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The Benefits of a Canonical Reading of Psalms

The Benefits of a Canonical Reading of Psalms

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Published by: nm_campbell on Dec 13, 2011
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Abstract
In a word, whatever may serve to encourage us when we are about to pray to God, istaught us in this book. - Calvin
1
 
“Hence also it comes to pass that the Psalter is the Book of all the Saints; and everyone, whatsoever his case may be, find therein Psalms and words which suit his case soperfectly.” - Luther
2
 “The arrangement of the Psalms, which seems to me to contain a secret of greatmystery, has not yet been revealed to me.” – Augustine
3
 
Treating the Psalter as deliberately shaped book, rather than mysteriouslyarranged collection of appropriate human responses to God, was largelyunheard of before Gerald Wilson’s
The Editing of the Hebrew Psalter.
Wilson’scanonical suggestion changed the approach to the Psalms in both theacademy and the church, and his insights have since been developed to thepoint that several threads of developing theology can be traced through thePsalter from beginning to end.We begin with the hypothesis that the canonical form of the Psalter has beenarrived at with a purpose, testing this via internal and external evidence.Once this conclusion is established we consider the benefits reading thePsalter as a book as comparable to experiencing music in the form of analbum, or cantata, rather than a “best of” compilation, arguing that such anapproach is the best means for understanding the work in its socio-theologicalcontext, and further that such an understanding leads more readily to thedivine author’s purpose, which is beneficial for understanding and teachingindividual Psalms.

1
J. Calvin,
Commentary on the Book of Psalms
 , trans. J. Anderson, (Grand Rapids, ChristianClassics Ethereal Library), retrieved onlinehttp://www.ccel.org/ccel/calvin/calcom08.titlepage.html 
2
M. Luther,
Commentary on the First 22 Psalms,
ed. J. N Lenker, Vol 1, (Sunbury: Lutherans inAll Lands
 ,
1903)
 ,
12, retrieved onlinehttp://www.archive.org/stream/lutherscommentar01luth#page/n13/mode/2up 
3
Cited in J.A Grant,
The King as Exemplar: The Function of Deuteronomy’s Kingship Law In TheShaping of the Book of Psalms,
SBL Academia Biblica 17 (Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature,2004),1
 
This piece suggests that a final form reading has particular interpretive value,providing theological and historical context against which the Psalter can beinterpreted, and further, that a “book” reading of Psalms has ethicalimplications as it shapes the life of those who would live with Yahweh asking.
 
1.0 Introduction
 
Music fans in the 21
st
century are increasingly faced with a dilemma. Do wepurchase individual songs that resonate with our taste, or do we recognise theintention of the band behind the music, and enjoy their song as placed withinan album. Albums are carefully arranged, charting the development of aconcept or idea, where the contribution of individual songs is greater than thesum of its parts. Outside of the album the song is still a song, but itssignificance is diminished.This musical dilemma is analogous to approaching the Psalms, the traditionalapproach to the Psalter was to treat each Psalm as a divinely inspired song,modeling responses to God in various human situations.
4
Traditional Biblicalscholarship saw the Psalms as individual units, placed next to each other in asomewhat arbitrary, or unclear,
5
manner.
6
Critical scholarship also takesPsalms individually,
7
so both traditional and critical approaches fail toconsider the evidence for the deliberate ordering and shaping of the Psalms asa book.
8
In recent times, canonical scholars have viewed the Psalter is a book,
9
 

4
See, for example, the approaches of Calvin, Luther, and Augustine in the works referencedabove.
5
See Augustine quote above.
6
J.H Walton, ‘Psalms: A Cantata About the Davidic Covenant,’
 Journal for the EvangelicalTheological Society
 , 34/1, (March 1991), 21-31, 21
7
W. Brueggemann, ‘Bounded by Obedience and Praise: The Psalms as Canon,’
 Journal forStudy of the Old Testament
 , 50 (1991) 63-92, 63, The Psalter is perhaps the only Old Testament book that traditional and critical scholarship approached in the same manner; by breaking itinto pieces.
8
G. Wenham, ‘Towards a Canonical Reading of the Psalms,’
Canon and Biblical Interpretation,
Scripture & Hermeneutics Series, Vol 7, ed. C. Bartholemew, S. Hahn, R. Parry, C. Seitz, A.Wolters, (Milton Keynes, Paternoster Press, 2006), 333-334, Form critical scholarship treatedthe Psalms individually as historical artefacts representative of an underlying tradition,taking a “history of religions” perspective, focused the traditions or historical events behindindividual “songs,” W. Brueggemann, ‘Bounded by Obedience and Praise,’63 suggests bothcritical and traditional scholarship tended towards considering Psalms individually, withlittle regard to literary context. R. D. Anderson, ‘The Division and Order of the Psalms,’
Westminster Theological Journal
 , 56 (1994) 219-41, 219, says Form critics, following Gunkel, hadpreviously attempted to consider Psalms by
 gattung
with little consideration as to where aPsalm sat in the book, seeking cultic origins or historical events behind these genres andindividual Psalms. Also, D.J.A Clines, ‘Psalm Research Since 1955: The Psalms and the Cult,’
Tyndale Bulletin,
18, (1967) 103-126, 103-104
9
This has been the popular scholarly view of the Psalms since G.H Wilson’s dissertation andassociated publications, for example G.H Wilson, ‘The Qumran Psalms Manuscripts and theConsecutive Arrangement of Psalms in the Hebrew Psalter,’
The Catholic Biblical Quarterly
 , 45,(1983), 377-388, scholars since Wilson have accepted his initial hypothesis, but rejectedelements of his argument, and developed his conclusions. See, for example, D.C Mitchell,Lord Remember David: G.H Wilson and the Message of the Psalter
,
Vetus Testamentum
LVI, 4,(Leiden, Brill, 2006), 526-548, 548, Mitchell suggests Wilson tries to hold too many tensionstogether to create a sapiential purpose for the Psalter rather than an eschatological/Messianicpurpose, and that his conclusions are also drawn on a flawed reading of the evidence.

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