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ISSN 0045-0308

BOOK REVIEW  Published in Volume 54, 2006

HOWARD N. WALLACE, Words to God, Word from God: The Psalms in the Prayer and Preaching of the Church (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2005) Pp. Xii+197. £16.99.

As the title indicates, this refreshing new book by Howard Wallace brings into conversation two approaches to study of the psalms that are often seen as being separate: the use of psalms in the devotional and worship life of the Church (prayer and song to God); and the place of psalms, as part of Scripture, in the instruction of the faithful (word from God). Wallace notes that the separation of these two approaches has had implications in the life of the Church, from the construction of lectionaries to the shaping of prayer. The book commences with a succinct overview of the use of the psalms in the history of the Church, with a brief foray into the history of Jewish use. This section traces movements in psalms usage through such paths as predictions concerning Christ (e.g. Justin Martyr); the more nuanced writings of Athanasius, who understood the psalms as an allegory of the Christian life, teaching the faithful the language of prayer and belief; to Calvin's emphasis on the psalms as instruction on how to pray and live. Included in this section is a useful discussion of the place of David and Christ in the imagination of the praying community. While brief, this section is clear and helpful, with a plethora of footnotes to enable further exploration.

Part II (the largest section) explores the psalms as words to God. The ruling metaphor here is ‘a world full of conversations” (p. 21). Wallace makes the point that, while the psalmist takes responsibility for maintaining the conversation, God is very much a partner in the communication process (which also includes other partners from time to time). When the conversation appears to be one-sided, the issue of justice arises. Within this overarching metaphor, Wallace tackles the tough area of theodicy with depth and clarity. The world of conversation allows room for God’s silence to be both grappled with, and allowed to stand (for a time); the understanding of conversation is that both parties will be changed, and have their identity formed, by the conversation. Hence, there is room for the
pray-er and for God to listen and respond. Around this theme, Wallace provides lengthy discussions on the nature of prayer, based firmly on his own psalms scholarship as well as on classic studies of the psalms by a range of theologians. This is further illustrated by studies of individual psalms, chosen to represent a range of psalm ‘types’ (which themselves represent a wide range of life experiences). These studies are brief; they are not detailed exegeses, but focus specifically on what these psalms teach about the nature of prayer.

Part III addresses the psalms as word from God. The focus here is on the use of psalms in preaching and liturgy, and the relationship between these two areas. The psalm in the lectionary has frequently been understood to fulfil a different role from the other readings, and is often understood to be inappropriate for the purposes of preaching. After a discussion of the historical factors behind this difference (and the reluctance to preach from the psalms), Wallace argues for the use of psalms in preaching. His argument is illustrated by examples of psalm-based sermons from a range of relatively recent scholars (Bonhoeffer, Barth, Tillich, Buechner and Brueggemann). The final chapter contains ideas for preaching from a number of psalms. The aim here is not to provide sermons, or sermon outlines, but to “explore the psalms with an eye to preaching from them, to bring out the theological and preaching issues, and to touch on difficulties where they arise” (p. 157).

The book concludes with an Appendix listing the types of psalms. It includes a Select Bibliography (separated into Commentaries, General Introductions, and books addressing Psalms, Worship and Theology). This is broad enough to give plenty of choice, and focused enough to be of great use to preachers, scholars, and anyone wishing to further their education in the area of psalms in general, or psalms in relation to worship, preaching and theology. There are also general and biblical indices.

Wallace’s book is a welcome addition to Psalms scholarship. While it builds firmly on well-recognised and well-known foundations regarding the range of genres, language, and theology of the psalms, it fills a gap in the integration of such scholarship with practical ministry experience. This gap has tended to be filled by collections of essays. The strength of Wallace’s contribution is its integration within the overall theme of ‘conversation.’ While carefully studying the psalms as both ‘words to God’ and ‘word from God,’ the two are always firmly placed within the same room. This book has already proved valuable in my classroom, and will find a well-worn place on the bookshelves of preachers and teachers, as well as students.

Review by
Merryl Blair
Churches of Christ Theological College
Mulgrave VIC 3170, Australia