Longman III, Tremper. How to Read the Psalms. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1988.
From the exhortations of the righteous to the warnings of the wicked, from the cries of lament to the shouts of joy, the Psalms are an archaic art. Yet, this Hebrew poetry of the Bible is not just to be held in reverence in quiet mornings accompanied by coffee and warm fire but are to be experienced and envisioned. No other book in the Bible lays bare the honest, raw emotions of humanity the way the Psalms do with a purpose to fashion our own to the character of God. Most people do not know how to read the Psalms in such a way. Tremper Longman III pursues to remedy this malnutrition. Longman is the Robert H. Gundry Professor of Biblical Studies at Westmont College and is a prolific writer. In his book, How to Read the Psalms, Longman seeks to aid readers in a better understanding of the Psalms by making the book readable while giving it enough substance for a seminary course as well.
Longman structures his book in three parts: The Psalms Then and Now (17), The Art of the Psalms (87), and A Melody of Psalms (123). Each part is expanded upon that guides the reader through a general understanding of the Psalms to an in-depth look and finally a guided practice of the reader’s new understanding. At the end of each chapter, Longman gives the readers a chance to exercise their newfound understanding by strategic questions and guide them in resources for further readings.
Part 1: The Psalms Then and Now
With any piece of writing, a person cannot know how to read what they have unless they know what he is reading in the first place. Longman explains the understanding of genre and why it is important for the reader of the Psalms to grasp it before reading. He states, “Not only will genre helps us in the interpretation of individual texts, it will also provide a convenient way for us to cover most of the psalms without studying each one of them” (23). He lists seven genres that include the hymn, the lament, the thanksgiving psalm, the psalm of remembrance, the psalm of confidence, the wisdom psalm, and the kingship psalm (24). Each genre is explained in more detail in the first chapter.
One of the main questions that readers may have with the Psalms is “Who wrote all of these poems?” Longman states, “The answer to this question will be the first step toward solving how we, as God’s new covenant people, should use them” (37). He then discusses the origin, development, and use of the psalms. He enlightens the readers on what to look for throughout the Psalms to help answer some of these questions. These suggestions include looking at the title. The title, he explains, can reveal the author as well as the historical setting but it should be noted that this is not always the case. It may have one or the other or more likely neither. Longman also informs the reader of how the Psalms were put together in groupings and movements as well as how the Psalms were actually used during their own time period.
Poetic literature, like the Psalms, does not exist within a vacuum. Each poem is influenced in some way by the culture that surrounds it. Longman goes on to expound upon the background of the Psalms. He states, “The Psalms give us theology written in intimate relationship with God and in close touch with life” (53). This intimate relationship is based upon a covenant between God and his people. Longman explicates the covenant and all of its details. He then shows that the Psalms is a covenant book revealing God in all of His covenantal facets.
Yet, just as important as the Old Testament context is its New Testament understanding. The Psalms are used throughout the New Testament to give evidence of Jesus as the coming Messiah. Longman shows the reader the Messianic Psalms and the fact that the songs are singing of a Savior. Which would come to fruition in the person of Jesus. Longman argues that this is an important hermeneutic of its reading. He states, “As we read the Psalms as Christians, two errors need to be avoided. The first is that we neglect a psalm’s original setting…The second error, though, is to miss the anticipation, the expectation of the Psalms. The new Testament transforms our understanding of the Psalms as we read it in the light of the coming of Jesus” (73).
Part 2: The Art of the Psalms
In the next section, Longman begins to instruct the reader in the art form of Hebrew poetry. Longman explains that poetry is a form of writing that stimulates its readers in a different way than prose would. He states, “It stimulates our imaginations, arouses our emotions, feeds our intellects and addresses our wills. Perhaps this is why poetry is the preferred mode of communication of the prophets, whose purpose depends on capturing the attention of the listeners and persuading them their message is urgent” (92). Poetry is pleasurable to read as well. Still, Hebrew poetry is a bit different than what the western mind is used to reading as poetry. That is why Longman goes on to explain its style.
The main way in which Hebrew poetry is different than modern poetry is its use of parallelism. This is the use of repetition rather than, say, meter. Parallelism was a term coined by a man named Robert Lowth around 1750 (97). Longman explains the progressive understanding of its usage within the Psalms through the years. In its simplest form, it is seeing the relationship between one line of poetry to the second. What is more important, though, Longman states is “it always carries forward the thought found in the first phrase in some way” (98). Longman goes on to address various categories of parallelism found within in the Psalms.
Another important usage within Hebrew poetry is that of imagery. Longman also addresses the importance of similes, metaphors, and personifications. In using such images, the Psalms are able “to not only speak to our minds but to our hearts as well” (117). Longman goes on to explain how the writer of the Psalms would use imagery to address various surrounding religions and mythologies in light of the true God. In using imagery, the writer is able to paint a picture of the majesty of God while preserving the mystery.
Part 3: A Melody of Psalms
Now with the reader better understanding how to interact with the Psalms, Longman then gives his readers a chance to use their newfound knowledge. In three chapters, Longman walks his readers through Psalm 98, Psalm 69, and Psalm 30. He guides them in what to look for, reveals a variety of parallelisms, and shows how the images relate to the world and culture of its writer. More importantly, Longman shows how each Psalm relates to his reader in light of Jesus.
Longman does reach his goals in keeping his material readable while also including enough substance to make it appropriate for a seminary course. The layman would do well in reading his book. He would be enlightened as well as better prepared to walk others through the Psalms. Longman introduces, guides, and instructs in each chapter in a way that those outside the academic level would feel better equipped. However, those on the academic level would do well to read this book as well. While the reading level is on the simpler side in comparison to other academic commentaries, he does keep enough substance to accommodate a quick guide in reading the Psalms. The academic would do well to read through part two of the book to better understand parallelism and the usage of imagery. Longman’s focus on the various parallelisms within the Psalms is helpful for the intellect as they study the Psalms. Those inside and outside the academic level, though, will both be affected by the Psalms in their love for God.
When thinking about writing a book on an academic level, I could see the temptation for the writer to get lost in the logistics of the book he is studying. Many academic books focus on structure, message, and various other intellectual facts about the material. Longman, however, does well at informing his readers while balancing a love for the God of the Psalms. I believe it was strategic in how presented the flow of his book. It allowed me to truly understand what the Psalms were while encouraging me to grow in my love for God.
Particularly helpful, for me, was Longman’s explanation of parallelism. The Psalms are beautiful but at times a bit confusing. Longman does well to show the difference between a Hebrew understanding of poetry and that of modern understanding. Rather than having the focus on meter and rhyme, Longman explains that the purpose of parallelism is to slow me down to understand the emphasis of the Psalter. This is helpful. It has changed the way that I read the Psalms. He also explains the various parallelisms. While each of these categories is not easy to remember, having Longman’s explanation of each is helpful and the more one reads the Psalms the more they would become recognizable.
Imagery within the Psalms is everywhere. It is tantamount that the reader of the Psalms has some sort of grasp as to what the Psalter is picturing. Longman does well to explain the usage of personification, similes, and metaphors. What is helpful is Longman’s explanation of the Psalms use of mythologies and allegories. There are times within the Psalms that the Psalter uses various images from other religions. This can be a bit confusing, yet, Longman explains this well. He states, “They are not borrowings from the surrounding religions, but rather a form of missions, particularly to the Israelites who had gone over to their neighbor’s religion” (119). Such explanations cleared up many confusions that I had, personally.
Finally, Longman was practical in his explanations and in his strategies in helping his readers. Longman did well at not being abstract in his instructions or explanations. He would often explain a certain aspect and then show it within a particular Psalm. This allowed me to not just read about the aspect but see it as well. He also does well in his strategy to grow the reader’s understanding in placing exercises at the end of each chapter. They are clear and precise questions. Even if I was unsure of the answer, Longman supplied the answers in the back. The last three chapters were excellent in walking me through the use of all the information Longman had been instructing in the previous chapters.
The Psalms read in a way, though, that does so much more than give us a cultural understanding of the Old and facts about the New. They inform our intellect, arouse the emotions, and direct our wills. In doing so, the reader knows God better, knows themselves better, and molds our behavior. It is like the soul stares into the mirror of the Word. This is exactly what Longman wants his readers to recognize.
I highly recommend the reading of How to Read the Psalms especially if one has never read a Psalm before. It is a particularly easy read while producing quality instruction and explanation that will prepare the reader’s heart to grow in their love for God.