The Psalms as Christian Lament

The Book of Psalms has a special place in the Bible. It has more than once been called a Bible in miniature. All the great themes of the Old Testament have their place in the Psalms: creation and redemption, the expectation of the coming Messiah, the longing for Zion, the desire that Zion will be rebuilt. In the Psalms, we find laments, confessions of guilt, but also thanksgivings and praises. The Psalms are given us by God both as a directory of worship and as a prayer book. When we worship God, we ought to give a special place to the Psalms in both individual and corporate worship. Our prayers ought to be full of the words and phrases of the Psalms.

As well as having a special place in the Bible itself, the Book of Psalms has also had a special place in the life of the church over the centuries. As Protestant Christians, we reject the phenomenon of monasticism, but we cannot object to the custom that in the monasteries the Psalms were prayed daily; praying through the whole book of Psalms just in a week or a month. Psalm 51 was prayed daily. Luther, the great sixteenth-century Reformer, was originally an Augustinian friar. Towards the end of his life, it was his habit, just as he had done when he was a friar, to pray the Psalms daily.

Many commentaries have been written on the Psalms over the centuries. It can only be to our spiritual disadvantage if we neglect the great treasures to be found in commentaries, tractates and sermons penned in former ages. Even leaving aside other aspects, it is theologically that the old material very often surpasses contemporary commentaries. In particular, when commenting on psalm, the depth or shallowness of one’s own Christian experience will influence the way in which he interprets the psalm. More than once, the contemporary Christian reader will find cause enough for lament over his own shallowness when comparing his own theological insight on a psalm with that of a commentator from the past.

In the postmodern era, the notion has arisen that each biblical scholar and exegete reads Scripture by operating from the perspective of a certain tradition. This has denied the stance of the Enlightenment that one can read the Bible in a purely neutral way: even what has heretofore been regarded as neutral study of the Scripture must now, it is asserted, be seen as standing within a given tradition. In this climate, fresh attention has been paid to commentary given in past centuries upon the text of the Bible. We can see this as gain. Chronological snobbery, as C.S. Lewis called it, must actually be considered a very serious shortcoming; certainly from a Christian perspective but also from an academic one.

Our great reservation on postmodernism must be regarding its denial that the Scriptures have any fixed or objective meaning. The assertion of such meaning must be something we hold to firmly, while acknowledging that we can never fully grasp it. Nevertheless, it is also true that each exegete has his own limitations and interests. This makes it especially useful for us to listen to voices from other ages. But how can the Christian easily find the most relevant insights of former ages?

In 2010, Bruce K. Waltke and James M. Houston wrote The Psalms as Christian Worship: A Historical Commentary (Eerdmans Publishing Co., Grand Rapids, Michigan 2010). In 2014, the same authors, together with Erika Moore, wrote The Psalms as Christian Lament: A Historical Commentary. This volume has the same format as the former one, but now the authors concentrate on the Psalms of Lament, as the title indicates.

There are four rubrics or templates applied to each selected Psalm. In the first rubric, we hear the voice of the church. This rubric is authored by James M. Houston, Professor Emeritus of spiritual Theology at Regent College, Vancouver. Then follows the translation, one which does full justice to the character of Hebrew poetry. The third rubric is the commentary proper. Apart from the exegetical portion on Psalm 39, which was written by Erika Moore, Professor of Old Testament at Trinity School for Ministry in Ambrige, Pennsylvania, this central part of the treatment is written by Bruce K. Waltke, Professor Emeritus of Biblical Studies at Regent College.

Full attention is given not only to actual content but also to the literary structure of each selected psalm. In the final rubric, conclusions are given and remarks are made with regard to the abiding relevance of the psalm surpassing the original context. In the fourth rubric to Psalm 130, it is stated that this song, placed within the canon of Scripture, is based on the New Testament as enacted through the suffering and blood of Jesus Christ. In this context, a line from a hymn of Edward Mote (My Hope is Built on Nothing Less) is quoted: ‘His oath, His covenant, His blood, Support me in the whelming flood. When all around my soul gives way, He then is all my Hope and Stay.’

I regard The Psalms as Christian Lament: A Historical Commentary, just as its predecessor The Psalms as Christian Worship: A Historical Commentary, as a useful introduction to help the reader see the profit of combining exegesis with all our contemporary exegetical tools and with exegesis from the past.

The Psalms as Christian Lament starts with an introduction on the place and importance of lament in the Old Testament and especially in the Psalms. Following Calvin, the authors rightly remark that the Psalms are the mirror of the soul. More than one third of the Psalter consists of lament psalms. The predominance given to lament at the heart of Israel’s prayers shows us that there is nothing marginal about lament for the Old Testament believer. Lament and confession are not central features of Christianity in Western society, but they were in the history of the church. In the introduction, the authors point to the penitential psalms having been selected from among the psalms of lament, even as early as by the church fathers.

I think it a shortcoming that the authors do not explicitly address in the introduction the objection not seldom heard that the Psalms can only to a limited extent express the experience of a believer living under the New Testament dispensation. Even without giving attention to all aspects of this question, they could have pointed to Ephesians 5:19 and Colossians 3:16. When we as New Testament believers are filled by the Holy Spirit and the word of Christ dwells richly in us, we sing psalms, hymns and spiritual songs and address one another with them. We find the three Greek words used in these verses as category titles given to individual Old Testament psalms in the Septuagint.

Without seeking to assert that Paul excluded the legitimacy of contemporary compositions of praise, since he wrote some of these partly himself in his letters, I would point out that he certainly gave a place of honor here to the Old Testament canonical Psalms. New Testament compositions of praise, as we find them in the Magnificat and Benedictus (Song of Zechariah), are full of the language of the Old Testament. We may say that the New Testament dispensation, even more than the Old, is a dispensation of suffering, and surely the Psalms are very apt sources for Christians to find words to express our lament when we suffer.

Bruce K. Waltke, James M. Houston and Erika Moore, The Psalms as Christian Lament: A Historical Commentary, Eerdmans Publishing Co., Grand Rapids, Michigan 2014; ISBN 978-0-8028-6809-1; pb. 312 pp., price $28.00

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