Seeing the Psalms: A Theology of Metaphor

By William P. Brown
Louisville, Ky : Westminster John Knox (2002). xiii + 274 Pages.

Reviewed by Dr. William Barrick
18.2 (Fall 2007) : 243-245

“More so than any other corpus in Scripture, the Psalter contains discourse that is as visceral as it is sublime. In the psalms, pathos is wedded to image” (ix). Thus the author contends for the significance of this volume on metaphor in the Psalms. His introduction deals with “A Poetics of the Psalmic Imagination” (1-14), presenting a case for the power of evocative language in the Psalter. Brown asserts that metaphors act as “‘grids’ or ‘filters’ through which reality is viewed and reconfigured” (6), so that the reader might apprehend that reality differently. Metaphor “exploits an irresolvable incongruity between the target and source domains to generate a ‘semantic shock’” (7). Therefore, metaphors in Hebrew poetry require that the reader think more and more about the text (9). Indeed, the Psalter’s poetry is not just visceral, it is intensely reflective and cognitive.

By their very nature, metaphors provoke hermeneutical discussion. If metaphor is “the hinge between multiple lines of associations and manifold worlds of meaning” (8), how can it be “delimiting” hermeneutically (10)? Brown throws down the gauntlet for reader-oriented methodologies by insisting that the reader’s imagination must be subject to the full appreciation and understanding of the ancient imagination (12). In his view, the reader is not sovereign, nor is the text a mere corpse (223 n. 110). He concludes, “Perhaps the time has come to declare the resurrection of the text and the receptivity of the reader” (ibid.). In the remainder of the volume, Brown’s modus operandi identifies the source and target domains for each metaphor, seeks to discover its meaning in its ancient Near Eastern background, and examines its associations within the Psalter itself (14).

Eight chapters take up the examination of the following topics:

  1. metaphors of refuge (15-30),
  2. metaphors of pathway (31-53),
  3. arboreal metaphor (55-79, a detailed analysis of the metaphor in Psalm 1),
  4. solar metaphor (81-103, an examination of metaphor in Psalm 19),
  5. water metaphors (105-34),
  6. animal metaphors (135-66, a non-exhaustive survey of animal motifs and metaphors in Psalms),
  7. personal metaphors for God (167-95, anthropomorphisms involving the senses, face, hands, mouth and voice, breath, emotions, and roles such as king, warrior, parent, and teacher), and
  8. impersonal metaphors for God (197-206, including light, shield, shadow, mountain, fountain, portion, and cup).

Metaphors may also have counter metaphors. For example, the pit and Sheol are counter metaphors of the refuge metaphor (26). As the author observes, the language of lament sets the psalmist “between pit and refuge, between God’s absence and presence, death and deliverance” (27). A metaphor’s meaning informs the meaning of its counter metaphor and vice versa.

Brown proposes that neither refuge nor pathway comprises a root metaphor encompassing the entire Psalter. Both are complementary, each to the other. T heir association is robust, but they are not interchangeable and neither can subsume the other (39). Refuge features being present before God, while pathway designates the struggle toward God via law and wisdom (42, 45). The two metaphors are “the warp and the woof of the Psalter’s variegated tapestry” (53).

From time to time, the author’s analyses appear strained. For example, his treatment of Psalm 19, comparing its concepts with the iconography of synagogue mosaics (100-103) might strike the reader as esoteric. However, although the discerning evangelical reader might weed out some of the association, the point of the diversion is still pertinent: neither natural nor special revelation can be detached totally from the other. The interrelationship is a major aspect of what the psalmist presents in Psalm 19.

Polyvalency of metaphors comes to the fore in Brown’s essay on water (105-34). Many waters frequently represent overwhelming danger and chaos (106-22), but water also pictures refreshment and renewal (122-34). Images of sweeping floodwaters and the overwhelming power of thunderous cataracts and waves are foundational to two different experiences and perspectives. Metaphors are flexible and are capable of conveying widely differing meanings. Readers must pay close attention to context in order to interpret such images properly. “Destructive and cleansing, formless yet sustaining, water can convey diametrically opposing nuances even within one verse or line of poetry” (105).

In his conclusion, Brown takes up Psalm 139 to examine its metaphors (207- 15). Extensive endnotes (217-62), an extremely helpful index of Scripture and ancient sources (263-70), and an author/subject index (271-74, detailed in the former case, and very limited in the latter) close out the volume.

William P. Brown is professor of OT at Union Theological Seminary/PSCE in Virginia. Among the books he has authored are Character in Crisis: A Fresh Approach to the Wisdom Literature of the Old Testament (Eerdmans, 1996), Ecclesiastes (Interpretation; John Knox, 2000; see earlier in this issue of TMSJ), and The Ten Commandments: The Reciprocity of Faithfulness (Westminster John Knox, 2004). He is also editor and contributor to Character & Scripture: Moral Formation, Community, and Biblical Interpretation (Eerdmans, 2002).