Psalms As a Grammar for Faith

Prayer and Praise

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W. H. Bellinger
  • Waco, TX: 
    Baylor University Press
    , October
     152 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


It is undeniable that the book of Psalms has greatly impacted both the Jewish and Christian traditions in many ways. The significant influence can be attested by the ways the two preeminent protestant reformers—Martin Luther and John Calvin—popularly labeled the Psalter: the “Little Bible” and “the anatomy of all the parts of the human soul,” respectively. In Psalms as a Grammar for Faith, William H. Bellinger, Jr., approaches this biblical book, an anthology more precisely, by defining it as a grammar of faith—and even life. In other words, the Psalms as a grammar of faith reveal what it means to live in and with God as believers. Deeply anchored in the form-critical tradition, Bellinger focuses on two major genres of the Psalter, lament and praise, that are the heart of not only the Psalms but also the grammar of faith.

In the second chapter, Bellinger examines the psalms of lament. In these psalms, reasons for crying out differ from psalm to psalm, such as the presence of enemies, oppression, false accusations, or the fall of Jerusalem. For Israel’s side, God is responsible for such inexplicable circumstances, “if YHWH is indeed the sovereign covenant Lord” (32). With this in mind, the prayers in lament psalms boldly force God to intervene and give reasons to appear and act. What is important for these psalms, according to Bellinger, is their “honest dialogue of faith” (47). Their lament does not end with a simple crying out, but proceeds to “a cry to, a cry to the One who hears and can transform crisis into hope” (25, emphasis original). Such candor and directness are what shape the lament psalms.

The third chapter discusses the psalms of praise that take up the other pivotal part of the grammar of faith. This type of psalm largely consists of two kinds: declarative and descriptive praises. The hymnic praise results from God’s specific action upon Israel, say, the deliverance from the crisis, or the deeds of God as creator and redeemer. Bellinger stresses the fact that the praise of God in the Psalter is substantive; that is, those hymns of praise always provide a reason for praising YHWH. Further, he goes on to assert that these psalms are honest and unfettered, just as the lament psalms are boldly candid.

In the fourth chapter, Bellinger tackles the shape of the Psalms, which is essential to understand both the Psalter itself and the grammar of faith. He briefly reviews the history of scholarship on this matter with particular attention to David Willgren’s recent proposal (The Formation of the “Book” of Psalms: Reconsidering the Transmission and Canonization of Psalmody in Light of Material Culture and the Poetics of Anthologies [Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2016]): the Psalter is an anthology. The shape of the Hebrew Psalter is especially significant because it suggests “an important interpretive context” (75). As widely known, the Psalms are comprised of five sub-collections: Book 1 through Book 5. Such a shaping did not happen for naught. Bellinger explains that the formative context of the Psalms stems from “the crisis of exile and its aftermath” (86). This crisis relating to theodicy was the driving force for the Psalms to be the current shape.

It has been widely acknowledged in Psalms studies that, on a large scale, the collection transitions from lament (Books 1–3) to praise (Books 4–5)—more precisely from individual lament to community praise. In the last section of the book, Bellinger revisits the form-critical categories of lament and praise, questions this perspective, and raises an essential question: “If the book of Psalms moves from individual lament to community praise, why are the parade examples of imprecatory psalms (Pss 109; 137)—not to speak of other laments—in Book V of the Psalter?” (94). Bellinger’s point is that Book 5 is not without lament. Though the last collection of the Psalms does consist mainly of praise, the praise here is firmly rooted in lament. Thus, according to Bellinger, “the movement is not so much lament to praise as it is lament and praise” (108, emphasis original).

Bellinger, an expert of Psalms studies, thoroughly examines the psalms of both lament and praise that are backbones of the Psalter. Further, his analysis of the Psalms as a grammar of faith in which lament and praise coexist makes it accessible to any reader to mold the life of faith. Most of all, what makes this volume important is that it discusses “the interplay between praise and lament” in both the Psalms and the grammar of faith (105). The entire book of Psalms does not have a single direction from lament to praise, nor does the praise in the latter part appear because every problem, crisis, or false accusation, whatever it is, is fully resolved. As pointed out by Bellinger, Book 5 (Pss 107–150) is a great example of this feature of the Psalms. Though the psalms of praise are dominant in Book 5, it “interweaves and interrelates praise and lament,” and those psalms in the collection praise God “in the face of the chaos of the aftermath of exile, a chaos that is at best tamed but certainly not destroyed” (108). Bellinger implies that such an aspect is the significant characteristic of the grammar of faith and life.

This is an excellent book in the sense that it guides readers to understand the grammar of faith modeled by the Psalms and live the faith of the Psalter in which both lament and praise are enmeshed. It is highly recommended to those who are interested in the book of Psalms and its link with the life of faith.

About the Reviewer(s): 

  Paul EuiHyun Chung is a graduate student in biblical studies at Columbia Theological Seminary.

Date of Review: 
September 21, 2021
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

W. H. Bellinger, Jr. is Chair of the Department of Religion, W. Marshall and Lulie Craig Chairholder in Bible, and Professor of Religion at Baylor University.



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