The Flow of the Psalms (book review)

The flow of the psalms: discovering their structure and theology
O. Palmer Robertson
P & R, 2015

the flow of the psalms

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.

Rosaria videos

Some insightful videos from Rosaria Butterfield (RPCNA) on David Platt’s Radical channel.

Addressing the Issue vs. Addressing the Individual

Engaging Homosexual Friends with the Gospel

“There is No Sin that is Larger than God’s Love”

The Cost of Following Christ

Why Rosaria Butterfield Calls Herself an “Unlikely Convert”

Shepherds’ Stories

shepherds stories

The Gambia Partnership have released a fundraising DVD/digital download with testimonies from people you may know: Warren Peel, Sinclair Ferguson, Gavin Beers, my pal Parthee and Geoff Thomas. The testimonies were all recorded when the men were visiting Lewis to preach, and if you’re paying attention you might see a deacon from Stornoway RPCS hanging out with the big guns!

You can watch the trailer below, and then rent (£4) or buy (£6) it on Vimeo.

Brothers, we are not professionals (book review)

Brothers, we are not professionals: a plea to pastors for radical ministry (updated and expanded edition)
John Piper
B&H Publishing Group, 2013

brothers-we-are-not-professionals

Despite not having read it before, I’ve held this book on a pedestal for quite a while. This was thanks mostly to excerpts I’d heard from it, especially an impassioned reading from ‘Brothers, Bitzer was a Banker’ which was one of the highlights of Hebrew class. As a result, it has been on my to-read list for a while, but I wanted to wait until the updated edition came out (with 6 extra chapters) before I finally got round to reading it.
Those looking for a coherent whole will be disappointed. The book is a hodge-podge of chapters relating (to a greater or lesser extent) to pastoral ministry. A number of the early chapters are summaries of Piper’s other books, here focused on the pastor’s work. At least one chapter is originally a website article and chapters are given to issues such as racism and abortion.

Within that mix there’s much to benefit from (I marked 15 out of the 36 chapters as particularly helpful). The chapter I’ve heard cited most is probably ‘Brothers, fight for your life’ (ML-J’s take on reading), and it’s definitely a highlight. Piper quotes Stott that an hour a day ‘is an absolute minimum for time for study which even the busiest pastors should be able to manage’ – and suggests three twenty minute segments. Elsewhere he searchingly asks why we don’t weep over the lost and says: ‘without those tears we may shuffle members from church to church, but few people will pass from darkness to light’. While unbroken seriousness is a sign of a sick soul, we must be in earnest.

In terms of preaching, chapters 13 and 19 (‘Brothers, save the saints’ [not the lost]) are very helpful on the necessity of preaching for the spiritual survival of those who are already Christians. ‘There is not an earnest sermon for evangelism…and a less critical message for the saints to simply add a few starts in their crown’. Yet that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t preach doctrinally – in fact: ‘A steady diet of gospel messages that do not help the saints grow out of infancy not only stunts their character but also jeopardizes their final salvation’.

One of Piper’s most convicting calls, for pastor and people alike, is ‘Brothers, tell them copper will do’. Elsewhere Piper warns that we’re living in a day which has seen the hijacking of the word arrogance to refer to conviction and the word humility to refer to uncertainty – a day when we’re even further down the road which Chesterton prophesied would produce a man ‘too mentally modest to believe in the multiplication table’.

My overwhelming sense while reading the book however was that it could have done with being reduced rather than expanded. 36 disparate chapters makes it a bit of a desperate read, and some could easily have been cut. These include a mild-mannered attack on infant baptism and a chapter with a potentially helpful title (‘Brothers, focus on the essence of worship, not the form’) which ends up trying to quote Calvin and the Puritans to say that the form of worship doesn’t matter. A number of typos also make their way into the text (‘entrancwe’, ‘S’o’, ‘the affections of our people have for God himself’). At least one footnote hasn’t been updated to point to the correct chapter number in the new edition, and it’s strange in 2013 to find another referring to ‘cassettes’ which have long since been digitised.

There’s much that’s helpful and challenging here, but 36 chapters is a tough slog in one go, over a month if you try and read one a day, and too many to try and study in a fraternal. Piper notes that Thomas Jefferson trimmed the gospels with scissors; the reader may have to do the same with this.

Thanks to B&H for providing a review copy.

Can religion and politics be kept separate?

Came across a few interesting quotes as I prepared to preach on 1 Kings 21 a week after the General Election:

“Americans, if they believe in idolatry at all, believe it is a victimless sin…According to contemporary interpretations of the First Amendment, it makes no social and political difference what people believe. They can worship a thousand gods or none; they can worship Yahweh or Allah or Jesus; and it has absolutely no public consequences…This is what O’Donovan had in mind when he suggests, shockingly to many American Christians, that the First Amendment ‘can usefully be taken as the symbolic end of Christendom,’ since, whatever the intentions of the framers, it ‘ended up promoting a concept of the state’s role from which Christology was excluded, that of a state freed from all responsibility to recognize God’s self-disclosure in history'”.

“…Besides, all efforts to establish social harmony on the foundation of theologically neutral concepts of nature and human nature are doomed to failure. To found a constitution on the premise that human beings are something other than the image of God is not to found a constitution on neutrality. It is, so Christians must testify, to found a constitution on falsehood.”

“Scripture does not treat idolatry as morally or politically indifferent. What and how we worship shapes the kind of persons we become.”

“Ahab’s career follows this trajectory. Ahab is introduced as the most overtly idolatrous king that Israel suffered, but Ahab’s resistance to God does not stay in a safe “religious” arena.”

– Peter J. Leithart, 1 & 2 Kings (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2006)

“There is a close link between the command to have no other gods, and the commands to respect human life and property; love for God and love for neighbour are inseparable. It is because this world and all that it contains belong to God that morality has any basis.”

– John A. Davies, A Study Commentary on 1 Kings (Darlington, England: EP Books, 2014)

Side by Side (book review)

Side by Side: Walking with Others in Wisdom and Love
Edward T. Welch
Crossway, 2015

side by side

I heard someone say recently that ministers are spending their time feeding those who are already well fed. But what’s the solution? Stop feeding them? What about trying to equip them to pour what they know into the lives of others? Ed Welch’s Side by Side aims to help those who go for the second option. Welch has a counselling background – but don’t let that scare you off. This is a book for everyone. It’s summed up on the blurb as ‘Practical Guidance for Loving Others Well’ – and that’s exactly what this is. It’s basically just how to be a good friend, especially to your brothers and sisters in Christ. There’s nothing that’s rocked science here – but if Christians actually put the book’s teaching into practice, it would transform our churches.

The book divides nicely into two halves – ‘We are needy’ and ‘We are needed’ – so this isn’t a call to help those around us as if we were better than them. Neither is it targeted at just fixing outward behaviour – Welch makes clear that we need to go for the roots. The goal of the first section is for us ‘to become transparent and humble friends who are at ease with our neediness’.

The second section encourages us to make the move towards helping others. Some of it is obvious – after church, don’t go straight to talk to your friends – but sadly it needs to be said. And to be able to help other people we need to actually care for them – looking for refractions of divine goodness in them and taking an interest in what they’re interested in. Welch then moves on to helping people who are struggling, either because of suffering (the trouble that comes at us) or sin (the trouble that comes out of us). He also includes helpful examples of things not to say – eg Biblical platitudes or ‘If you need anything please call me anytime’ (= ‘I’ve said something nice, now see ya later’). It’s not just practical tips though – Welch does well to tie it all to the gospel story (‘the second Adam, when tempted, trusted the word of God and dismissed the lies of Satan’). There’s much here that would be useful if we want to move beyond the church culture Bonhoeffer recognised where ‘we dare not be sinners’.

While helpful to read by yourself, I think this book could have a big impact on a church if they studied it together. The chapters are short and Welch provides a few discussion questions, and there is lots that’s worth talking through and applying to our life together. There’s much potential here to move relationships in the church beyond the external and superficial.

Thanks to Crossway for a complimentary copy of this book through their Beyond the Page review programme.