The Psalms Today

Walter Brueggemann, Praying the Psalms: Engaging Scripture and the Life of the Spirit. Second edition. Cascade books, 2007. 97 pages.

One of the specific aims of the distilled prayer project is to review modern scholarship on the psalms. There is quite a diversity of material available, much of it devoted to discussing individual psalms. This little book by Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann is one of the best I have found so far.

In the first chapter he introduces his theory that the psalms can be divided into three categories: secure orientation (status quo), painful disorientation, and surprised reorientation. Most of the psalms are disorientation, where the world is turned upside down for the psalmist. Reorientation occurs when things suddenly reverse course and psalmist is in thanksgiving. Orientation, or psalms of the status quo, are the least common and this state is best reflected in Proverbs. Overall I think these categories work well and are in terms that appeal to our generation.

The second and third chapters deal with the language of the psalms. Brueggemann wants us to appreciate the raw power and candor of the language. The depth of the language and the metaphors allows a catharsis that is necessary to move on beyond the crisis. He warns us that this catharsis is necessary and that we should not sanitize or edit offending verses. Metaphors are meant to have full range of our imagination, not restricted to mere descriptors. Brueggeman gives a rich discussion of some of the metaphors found in the psalms.

His fourth chapter focuses on Christian attitudes toward the Jewishness of the psalms. He believes that Christians must embrace this Jewishness, rather than avoid the most awkward verses. He gives a useful discussion of the meaning of Jerusalem as a place and a metaphor.

Brueggemann’s last chapter is on vengeance in the psalms. Here I think he makes two very important points. First, for all the raw, cathartic vitriol in the psalms, ultimately, vengeance is yielded to God. The psalmist never asks God to help him take vengeance or asks for forgiveness for vengeance he has already taken. Vengeance is God’s to dispense. This leads to the second point on the sovereignty of God. It is God’s decision on whether to dispense vengeance or show compassion. Several of the psalms express confusion on why God has not taken vengeance. Brueggemann stresses that judgment and vengeance are discussed in the New Testament in the same ways as the psalms. He quotes Hebrews 10:30-31: “For we know him who said, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay’. And again, ‘the Lord will judge his people.’ It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.’ This last line should be familiar to those who study the venerable Bede, as Cuthbert’s letter claims that this verse is one that Bede repeated over and over in his last days.

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3 thoughts on “The Psalms Today

  1. Well, this review makes me want to go check this book out, now. It sounds like it has some very interesting connections to narrative theology and some of the thoughts coming out of the emergent church.

    The way you describe Brueggemann’s discussion of the catharsis and current relevance of the psalms reminds me of a lecture I heard by J. Richard Middleton (and there’s an article that he published on the topic, too) about the idea of using the psalms as a way to use lament as an aspect of worship, and its relevance in the church today.

  2. Brandon, I have to say I don’t know very much about the “emergent church”. I’m not familiar with Middleton’s article, do you have a reference?

    Derek, I have Bonhoeffer’s book but I haven’t got around to really studying it. What do you think of it? I have a little anthology of Bonhoeffer’s homilies and writings on the psalms that is very interesting. These are more practical uses than scholarly essays.

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