Review: Psalms (Dietrich Bonhoeffer)

Rating: ★★★★★

Alternate title: The Prayer Book of the Bible.

German title: Das Gebetbuch der Bibel: Eine Einführung in die Psalmen.

Who: Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a German theologian who became a leader in the Confessing Church, an evangelical anti-Nazi movement which supported several plots to assassinate Adolf Hitler. After two years of imprisonment, he was executed at Flossenbürg in 1945, just as World War II was coming to a close.

Bonhoeffer’s book on the Psalms was his last popular work to be published (after Creation and FallThe Cost of Discipleship, and Life Together). It is sometimes given as a companion to Life Together, since both books are brief and suitable for devotional reading.

“Soon after this little book on the Psalms appeared, the Nazis prohibited him from further publishing and dissolved the seminary at Finkenwalde” (p. 78), presumably because the book gave great honor to the Old Testament, the sacred book of the Jews. (See also Metaxas, p. 367.)

Overview: Psalms: The Prayer Book of the Bible is a brief, Christocentric guide to the Psalter. Bonhoeffer introduces the Psalms as a guide to praying in the name of Jesus. He sees the Psalms as through and through a Christian collection, capable of reorienting a believer’s thinking and prayer life toward the cross of Christ.

Bonhoeffer himself prayed through several psalms a day, and inculcated the same practice at his innovative seminary in Finkenwalde.

After finishing his introductory points, the largest portion of the book tackles major categories of psalms under expected headings such as “Creation,” “Suffering,” and “The Messiah.”

Meat: This little book is extremely useful as an introduction to the Psalms for devotional use, of which Bonhoeffer was an important proponent. Although he in no way attempts to cover every psalm, he covers major interpretive pitfalls such as: Is David praying in the Messianic psalms or Jesus? How can one pray through instructional psalms like Psalm 1? Why do the psalms seem repetitive? How can a Christian make use of imprecatory psalms?

The biography of Bonhoeffer included in my Kindle edition, written by Eberhart Bethge, is also a very useful introduction to his life and work—and much shorter than that tome by Metaxas!

Bones: Bonhoeffer was quite demanding for the men he discipled, and in his other books he has a tendency to be prescriptive in explaining Christian practice. In Life Together, for example—an outstanding book—Bonhoeffer argues that congregational singing should always be in unison (not harmony).

More to the point, in Psalms, Bonhoeffer enjoins the reading of several psalms a day by every Christian believer. He believes this is the intended use of the psalms, as a “prayerbook.” I take no issue with this, but with the headstrong prescription of practice for spirit-filled believers.

Quotes: 

On praying the Psalms:

“The richness of the Word of God ought to determine our prayer, not the poverty of our heart.” (p. 15)

“The Psalms are given to us to this end, that we may learn to pray them in the name of Jesus Christ.” (p. 15)

On the creation psalms:

“The creation psalms are not lyrical poems, but instruction for the people of God. The creation with all its gifts is there for the sake of Jesus Christ.” (p. 29-30)

On the psalms of lamentation:

“Even in the deepest hopelessness God alone remains the one addressed.” (p. 47)

“There are no theoretical answers in the Psalms to all these questions, as there are none in the New Testament. The only real answer is Jesus Christ.” (p. 48)

On imprecatory psalms:

“The crucified Jesus teaches us to pray the imprecatory psalms correctly.” (p. 60)

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