The Case for the Psalms: A Review

N.T. Wright’s A Case for the Psalms: Why They Are Essential is a quick and pleasant read. Atypical of books written by scholars on  the Psalms, Wright does not spend time digging into the intricacies of Hebrew poetry, the nature of parallelism, the history of the book’s composition, or other such matters. Perceiving the church’s disheartening neglect of her ancient hymnbook, he, instead, pleads for her return to the emotional, aesthetic, and theological depth inherent in the Psalms. These poems/songs must become a part of the lifeblood of all Christians everywhere. They unite  the apostolic church, the early church, and the modern worldwide church. Singing these Psalms within our corporate contexts is one way (among others) that the church universal worships together. The worldview they express and to which they testify must be embodied and prayed. That worldview is articulated in the book’s core chapters (Chapter 3: At the Threshold of God’s Time; Chapter 4: Where God Dwells; and Chapter 5: All the Trees of the Forest Sing for Joy).

In chapter 3, Wright argues that the past faithfulness of God, the present suffering and uncertainness, and the promise of future vindication coalesce. As Christians we live as exiles in this world. We know that God has called a people to himself. We know that he has dealt faithfully with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. We know that he sent his son, Christ, to die for our sins and the restoration of all creation. Nevertheless, we live in a world of sin and suffering. The Psalms call us to live in God’s time. A time when all three of these realities intersect. Wright says,

This is what poetry and music themselves are there to do: to link the present to the past, to say, “Remember,” to say, “Blessed be God,” even when the tide is running strongly in the wrong direction (72).

Chapter 4 moves in a progressive manner. Wright argues that the Psalms testify to sacred space. The original creation was a space where God met with Adam and Eve. The Temple, Israel’s holy place wherein YHWH himself dwelt, looks back to the garden. After the destruction of the Temple, Torah becomes a new temple. Through the love of, delight in, and adherence to the Torah, the people of God become his dwelling place. Christ becomes the ultimate expression of this truth. Wright notes that this is the theology John expresses when he writes in 1:14 that Jesus tabernacled with us. John further develops the concept of God dwelling/tabernacling among men in his conversation with the woman at the well. God is wherever he is worshipped in spirit/Spirit and in truth. Wright concludes this chapter with these remarks:

The psalmists’ notions of sacred space have not been abandoned. They have been translated into the mode of Messiah and Spirit. The “sacred space” of the Temple, the primary location for so many psalms, stood at the heart of God’s holy land. Paul has glimpsed a vision in which the whole world is now God’s holy land and is to be set free at last from its slavery to corruption, flooded at last (as the prophets had said) with the knowledge and glory of God.

And at the heart of that new land, we see not a sacred building of bricks and mortar but a sacred people, whose very hearts have become the dwelling place of the living God by his Spirit, enabling them to be conformed to “the model of the image of his son,” the one in whom the Psalms’ greatest promises have found their fulfillment. (115).

Finally, Wright argues that the Psalms articulate a distinct understanding of matter/the material world. The psalmists understand that God has created all things. His work was magnificent. It testifies to his glory. Though his creation has been marred by the tragedy of human sin, that does not negate the good work of God. Furthermore, the new creation will not be an entirely new work. He will not destroy all that is and start afresh. The new creation will be a transformation and restoration of this material world. This transformation and restoration is enabled through the glorious work of Christ and the Holy Spirit. It is not something for which we must wait. It is taking place now. The Spirit is working to transform hearts, minds, and souls. He creates new habits and ambitions, new love and acts of service in those he redeems.

Chapter six acts as a conclusion to the work.

Chapter seven is an afterword that allows the reader to peak into the life of N.T. Wright. How does this Christian scholar use the Psalms? How have they affected him?

Did Wright make his case for the Psalms? I believe he has. He opened my eyes to my deficient understanding of the Psalms. He convicted me of my negligence. He has made me envious of  other Christian traditions wherein the psalms are sung regularly and in their entirety. Because of this, and with the assistance of my wife, I immediately sought out music in the vein of such traditions. I found the the choir of King’s College Cambridge album of the Psalms of David, and haven’t stopped listening. I will leave you with a sampling . . .

[Edit: It occurred to me upon a rereading of this post that some may misconstrue Wright’s case for the Psalms as one framed entirely by the so-called “Worship Debates.” While this is a part of his discussion, it is but a small part. Wright desires that all Christians will read, pray, sing, know, embody, and love the Psalms. The worldview they portray (time, space, matter) is uniquely equipped to the task of guiding Christians through God’s world.]

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2 Responses to The Case for the Psalms: A Review

  1. Dave Black says:

    What does he do with those troublesome imprecatory Psalms?

    • jacobcerone says:

      He doesn’t touch ’em. The book is far from his typical scholarly thoroughness. His goal, I think, was to get everyone to read and sing the Psalms. What we do with those outside his threefold worldview is up to us.

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