Hear, O Lord: A Spirituality Of The Psalms, Cliff College Academic Series

Written by David G. Firth Reviewed By Deryck Sheriffs

It’s a big task to cover 150 psalms, let alone to distil a spirituality for contemporary readers from Israel’s hymnbook. Clearly selection and an organizing plan are important. Firth structures his material around four nodes: orientation, disorientation, reorientation, and hope beyond order. This is topped and tailed with an overview of approaches to Psalms and a closing reflection on prayer and spirituality in terms of how the psalms should shape us as we use them. This is a helpful packaging with a pastoral dimension—Brueggemann is freely acknowledged.

Much of the material is exegetical as selected psalms are explained and expounded. Readers should have their Bibles open. Livening the technical possibilities in the text are personal vignettes from experience—anecdotes, sketches of prayer answered, or questions and issues thrust up by life and context. Some will enjoy the links that Firth brings out between psalms and other parts of the Old Testament. Others will appreciate the comments on the effect of the Exile on the collection, and the way that psalms about the king were retained beyond the monarchy and were filled with a messianic hope.

How readers react to Israel’s psalms will probably be affected as much by their life experience and the stage of their own journey as by Firth’s handling of the texts. This is not a devotional book. It is offering a cognitive grasp of the spectrum of responses that we share with God—from peaceful and confident trust to shattered worlds. How does an author handle the juxtaposition—‘ordered world’ and ‘disordered world’? Slogans and formulae in spirituality are not very helpful. Firth avoids them, but on Psalm 23 does slip into this: ‘The only king of substance is the Lord, and with him, we have all we need. There is no need for fear and doubt, and this psalm encourages us to recognize this fact. The Lord is all we need’ (36). Idealistic? Taken seriously, the last sentence is surely a slogan that belittles our human need for sanity, sleep, food, friends and many others components of our human well-being. Elsewhere Firth himself says, writing on Psalm 73: ‘it refuses to offer a universal solution … to enter into a simple generalization that will become a new form of theological expression. Complex issues are not to be resolved with reductionist answers and slogans’ (95). Indeed, the not-yetness of our Christian faith is the background to an appreciation of ‘an eschatological edge to the final message of the psalter’ (125).

What would I have liked to have had more prominence? A clear statement of why these psalms are not in fact Christian, but Israelite in their Zion-centredness, and in their theological categories of land and blessing/curse. Emotions and their flow are prominent in the psalms, but how this works on a Sunday morning is not clear. Poetry, idiom and lost tunes are Hebrew in cultural base, so would we do better in our personal spirituality to honour this local colour by re-expressing ourselves contemporaneously? By rewriting rather than by repeating Israel’s poems? Not a question raised.

The book emerged from a lecture course and Bible schools could put this book on their reading list with confidence. Midweek Bible study leaders would learn a lot fairly gently and gain a very helpful overview of the Psalms collection in the process.

Deryck Sheriffs

London School of Theology