Comments, Please: Teaching the Psalms

I’m off at faculty retreat for a couple of days, and will be keeping my posts short. So, comments, please: What would you try to emphasize when teaching the Psalms? If there were just a few points that your students or audience will walk away with, what do you want those to be?

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10 Responses

  1. Oh. Um…

    That they were sung in liturgy and used at home in family devotions…and they aren’t really prescriptive like we wish all the Bible were. They are descriptive of humanity’s relationship to God.

    Also, it would be cool to deliniate (sp) the distinctions between Jewish and Christian traditions about the Psalms.

    How many classes are you teaching?

  2. Talk about setting out cheese to catch a mouse. OK, I’ll bite.

    I have to teach the psalms in half a term, since that is what our psalms requirement is. So I ask this question every semester.

    Here are my priorities:

    1. Teach how to read Hebrew poetry
    2. Teach the basic forms of the psalms and the theological significance of these forms (especially the hymn, the individual song of thanks, the individual lament, the liturgy, the royal psalm, and the didactic psalm)
    3. Teach beyond the forms–so that students will approach each that each psalm as an individual poem; that is, not just lump it as a lament, but will learn to crack each poem open.
    4. Expose students briefly to singing the psalms, since that is the way that so many people encounter the psalms, but so many worship leaders are completely thoughtless about how they do psalmody.

    I have an article in TTR on the subject from a few years ago, in case you are interested.

    Rolf

    • Yeah, Rolf, I was hoping you’d sniff the bait. :^) Your #3 is a big hobby-horse with me on form criticism, especially of the Psalms, and yet I also agree that you’ve got to get them to an understanding of your #1 and #2 if there is to be any pay-off on doing #3.

      I’ll look for the TTR piece.

  3. Hello Brooke,

    That is a very open ended question. Is this a one shot lecture or is this spread out over multiple sections? Also who is your audience and what is their familiarity to the topic?

    Generally speaking, I suppose a nice introduction of form would be a helpful place to start, and then that could be parlayed into a discussion of a handful of individual psalms that fit into the various forms you have identified.

    • Hi Adam,
      For me, this time: one-shot deal, seminary juniors.

      That said, I’d like to hear from anyone who actually or hypothetically teaches the Psalms in any context.

  4. I took a Psalms class at GETS with David Gambrell and LOVED it. (if you want the syllabus, I will pass it along) He did a great job of teaching forms, showing us where the Psalms appear in history and their meaning for us today. It was one of the best courses of my seminary career.

    I also taught a Psalms class to youth and adult congregants last spring.

    We talked about form and reading poetry, we looked at how the psalms have been used throughout history, and where we find them in our liturgy today. We also thought about how the psalms we created and used when they were first written down (or what we know or speculate).

    However, the two most important things for the group I served (from a pastoral/Christian Education standpoint) were:
    1. That the psalms show us that we can speak to God truthfully, however we are feeling (angry, sad, happy, abandoned)
    2. This honesty requires relationship with God. Here, we talked about the worldview of the writers and first hearers/readers. We thought about the difference of seeing and relating to God in every aspect of life and the comparmentalization that modern thinkers participate in… sacred vs. secular. We then thought about what each worldview emplies about God, our relationship to God, and our relationship to others.

  5. I think you’ve already been given a number of good suggestions, but one liturgical aspect of the psalms that I think goes unnoticed frequently is the use of specific Psalms as temple entrance liturgy. Craig Broyles speaks about some of them in The Book of Psalms: Composition and Reception (VTSup 99), which has a number of excellent articles. Another fascinating aspect is the mythic imagery behind a number of the Psalms (82, 29, 87, etc.).

  6. Eugene Peterson’s book Psalms was great. It too focused on candor from the person praying…and how the Psalms are really a primer for prayer.

  7. I think Rolf Jacobson has it spot on. Only thing I would add is to help them begin to see the canonical/metanarrative of the Psalter as it has been discussed by various scholars (Wilson, McCann, deClaisse-Walford, among others). This is still, in my view, pretty ‘cutting edge’ in Psalms scholarship and is surely worthy of attention.

    Dr. Jacobson . . . . it is indeed good to see you in the blogging world. I do hope you will check out my blog as well (click my name). It would be great to have you weigh in there!

    All the best!

  8. Imagery. Parallelism. And forget the Sitz im Leben.

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