29 Sep 2022

The Psalms: Building a Basic Library

Author: Bobby Valentine | Filed under: Discipleship, Jewish Backgrounds, Ministry, Prayer, Preaching, Psalms, Reading, Spiritual Disciplines

The Psalms speak of change, but more importantly they are AGENTS of change: change within the humans who sing them, and change THROUGH those humans, as their transformed lives bring God’s kingdom and justice into the world … I find it impossible, therefore, to imagine a growing and maturing church or individual Christian doing without the Psalms” (N. T. Wright, The Case for the Psalms, pp. 164-165, emphasis in original)

Making Friends with the Psalter

The Psalms are one of the most important books in the Bible.  They have been called the “Holy of Holies,” the Little Bible, Prayer Book of the Bible among other superlative titles.  The Psalms have occupied a special place with theology, corporate worship as well as personal Spiritual disciplines among both Jews and Christians for over two thousand years.  In my opinion, every preacher needs to intentionally cultivate a relationship with the Psalms for the benefit of self and congregation.

Here is a list of, in my opinion, indispensable works for reading, praying, growing in, and preaching the Psalms.

A Relationship with the Psalms begins by reading them … frequently

Read the book through on a regular basis in a translation that you do not normally use. Reading the Psalms daily, every day, throughout Christian history has often been a requirement of anyone regarded as a leader within the community of faith. For example, around AD 450, Leo “the Great” (as history has dubbed him) once refused to sanction the ordination of an elder/bishop in the church on the grounds that he was not familiar enough with the Psalms, as Leo thought was demanded for the task. Leo said this indicated “the man was not serious enough about HIMSELF” (Epistle 48, my emphasis).

Have several translations of the Psalms. I recommend reading/praying through the Psalter beginning to end, in lectio continua style, every month in a different translation.

Robert Alter, The Book of Psalms: A Translation and Commentary (the commentary is principally to justify translation) read it again and again. 

A Comparative Psalter, ed. John R. Kohlenberger III.  Embraces the Hebrew, Septuagint, the RSV, and the NET of the LXX in parallel columns. 

I strongly urge obtaining audio version of the Psalms to listen to them.

Praying the Psalms is as important as simply reading them

The Psalms were the prayer book of Israel; they were the prayer book of Jesus; they were the prayer book of the church. At no time in the Hebrew and Christian centuries (with the possible exception of our own twentieth) have the Psalms not been at the very center of all concern and practice in prayer.” (Eugene Peterson, Working the Angels: The Shape of Pastoral Integrity).

For those who practice the daily office going through the Psalter is like greeting the Sun each morning – majestic

Thomas Merton, Praying the Psalms

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Psalms The Prayerbook of the Bible

Eugene Peterson, Answering God: The Psalms as Tools for Prayer

These three books, especially the first two, are small. But no library on the Psalms can claim the title without them with evidence of having been used repeatedly.

Studying the Psalms … Losing Ourselves in the Biblical Sanctuary

The words the Psalms contain in themselves all the Old and New Testaments, the whole Mystery of Christ” (Thomas Merton, Praying the Psalms, p.9)

The following are not all the important books on the Psalm for deeper study.  They are just ones that I cannot imagine being without and my library will not be without.

Bernard W. Anderson, Out of the Depths: The Psalms Speak to Us Today.  This is a classic and basic introduction to the type of literature the Psalter is. 

Walter Brueggemann, The Message of the Psalms: A Theological Commentary.  Does not follow the canonical arrangement but through the groundbreaking categories of Orientation, Disorientation, and New Orientation.  Rich Book

William P. Brown, Seeing the Psalms: A Theology of Metaphor. Wonderful exploration of the thought world reflected in the imagery of the Psalms. Basic resource.

Miriyam Glazer, The Psalms of the Jewish Liturgy: A Guide to their Beauty and Meaning

John Goldingay, The Psalms, 3 Volumes. This is the essential commentary for the preacher in my view. Fresh translation, verse by verse commentary that pays attention to the form and social setting but equally attune to the theological message of the psalm.

James Luther Mays, The Psalms. The Interpretation Commentary.  Mays has been an interpreter of the Psalms for half a century.  This volume is outstanding.  Approaches each Psalm as a whole via expository essay form.  A goldmine.

Peter Craigie, Psalms 1-50. Word Biblical Commentary.  Probably one of the best technical commentaries in print for this section of the Psalms.  Craigie died before the rest of the project could be completed with others contributing (in my view) inferior contributions to the Word Biblical series. 

Nahum M. Sarna, On the Book of Psalms: Exploring the Prayers of Ancient Israel. Sarna is one of my favorite Jewish scholars. Erudite. Passionate. Genuinely insightful. Grounded in the ancient context and illuminating the text for Spiritual growth.

Claus Westermann, Praise and Lament in the Psalms.  Landmark volume. One the great German scholars and helps us get into the true grit of the psalter.

Othmar Keel, The Symbolism of the Biblical World: Ancient Near Eastern Iconography and the Book of Psalms.  What a book! Not a commentary.  Keel’s book takes you through a time machine to the ancient near east. Six major chapters on the Cosmos; Destructive Forces; The Temple; Conceptions of God; The King; and Man before God illustrated with 500 illustrations from ANEastern sources that really help us see the world through the eyes of ancient Israelites – especially in the Psalms. 

C. S. Lewis’ Reflections on the Psalms.  Lewis needs no justification for reading.  Don’t agree with him on the laments but rich and insightful as Lewis always is. 

N. T. Wright, The Case for the Psalms: Why They Are Essential.  A highly readable and engaging introduction to the thought world of the Psalms and how they interact with the way of discipleship.  God’s Time, God’s Space and God’s Creation – a worldview.  Outstanding book full of insights.

John D. Witvliet, The Biblical Psalms in Christian Worship: A Brief Introduction & Guide to Resources

Erich Zenger’s A God of Vengeance: Understanding the Psalms of Divine Wrath.

Frank Lothar Hossfeld and Erich Zenger Psalms 51-100 and Psalms 101-150 (vols 2 & 3) in the Hermeneia Series are technical, scholarly and simply the best commentaries on the Psalms. They are not for the faint of heart. They are aimed at critical scholars. Volume 1 will be translated out of German sometime in the future. These are not for beginning your Psalm library.

Reading Psalms with Friends …

It is in praying the Psalms one attaches him or herself to the community and he or she participates in the community in so far as they pray the prayers of the community … Shoulder to shoulder with David, Asaph, the Exiles, Christ and the whole church (Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Psalms: The Prayer Book of the Bible, p. 21).

If you develop a relationship with anyone you always want to know more about them, their history and past.  The same is true of the Psalms …

Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Meditations on Psalms, Edited and translated by Edwin Robertson

William Holladay, The Psalms Through Three Thousand Years: Prayerbook of A Cloud of Witnesses. This is a virtual family tree of the Psalter. How were the psalms used in David’s day, the time of Hezekiah, the Exile, Second Temple, the NT, the monastic order, the Jewish liturgy since the closing of the canon, the church year, etc.  This is a fascinating work. 

Susan Gillingham’s wonderful three volume set, Psalms Through the Centuries

Bruce Waltke & James Houston, The Psalms as Christian Worship: A Historical Commentary. This is a “spiritual” and “exegetical” commentary on select Psalms.  It focuses upon a handful of Psalms that have been unusually important in the life of the church.  You journey through the Church Father, the Reformation and the liturgy in the commentary … as well as the traditional historical critical approach.  Very worth spending time with.

These are just some building blocks for a good functional Psalm library

Tolle Lege

4 Responses to “The Psalms: Building a Basic Library”

  1. JT Says:

    Your – “Reading the Psalms daily, every day, throughout Christian history has been a requirement of anyone regarded as a leader within the community of faith.” – I’ve never heard that before and it is fascinating to ponder. And I will!

    And I always value book reading recommendations. So, I’ll add these to my very big list.

    Thanks Bobby


    • Bobby Valentine Says:

      JT, I probably should have used the word “often” in that sentence. Of course in our religious tradition, this “requirement” has not been known. But from the writings of the Church Fathers and through even the Protestant Reformation, the Psalms were part of what is called the Daily Office. It still is among Catholic leaders. I cited Leo the Great to give an illustration of this. In his mind, a man was unfit to be an elder if he was not immersed in the Psalter. Because in the Psalter we are exposed to life.

  2. JT Says:

    Well, your response as an addendum to the blog illuminates further. Appreciated.

  3. GW Says:

    Thanks for this Bobby.

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