or should we seek to discern the message of the Psalms by examining the five books?
Last week, we started our journey through the Psalms, as we considered the way Psalms 1–2 introduce the whole book. This week, we looked at the first 41 Psalms. In particular we traced, what I called three hills and a valley. You can see the arrangement in this PDF. I argued that each grouping of Psalms can be observed by careful attention to the literary structure and that each hill or valley has a unique message related to the overarching theme(s) of the book
You can listen to the sermon online or read the sermon notes. Discussion questions are below, as well as a few sources I consulted to help ‘see’ the shape of Book 1. Continue reading
When 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: Continue reading
Few books have had a more personal or profound impact on the worship of the church than the Psalms. And for the next two months our church is going to meditate on their message. But what is there message? And how do we find it? Is it possible to read the Psalms as one unified book? Or must we only see them as a hymnbook with various authors, genres, and themes?
Starting in this introductory on Psalms 1 and 2, I argued we should read the Psalms as one unified message that begins with the David of history and leads to the Son of David, Jesus Christ. As the weeks go on we will look at each book of the Psalms, and how they develop a message of wisdom, kingship, and salvation.
You can listen to the sermon online or read the sermon notes. Discussion questions and resources for further reading and viewing are below. If time is short, be sure to watch the Bible Project video about the Psalms. Continue reading
Psalm 1, Psalm 23, Psalm 51, Psalm 103, Psalm 110, Psalm 121 and Psalm 139. These are just a few of my favorite Psalms. Through the years, I have prayed these Psalms, memorized them, preached them, and turned to them in dozens of counseling situations.
In fact, I remember one Sunday a few years ago when in preaching Galatians, I called an audible and preached Psalm 103, because the needs of the congregation were so great that only a Psalm could reach the depths of emotion present in the room that Sunday. And another time, a distraught husband visited church, and Psalm 32 became the landing zone to help assess the impact of his sin and the hope of finding forgiveness—“Blessed is the man whose sins are forgiven” (v. 1)
More personally, the Psalms have been a regular source of strength, comfort, and encouragement to me. When first learning how the Bible applied to all areas of life, Psalm 139 gave sufficient reason to oppose abortion. I still remember turning to verses 13–16 to explain why Bible-believing Christians must defend life in the womb. Likewise, when facing trials, Psalm 121 has regularly been a comfort. Its promises of the Lord’s protection have steeled my heart from many worries. And more recently, when facing the hostility of a purported minister of the gospell, Psalm 55 was sufficient to strengthen my soul. To know that God’s people face betrayal is gut-wrenching reality, but one that the Psalms are capable of addressing. In short, the Psalms have played a necessary role in my life over the years. They have fed my soul. And I’ve seen them feed the souls of others.
Practically, I read at least one Psalm a day. (Except for those days when I don’t and then I catch up on the following day or two). In chronological order, I read through the whole Psalter in five months (January–May), with one extra month (June) to read them through more quickly. I do this to help facilitate prayer, but also to remind myself of the storyline of salvation contained therein. Yes, there is an order to the Psalms and knowing it adds greatly to understanding the Psalms and worshiping their God. Continue reading