From Whom No Secrets Are Hid: Introducing the Psalms, by Walter Brueggemann. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2014. 194 pp. $23.75.
The Psalms have been a staple in corporate worship, Jewish and Christian, for thousands of years. However, do believers today understand the theological depth of these songs and how the ancient songwriters express emotions and situations that are accessible even today? The highly respected Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann has written an introduction to the Psalms titled From Whom No Secrets Are Hid: Introducing the Psalms. Brueggemann explains the deep meanings and accessibility of these Scriptures and songs to all people to strengthen their individual faith and “lead common church practice to greatly expand the repertoire of Psalms that are utilized in worship” (xi). His thesis guides his analysis—the Psalter in its entirety articulates all the deep secrets of the individual human heart and of the community, ranging from the highest to the absolute lowest emotional states. Therefore, the Psalter can and should be used in its entirety within the corporate worship of the church.
Chapter one is a broad introduction to the Psalms themselves, identifying the entire book as a script meant to be read fully, ranging from gratitude and praise to lament and complaint. Then in chapter two, which is an independent lecture presentation, Brueggemann describes the counter-world of the Psalms, a fulfilling world created by YHWH that counters every fear and uncertainty of the human world. Chapters three through sixteen delve into specific psalms and groupings of psalms. The analysis includes but is not limited to Psalms 29 and 68 (YHWH as the warrior king), psalms of praise, Psalm 104 to the Creator, psalms that seek God’s engagement such as complaints and petitions, psalms of violence, the unique companionship of Psalms 22 and 23, the confession of Psalm 51, the breadth of Psalm 73, wisdom psalms, and the specific thankfulness of Psalm 30, 107, and 116.
The author establishes his argument in the Preface, but chapters one and two contain the bulk of the argument itself. In chapter one, Brueggemann introduces the overall shape of the Psalter, ranging from the experiential extremes of gratitude, praise, lament, complaint. This range of experiences is the same with believers today. The Israelites were human, just as believers are now, and they recorded their songs to the LORD so that later generations could “reperform” these songs as an outflowing of their relationship with YHWH. In addition to the experiences within the Psalms, Brueggemann identifies two theological foundations throughout the book—covenantal Torah obedience and the faith and continuation of the Davidic line looking forward to its eternal completion. The author asserts, “The God who commands Torah is the God who exercises generative sovereignty over all creation” (7), and this God is the same today as in the days of the ancient Israelites. Believers today can benefit much from interacting with and “reperforming” the psalms of God’s chosen people.
Brueggemann continues his argument through addressing the counter-world of the Psalms—believers desire to use the Psalms because “[they] voice and mediate to [them] a counter-world that is at least in tension with [their] other, closely held world” (9). The world of today is one of many significant problems. However, as the Israelites knew and recorded, the Psalms establish a counter-world, “[in] which YHWH presides in reliable fidelity . . . the transformative attentiveness of God” (15). In this counter-world, people must depend on God for every part of their existence. The author argues that this counter-world “refuses to let [people] live in the thin world of anxiety, greed, self-sufficiency . . . [etc.]” (26) because the primary character of this counter-world is YHWH himself. People still struggle and question him, as is clear throughout the Psalter, but YHWH is faithful and worthy of trust. Therefore, as his children, believers can and should use all of the psalms to interact with this almighty God.
The specific analysis of psalms validates Brueggemann’s argument and clearly communicates the covenantal relationship between the people of God and YHWH himself. For example, in Psalm 104, the psalm-writer praises YHWH for creating life and providing for his creation in any and every situation. Brueggemann draws in the Hebrew text often, and in Psalm 104, the ruach of YHWH “[is the] generous, life-initiating, life-sustaining gift of vitality without which no creature can live” (9). The author also incorporates non-Psalmic Scriptures to strengthen the meaning of the texts, such as Isaiah 42:5–6 and Ezekiel 37:1–14, which praise YHWH as creator and sustainer.
However, regarding the covenantal relationship between YHWH and the Israelites, Brueggemann attributes too much power to the people and deemphasizes the transcendence of YHWH above all creation. Within many of the Psalms, the people strive “to get God’s attention and to motivate God’s engagement. . . . These prayers assume that . . . God does not know until it has been said aloud” (87). Regarding petitions and requests of the people, Brueggemann asserts “The assumption . . . is that if God can be moved to act, all will be well” (87). Additionally, I must contend with the author’s analysis of God’s divine vanity. While YHWH is a jealous God and, as creator, deserves all praise, Brueggemann writes, “God wants to be well thought of by other gods and by other peoples” (90). The author interprets this psalmic literature through the lens of emergent monotheism; therefore, YHWH is the all-powerful God of Israel but not the one and only true God. This belief is also apparent in the author’s explanation of Psalms 29 and 68, the Canaanite hymns of praise. Brueggemann claims, “In its Israelite context, the divine name has been altered to YHWH . . . a determined effort to displace the name and marking of Baal” (37). While I understand this use of poetic imagination and imagery of YHWH as a warrior king who conquers Baal, I do not believe that YHWH was or can ever be in a contextual position; he was, is, and will always be the LORD over all creation, transcendent, the one and only true God.
While I do not agree with the author’s theology of the emergent monotheism of Israel, Brueggemann argued his thesis very well. The entire Psalter should be used in corporate worship to strengthen the faith of believers and as a tool of emotional expression and response to YHWH’s work in their lives. This volume is helpful for a deeper understanding of the Psalms, but the reader must have a strong foundation of faith and have experienced the power of YHWH in their lives. I would not recommend this book to a new believer; however, I would highly recommend it as a deeper study on this immense and powerful book of Psalms.
Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary