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Living with the Psalms, by John L. Bell

28 August 2020

This is a wise guide to their use by Christians, Anthony Phillips finds

JOHN BELL is a well-known and trusted commentator. His contributions to Thought for The Day rarely disappoint. Nor does this very personal and perceptive study of the Psalms.

Bell prefaces his book with a health warning about what it is not (e.g. a failed Ph.D. thesis!) and what it is. The result is a work of solid theological common sense — uncommon enough these days. Each short chapter discusses a single issue that invites reflection and, in the case of groups, discussion, with appropriate questions set out in an appendix.

After noting the popularity of the Psalms, Bell dispels certain misconceptions about them. In fact, we know very little about their origin, composition, or use. Starting with Psalm 23, Bell relates the text to Jesus and provides a five-part meditation for Holy Week. This illustrates the imaginative way in which the Psalter can be used.

Next, Bell shows how the Psalter provides us with a vocabulary of pain “not just physical, but also for mental anguish, loneliness, victimization, political and economic oppression and bereavement”. Sometimes, as in Psalm 88, pain simply has to be articulated, regardless of any expected answer, knowing that God listens. There is, though, no greater pain than false accusations, a prominent preoccupation of the Psalms.

Turning to the Psalms that invoke a curse, Bell argues for their recitation on the grounds that righteous anger needs to be expressed to God. Further, the term “enemy” can be used metaphorically for a culture, attitude, or disease — appropriate enough today. As for the notorious Psalm 137, instead of simply accepting that the author meant what he said, Bell argues that it can sensitise us to intercede for others who have endured similar suffering and, not unnaturally, are filled with such thoughts.

As one would expect, the Psalter emphasises the importance of political and economic justice — a prominent feature of the Hebrew Scriptures and an embarrassment to many Christians. For Bell, the Psalms deepen both empathy and understanding. They do not concentrate on a single aspect of God, but, rather, offer a multitude of insights regarding “the world’s Creator”, including a feminine side.

Further chapters discuss the importance of seeing the Psalms as poetry, and the way in which they have been given musical settings. Bell notes the many allusions to the Psalms in the New Testament and highlights another prominent feature, God as creator. It is in contemplating the majesty of that creation that we gain a proper perspective on where we fit in. This should lead to the expression of awe.

From a lifetime of pastoral care and attention to God, Bell has provided us with a depth of understanding which we would do well to appropriate for ourselves. Not least, as Bell points out, the Psalms encourage us to think outside the box.


Canon Anthony Phillips is a former headmaster of The King’s School, Canterbury.


Living with the Psalms
John L. Bell
SPCK £9.99
Church Times Bookshop £9


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