Longman III, Tremper. How to Read the Psalms. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1988.
[I have divided this book review into two posts for the sake of the interested reader. In this post, I will give an introduction and summary of the book]
The Psalms may just be the most often read book in the entire Bible. They are adored and admired by believers for their rich praise of God and honest expression from lamenting human hearts. They are used in countless worship hymns in a variety of denominations. The Psalms are often the only or one of two (Proverbs) Old Testament books included in mass-produced New Testaments.
While the Psalms are no doubt some of the most frequently read pieces of Scripture, they are also the most misunderstood. With the massive gap in history and culture between Christians today and the original audience, the Psalms can be difficult to understand. The wide variety of genres in the Psalms also makes some Psalms difficult to interpret. With this combined reality of high frequency in the reading of the Psalms and difficulty in interpreting them, Tremper Longman III has produced a work that bridges this gap.
He places understanding in the minds of the countless that read the Psalms and provides a resource for pastors and teachers of the Word that allows them to speak truthfully and more reliably on the Psalms. How to Read the Psalms is an excellent window into the God of the Psalter and instructs his people on how they should read these beautiful and poetic lines of Scripture.
Tremper Longman III in this work on the Psalms intends to increase the understanding of this frequently read book with the end goal of deepening a love and devotion to the Lord. In other words, this book was not simply written for academic settings for teaching in the classroom, although he hopes that it will (9). How to Read the Psalms was written with a more personal purpose in mind—to know God more in order to adore God more. “The purpose of this book is to deepen our love for the Lord by increasing our understanding of this important portion of his Word” (13). Longman sets out to increase understanding and aid in proper interpretation in order for us to more clearly see God in the Psalms and love him more. He accomplishes this by dividing his book into three major sections.
Section one is concerned with the original context of the Psalms including the varying genres that are in the Psalter (chapter one), the background of the Psalms and how they are used (chapter two), how the book relates to the rest of the Old Testament (chapter three), how the New Testament uses the Psalms and how Jesus appears in the Psalms (chapter four), and how this great book arouses all ranges of emotions within our souls (chapter five). It is mostly focused on helping readers grasp how to read the Psalms in light of the huge chronological and cultural gap between the authors of the Psalms and us today.
The goal of section one, particularly chapter two, is to give greater understanding into the original authorship, groupings, and uses of the psalms in order to prevent using the Psalms “in a way counter to God’s intended purpose for them” (46). Section one is also vital in helping the Christian understand how to interpret the Psalms in light of them being written pre-cross. Longman examines in chapter four the many references to the Messiah and how we should interpret these Messianic Psalms. Therefore, Longman also strives to reconcile any theological gap that may exist between Christians today and the psalmists.
Moving on to section two, Longman seeks to help his readers gain more understanding of the Psalms by exposing the distinct literary nature of the Psalter. While there are many different genres within the book of Psalms, the entire book can be listed under the genre of poetry or poetic wisdom. Since Near Eastern poetry is somewhat foreign to most Christians today, Longman provides much insight into the basic aspects of Hebrew poetry in chapter six, before expanding into different types of parallelism in chapter seven.
Section two closes with a discussion of the vast imagery that is found in the Psalter. This section is a vital part in dissecting the book of the Psalms as it is difficult to understand it without having some idea about its literary form. The three chapters in this section communicate how God uses elements of poetry, such as parallelism, imagery, metaphor, and simile to speak to us. Understanding the poetry of the Psalms provides an avenue by which the reader can be more prepared to interpret the Psalms.
Although the majority of sections one and two have to do with literary devices and some cultural and historical context, Longman’s desire is not for this book was not to “increase our knowledge of ancient customs and poetic forms…[but] to know God better through his Word” (15). But in order to know God better, we must know his Word better, and his Word was written in particular historical-cultural contexts with a particular literary style. Sections one and two thus set the stage for further study in section three.
Section three then brings both of these two previous sections together by examining three psalms in greater detail. Psalm 98 is the focus of chapter nine, Psalm 69 of chapter ten, and Psalm 30 is examined in chapter eleven. The main goal of chapters nine through eleven is to take what was presented in chapters one through eight and apply the principles learned. For example, in chapter nine, Psalm 98 is broken down as a hymn of praise (126; reference to chapter one). It then is broken down in terms of its poetic structure (127; chapter 7).
The historical aspects are examined closely as well just as was taught in chapter two (127). New Testament usage of the content of Psalm 98 is found in Romans and explained on page 129 (chapter four). Overall, Longman takes Psalm 98 and applies what he has been teaching. He interprets Psalm 98 taking into consideration all that makes up a psalm—historical, cultural, and literary elements.
Longman uses specific focus on historical, cultural, and literary elements within the Psalms to help the reader to gain greater insight into properly interpreting the Psalms. The principles learned are then modeled in his final section as he backs up his principles for interpretation with specific application.
[The critical evaluation and summary of this book review will continue in the next post]