Ever since the explosion of the “modern worship” music phenomenon in the late 20th century, there has been a steady remnant of voices crying out in the wilderness for a fresh influx of the honesty, emotional depth, and theological complexity of the Psalms in corporate worship. These voices, with too few exceptions, have been pushed mostly to the margins of the mainstream worship music scene. That tide, however, is beginning to turn, as more mainstream and independent Christian artists (Sandra McCracken, The Robbie Seay Band, Shane and Shane, Sons of Korah, my own band The Psalms Project) are taking on the Psalms more comprehensively and unflinchingly than ever. Bradley Johnston’s new book, 150 Questions About the Psalter: What You Need to Know About the Psalms God Wrote, is the latest welcome sign that a return to the Biblical worship elements found in the Psalms is stirring in the church. Johnston’s book is full of helpful information on the Psalms, and best of all, Johnston writes from a theologically reverent and Christ-exalting faith platform, repeatedly reminding readers of the God-breathed inspiration behind the Psalms, which contain not only some of the most affecting and poignant poetry known to man, but spiritual manna.
Johnston’s book will be a helpful resource to those looking for 1.) More basic information about the Psalms themselves and 2.) More practical wisdom as to how to sing them in corporate worship. Johnston, who is a pastor in the Reformed Presbyterian Church, seems to mostly assume the singing of a metrical Psalter in liturgical form, which is certainly one of the most common and practical ways to sing Psalms in corporate worship. Those looking for more outside-the-box approaches to singing the Psalms in worship, or tips on writing original songs from the Psalms, or in-depth commentary on Hebrew poetic techniques (such as its ubiquitous parallelism) won’t find much to that end in 150 Questions.
What worship leaders and laypeople will find is some very helpful information on the overall Psalter itself, depending upon one’s prior knowledge. One entire “part” or chapter (Part IV) deals with the content of the Psalter, breaking down the Psalter by author, type of Psalm (praise, lament, Messianic, etc.), purpose of different Psalms in worship, etc. This is the part of the book I found most useful and informative. There are also some fun, enlightening trivia questions mixed in (Q: What Psalm is referenced most often in the Bible?). Other chapters give basic information and trivia about the Psalter (Part I), an examination of the Psalter’s relationship to Christ and the New Testament (Part II), the arrangement of the Psalter into books and sub-themes (Part III), meditating on the Psalter (Part V), and singing the Psalter (Part VI). One chapter I especially enjoyed was Part VII (The Majesty of the Psalter), which contains some stellar quotes from theologians and church fathers about the value of the Psalms. The appendices also contain extremely interesting and helpful reference information, particularly Appendix 1, which gives a timeline as to when certain Psalms were composed in David’s life and under what circumstances.
The questions in 150 Questions come rapid-fire, with brief and matter-of-fact responses, often giving me the feeling that one question was being stretched into 5 or 10. My personal preference would be for less questions and more in-depth explanations of the truths and concepts explored by each question. Such an approach may have improved the pace, depth, and breadth of the book. Others, however, will disagree and enjoy the rapid-fire format, as it keeps the reader moving along without having to dig through a lot of long, heavy passages. Also, I found some of the question-and-answer exchanges to be quite vague. An example would be question 92: “Q: Why should we sing the Psalms? A: We should sing the Psalms because in them the whole church is joined together in heart and voice to praise the Lord.” Of course, that could be true of any Biblically-inspired song. It is the nature of a book broken up into 150 questions, however, that different parts of the book and different answers will appeal to different readers. The bottom line is that, for fans of the Psalms, there is something helpful for everyone in 150 Questions. There certainly was for me, a worship leader and the leader of a whole-Psalms-to-music band.
Overall, Johnston’s book is a quality resource for worship leaders, pastors, and laypeople who are interested in expanding their knowledge of the Psalms and the use of them in corporate worship. There were many question-and-answer sequences that delighted me and will challenge others as well, such as question 117 and its answer: “Q: Why should singers sing through entire Psalms beginning to end? A: Singers should sing through entire Psalms because the Psalms were written as complete musical units. The unique message of each Psalm builds verse by verse from beginning to end. Singing only Psalm portions can obscure that overall message.” Amen!