The Spirituality of the Psalms | Walter Brueggemann

The cover of Brueggemann's The Spirituality of the PsalmsThe psalms are disturbing if you read them—all of them. It’s easy to take the familiar comforting ones at face value:

The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want.
He makes me lie down in green pastures.
He leads me beside still waters.
He restores my soul. (Psalm 23:1-2 ESV)

I lift up my eyes to the hills.
From where does my help come?
My help comes from the LORD,
who made heaven and earth. (Psalm 121:1-2 ESV)

Bless the LORD, O my soul,
and all that is within me,
bless his holy name! (Psalm 103:1 ESV)

Let everything that has breath praise the LORD!
Praise the LORD! (Psalm 150:6 ESV)

If that’s all we read then the psalter is a gentle almost pedestrian song-book. If we dig a little deeper, however, things begin to get strange:

How long, O LORD? Will you forget me forever?
How long will you hide your face from me?
How long must I take counsel in my soul
and have sorrow in my heart all the day?
How long shall my enemy be exalted over me? (Psalm 13:1-2 ESV)

Do I not hate those who hate you, O LORD?
And do I not loathe those who rise up against you?
I hate them with complete hatred;
I count them my enemies. (Psalm 139:21-22 ESV)

Blessed shall he be who takes your little ones
and dashes them against the rock! (Psalm 137:9 ESV)

If we want to take the entire psalter seriously, it’s clear that we need more than romantic notions about God’s gentleness and protection. In Spirituality of the Psalms, Brueggemann offers a framework for understanding the whole book of Psalms. While not every psalm can be fit into a neat category, the majority of the psalms can be viewed in one of three ways:

  1. Psalms of Orientation (e.g. Psalm 8, 24, 33, 104, 133, 145). These are the psalms we are most comfortable with. These are psalms of gratitude for God’s ordering of life. These psalms reflect life the way it is expected to be: full of blessing for the saints. These are psalms where the Torah is celebrated and the God of creation is praised. Brueggemann draws on the scholarship of Sigmund Mowinckel who notes that these psalms are not only responsive but generative: they generate, in part, the reality they celebrate. “Worship is indeed ‘world-making'” (19).
  2. Psalms of Disorientation (e.g. Psalm 13, 35, 74, 86, 95, 137). These psalms are the reaction of the faithful to God when the world they knew was broken. These are psalms of lament that move and deepen the faith of the worshiper. When Jerusalem, the city of God, falls to Babylon, you don’t sing Psalm 23—you respond with the virulence of 137. Whether the content is ethically pure or not, the words reflect the pain of a people engaging with their God in world-shattering circumstances.
  3. Psalms of New Orientation (e.g. Psalm 29, 47, 93, 97, 98, 99, 114, 148, 150). These are deeper versions of the orientation psalms. Disorientation is now past and the singer praises God for salvation. This category includes the victory hymns of Yahweh. Miriam’s song in Exodus 15, although not part of the book of Psalms, is a great example.

Overall, Brueggemann’s tripartite understanding of the book of Psalms is very helpful. While no schema will ever contain the rich diversity of the psalms (as Bruggemann himself acknowledges), the movement from orientation to disorientation to new-orientation is not only evident in the psalms, it is fundamental to Christian life.

Brueggemann’s bias against royal ideology and deuteronomic faith is evident here. When he speaks of the orientation psalms, he is quick with a disclaimer:

In using these psalms, we must be alert to the slippery ways creation faith easily becomes social conservatism, which basks in our own well-offness. … They may also serve as a form of social control. (20, emphasis his)

While he is correct with his warning, it seems disingenuous to read the caution note before understanding character of these psalms. Furthermore, he offers no corresponding warning for the psalms of disorientation. If the orientation psalms can lead to self-satisfied oppression of the poor, surely the disorientation psalms can lead to self-satisfied rebellion against the rich!

Spirituality of the Psalms is a both a theologically acute and pastorally insightful way to integrate the whole of the psalter into the believer’s daily life of worship.

—Walter Brueggemann, Spirituality of the Psalms (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2002).

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2 Responses to The Spirituality of the Psalms | Walter Brueggemann

  1. Alaine McGill June 20, 2016 at 11:21 am #

    Interesting categorization framework. This is really helpful Steve!
    Have a great day! Alaine 🙂

  2. Stephen Barkley June 20, 2016 at 11:27 am #

    I found it very helpful, too. His work on the Psalms of Disorientation in particular make a large portion of Psalms immediately accessible and pray-able.

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