London: SPCK, 2014.
Available at Amazon.com
Reading Tom Wright’s new book on the Psalms is like taking a helicopter flight with David Attenborough. A panoramic view of the spiritual landscape of the Psalter is delivered with charm and erudition. Brief close-ups give us insight and a sense of having visited the country for ourselves. We have a sense of delight, and a desire further opportunities for exploration.
This short introduction to the Psalms is a ‘personal plea’ to recover the saying and singing of the Psalms. They are the spiritual root system of Christianity. They take us out of our own vision of reality and transport us to join the cosmic chorus of prayer and praise. The Psalms open up a larger vision of reality and transform the way we see ourselves, each other, the world, and God.
Wright locates the collection and shaping of the Psalter in the Babylonian Exile in the sixth century BC and considers them to be the hymnbook of the Second Temple down through the following centuries. Jesus and his disciples would have known the Psalms by heart. The Apostles including Paul lived in a ‘Psalm-shaped world’, and they saw Jesus and his achievements through this lens. The Psalms present an ‘epic’ of God’s past and future action, when he will visit and redeem the whole of creation. Wright has himself been shaped by the Psalms, and he invites us to join him in being shaped by them.
Three dimensions of reality are explored in the book. At the crossroads of time, space, and matter, God’s time, God’s space, and God’s creation intersect with our own mundane way of seeing life. Just as an excellent concert or movie takes us into another world, so the Psalms can enable us to taste a different reality.
The familiar phenomenon of Hebrew parallelism is provocatively re-envisioned in terms of binocular vision. In Hebrew poetry, we are often given two lines which are similar to each other. In each line, we are given a signpost of a greater reality.
I will open my mouth in a parable;
I will utter dark sayings from of old.
The paired lines, like the synoptic gospels or the two creation accounts in Genesis 1 & 2, point us to a reality which is bigger than one snapshot alone can capture.
We are invited to begin to use the whole Psalter, with its laments, hymns, preferably consecutively. To illustrate this desire, the last chapter of the book is a collection of autobiographical reflections on the Psalms. ‘My Life with the Psalms’ details some ways the Psalms have been an inspiration or strength in times of joy or sorrow, and how they have shaped the author’s own life and worldview.
Wright brings his own experience of praying, singing and living the Psalms, and his expertise as a scholar of the Second Temple period to this book. He freely admits that he is an amateur in Psalms study, in the true sense of the word. The volume’s strength and weakness is its length. It is attractive as a brief and lively introduction to the Psalms. However, the reader is left hungering for more. Perhaps in the future, Wright may have time to engage in a more detailed and comprehensive way with Psalms scholarship and the Psalms themselves.
This short introduction has also been published in America as The Case for the Psalms: Why They are Essential (New York: HarperCollins, 2013).