Psalms, Psalms and Psalms!

Mark Furtado’s Interpreting the Psalms: An Exegetical Handbook is part of a larger series from Kregel titled “Handbooks for Old Testament Exegesis.” Because, the editor proclaims, “there is no one-size-fits-all approach to interpreting Scripture,”[1] the series covers all the Old Covenant genres in different books. Paradoxically, the editor then enforced an identical six-part structure on each author, for each handbook.[2] One-size-fits-all, indeed!

Furtato explains the nature of the psalm genre, offers some suggestions for considering the psalms as a unified literary work, principles for interpretation, and instruction on how to interpret and proclaim the text, and an example of what it all looks like, in practice. The editor envisions the work as a textbook for graduate-level exegesis courses.[3]

Furtato wants you to understand Hebrew poetry to interpret it better. He wants us to “see” the psalms in their original context. He wants us to understand the different genres of psalmody, so we are not prone to wander into exegetical fantasy. He also wants us to preach “with clarity and conviction.”[4]

Is it Worth it?

Furtato’s book is ho-hum. It does its job as a graduate-level introduction the same way a Geo Metro gets you to and from work. In seminary, my professor assigned C. Hassell Bullock’s Encountering the Book of Psalms (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2001), which covered the same ground. I prefer Bullock, but perhaps that is just nostalgia.

Furtato sometimes spends time discussing matters that are less than helpful:

  • Parallelism. He states C.S. Lewis personifies an “old way” which sees the second cola as saying the same thing, with different words. Furtato demurs and suggests parallelism is when the second cola says “something similar … but with a difference.”[5] This is a rather underwhelming revelation.
  • Following patterns. Furtato likes patterns. He spends time discussing linear, parallel, and symmetrical patterns.[6] I have never gotten much out of these distinctions―they are about as helpful as talks on verbal aspect theory in Koine Greek. This may well be my own failing, but I do not believe these technical notes help to accurately interpret a psalm. 
  • Purpose. He claims the psalm’s purpose, as wisdom literature, is to instruct us about happiness and holiness.[7] This is a startling reductionism―Furtato has flattened the psalms into a stale pancake. What about teaching us how to lament? How to be honest with God when the world is dark? How to cry out in pain when our lives are ruined? To bear the burden of sadness, and yet still hope? As an umbrella category, “happiness” is inadequate.

Reflection and Interaction

My remarks here are a continuation of those in the preceding section. Furtato has not written a poor book. In the classic movie A Christmas Story, Ralphie’s father (“the Old Man”) sips champagne on Christmas morning and remarks to his wife, “This champagne isn’t bad! It’s not good, either …” That is Furtato’s book. It is a Kia Forte. Utilitarian. It does its job. It is not sexy.

  • Headings. He spends three pages discussing the historicity of the psalm headings, all to declare they are not meaningful.[8] This is not helpful.
  • Textual criticism. Furtato is brave to discuss textual criticism in the span of four pages.[9] He should not have tried. This is not a discipline that can help a pastor in his day-to-day activities―certainly not in preaching! Leave the textual criticism to the Old and New Testament introduction classes.

I will park at Psalm 13 for a moment, because Furtato used it to illustrate outlining.[10] He says the psalm is about “how to deal with distressing situations in your life.” His three “points” are to (1) ask your questions, (2) make your requests, and (3) affirm your intentions. Furtato butchers this psalm. He rips out its soul.

The psalm tells us David has lost hope.[11] God has forgotten him. More than that, God has deliberately turned His back on him! David is lost. He cries out, but only has his own counsel to keep. Sorrow fills his heart day and night. Enemies are exalted over him. Implicit, but not said, is that God has allowed this to happen―but why? How many of us feel that way? Neglected? Abandoned? Betrayed? Victims of injustice that God has somehow allowed to happen? Is He not good? Why, then, do I suffer? This is raw honesty. The kind of honesty that makes you, in the solitude of your drive home, ask aloud, “What the hell is going on!? Answer me, God! Please!”

How Furtato managed to smash this Psalm into his outline, I do not know. But, his practical interpretive skills are weak in this example. It is disappointing when an author marshals everything he has discussed into practical reality and the result is … a ho-hum, stale, boring three-point outline that flattens Psalm 13 into (1) ask your questions, (2) make your requests, and (3) affirm your intentions. It does not reflect well on the book.


[1] Mark Furtato, Interpreting the Psalms: An Exegetical Handbook (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2007), p. 13.

[2] Ibid, p. 14. 

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid, p. 17. 

[5] Ibid, p. 38. 

[6] Ibid, pp. 49-53. 

[7] Ibid, pp. 59-71. 

[8] Ibid pp. 119-122. 

[9] Ibid, pp. 125-129.

[10] Ibid, pp. 203-204. 

[11] Due to space constraints, my comments only follow the highpoints of Psalm 13:1-3.

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