The Psalms: A commentary for prayer and
Church Times Bookshop £8.10 (Use code CT912
Exposing the Psalms: Unmasking their beauty, art,
and power for a new generation
Church Times Bookshop £7.20 (Use code CT912
THE PSALMS need hardly break sweat to be relevant. Of all Old
Testament texts, here there seems to be little need to explain how
these ancient texts speak today. But how best to enable today's
disciples to benefit from such a rich resource? We have here two
new devotional and reflective books that set their sights on
offering such help. What a study in contrasts they turn out to
Dom Henry Wansbrough offers revised and expanded notes that
first appeared in the Bible Reading Fellowship's Guidelines series.
The result is something on every Psalm, typically just over one
short page, with minimal overall framing or attention to any
critical issues. The language is clear and understated.
Peter Nevland alternates notes on certain Psalms with his own
Psalm-inspired poems. Thirty-one Psalms are covered (with 42 and 43
taken together), alongside 30 original poems. There is no
particular order to the coverage. Instead, the treatment bursts
through the page with energy and enthusiasm, and overflows any
constraints of order or expectation.
So perhaps the question is: How do you like your Psalms served?
Wansbrough is the discreet tour guide, pointing out a nuance here,
a cross-referring link there. You may stay and linger with a
portrait of joy or despair, or ponder the slowly unfolding
Christological ramifications of certain Psalm phrasings and images.
Apart from occasional references to experiences travelling in the
lands of the Bible, where Wansbrough reflects on encountering
deserts or rivers, barefoot children, or worshipping Israelites,
the author remains hidden behind the patient attention to the
Nevland, by way of contrast, is a performance poet. To "expose"
the Psalms, in his idiom, is to attend to matters of cultural
translation, and shift the language of David into the 21st century.
So if it works for you to move from Psalm 17.13's "sword of the
Lord" overthrowing the enemy, to Nevland's "It vaporizes. He
speaks, and the most ruthless dictator pees his pants," then this
may be the book for you.
Doubtless not all of the rhetorical flourishes of performance
read well on the page, but the comment is often perceptive, and
some of the creative reimagining is effective, such as the reliving
of Psalm 18 by two participants in a kind of ancient praise rally
led by King David.
Of the two, interestingly, Wansbrough is more likely to refrain
from historical conjecture, or to admit scholarly ignorance. The
tree of Psalm 1 "reminds" him of trees seen on his travels, no
more, whereas for Nevland it is clearly the tree in the Garden of
Eden. Wansbrough's handling of Psalm 24 is a masterly case in
point: yes, it could reflect the ark being carried up to the
temple, but there is neither evidence for such a procession, nor is
the ark mentioned in the Psalm. So, who knows? Nevland's occasional
sidebar boxes on technical matters are a bit hit-and-miss
(especially a mangled "explanation" of the name "Yahweh").
I might recommend Wansbrough to a prayerful pilgrim through the
Psalms asking for a little help. I might (possibly) give Nevland to
a youth-group leader, especially one who wanted to write poetry,
too. In each case, and in totally different ways, the Psalms
themselves remain wise words for today.
Richard Briggs is Lecturer in Old Testament, and Director of
Biblical Studies at Cranmer Hall, St John's College,