SEEING THE PSALMS: A THEOLOGY OF METAPHORWritten by William P. Brown Reviewed By Nathan MacDonald
It has been observed that no book has suffered a more marked disjunction between traditional readings and modern historical-critical ones than the book of Psalms. The form-critical method of Gunkel and Mowinckel revealed the psalter’s cultic aspect, which stood far removed from its use in Christian piety and worship. Brown’s book is an attempt to restore the poetic and imaginative theological power to the church by an analysis of its metaphors. In Brown’s words,
this study is aimed at recapturing the imaginative and affective power of psalmic poetry, particularly the power of imagery, in order to uncover something of the psalms’ claim about what is truly real and theologically compelling (2).
The introduction provides a detailed, and well documented introduction to metaphor and theological imagination. Each subsequent chapter in the book examines a particular metaphor, tracing it through the psalms, noticing its theological purpose and interaction with other metaphors. There are numerous illustrations from archaeological finds in Israel and the ancient Near East which show iconic representations of what the psalmists put into words. The first couple of metaphors Brown examines are ‘refuge’ and ‘pathway’. According to Brown these are the two central metaphors in the psalms, which stand slightly at tension with one another, a tension that could be otherwise described as that between kingship and torah (17). Whilst each mutually informs and circumscribes the other, neither can be fully subsumed into the other. ‘Geometrically speaking, the Psalter is more an ellipse than a circle, it has two foci rather than a single centre’ (48). The following chapters demonstrate something of this bi-polar structure. Two chapters reflect on torah metaphors, from Psalm 1 and 19: the tree of life and solar imagery. Two chapters examine kingship metaphors: water and animals, both of which visibly demonstrate God’s rule. Finally, in two chapters Brown moves to images that reflect upon God himself. First considering personal metaphor, before turning to impersonal or inanimate metaphors. Finally, the juxtaposition of metaphors in Psalm 139 bring the book to a conclusion.
To summarise each chapter in such short measure is to hide the broad canvas that Brown often covers. The richness of the metaphors allows him to range across many psalms drawing in the wide diversity of ways in which an image appears. Thus, for example, in the fifth chapter we move from water’s chaotic role as enemy of God and the believer to its place as an image of refreshment. It is in this movement, and the tensions brought to the surface by it, that Brown shows us the theological richness and suggestiveness of the psalm’s iconic palate. And as he would no doubt confess his book has only begun to show some of the ways in which the psalmists use those colours to paint the life of the believer with God and the world.
This is a work that will appeal to anyone interested in the theological appropriation of the psalms: scholar, theological student and pastor. It is the latter particularly who will probably benefit most from the work for I cannot imagine any minister reading this work and not feeling compelled to preach a series on the psalms and provided with many of the central themes for those sermons. Brown has made an effort to accommodate all his potential readers, not only are there over twenty illustrations, but also every psalm discussed in detail is cited and all Hebrew words are transliterated. Those examining the psalms in a more academic context will not be disappointed either for this book is thoroughly documented with forty-five pages of notes at the end and a full scripture, name and subject index.
St Andrews University