The Book of Psalms contains one hundred and fifty individual psalms. Each psalm has an individual message that morphs when read as part of a collection. What does reading the Book of Psalms teach us about reading Scripture in general?
In Interpreting the Psalms: An Exegetical Handbook (p. 57) Mark D. Furtado asks, “Are the psalms a random anthology of prayers and praises or an intentional collection with a clear purpose and unified message?”
I want to answer: both. I could sit down with Psalm 1, read it, and hear its message loud and clear without the other one hundred and forty-nine psalms. I would know that the blessed/happy person doesn’t do what the wicked do, but meditates on Torah receiving transformation from this practice. I would know that this immersion in Scripture stabilizes me “like a tree planted by streams of water (v. 3a, NIV)” while the wicked “…are like chaff that the wind blows away (v. 4a, NIV).” I would learn that YHWH watches over the righteous, but that the wicked do not have this protection.
As soon as I read Psalm 1 next to Psalm 2 the meaning doesn’t morph drastically, but the context changes a bit. I realize that part of being righteous rather than wicked is submitting to God’s chosen King, his Son, the ruler over the nations. Together the definition of the righteous and that of the wicked change. Yes, Torah matters, but Torah without obedience to God’s anointed one puts me back on the side of the wicked. I wouldn’t know this without the canonized message of the collection.
What does this mean for our reading of Scripture?
Is there a sense in which (like the psalms) we can read the Gospel of Matthew alone, then the Gospel of Mark alone, then the Gospels of Luke and John alone, but when we put them together we should anticipate a fuller, more complex message? I hear many speak of giving each book its own voice, paying attention to “authorial intent,” and the like. There are others who emphasize the message of these various works in the context of the canon. Does it need to be either-or?
Does reading the psalms both individually and together establish a model for how to read Scripture as a whole? If so, how? If not, why not?