A Love Letter to the Psalms

The Case for the Psalms: Why They are Essential
N.T. Wright
Harper One, 2013.
$22.99. 208 pages.

A reader of this brief volume can see this is a Christian’s love letter to the Psalms. Wright explains, “Trying to pick out individual psalms and their particular impact [on me] is like trying to remember particular breakfasts that I have eaten. Cereal and toast, bacon and eggs, pancakes and syrup, coff ee and juice—whichever it is, it’s important, and if I have to skip for whatever reason, the day gets off to a bad start.” Wright, a biblical scholar and currently bishop of Durham, has spent a lifetime with the words and images of these ancient poems.

The book by his own admission is “a personal plea” for Christians to adopt the same devotional practices that he and the generations before him have done. In this, the book accomplishes its goal. Well written and enjoyable, the text offers the reader a window into the world of the Psalms.

The book is divided into six brief chapters. After the introduction, Wright’s second chapter, “Pray and Live,” considers how ancient readers might have interacted with the Psalms. He admits there is no way to be sure, but what he contemplates some possibilities for how early Jews and Christians would have thought about and used the Psalms in their lives. This perspective appears again and again in this volume. The question is a wonderful one for Wright’s devotional life but would be difficult for others who are not New Testament scholars vicariously occupying that world in their academic work. The three central chapters of the book can help a reader in understanding this worldview to some degree but are eff ective even without this particular lens. Wright focuses these three chapters on the place where we encounter the Psalms and the way the Psalms confront our current world view via the planes of “time, space, and matter.”

The first topic is time (Chapter 3). Wright argues that the Psalms when taken seriously can adjust our modern understanding of time. In this he uses sections from a large number of psalms in different genres (lament, wisdom, royal, enthronement) to demonstrate this different understanding. He notes that this will aid the Christian to see “the intersection of the past, present, and future of God’s time and our own time.”

Second, Wright reflects on the topic of space (Chapter 4). This chapter is a complex trip through the Psalms as it deals first with the establishment of the actual temple. “Again and again the Psalms celebrate, in almost embarrassingly vivid language, the belief that the creator of the universe has, for reasons best known to him, decided to take up residence on a small hill in the Judean uplands.” He then covers the psalms dealing with the loss of the temple and the altered theology of the post-exile people. Wright notes, “And at the heart of this new land, we see not a sacred building of bricks and mortar but a sacred people, whose very hearts have become a dwelling place of the living God by his spirit.”

Chapter 5 deals with what Wright calls “matter.” Like the chapter on space, this one is packed with far-reaching and complex topics. The Psalms remind the reader that God is concerned not just for humans but for the whole creation, which has its own independent relationship with God. And the Psalms tell us we are more than spirit but also bodies that God made and that body and soul are transformed, that is, materially changed, by singing and praying the Psalms. In other words, the Psalms taken seriously can influence the way we see the matter or the material of the world around us and within us.

Overall, the volume is helpful for its stated purpose of “selling” the Psalms. The concepts presented are complex, and its orientation is philosophical in nature, yet the whole is presented in a clear and concise way. Indeed, one might wish Wright had expounded more on his thoughts. It does encourage people to study the Psalms further, seeking out additional resources.