Review of The Flow of the Psalms.

O. Palmer Robertson. The Flow of the Psalms: Discovering Their Structure and Theology. Philipsburg, N.J.: P&R Publishing, 2015. 304pp. ISBN  9781629951331 $21.99 (paperback).

What are we to make of the Book of Psalms? Is it just a collection of poems/songs that was thrown together at random? Is there no deeper structure to the work? Is it structured around the Five Books of the Torah (see Gordon Wenham, Psalms as Torah: Reading Biblical Song Ethically [Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Academic, 2012].)? The question of the Psalm’s structure is one that has plagued theologians from Augustine to Wellhausen, with every theologian giving a different answer than the one before. It is specifically this problem of structure that Dr. O. Palmer Robertson examines in his new book The Flow of the Psalms: Discovering Their Structure and Theology. 

That there is a basic structural element that organizes the Psalter is evident from the division of the Psalter into five “books” (Book 1: Psalms 1-41, Book 2: Psalms 42-72, Book 3: Psalms 73-89, Book 4: Psalms 90-106, and Book 5: Psalms 107-150), with the first four ending with a doxology, and the lasting ending with a climactic five-fold chorus of “hallelujah” (Psalms 145-150). This much is widely agreed upon—but Robertson points out that there is in fact much, much more. There are at least twelve elements of basic structure within the Psalms that can be detected.

Robertson begins showing some of these architectonic features by demonstrating that Psalm 2, as well as Psalm 1, functions as something of an introduction to the rest of the Psalms. These are the “two poetic pillars” that introduce the recurrent themes of the Psalter, with a focus on the Torah and the centrality of the expected Messiah. These two themes reappear at crucial junctures in the Psalter, with Torah Psalms occurring again at Psalm 19 and 119, underscoring the centrality of the Torah, and Psalms 18 and 118 emphasizing the centrality of the Messiah. That these two themes should be repeatedly linked together at significant points in the Psalter is pregnant with meaning.

It is in his examination of the centrality of the Messianic psalms for understanding the redemptive-historical arc of the Psalter that Dr. Robertson really shines. His section on what he terms the “Yahweh Malak (Jehovah is King)” psalms is some of the best work in the field of Old Testament studies that I’ve ever read.

Robertson provides new and trenchant insights into the Psalter on practically every page. For example, am I the only one who never noticed that Psalm 22 forms a pivot point in a group of five psalms (Psalms 20-24), uniting two psalms about the Messiah’s kingship with two psalms about Yahweh’s kingship? Because of these sorts of insights, the benefit of Dr. Robertson’s book for preaching should be readily apparent.

I’ll not continue to belabor the helpfulness of this work, as I could become uncontrollably effusive in my praise. I recognize that the modern church (thanks to the prevalence of Dispensationalism, among other factors) is woefully ignorant of the Old Testament, and hence of the Psalms as well. Yet there was once a time when the ancient church would not ordain a man who had not memorized the entire Psalter.

O. Palmer Robertson holds a Th.M and also the Th.D. from Union Theological Seminary, and has taught at Reformed Theological Seminary (as part of that institution’s original faculty), Westminster Theological Seminary, Covenant Theological Seminary and Knox Theological Seminary. He is currently the Principal of the African Bible Colleges of Malawi and Uganda, and is best known for his books The Christ of the Covenants and The Christ of the Prophets. I am of the opinion that this latest work on The Flow of the Psalms is no less a landmark of biblical theology, and it deserves an extraordinarily broad readership.

For those who are interested in hearing Dr. Robertson teach this material in person, you may want to join me August 3-7 at Greenville Presbyterian Theological Seminary for their Summer Institute. It should be very exciting.

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2 thoughts on “Review of The Flow of the Psalms.

  1. Thanks for the review. I’m really looking forward to reading this and your review only helped stoke the fire. It was only recently that I discovered the psalms have a larger structure and this is very exciting.

    I was surprised by your comment re: Dispensationalism. I’ve grown up under that teaching, and though I have since moved away from the system, have found the opposite to be true regarding exposure to and interest in the Old Testament. It seems like a common critique against DT, but I for one have not found it to be accurate.

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    1. Forgive my delayed reply, Lindsay. Thank you for your kind words regarding my review of Robertson’s The Flow of the Psalms. As amazing as the book is, his lectures on the subject at GPTS this summer were even more so!

      Where Dispensationalism is concerned, it depends on which stream of Dispensationalism you encounter, I suppose. I was raised in a very old-school Dispensationalist church that was much closer to the early Dispensationalism of C.I. Schofield; many churches that consider themselves Dispensationalist now hold to a more modified view that comes closer to the covenant theology of the Reformed and Presbyterian churches. Yet, if our understanding of Dispensationalism is informed by those that held to it in what we might call its “purest” form, then it has significant effects on how we approach the Old Testament, and to what extent the OT is applicable in our own age.

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