Encountering the Book of Psalms: A Literary and Theological Introduction

By C. Hassell Bullock
Grand Rapids : Baker (2001). 266 Pages.

Reviewed by Dr. William Barrick
14.1 (Spring 2003) : 109-111

 Encountering Biblical Studies is a series designed for college-level Bible courses (12). This volume is intended as a course subsequent to the OT survey by Bill T. Arnold and Bryan E. Beyer (Encountering the Old Testament: A Christian Survey [Baker, 1999]). The layout is functional and attractive with sidebars, chapter outlines, chapter objectives, key terms in boldface type, study questions, reading suggestions, and visual aids (photographs, maps, charts, graphs, and figures). Unfortunately, the employment of endnotes (239-43) instead of footnotes works against the otherwise user-friendly layout of the text.

Bullock rightly recognizes the danger of rampant typology and hypermessianization in the interpretation of Psalms, urging discretion and the application of NT controls (47). However, interpretation based solely upon historical and typological principles also can abuse the text. Using the words of Ps 22 :1 (“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”) as an example, he insists that “to be fair to the historical context, we should assume that they were spoken by a real person in ancient Israel, very likely even David himself at some God-forsaken moment of his life” (43). The same logic, if applied, for example, to Isa 45:1 (“Thus says the LORD to His anointed, to Cyrus”), could indicate that a contemporary individual named Cyrus existed in Isaiah’s day and prefigured the future Cyrus, or that someone other than Isaiah wrote the prophecy after the fact (vaticinium ex eventu). Application of this methodology to the NT could result in a preterist interpretation of passages like 2 Thess 2:1-4 and Revelation 17–18. Such interpretative methods eliminate prophetic pronouncements that have no fulfillment or representation in the author’s experiential context. Bullock does not treat all the prophetic elements of Psalms in this fashion, however. Of Psalm 2 he says, “I am inclined to believe that the messianism of Psalm 2 belongs to the initial composition of the psalm and not to a later period of interpretation” (61).

In discussing the editorial seams of Psalms, Bullock declares that “the editor who installed Psalm 1 was a literary tailor of fine expertise, and he stitched these two psalms together masterfully” (60). This implies that the editor wrote parts of Psalms 1 and 2 so that their wording and structure would harmonize. The same logic could lead to the conclusion that “Praise to the Lord, the Almighty” (written by Joachim Neander and translated by Catherine Winkworth) and “Praise the Lord! Ye Heavens, Adore Him” (first published in 1796) must have been edited by Tom Fettke, Kenneth Barker, or another editor of The Hymnal for Worship & Celebration (Word Music, 1986) in which the two hymns occur back-to-back (numbers 8 and 9). The last line of the former hymn is “Gladly for aye we adore Him,” while the first line of the latter hymn is “Praise the Lord! Ye heav’ns, adore Him.” Both hymns begin with “Praise (to) the Lord.” Additional parallels are present between these two hymns. However, there is absolutely no reason to assume that the editors did anything more than to arrange the placement or order of the hymns. Why should anyone think that the ancient editor(s) of Psalms did anything more than the editors of modern hymnals?

Chapter 3, “The Seams of the Garment of Praise” (57-82), provides a wellwritten examination of the overall structure of the Psalter in its five books. Bullock demonstrates the affinities between Books 1–3 as well as between Books 4 and 5. He also reminds the reader that the current order of the Psalter was established prior to the translation of the Septuagint between 250 and 150 B.C. (71).

In chapter 5, “Encountering Theology and History in the Psalms” (99-118), the author discusses biblical history as reflected in Psalms. Bullock stresses that the psalmists embraced that history as fact rather than fiction and focused on the divine perspective more than the human.

Nine chapters (chaps. 6–14) focus on nine different psalm genres: psalms of praise (121-33), psalms of lament (135-50), psalms of thanksgiving (151-63), psalms of trust (165-76), psalms of the earthly king (177-86), psalms of the heavenly king (187-97), wisdom psalms (199-212), psalms of Torah (213-26), and imprecatory psalms (227-38). Analytical tables displaying the key elements for each psalm are centerpieces for all nine genre discussions. Bullock’s approach is levelheaded. He recognizes that biblical writers were somewhat “form conscious, but not nearly so much as modern scholarship has led us to believe” (64). Likewise, on the issue of so-called enthronement psalms, he rightly concludes that even “though some scholars have made much of the supposed existence of a festival in Israel that enthroned Yahweh, virtually no evidence in the Psalms or elsewhere in the Old Testament supports this view” (196).

There are significant omissions in a number of matters. Space will permit mention of only a few. In regard to the psalm titles (24-30), Bullock fails even to mention the theory of James Thirtle (The Titles of the Psalms: Their Nature and Meaning Explained [Henry Frowde, 1904]). Nowhere in the volume is there any discussion of the NT attribution of Davidic authorship to Psalms 2 (cf. Acts 4:25) and 95 (cf. Heb 4:7). Both are listed as anonymous due to the absence of psalm titles (26). In the discussion of the structure of Psalm 19, the author concludes that content alone distinguishes the two strophes of the psalm (41). However, the psalm could be divided on the basis of the occurrences of the tricolon apart from any consideration of content: vv. 1-4 (closed by a tricolon), vv. 5-6 (closed by a tricolon), vv. 7-14 (closed by a tricolon), v. 15. In addition, the formulaic structure of vv. 7-10 (construct noun + Yahweh + predicate adjective followed by construct participle + noun) signals the special nature of these verses as compared to vv. 1-6. Bullock totally ignores Spurgeon’s classic work on Psalms (The Treasury of David) and fails to mention the commentaries of J. J. Stewart Perowne (The Book of Psalms [Zondervan reprint of the 1878 edition]) and James L. Mays (Psalms, Interpretation [John Knox, 1994]).

In spite of some of the problems, Encountering the Book of Psalms is still a quality production. It would make an excellent choice as a textbook in college classes studying the Book of Psalms. Bullock is Franklin S. Dyrness professor of Biblical Studies at Wheaton College and is also the author of An Introduction to the Old Testament Poetic Books (Moody, 1979) and An Introduction to the Old Testament Prophetic Books (Moody, 1986).