Interpreting the Psalms: An Exegetical Handbook

By Mark D. Futato
Grand Rapids : Kregel (2007). 234 Pages.

Reviewed by Dr. William Barrick
19.1 (Spring 2008) : 118-121

Futato’s volume is the second in Kregel’s new Handbooks for Old Testament Exegesis series, edited by David M. Howard, Jr. First to be published was Robert B. Chisholmm, Jr.’s Interpreting the Historical Books (2006). Forthcoming volumes include Interpreting the Pentateuch by Peter T. Vogt, Interpreting the Wisdom Literature by Richard L. Schultz, Interpreting the Prophets by Michael A. Grisanti (TMS professor), and Interpreting Apocalyptic Literature by Richard A. Taylor. Futato is professor of Old Testament at Reformed Theological Seminary in Orlando, Florida. He is best known for his user-friendly Beginning Biblical Hebrew (Eisenbrauns, 2003). His studies on the Psalms include Transformed by Praise: The Purpose and Message of the Psalms (P&R, 2002) and Joy Comes in the Morning: Psalms for All Seasons (P&R, 2004).

Most students for whom this series is intended (13-14) will find Futato’s introduction to the basics of Hebrew poetry refreshingly lucid (“Appreciating the Poetry,” 23-55). Where necessary, he provides the Hebrew text (25, 30-31, et al.), but many examples are adequately represented by English translation. Definitions of key terms are simple and precise. Dealing with the issue of parallelism, for example, the author focuses on the concept of correspondence in grammar and meaning (33-34). A helpful three-step analysis forms the core treatment of imagery in Hebrew poetry (48-49). However, discussion of mythopoeic imagery fails to provide a methodology for evaluating and interpreting it (53-55). Futato correctly emphasizes that mythopoeic imagery does not mean that myths are present in Scripture (54) and does not indicate that the writers believed the myths (55).

Following his general introduction to Hebrew poetry, Futato presents a survey of the major themes in the Book of Psalms (“Viewing the Whole,” 57-116). In order to interpret any individual psalm properly, the reader must grasp the overall purpose of the Psalter (59-72) and the message or theme of the book (72-95). Futato identifies the Psalter’s dominant theme as “the kingship of God” (72), developing it under the headings “Our God Is King” (73-76), “Our Destiny Is Glory” (77-80), and “Our King Is Coming” (80-95). Under the first heading he rightly explains that Psalm 2 cannot refer to an actual historical Davidic king, “since there was never a time when God ruled all nations of the earth through the Davidic monarchy” (75). Thus, Psalm 2 is “profoundly eschatological” (76). Discussion under the second heading is disappointing because of its brevity and lack of substance. The third heading is developed in greater detail. However, the reader finishes the section frustrated at the lack of guidance for determining whether the kingdom as presented in Psalms is consistent with amillennialism, premillennialism, or postmillennialism. The neutrality that the series seeks to maintain actually works against completing the interpretative process. Readers are not even referred to pertinent hermeneutical works that represent those millennial viewpoints. If the kingship of God is the dominant theme, this Exegetical Handbook fails to guide through the process of answering the greatest question the theme raises in inquiring, theologically oriented minds. “Other Themes of the Psalms” (95-116) highlights the metaphor of refuge (96-103) and the blessing of the nations (103-16).

In his third chapter (“Preparing for Interpretation,” 117-37) the author sets the stage for his recommended interpretative process. He takes the position that the psalm titles “are canonical although not necessarily original” (119), so he does not allow information from the psalm titles to play a major interpretative role (121). He never mentions James Thirtle’s theory regarding psalm superscriptions and subscriptions. Lack of adequate historical background for the psalms, in Futato’s opinion, “results in increased ease in applying the text to contemporary life” (123). As far as textual criticism of the Psalms is concerned, Futato concludes that the process of textual critical analysis can “at times provide a better understanding of a particular text” (129), but no major doctrine is affected by text-critical decisions in the Psalter. The chapter concludes with lists of resources available for interpreting Psalms (130-37).

The treatment of psalms according to their categories (defined as “a group of writings that have characteristics in common with each other,” 140) occupies the fourth chapter (“Interpreting the Categories,” 139-82). Futato poses the question, “Why do you need to know about the various categories in Psalms?” (141) and then explains how categories guide expectations (142-44) and provide another level of context (144-45) for the interpretative process. Basic categories include hymns (146- 50), laments (150-58), songs of thanksgiving (158-60), songs of confidence (160- 65), divine kingship songs (165-71), and wisdom songs (171-73). To obtain insights with regard to Christ’s relationships to the psalm categories, Futato recommends reading a psalm “both as being spoken by Christ and as speaking about Christ” (174). Such advice might result in a good deal of eise-Jesus, since he is not limiting this practice to psalms that are either Messianic in content or at least cited with reference to Christ’s life, work, or experiences in the NT. Noticeable is an absence of adequate instruction regarding how to identify the difference between Messianic fulfillment, Messianic implications, and Messianic application for interpreting individual psalms. An excursus on royal psalms concludes the discussion of psalm categories (181-82). Glaringly absent is any reference to imprecatory psalms. Such psalms have proven to be a challenge in the exegesis of the Psalms. Omission of imprecatory psalms in an Exegetical Handbook on Psalms diminishes the volume’s value and usability.

Exposition is the topic in “Proclaiming the Psalms” (183-207). Futato describes four steps that the expositor should follow in preparing to preach from Psalms: get oriented to the text’s contexts and structure before diving into the details of exegesis (185-92), focus on the exegetical details in the text (192-97), shape the expository presentation outlining the logic and the language of the text (197-204), and reflect on the text and its application to life by asking the big question (“So what?”) and the “covenant questions” (204-7). Unfortunately, Futato’s “covenant questions” do not relate to identifying meaning as related to specific biblical covenants. Instead of asking what the relationship might be to covenants like the Abrahamic or Sinaitic covenants, they consist of merely asking, “(1) What does this text teach me to believe? (2) What does this text teach me to do? (3) What does this text teach me to feel?” (206). As a set of general guidelines, Futato’s four steps are beneficial to some preachers, but are not sufficiently detailed to satisfy those who want a more finely tuned set of guidelines. In defense of the chapter, however, one might point out that this is an Exegetical Handbook, not an expositional handbook.

The final chapter (“Practicing the Principles,” 209-29) applies the content of preceding chapters to an analysis of Psalm 29. Choosing Psalm 29 unfortunately brings to the fore the reviewer’s earlier observation concerning the absence of a methodology for evaluation and interpreting mythopoeic imagery (53-55). Perhaps in keeping with Futato’s background in climatology, he ties everything to a severe rain storm (e.g., 216, 227). This enables him to make a direct connection to the Canaanite storm god Baal and to conclude that Psalm 29 is “clearly a polemic against the worship of Baal and for the worship of Yahweh” (220). He also shows a preference for David borrowing a hymn to Baal rather than composing the psalm from scratch (219). This reviewer appreciates Futato’s pointing readers to Peter Craigie’s serious set of arguments against the Canaanite origin o f this psalm (220 n. 21). In this reviewer’s opinion, much more should have been said about the theophanic core of Psalm 29. The author nearly misses it, finally noting that the repetition of “the voice of the LORD” indicates “a manifestation of the praiseworthy presence of God” (221). He perseveres in making the psalm more a psalm of creation (natural revelation) than of special revelation.

A beneficial, though limited, glossary closes the volume (231-34). Absence of any kind of indexes runs contrary to the intent that this series might be employed “as textbooks for graduate-level exegesis courses” (14). Students and teachers alike expect a good handbook to be utilitarian—to be a tool as a reference work. The reader is left without the means to track down specific biblical references and treatments (e.g., Psalm 18), or to look for every topic (e.g., lament) wherever it is mentioned in the volume. Overall, the volume is a good place to begin a simplified introduction to exegesis of the Psalms, but omits too much for it to become a standard graduate-level textbook. Pastors who are years removed from Hebrew course work, rather than seminarians, will find the volume beneficial.