Longman III, Tremper, How to Read the Psalms. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 1988. 168 pp. $16.00. Purchase at Westminster for $10.72.
Dr. Tremper Longman III attained his M. Div. at Westminster Theological Seminary and his Ph.D. at Yale University. He serves as the Robert H. Gundry Professor of Biblical Studies at Westmont College. He has authored or co-authored numerous works on the Old Testament including Immanuel in Our Place from The Gospel in the Old Testament Series as well as being one of the general editors for the massive Expositor’s Bible Commentary.
In this particular work, Dr. Longman seeks to provide his readers with a guide to better read the Psalms based upon their historical context and literary genre. His goal is to better equip today’s Christian to read the Psalms in light of the difficulties faced in the world today. In other words, while the Psalms were composed thousands of years ago, they were not composed in a vacuum and therefore, as the Word of God, are meant to be for the believer yesterday, today, and tomorrow.
Divided into three parts over eleven chapters, Dr. Longman looks deep into the heart of the Psalms; thus, looking deep into the heart and mind of God who, through the Holy Spirit, inspired the various writers of the individual Psalms and the general editor who compiled them into what we now know as the Book of Psalms. The three divisions of the Book look at the Psalms Then and Now, the Art of the Psalms, and finally, a Melody of Psalms.
Part one, the Psalms Then and Now, looks at the many different genres of Psalms. Perhaps, the most important chapter in this first part is the second chapter where Longman discusses how they originated, how they were developed and finally how they were used in Hebrew worship.
Another helpful chapter from the first part is A Christian Reading of the Psalms. Here, Dr. Longman explains how a believer in Christ today can read the Psalms, though Christ is explicitly absent from them, as a Christian book of prayer. This has been a subject of great debate throughout the history of the Church and while this chapter does not completely resolve the issues, it goes a long way in helping to determine the plausibility of reading and praying them as a Christian prayer book.
The part concludes with a chapter explaining what John Calvin made popular—the Psalms are indeed a mirror of the soul. Again, we are implored to read and pray and sing the Psalms as the Old Testament saints did before Christ came. We are, however, privileged to be able to do so post Christ’s first coming.
The second part looks at the Art of the Psalms. Here the reader is taught about Old Testament poetry as well as ancient extra-biblical poetry as the author makes the case that the book of Psalms is meant to be more than just read. He then spends a couple chapters dealing with and explaining in detail the use of parallelism and imagery in the Psalms. This is integral for our understanding of the authorial intent and how it truly draws us closer to the Lord when reading, praying and/or singing the Psalms.
The third part of this work offers insight into how to study individual Psalms. Here, the author dissects three Psalms – Psalm 98, 69, and 30. It is here where Longman teaches how to understand the imprecatory Psalms in light of the forgiveness demanded of us as believers and followers of Christ. By the time you read these three chapters, you will be able to understand how to study the individual Psalms in such a way that they will become alive to you and draw you nearer to the Lord Jesus Christ.
To begin with, I found the work as a whole to be very accessible and well written so that a layperson would be able to understand what is taking place and how to better read the Psalms. Longman’s approach of looking at the book as a whole and then narrowing it down to specific genres and even specific Psalms was a great aid. It showed that the 150 Psalms as a whole can be divided into a biblical theology where we see the acts of God from Creation through to the post-exilic period anticipating the coming Messiah.
On the other hand, the Psalms can be sorted into a systematic theology though not with precision. As Longman aptly notes from John Calvin, the Book of Psalms is a mirror to the soul. From every emotion a human can perceive, feel, or express, the Psalmist writes. The author does an excellent job of providing an overview of the forest so to speak and then equipping the reader to inspect each tree individually. His goal of making the book “readable for the college student [and] studied by adult Sunday-school classes as well as interested individuals” (p. 9), was successful.
Furthermore, Longman led his readers to the true heart of the Book of Psalms. That is, their element of worship. All throughout the book, the reader will be challenged to worship the Lord. Sometimes, this will happen spontaneously as the reader is introduced to so many varying dynamics of the Psalms. Each layer that is peeled back from the Psalm shows the reader just how much more there is to study and learn. While not a Psalm, the line from the hymn Amazing Grace is very appropriate here, “When we’ve been here ten thousand years, bright shining as the sun, we’ve no less days to sing your praise…” The book of Psalms shows us this very truth and what a blessed truth it is.
The critical, while not overtly incorrect, is minimal at best. For example, on p. 43, Longman states that the “Five books [found in the Psalms] were intentionally created to parallel the five books of Moses.” First, this is not necessarily the case as we really are not sure who edited these one hundred fifty Psalms for inclusion in what we now call the Old Testament. Let alone their thinking behind the manner in which they were compiled.
Second, this is not necessarily an agreed upon understanding of the divisions. While there is an obvious division of five books (or movements given that this is a hymnal) with each concluding with a doxology (see Ps. 41, 72, 89, 106, and 150), there is no consensus as to why a division of five books. The use of the five books of Moses seems a very easy explanation since the Pentateuch was the foundation for the Hebrews (as well as for Christianity). Nonetheless, to state that they were intentionally created to parallel the five books of Moses is a bit dogmatic.
Perhaps the only other criticism for How to Read the Psalms is the section regarding the Psalms as a covenant book. Here, Longman painstakingly makes the case that the Psalms are in keeping with the covenant made between God and man. This covenant, we all agree, ultimately finds its fulfillment in Jesus Christ. The issue I have here is the allusion to the Presbyterian understanding of covenant as to the baptistic understanding of covenant.
Let it be known, however, that this is an implied argument in my estimation and not one that is stated explicitly in the work. I take this implication based upon the reference to O. Palmer Robertson’s great treatise, The Christ of the Covenants in which Robertson argues for a covenantal view of paedobaptism as replacing that of circumcision.
Again, this is an implication I drew from the work and not one that is stated explicitly. That being said, the resources mentioned in this particular chapter all deal with the covenantal understanding of baptism embraced by Reformed Presbyterians and other denominations who hold to a baptism of infants. Regardless, this does not detract from the greater quality of the work.
What is left to be said about How to Read the Psalms? This work will lead the reader to a deeper understanding of one of the most read and misunderstood books in the entire Bible. Longman’s writing was both clear and concise. It is easily accessible to even the High School student wanting to learn more. I would like to conclude this review with a quote from the book that has stuck out among all the rest I have underlined. It is found on page 57, “When we enter the sanctuary of the Psalms, we know that we are in the presence of God.”