The flow of the psalms: discovering their structure and theology
O. Palmer Robertson
P & R, 2015
The value of a map or guide to navigate the Bible is readily accepted. Books like God’s Big Picture help people make sense of where the section they’re reading fits into the overall scheme of things. Yet we tend not to see a similar need when it comes to the psalms, and apart from a few well known collections (the Songs of Ascents or the Egyptian Hallel), even psalm-singers are by and large happy to treat them as standalone entities. Palmer Robertson begs to differ, and his book provides a road-map (complete with diagrams) to help navigate your way through what he argues is a carefully arranged book.
Robertson sees distinct themes in each of the five books of the psalter – confrontation, communication, devastation, maturation and consummation. Evidence for a deliberate difference between book 1 and book 2 is seen in the first book’s almost exclusive use of Yahweh and the second’s almost exclusive use of Elohim. This is true even in psalms which otherwise are almost identical (eg 14 and 53). Why? Because book two is addressing the nations, and so in Psalm 53 confronting the atheists head-on. Robertson repeatedly emphasises the importance of the Davidic covenant, recognising that in the psalms David is the Messianic king, not an individual with ‘an imbalanced personality who sees all people who disagree with him as his “enemies”‘. Instead, the focus is on David as the covenantal head of the nation: if he achieves victory, his people triumph. Reading individual psalms in their redemptive historical context also emphases the clash between the seed of the woman and the seed of Satan. ‘To understand these I-psalms in their fullest significance for the individual, they must first be appreciated for their role in speaking for God’s anointed servant, the messianic king.’
He argues that structural markers throughout the psalter are there to aid memorisation, eg acrostics, the pattern of a Torah psalm followed by a Messianic one (1&2, 18&19, 118&119), repeated vocabulary and themes. Primarily the arrangement is biblical-theological rather than chronological. For example, 138-45 (which he argues were especially suited to exile) perhaps come before the great climax of the psalter because the final editor ‘wanted to retain a strong dose of realism at the very end of the book’. Robertson doesn’t interact with Alec Motyer’s insight that the Songs of Ascents are set out in five groups of three, each (apart from the last group) consisting of a mini-pilgrimage. Helpfully however he does point out how they function as a meditation on the Aaronic blessing. He also argues that Psalm 127 with its house, city and sons must be interpreted as the middle psalm of the Songs of Ascents and must be applied not just to the ordinary domestic scene but to Yahweh’s work as redeemer, showing that interpreting the psalms in their context helps avoid moralistic interpretations.
Less convincing are his attempts to show that an awareness of the structure of the psalter affected how the NT writers quoted the psalms, or that one must understand their quotes from individual psalms in the context of the psalter as a whole. When writing on the significance of the poetic name ‘Yah’, he attempts on exhaustive list of references outside the psalter, but misses Isaiah 26:4.
Overall though Robertson’s arguments are convincing and shed much light on this ‘glorious book of divinely inspired and God-glorifying Scripture’. If the scribes could take such care over the psalms that they knew and highlighted the middle letter of the psalter – could not the God who created the universe have displayed even more skill than them in weaving it together? Psalm singers have the advantage of already being familiar with many of the individual pieces – this book shows how they fit together. Just two years short of his ‘fourscore years’ (Ps 90:10), Palmer Robertson continues to bear fruit in old age (Ps 92:14), and has done a great service to the church with this book. His missionary heart comes across as he comments ‘how glorious it is to see new nations, peoples, tribes’ entering into Christ’s kingdom. With this map in our hands, we can not only teach them to sing psalms, we can help them navigate and memorise these songs of the King. Book of the year so far.
Thanks to P & R for providing a review copy.