Book: The Psalms Through 3000 Years: Prayerbook of a Cloud of Witnesses

William L. Holladay. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1993. 365 pages.

This is a most ambitious work—to narrate for the general reader "the whole story of the Psalms." Yes, the whole story, from original composition to current usage by Jews, Catholics, and Protestants. In Part One (five chapters), Professor Holladay gives his reconstruction of how the individual psalms and the collection as a whole took shape. In Part Two, he devotes eight chapters to how the Psalter has been used by Jews and Christians through the centuries. And in Part Three (five chapters), he discusses "current theological issues" relative to present-day Christian liturgical use of the psalms.

As is evident, the three parts of this work are distinctly different. For that reason, a separate word is in order about each.

In my judgment, this whole first part should not have been included. For the "nonspecialists" for whom the book was written, the presentation can only be misleading since they (for the most part) will not be informed as to how differently the story would have been told by another equally qualified scholar. The author could much better have offered his intended readers an introductory chapter in which he informed them why any reconstruction of the prehistory of the Psalter (prior, say, to about 300 B.C.) is mainly speculation based on data that are open to a variety of interpretations, in any event, the nonspecialist should read this part of Holladay's account fully aware that most of his, or anyone else's, reconstructions are open to question.

The narrative in Part Two has a much firmer basis. Relevant historical sources are far more numerous and more direct, and Professor Holladay has made good use of these sources. Obviously, to cover more than two thousand years of Psalter usage on the part of two religious traditions (after the Reformation, three) in an account that uses somewhat less than two hundred pages requires a great deal of selectivity. So our author offers a much compressed account, but he enriches it with considerable illustrative materials and human interest anecdotes. Most readers will find this part of the book both interesting and informative. They will, however, come away with the distinct impression that only the surface has been scratched.

Part Three focuses on current discussions of the Psalter by theologians and others interested in its contemporary relevance for the cultivation of "spirituality." Here we find (Chapter 15) proposals for how the Psalter can be used in worship to "toughen" our faith (i.e., to "nurture and ... stretch the sensibilities of Christians"). Holladay leans rather heavily on Walter Brueggemann. In Chapter 16 he raises the problem of "censored texts," portions of psalms that have traditionally been passed over in liturgical use because they were thought to express "unchristian" attitudes.

Holladay devotes Chapter 17 to problems confronting translators as they seek to make the ancient Hebrew psalms available to modern English-speaking worshipers. In Chapter 18, he raises two questions: (1) How do the psalms function for Christians? and (2) How do the psalms function for women? What he is actually asking is this: Are the psalms (and how can they be) appropriate and adequate vehicles for expressing Christian experience and the experience of women? Finally, in Chapter 19, he discusses how Christians have, and should, utilize the psalms in the light of Jesus Christ.

In this last part, Holladay raises issues that are real and important. But I find myself at one with him only in the chapter that deals with problems of translation. Elsewhere, I have dotted my copy with many question marks. In most cases my questions are theological.

And yet, even though I have doubts about much that is found in Parts One and Three, I can say to potential readers, you will not find anything like this work anywhere else. So it is worth a read. Just don't take it as the final, or even the best, word on the historical origins of the Psalter or on the theological issues raised in the final section.

John H. Stek is associate professor of Old Testament (emeritus), Calvin Theological Seminary, Grand Rapids, Michigan.


Reformed Worship 40 © June 1996, Calvin Institute of Christian Worship. Used by permission.