Friday 19 March 2010

Brian D. Russell on Books on the Psalms

Brian D. Russell, ‘Reading the Psalter: A Bibliographic Review’, Catalyst 34, 1 (2007).

This is a short, helpful piece which reviews key resources (since about the mid-1980s) on the interpretation of the Psalms.

Russell notes that two main avenues for reading the Psalms have emerged over the last 20 years or so: (1) the shape of the final form of the Psalter as a whole, and (2) the function of lament psalms in the Psalter and in the life of the church.

In the first case, he refers to Gerald H. Wilson’s The Editing of the Hebrew Psalter (1985), which argues for an intentionality in the organisation of the Psalms such that it could be read in its final form as a book, and that the Psalter itself invites us to read it as such.

Books I-III of the Psalms (1-89) are dominated by laments, mostly grouped in terms of authors mentioned in the headings, and with royal psalms (e.g., 2, 72, 89) inserted at key places, pointing to the theme of the rise and failure of the Davidic monarchy.

Books IV-V (Psalms 90-150) serve as an answer for Israel in the plight of exile and loss of the monarchy with the reality of the Lord as the true king, and exhorting Israel to trust and obedience. The books are also dominated with the theme of God’s covenant love.

In the second case – the function of lament – Russell refers to the work of Walter Brueggemann and his organisation of the Psalms around three core types: psalms of orientation, psalms of disorientation, psalms of reorientation. The lament psalms represent the disorienting level in the faith of Israel, presenting a direct challenge ‘to the safe and predictable worldview envisioned in the psalms of orientation’ (e.g., Torah psalms, creation hymns, wisdom psalms), a disequilibrium which ‘resolves into a new world of deep faith articulated in the psalms of reorientation’ (e.g., thanksgiving psalms, royal psalms, songs of confidence, praise hymns).

Brueggemann has also written of ‘the costly loss of lament’, outlining the danger of ignoring lament in the church, and the general absence of lament from hymns and lectionary readings.

This is how Russell summarises it:

‘When the community of faith loses its ability to lament, it risks two profound losses theologically. First, the community loses the opportunity for a genuine covenant relationship with God. Apart from the opportunity for complaint and challenge present in lament, worshippers are reduced to “yes” men and women. Second, when the community of faith loses the will or capacity to lament, it stifles its own ability to struggle with the questions of God’s justice in the face of the injustices of life. In both cases, the psalms of lament model for the community of faith direct dialogue with God over questions of justice that are based on a genuine relationship between worshipper and God.’

Russell also mentions some introductions to the Psalter, some commentaries, and preaching and teaching guides.

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