Tuesday, 20 November 2018

Really Useful Guide on Psalms

The Bible Reading Fellowship has begun to publish a series of what they hope will be compact accessible guides to books of the Bible. The books are about the size of my palm and small finger and at just over 100 pages suitable also for people who are not in the habit of devouring books.

The volume on the Psalms is the first Old Testament title in the ‘Really Useful Guides’ series and written by the OT series editor, Simon Stocks, Tutor for Biblical Studies and Director of Reader Training at St Augustine's College of Theology. It opens with the author’s admission that he was less than excited about the Psalms when he first started reading the Bible systematically.
      The personal reflection on Why read the psalms? reveals that the breakthrough came when he realised that the psalms are not meant to be read like other parts of the Bible. They need to be savoured like an espresso rather than drunk like an Americano. 
      This is followed by an overview (What is the Book of Psalms?) which assumes next to no prior knowledge. Stocks even briefly explains who King David was. After that we come to a longer chapter: What do the psalms say? Here it is in a nutshell:
(1) The Lord God created everything and therefore rules over it with good will...(2) choosing Israel as a particular sign of that rule and good will...(3) using human kings as a manifestation of that rule and good will...(4) and bringing about justice in human affairs by the defeat of evil.
Different psalms emphasise one aspect more than the other but together they help keep memory alive (the Lord has ruled in righteousness), keep faith alive (the Lord rules in faithfulness), and keep hope alive (the Lord will ever rule in triumph).
The identification of God’s faithful, good rule over his people as the core motif of the Psalms is not very controversial and offers a good backbone, holding together the flesh of the individual psalms.
The psalms are songs and poems that follow the literary conventions of another culture. Chapter 4 (How do they say it?) explores poetic style, focusing on aspects which translate into English, imagery and idiom. It also teases out the importance of force and feelings as the currency in which the psalms deal more than brute facts.  
Chapter 5 (What was going on at the time?) gives a bit of history and information about people and places. Again, the author is careful not to assume biblical literacy but to promote it and to do so without overloading readers.
The psalms, like the songs in our hymn book, were not written to be used once only, even if some of them were originally tailor-made for a specific situation. Chapter 6, Reading the Psalms today, offers good suggestions. Stocks is sensitive to our Christian context but I would have liked to see a greater focus on Christ as the one to whom many of the psalms apply before they apply to us.
The five specific examples discussed in chapter 7 are Psalms 13, 30, 48, 58, and 67. There are wise words on some of the difficult aspects of these psalms. More could have been said about praying the psalms as intercession for others but the symbolic reading of ‘Jerusalem’ (Psalm 48) goes some way towards addressing my concern about reading the Psalms in relation to Christ (including his body, the church).
A few pages on famous openings of psalms (22, 122, 130) is an unexpected way by which to open a window to the use of the psalms across millennia. It is followed by a final page of questions for reflection and discussion.
This is a very accessible book, laid out in an easy-to-read format. The author manages to pack in a lot of information in a short space and to teach the nuts and bolts without being patronising and without shying away from the difficult bits. I commend it to you as a genuinely useful guide to the Psalms. You should find plenty to learn.