Futato, Mark D. Interpreting the Psalms: An Exegetical Handbook. Grand Rapids: Kregel Publications, 2007.
Mark D. Futato’s Interpreting the Psalms: An Exegetical Handbook is a fine volume for introducing the Book of Psalms to students. It focuses upon the craft of exegesis with the aim of doing Christian theology. The audience that would benefit from it most with be evangelicals with a “high view” of Scripture and those who are seeking a book that helps them move from exegesis to proclamation. This may be the teacher in the classroom, but the pastor in the pulpit seems to be the best fit as a reader.
Chapter One: Appreciating the Poetry is a basic introduction to Hebrew poetry. Futato discusses lines, strophes, stanzas, parallelism, imagery, and the various patterns that a reader can expect to find. Futato provides examples from the Hebrew text along with an English translation. Obviously the student who can read Hebrew will benefit the most from this book, though I don’t think it is essential to know Hebrew.
Chapter Two: Viewing the Whole provides “macro-exegetical” look at the Book of Psalms. Futato is more concerned with the canonical shape of the Psalter than, for example, the historical setting of the composition of a particular psalms. Personally, I think this is a wise decision. Most historical reconstruction work done on the Book of Psalms is shaky speculation at best. What we do have is the canonical form. The preacher doesn’t need to know how Psalm 2 functioned in ancient pre-exilic Israel as much as the preacher ought to know how it functions in the Psalter.
Futato presents the purpose of the Psalms as being for the “happiness” (or blessedness) and the “holiness” of the reader. He argues that the message of the Psalms are that God is King, the people of God are destined for glory, and that the “King is Coming.” He is aware that not all the themes are “main themes,” so he does present two other examples: “The Lord as refuge” and the blessings of the nations.
Chapter Three: Preparing for Interpretation delves into one’s hermeneutical approach to the Psalter. Futato explores the “historical setting” (as I mentioned he favors the “canonical setting”), how the Psalter was shaped, how the shaped Psalter should be read, and how textual criticism applies to this task. He spends time helping the reader understand how the introductions (superscriptions) might function (though he is quite vague here and far from helpful). He directs the reader toward a better understanding of how the poetry and shape of the text impacts its message. The reader is encouraged to seek the “theological” message of the text and o understand the different “categories” (or genres) of poetry when doing interpretation.
Chapter Four: Interpreting the Categories expounds upon what he means when he says categories shape the text: Hymns, Laments, Songs of Thanksgiving, Songs of Confidence, Divine Kingship Songs, and Wisdom Songs. Then he presents a “Christocentric” approach asking “what these categories have to do with Christ.”
Chapter Five: Presenting the Text is more or less a lesson in homiletics or turning one’s research into a presentations, most likely a sermon. Chapter Six: Practicing the Principles is more of the same.
There was much about this book that I appreciated. First, I found the second chapter, “Viewing the Whole” to be the most paradigm shifting of the entire book. It wasn’t the first time I had heard of the idea of reading the Psalter as a singular, unified work, but I hadn’t found a way to put it into practice. I have come to agree with his statement, “…there is more to the book of Psalms than the individual psalms themselves. There is a book of Psalms (p. 58).” I feared that such an approach may result in “find what is not there,” but I realized the structure of the Psalter itself invites the reader to ask how one psalms connect to another and how each psalm fits into the Psalter.
Second, I admit to be intrigued by canonical readings, but I find that I have many historical concerns as well. So yes, I appreciate the narrative of the exodus from Egypt, and I understand that it has great literary importance for understanding other portions of Scripture, and I know that archaeology and comparative studies with other ancient near eastern people’s writings may not tell me anything more about the exodus, but that doesn’t cure the curiosity regarding whether or not there is any evidence that this event happened in the real space-time universe (or evidence that it did not happen). That said I am quite convinced that in the context of the Psalter the historical background of the individual psalms may be useless, even if we could understand their composition. When Futato says, “…most psalms seem to defy our best efforts to locate them in history” this doesn’t seem to matter to me (while on the other hand I think a study of Second Temple Judaism is very helpful for reading the Gospels of Pauline Epistles).
Third, I thought the section titled “What Do the Categories Have to Do With Christ?” was helpful (pp. 173-181). I have done studies in college and seminary that examine the literary categories of the Psalter (e.g., Laments, Songs of Thanksgiving, Royal Psalms), but I have not asked how these categories should be understood Christologically speaking. This set me down a path that will lead to one of my “questions” below.
Fourth, though far from “new,” (as I just mentioned) it was refreshing to go back through how Hebrew poetry “works” in the first chapter. I thought Futato did a fine job of simplifying these concepts. Likewise, he made them “relevant” by connecting them immediately to some examples lines from the Psalter. This chapter reminded me that various psalms may be enjoyable to read through a translation, but they are far richer in the Hebrew text. I’d like to say that a translation makes for a wonderful 2-D rendering of what the Hebrew gives the reader in 3-D.
As concerns criticism I thought his definition of “the book of Psalms” as an “instruction manual or ‘guidebook along the path of blessing (p. 60)’” was too simplistic. It made it sound like the Psalter is designed for pragmatic, self-help. I am sure that Futato did not mean to express such an idea, and I do not deny that one who read the psalms will find him/herself walking along a “path of blessing,” but I do not think this is the best definition of the book. If I were to present an alternative opinion I would say that the Psalter is designed to point the reader hopefully toward coming (once came soon to return for Christians) Davidic heir who will reestablish the throne of King David. If one is to read the Psalter with this message in mind there is no doubt that the reader will find the Psalter to lead them on a path of blessing, but the Psalter does this because of the message of the coming King.
Related, I know that he says later that the message of the Psalter is, “The Lord reigns (p. 72).” I hope it doesn’t seem like I am mincing words, but I don’t think we can split the “definition” of the Psalter from it’s message. Also, while I agree in principle with the slogan “The Lord reigns” I think it lacks Messianic specificity. Maybe, “YHWH reigns through his chosen Messiah.” This may be a small addition, but I think it better encapsulates the direction of the Psalter, especially with Psalm 2 at the beginning which invites us to come before YHWH if we accept his chosen King in Zion. In essence Futato affirms this when he writes, “Psalm 2 goes on to teach that, as King, our God reigns through his ‘anointed one (p. 74).’”
My second criticism would be the unwillingness to investigate the superscriptions. I don’t have a well-established understanding of the superscriptions myself, so it would have been nice to read more than the conceding statement after discussing, “…I must admit that this information does not play a major role in my own interpretation of the corresponding psalms…(p. 121). This seems quite flippant considering that he wrote two pages prior, “…my view is that the titled are canonical, though not necessarily original (p. 119).” In essence, this means that he thinks that the compiler(s) of the Psalter went out of their way to add superscriptions for the reader that we should consider to be part of the canonical text that are someone inconsequential. This isn’t impossible, but it seems a bit dismissive.
Overall I would recommend this book, especially for a seminary class where the main focus is to teach students to do their own exegetical works, especially for students who want to be pastors. If a student’s main concern is the study of ancient Israelite religion this book will not be helpful. If a reader is fascinated by the historical origins of various psalms this is not that book. It doesn’t try to be that book and it is very good at what it does try to be. The reader just needs to know what s/he is seeking in a book on the Psalter.