Pondering the Psalms: A Deep Dive Into Beloved Scriptures
Good reading for St. Jerome’s feast day
WISDOM FROM THE PSALMS
By Peter Kreeft
Foreword by Scott Hahn
Ignatius Press, 2020
243 pages, $17.95
To order: ignatius.com
Wisdom From the Psalms is not a book about the Psalms in general, nor an exhaustive commentary on all 150. Instead, the author, Boston College philosophy professor Peter Kreeft, has written a deep dive into 12 Psalms, including old favorites like Psalm 23 (“The Lord is my shepherd”) and Psalm 51 (“Create in me a clean heart, O God”) and less familiar ones like Psalm 1 and 137.
He opens with a disclaimer: “This book’s existence is justified only if it shows readers under-the-surface things that they have not seen before. Therefore, I have not consulted any other books or commentaries on the Psalms, because I did not want merely to repeat them, however valuable they are, but to say ‘Look!’ anew. This is not a work of scholarship but one of midrash.”
Midrash is a Jewish tradition of biblical commentary that draws upon the full body of scriptural texts and results in an expansive reflection on the text in question rather than an intensive, line-by-line scholarly exegesis.
For example, in his “midrash” on Psalm 42, which contains the phrase “my soul thirsteth for God,” Kreeft writes, in part, “The water we drink with our bodies is an image of the spiritual water that is the life … of God, not vice versa, for the body is an image of the soul, not vice versa. God is not like water; water is like Him. We die without water; we die without Him. Water is our life; He is our life.”
You may have noticed the antiquated word “thirsteth” in the quote above.
This is because professor Kreeft has taken the Psalm texts from the King James Bible, for several reasons. First, it is a classic. “Indeed,” writes Kreeft, “it is the primary classic in the English language. Every great writer in history until the present century knew it and was influenced by it, even those who were non-Christian or anti-Christian.”
He also praises the KJV version of the Psalms for their beauty, accuracy and the fact that they avoid modern translation techniques such as “dynamic equivalency” and so-called “inclusive language.”
In the “Introduction,” he explains: “I write for Catholics and Protestants equally. Therefore, I use the KJV instead of the Douay. The Douay is also reverent, accurate and beautiful, but well-read Catholics know the KJV as well as the Douay, while well-read Protestants do not know the Douay as well as the KJV. There are no significant theological differences between the Catholic and the Protestant translations, at least in the Psalms.” (Editor’s Note: Learn more about the Catholic roots of the King James Bible here.)
Finally, Kreeft prefers the KJV not in spite of its archaisms but because of them. “I have no problem with the Elizabethan, Shakespearean language, with its thee’s and thou’s, and you should not, either. Its meaning is not obscure, and its effect is to announce that this is not ordinary stuff but something extraordinary. … The sacred language is an announcement. It sounds like trumpets. That is not a bad thing. It gets your attention —an increasingly difficult thing to do in an age when our souls have melted into our smartphones.”
Each of the book’s 12 chapters dives into one Psalm, quoting it a line or two at a time, followed by Kreeft’s commentary. This works well as you read through the book, but I wish each Psalm had been included in its entirety, perhaps at the end of its chapter or in an appendix at the end of the book. Modern Christians are indeed familiar with the KJV in snippets, but I’d guess most Catholics do not own a copy.
As in many of his books, Kreeft quotes and refers to a variety of sources, including C.S. Lewis, St. Augustine, Mother Teresa, Dylan Thomas, Dante, Brother Lawrence, Dostoyevsky, Star Wars … you get the idea.
This book is rich and deep — the fruit of the author’s prayer, scholarship and long experience of life. Highly recommended.