Psalms as a Grammar for Faith: Prayer and Praise

Written by W. H. Bellinger, Jr. Reviewed By Peter C. W. Ho

William H. Bellinger Jr. is a Psalms scholar through and through. He has worked on the Psalms for four decades, written more than a dozen books (mostly on the Psalms), and several of his students have become leading Psalms scholars. While this volume is a consolidation of years of scholarship on the Psalms, it incorporates the offerings of Psalms scholarship in recent times, namely, interests in the shape and shaping of the Hebrew Psalter. Bellinger’s goal in this short volume is “to help students and clergy interpret the Psalms with deep meaning and to appropriate deeply these profound poetic texts” (p. x). This book is divided into five chapters. The first provides an overview of the reception and approaches to the Psalms in history. The second and third chapters focus on two kinds of psalms, lament and praise, respectively. In the fourth and fifth chapters, Bellinger analyzes the shape of the five books of the Psalter synchronically and then offers a reflection of the last two books of the Psalms.

Bellinger begins by explaining why the Psalms is a “grammar for faith.” Just as grammar “structures language so that it communicates” (p. 6), Bellinger sees that the texts and shape of psalms structure the Psalter so that it expresses the psalmist’s (and his community’s) life of faith in God. Bellinger then explains four main approaches to reading the psalms: (a) form critical (genre), (b) historical, (c) literary, and (d) poetic. He closes the chapter by exegeting two psalms (Pss 6, 8).

The focus in the second chapter is lament/plea psalms. Bellinger first rehearses Claus Westermann’s critical theories on the genre of plea, which consists of a call to God, description of the distress, petition to God, and vow of faith in God. Bellinger then proceeds to discuss features of the lament in more than a dozen psalms to illustrate features of the plea. For Bellinger, pleas of the Psalms are the expressions of a “covenant theology of prayer” (p. 47). His point is that such prayers reflect a faith in the vicissitudes of life and genuinely articulate a theology of faith in God who will ultimately deliver.

In chapter 3 Bellinger again follows Westermann categories on the genre of praises. He identifies two subcategories of praises: declarative (e.g., Pss 30, 117) and descriptive praises (e.g., Pss 96, 105). While declarative praises often express how the psalmist experiences personal deliverance in dire situations, descriptive praises recount God’s mighty acts and address how God deals with his people. Bellinger makes an important observation: although plea and praise psalms are two primary expressions of grammar of faith, the former does not give way to the latter in a one-dimensional manner. The book of Psalms is a pilgrimage of a “mix of intellect and emotion, celebration and questioning, instruction and protest” (p. 66) even to the end of the Psalter.

Bellinger shifts a methodological gear in chapter four. He seeks to understand the Psalter as a whole, and in an integrative way. This means that the semantic contours traced over a group of consecutive psalms provide the contextual basis for interpretation (p. 75). Following the pioneering work of Brevard Childs, Gerald Wilson, and others from the 1980s, Bellinger sees a metanarrative across the Psalter. The first three books of the Psalms (Pss 1–89) characterize the story of ancient Israel through to the fall of the Davidic kingdom and Jerusalem. Book 4 of the Psalms (Pss 90–106) depicts God’s reign in the exile, and book 5 (Pss 107–150) expresses the life and faith of the community in the postexilic period.

In the final chapter, Bellinger develops this understanding by deepening his exploration in the last two books of the Psalter, which he believes is different from the first three books. The climactic confessions of faith in God’s reign in the darkest of times under the context of book 4 and the persistence of communal protests in book 5 (esp. Pss 138–145), suggest that “the Psalter as a whole deals with theodicy issues forged by the experience and aftermath of exile” (p. 96). In other words, the psalms are the grammar for faith; the rules of the language the community uses as she expresses her covenantal faith in God.

This book succeeds in a few ways. First, it incorporates the older approach of form criticism with the more recent “shape and shaping” (or canonical) approach to the Psalter, bringing them in conversation with each other as somewhat “equal partners.” Though Bellinger was trained in the former, he now leans towards the latter in his interpretive framework. In this volume, he explains what a synchronic reading would mean to the earliest receivers of the Psalter. Moreover, the angle of theodicy, and the metaphor of grammar of faith that Bellinger brings to the table of Psalms interpretation, are novel. Commendably, all these reflect Bellinger’s willingness to finetune his scholarship even after working on the Psalms for decades.

Second, this book addresses an important gap in the church and seminary. Although the canonical approach has been around since the late 1980s, much of the discussion remains in the academic guild. Compared to form critical approaches, there are fewer monographs at the introductory level that explain and put forth the shape and shaping of the Psalter as a legitimate interpretive avenue to the Psalms. This volume is highly readable and includes updated scholarship. In my view, this volume is suitable as a textbook for students (who do not read Hebrew) enrolled in a short course (4–6 weeks) covering the Psalms, or a longer course covering both the Psalms and Wisdom literature. It is more substantial than single-volume surveys such as Ernest C. Lucas’s Exploring the Old Testament: A Guide to the Psalms and Wisdom Literature (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2016) and yet more digestible than the C. Hassell Bullock’s Encountering the Book of Psalms, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2018) or Daniel J. Estes’s Handbook on the Wisdom Books and Psalms (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2010).

Perhaps Bellinger might want to sharpen chapter two a little. I found the various psalms Bellinger uses to discuss the genre of lament a little sporadic to be helpful. He toggles from psalm to psalm, latching onto certain features of lament, but moves on before some sense can be made of the entire psalm. It would be more useful for Bellinger to illustrate his interpretation with several whole psalms in greater detail, rehearsing the methods he described in that chapter.

In conclusion, this is volume succeeds in what it seeks to achieve—introducing the most important and most recent Psalms scholarship to students and clergy in a readable and engaging format.

Peter C. W. Ho

Peter C. W. Ho
Singapore Bible College
Republic of Singapore

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