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Feb 24 2017

6 Best Books on Psalms for Prayer and Understanding

One of the delights of deciding to write a book on the Psalms is the excuse to read many books on them. Here are the six best books on Psalms I’ve found, ordered from broadest appeal to narrowest. They’ll enhance your prayer life and deepen your understanding of these prayer songs.

By the way, the Bible study guide I wrote with Pam Farrel and Karla Dornacher, Discovering Hope in the Psalms, is due out August 2017. It will walk you through praying with and understanding psalms as you discover eight hopes in the psalms for you.

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Best Books on Psalms #1

A Long Obedience in the Same Direction: Discipleship in an Instant Society

By Eugene H. Peterson

Audience: Christians wanting to draw closer to God

This superb book is by the translator of The Message. It contains sixteen inspirational chapters on the Songs of Ascent (Psalms 120–134). The Jews sang these songs as they made their way to worship God at the temple in Jerusalem, and so Peterson presents them as “’songs for the road’ for those who travel the way of faith Christ.” This is a book to read over and over. If you can read only one book on the Psalms, this is the one.

Quotation

I knew that following Jesus could never develop into a “long obedience” without a deepening life of prayer and that the Psalms had always been the primary means by which Christians learned to pray everything they lived, and live everything they prayed over the long haul.

Pros

Easy to read and understand. Delightful writing style. Folds many Christian disciplines into praying psalms.

Cons

If you don’t own it already, you should.

Best Books on Psalms #2

Psalms as Torah: Reading Biblical Song Ethically

By Gordon J. Wenham

Audience: Thoughtful Christians with good biblical background wanting to worship with psalms

This book transformed the way I prayed psalms. I already prayed laments (prayer request psalms) and praises, but Wenham’s insights into how praying a psalm becomes transformative deepened the way I approached these psalms and emboldened me to memorize psalms for prayer. It also showed me how to pray other types of psalms, such as wisdom and royal psalms. This book is rich and deeply layered, with chapters such as “The Unique Claims of Prayed Ethics” and “Virtues and Vices in the Psalter.” The chapter, “Appeals for Divine Intervention,” examines three of the harshest psalms: 35; 69; 109. This is an outstanding theological work on interpreting Psalms. I return to it often—it’s that good.

Quotation

If we praise a certain type of behavior in our prayers, we are telling God that this is how we intend to behave. On the other hand, if in prayer we denounce certain acts and pray for God to punish them, we are in effect inviting God to judge us if we do the same. This makes the ethics of liturgy uniquely powerful. It makes a stronger claim on the believer than either law, wisdom, or story, which are simply subject to passive reception: one can listen to a proverb or a story and then take it or leave it, but if you pray ethically, you commit yourself to a path of action.

Pros

Thoughtful, clear discussion of ethics in the psalms and how praying the psalms should transform our lives.

Cons

Requires a good biblical background, and that may deter some.

Best Books on Psalms #3

Interpreting the Psalms: An Exegetical Handbook

By Mark D. Futato

Audience: Christians who want to understand Hebrew poetry and who are comfortable with college reading level

This is a 200-page introduction to interpreting Psalms. It’s the first book I read on Hebrew poetry, and it answered questions I’d always had as well as questions I hadn’t known to ask. It spurred me on to read even more. The first chapter explains Hebrew poetry. The second examines the Psalter’s arrangement. The third touches on historical influences. The fourth discusses psalm categories. The fifth and sixth help the teacher develop an outline. While this book isn’t directly about praying the psalms, knowing how to interpret them enhances prayer. If you can’t afford Ross’s commentaries below, then get this.

Quotation

My objective is to acquaint you with the principle that parallelism is the art of saying something similar in both cola [line segments] but with a difference added in the second colon. Hebrew poets thus invite us to read slowly, looking for a difference in the second colon, be that difference small or great.

Pros

Excellent introduction to interpreting Psalms and understanding Hebrew poetry. Fast to read.

Cons

No transliteration of Hebrew (though English translations are supplied). The last two chapters are really too short to be useful.

Best Books on Psalms #4

A Commentary on the Psalms: Volume I (1-41)

Best Books on Psalms #5

A Commentary on the Psalms: Volume II (42-89)

Best Books on Psalms #6

A Commentary on the Psalms: Volume III (90-150)

By Allen P. Ross

Audience: Pastors and Bible teachers comfortable with graduate reading level

I own quite a few commentaries on Psalms, but this three-volume set far surpasses the rest. Volume I has an introduction to interpreting biblical poetry that equals or surpasses that of Futato above. Ross supplies a history of psalm interpretation (as do Wenham and Futato). He also details literary forms. Then comes the psalm-by-psalm commentary—this is where Ross shines. Each contains the author’s translation; composition and context notes; exegetical analysis (including summary and outline); the main commentary on the text; and message and application notes. This last section has preaching tips and is where Ross’s pastoral heart comes through clearly. There are extensive footnotes, including many Hebrew word studies on difficult words such as she’ol.

Volume I Quotation from introductory chapters

A type is a divinely prefigured illustration of a corresponding reality (called the antitype) it is a form of prophecy, the major difference with direct prophecy being that the passage can only be understood as prophetic once the fulfilling antitype has come into full view. This topic will be discussed in the notes on the royal psalms.

My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? (Ps. 22:1)

The words of the psalm hyperbolically describe the suffering of David but become historically true in Jesus.

Volume II Quotation from Psalm 51 message and application

We, like the psalmist, can and must have complete cleansing before we can fully and freely serve God in any capacity. Our eternal destiny may not be in doubt when we sin, and neither was David’s because he appealed to that covenant relationship, but our fellowship and service will be. God will not tolerate unconfessed sin, but will discipline for it.

Volume III Quotation from Psalm 137 commentary in expository form

All of this is to say that the communal prayer of Psalm 137 was a prayer in harmony with the prophetic oracle concerning the coming judgment on Babylon. They were actually praying for God to do what he said he was going to do, bring punishment on the Babylonians that was a just recompense for their barbaric activities.

Pros

Comprehensive. Many word studies (index in Volume III). Teaching and application tips. If you’re teaching or writing on the Psalms, this is the commentary set to get.

Cons

Typographical errors in verse references. No transliteration for Hebrew words, though English translations are always supplied.

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Best books on Psalms

Long Obedience in the Same Direction, by Eugene Peterson

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2 comments

  1. Tina Lau

    Jean E.,
    Thank you for an excellent article about Psalms resources. Very useful!

    1. Jean E.

      You’re welcome! Peterson and Wenham have other excellent books on Psalms–I just listed my favorite for each. Wenham’s other book on Psalms (I’m in Tokyo and don’t remember the name) is a little uneven because it’s a collection of essays and talks, but the chapters on the imprecatory psalms are even better than the chapters discussing them in “Psalms as Torah.” I read the two books he summarizes, and his summaries were clearer than the books were. If you read any of these 6 and want to know of more like them, let me know.

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