Reading the Psalter: A Bibliographic Review

Brian D. Russell

Martin Luther penned the following introduction to the Psalter:

Where does one find finer words of joy than in the Psalms of praise and thanksgiving? There you look into the hearts of all saints, as into fair and pleasant gardens, yes, as into heaven itself. There you see what at fine and pleasant flowers of the heart spring up from all sorts of fair and happy thoughts toward God, because of all his blessings. On the other hand, where do you find deeper, more sorrowful, more pitiful words of sadness than in the psalms of lamentation? There again you look into the hearts of all the saints, as into death, yes, as into hell itself. How gloomy and dark it is there, with all kinds of troubled forebodings about the wrath of God! So, too, when they speak of fear and hope, they use such words that no painter could so depict for your fear or hope, and no Cicero or other orator so portray them.

The influence of the Psalms on the history of the Christian movement cannot be exaggerated. The NT quotes from and alludes to the Psalms more than any other OT book. The Psalter has shaped corporate worship and personal piety for millennia in the church. This essay reviews key resources from the last 20 years that have influenced the interpretation of the Psalter and can help pastors and teachers to deploy the richness of the Psalter in worship, preaching, and teaching.

Contours of the Conversation

Over the last two decades of scholarship, two new avenues for reading the psalms have emerged—the recognition of the shaping of the final form of the Psalter into a book and the function of the lament psalms in the Psalter as a whole and for the life of the church.

The most significant development in the study of the Psalms was pioneered by G.H. Wilson. Wilson’s 1981 thesis under B.S. Childs at Yale University was published as The Editing of the Hebrew Psalter (Scholars Press, 1985). Wilson’s work argued for a two-part editing of the Psalter. Wilson’s research broke new ground by arguing for intentionality in the organization of the various psalms in the Psalter. In other words, instead of viewing the Psalter as a random or haphazard collection of individual psalms, Wilson urged that the Psalter could be read fruitfully as a book. In fact, in its final form, the Psalter invites persons to read it as such.

This invitation is offered in the first psalm. The First Three Books (Pss 1-89) are organized by authorship and genre. Books I-III are dominated by laments and are grouped in terms of the authors mentioned in the headings. David, Asaph, and Korah are the most common. Royal Psalms (psalms penned around the theme of the Davidic monarchy, e.g., Pss 2, 72, 89) inserted at key places serve as frames around the other psalms. This deployment of Royal psalms, argues Wilson, points to the theme of the first major unit of the Psalter (Pss 1-89): the rise and failure of the Davidic monarchy and covenant. The second major unit of the Psalter (Pss 90-150) serves as the answer for Israel in light of the crisis of Exile and loss of Davidic monarchy. Psalms 90-150 comprise Books IV-V of the Psalter. These psalms are generally anonymous and are organized thematically. For Wilson, Book IV answers Israel’s crises by calling God’s people back to their roots, namely the reality of the LORD as Israel’s true king and refuge. Book IV opens with Ps 90, which ascribes authorship to Moses and reminds Israel of its heritage. The confession “the LORD reigns” is dominant in this part of the Psalter. Books IV-V serve to exhort Israel to trust God and to practice faithful obedience. Books IV-V also are dominated with the theme of God’s fidelity/steadfast love (Heb. hesed). Israel is not merely responding to a king but to a King who remains steadfastly loyal and committed to his people.

The importance of Wilson’s work is that it focuses interpretation on the text of the individual psalm within the context of the final form of the Psalter as a whole. Ironically, both precritical interpretation of the Psalms as well as historical-critical work had both shifted the locus of authority outside of the text itself. Precritical interpretation read the Psalms as commentary on the life of David as revealed in the books of Samuel. In such traditional reading, the key to understanding a psalm was locating it in David’s life. Likewise, historical criticism focused on the social setting of individual psalms whether cultic or non-cultic.

Much of the work that has occurred in the aftermath of Wilson’s initial work has served to expand and nuance his initial thesis and to exploit for theological gain a canonical approach to the Psalter. Students wanting to trace this scholarly agenda further will want to consult The Shape and Shaping of the Psalter (ed. J.C. McCann; JSOT Press, 1993) as well as the introductory volumes discussed below.

The second key development is an outgrowth of Wilson’s breakthrough, but also influenced deeply by traditional form criticism. W. Brueggemann offered a poignant reading of the Psalter as a whole in his The Message of the Psalms (Augsburg, 1984). Brueggemann argues that the Psalter moves from a rigid faith of obedience to a faith rooted in extravagant praise. His analysis is based on a rubric that organizes the psalms around three core types: psalms of orientation, psalms of disorientation, and psalms of reorientation. These types serve as broad headings for traditional form critical genres. The lament psalms function as the driver in this paradigm as they represent a disorienting level in the faith of Israel. Lament psalms are those that make a complaint or petition directly to God for help. By voicing the dangers and heartaches of life, the lament genre presents a direct challenge to the safe and predictable worldview envisioned in the psalms of orientation (Torah psalms, creation hymns, and wisdom psalms among others). This disequilibrium resolves into a new world of deep faith articulated in the psalms of reorientation (thanksgiving psalms, royal psalms, songs of confidence, and praise hymns).

Brueggemann emphasized further the role of the lament psalm in his influential essay, “The Costly Loss of Lament” (JSOT 36 [1986] 57-71). He describes the theological danger of ignoring lament in the church. He reviews current practices in church lectionary readings and hymnody by noting the relative absence of the lament psalm in comparison to the reality that they are the largest category found in the Psalter. When the community of faith losses 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.

Introductions to the Psalter

Students should familiarize themselves with two books that serve to introduce the Psalter from an exegetical and theological point of view: J.L. Mays’ The Lord Reigns: A Theological Handbook to the Psalms (Westminster John Knox, 1994) and J.C. McCanns’ Theological Introduction to the Book of Psalms (Abingdon, 1993). Both are based on a canonical final form reading of the Psalter. The essays in each prepare the reader for serious exegetical engagement with the richness of the Psalter.


A series of strong commentaries, published recently, engage in theological interpretation of the Psalter.

The finest full-length commentary on the Psalms available in English is J.L. Mays’ Psalms (Westminster John Knox, 1994). Mays’ mastery of the content and theology of the Psalter is on display on every page. Mays’ own journey as an exegete comes to full fruition. He cut his teeth on the various form-critical approaches to the Psalter. As he was preparing this volume, he shifted to a canonical reading under the influence of Wilson. Psalms represents the mature reflection of a seasoned scholar well versed in the contours of psalmic interpretation in the 20th century. Mays offers a thoroughgoing theological interpretation of each psalm that includes serious engagement with the NT’s deployment of the Psalter as well as the usage of the Psalms in modern lectionary practice.

Two additional commentaries are available that deploy the newer canonical approach. First,
J.C. McCann’s “Psalms” in the New Interpreter’s Bible ([NIB; ed. Leander E. Keck; Abingdon, 1996] 4:641-1280) provides the reader McCann’s keen insights and observations on the Psalter as a whole.

Before his untimely death in 2006, G.H. Wilson published volume one of Psalms (Zondervan, 2002). This is a popular-level commentary but it is the only access that students of the psalter have into Wilson’s own interpretive approach to individual psalms. It is one of the strongest entries in the series.

F-L. Hossfeld and E. Zenger’s Psalms 2 (Hermeneia; Fortress, 2005) is the best historical-critical commentary on the Psalms. Only one volume of a projected three is available. When complete, it will serve as the standard critical work for some time. Hossfeld and Zenger are inclusive of traditional historical critical concerns as well as the insights into the canonical shape of the Psalter.

Preaching and Teaching Guides

The last 20 years has witnessed a renaissance of sorts in the use of Psalm texts as the basis for preaching and teaching. The Psalter has long been deployed in worship as part of lectionary reading, liturgical movements, and prayers. But it is often overlooked as material for proclamation. Two excellent resources are available to help teachers and preachers deploy the psalms for dynamic preaching and teaching. First, J.C. McCann Jr. and J.C. Howell coauthored a volume devoted solely to the task of proclamation, Preaching the Psalms (Abingdon, 2001). McCann and Howell demonstrate the long tradition of preaching the Psalter in the Christian tradition. They offer reflection on how to preach the psalms in which they help the reader to focus on the imagery and metaphoric world of the Psalter and to be attentive to the theological movements within the psalms. The concluding third of the text offers reflection on key themes for proclamation along with sample sermons. This section is more suggestive than comprehensive but offers chapters on the psalter’s understanding of happiness, the importance of lament, and the function of praise in the psalter. Second, J.L. Mays’ Preaching and Teaching the Psalms collects 21 of his essays and sermons together for the interpreter. Preachers and teachers will find his essays on the psalter instructive and his own interpretive work on individual psalms a model to be emulated.

Posted Nov 01, 2007