Book Review: Wright’s ‘The Case for the Psalms’

Sing to the LORD, bless his name;

tell of his salvation from day to day.

Psalm 96:2

I started praying the Psalms as a spiritual discipline sometime in 2014. I had read Scot McKnight’s Praying with the Church, and I was inspired to take on the Christian tradition of praying the prayers of the saints. I started with Phyllis Tickle’s The Divine Hours, as this collection was recommended by McKnight. While I enjoyed these compilations, I wished they kept more of the psalms intact. The Psalms are beautiful and gritty and complex — and you lose that when you pray only selections.

I experimented with the old monastic prayer cycles as well as with The Book of Common Prayer, which requires praying the whole Psalter once a month. When I started attending a conservative Anglican church in 2017, I started praying The Book of Common Prayer, 1928 as a regular practice. I fell in love with the prayer book tradition and especially with praying the whole Psalter monthly as a foundation for my spiritual life. Even though I currently attend a Southern Baptist church, I still start my days and end many of them with the Book of Common Prayer, 2019.

While I’ve been praying the Psalms for years now, I still feel as if I have just wetted my toes in their vast ocean. They are long and full of meaning, and I too often hurry through my daily readings. When I came across N.T. Wright’s The Case for the Psalms: Why They are Essential while trying to use some Audible credits last year, I was excited. Wright is among my favorite authors, so I looked forward to hearing what he had to say about this ancient poetry.

I finally got around to listening to Wright’s book this month. It was a great way to start the year. Wright examines the Psalms from three different angles, exploring what they have to say about time, space, and matter. He explains:

I have suggested in this little book that the Psalms offer us a head on challenge at the level of worldview in their assumptions about time, space, and matter. Time is not merely linear or merely cyclic. As time moves forward, the psalms by their content, but also by their poetry and music, invoke the past and anticipate the future. Similarly with space, heaven and earth really are designed to meet together in the temple, and the temple for which the psalms were written in the first place, is itself not there for its own sake, but because it is the bridgehead into God’s whole new world. Similarly with matter, God delights in all that he has made, both as it is and as it will be in his new creation. That is what I have been trying to say, drawing on the Psalms not only as evidence but as God given ways by which those who use them in worship can enjoy this new time, can inhabit this new space, and can begin to celebrate this new matter. This is because, all through them, the Psalms offer us much more than simply an abstract theological treatise about all these things. Because they are songs for all of God’s people to sing, they embody all of these points. They create, as perhaps only music can, the new world, or the new worldview, within which all kinds of new possibilities emerge — not just new thoughts, but new actions, new habits of heart, mind, and body. The Psalms speak of change, but more importantly, they are agents of change, change within the humans who sing them and change through those humans as their transformed lives bring Gods kindness and justice into the world. (Chapter 6)

Wright completes his discussion by sharing what the Psalms have meant in his own life. As an Anglican, he has prayed through the Psalter monthly for most of his life, and he reflects on how often the daily psalms were God’s means of speaking to him.

As I listened to Wright, I could relate with much of what he had to say. I have noticed how often daily psalms speak into my own life truths that are difficult to wrap words around. In particular, I have found my faith much less battered by trials, as the many psalms of lament have shaped my expectations of the Christian life. Life is hard, and the Psalms reflect this truth, even as they testify to the goodness of God in his creation despite the hardships.

That’s the thing about praying the Psalms — we are praying God’s truth back to him. In a world where we are bombarded daily with lies, an antidote can be practically — bodily — reciting the truth. We do this whenever we read scripture. And the Psalms, in their breadth and depth, are like a microcosm of the Bible itself. When we pray them, we pray God’s story, and we position ourself within that story. And Wright is right — the more we do that, the more we see everything differently.

 Your statutes have been my songs

in the house of my sojourning.

Psalm 119:54

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