The Hebrew Scriptures are adorned and haunted by their crown jewel — the Psalter. The Psalms fathom the depths of evil, suffering, and betrayal, and scale the heights of devotion, deliverance, and steadfast love. Through the centuries, Jews and Christians have turned to the Psalter both as individuals and communities to lament, repent, question, declare, and praise. The Psalms are a hymnbook for the soul, in any season.
But what exactly is the Psalter, and how should it be read? Virtually everyone reads each psalm individually, without regard for its neighbors or its context or the overall message of the book. Like Proverbs, which is usually read as a random assortment of de-contextualized wisdom sayings, the Psalms are almost exclusively read as individual poems and songs meant for various seasons of the soul. We’re ashamed of our sins, so we turn to Psalm 51. We’re down in the dumps, so we ponder Psalm 42. We’re afraid or insecure, so we recite Psalm 23.
In Singing in the Reign: The Psalms and the Liturgy of God’s Kingdom (Emmaus Road, 2001), Catholic professor Michael Barber joins a growing chorus of scholars who both affirm the Psalms’ precious role as individual songs and see a purposeful arrangement in the one hundred and fifty psalms. He traces interwoven themes running through the five books of the Psalms (Book I: 1-41 | Book II: 42-72 | Book III: 73-89 | Book IV: 90-106 | Book V: 107-150), highlights textual connections between each psalm and its neighbors, and shows how the Psalter has been structured to tell a story.
If this is true, we must not simply feast on the Psalter like a buffet line while missing its arrangement as a masterful seven-course meal. Cherry-picking from the Psalms without recognizing its purposeful structure and unified story narrows our joy rather than broadening it. Barber suggests a deeper way to read the Psalms:
The Book of Psalms must be read at three levels. First, each of the psalms must be read as individual prayers, which stand on their own, apart from their context. Second, many of these psalms may be understood as composed for some specific historical context . . . Finally, the psalms gain new meaning as they are placed in the larger context of the Psalter.”
By the unfailing guidance of God the Holy Spirit, Hebrew anthologists crafted the Psalter by selecting and arranging one hundred and fifty poetic masterpieces previously composed by theological artisans — prophet, priest, and king — spanning centuries of God’s steadfast love to his people. Most Christians, after a fresh look at the Psalms and a little pondering, would agree with that description.
But what exactly is the “larger context” of the Psalter that gives each psalm a broader meaning? What are the five books of Psalms, viewed as a whole, trying to tell us? What is the story of the Psalter? Without addressing the Catholic issues in the book or leveling the critiques involved in most book reviews, I close with a summary of Barber’s proposed structure of the Psalter (with which I substantially agree).
Book I (1-41) is filled with psalms of David, the young shepherd whom God promised a messianic descendant who would rule over an everlasting kingdom. Books II (42-72) and III (73-89) trace the rise and fall of David’s kingdom, experienced by the entire community of God’s people. At the end of Book III (Ps 89), the line of David fails as Israel goes into exile. Book IV declares that Yahweh is king, splashing the canvas with Mosaic and Exodus themes as exiled Israel anticipates the New Exodus promised by the prophets. Finally, the structure of Book V evokes restoration from exile leading to the restoration of the Davidic kingdom and culminating in the unbridled celebration of Psalms 146-150.
So, we may ask again, what is the Psalter?
The Psalter is a carefully crafted post-exilic anthology with a narrative structure reflecting Israel’s historical hope for the restoration of the Davidic kingdom whose establishment would consummate the purposes and promises embedded in God’s previous covenants with Adam, Abraham, and Israel.
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Thanks to Emmaus Road Publishing for providing a free copy for unbiased review.