Basic Breakdown of the Psalms: A Book Review

Zondervan has published another addition their Essential Bible Companion series, this time focusing on the Psalms. This Essential Bible Companion to the Psalms, by Brian L. Webster (associate professor of Old Testament Studies at Dallas Theological Seminary) and David Beach ( a licensed counselor who teaches psychology and spiritual formation courses at Cornerstone University) clocks in at 185 pages and does no less than cover every Psalm coupled with several charts. They sent me the book to review it, and here it goes.

Design and Structure
The Design of the book follows the format of other books in the series. It’s colorful, has nice photography, legible font at a nice readable type size, large bold headings letting you know exactly where you are. They know how to move the eye.

And the information on the page is no different. Each Psalm is split into several sections listed as:

  • Theme: the main idea of the Psalm
  • Type: the literary form of the Psalm (lament, praise, royal, etc)
  • Author: who wrote it or musical notations
  • Backgorund: self-explanatory
  • Structure: how the stanzas are grouped with a sketch of the thought-flow.
  • Special Notes: some commentary on words or images in the Psalm.
  • Reflection: or Application to us today.

For example, you can open up to say Psalm 45 and see the theme of God blessing the king; that the type is a Royal psalm; that it is a maskil of the Sons of Korah to the tune of “Lilies”; that the Psalm is divided into an address to the King, then the grandeur to the King, then a description of the Bride. The Special Notes section describes this imagery pointing to areas of trade in the ancient world and some other details (like maskil may mean “skillful” or “making prudent”) The application shows us that the themes for marriage appear in other places in Scripture and that marriage applies to all marriages.

Likewise, Psalm 137 (one I touched on here in the Bible Archive) gives us the historical background of the Psalm (Judah has been sacked by Nebuchadnezzar; Edom is ransacking and pillaging Jerusalem) and then points to other passages where punishment oracles are leveled against Babylon (cf. Isaiah 13-14; Jeremiah 50-41; Hab 2).

Language and Readership
The writing in the book is concise, not making citations for further reading, focused on the Biblical resource available to believers, and written in a way that could come alongside a morning devotional. Even the earliest section of the book which focuses on explaining the types of literature (lament, royal, etc) or focusing on the poetic structure isn’t so much an integral part of the book as much as offering an explanation for the language that comes later in the book.

So when you get to the chart that divvies up the Psalms into categories, you’ve already been exposed to the language that is being used, and the idea of meditating on the Psalms in our everyday situation. In the words of the authors

“To own thee expressions as ours, we not only shape their words with our mouths, but we must let our spirits be guided by their wisdom. So we copy the psalmists, changing out our particular situation for theirs, yet follow their lead in approaching God.

Its self-evident then that the book is aimed as an informative guide to what is fundamental, or basic, in each of these Psalms so that the Christian can sit and think on them on their day to day.

Some nitpicks.
It’s beyond the scope of the book, so I can’t fault them for not doing what I proceed to suggest, but I would like it if there were (a) references for some deeper studies and (b) more application on how it ties to Christ—like a Christological section. I think the book is helpful, yes, but those would have made the book perfect for me.

Concluding thought
In fact, I would recommend the book as a joiner with anyone who does morning devotionals, is interesting in doing devotions, or anyone who hasn’t read the Psalms and want to start. This breaks it down without being overbearing, it’s easy to process the information, and it accomplishes exactly what it sets out to do: give you the essentials.

More reviews here.

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