Deserts, rivers, dictators’ pants

24 October 2014

Richard Briggs looks at two contrasting styles of help in praying the Psalms

The Psalms: A commentary for prayer and reflection
Henry Wansbrough
BRF £8.99
Church Times Bookshop £8.10 (Use code CT912 )

Exposing the Psalms: Unmasking their beauty, art, and power for a new generation
Peter Nevland
Authentic £7.99
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 be.

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 text.


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, Durham.

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