Treasuring the Psalms by Ian J. Vaillancourt. IVP Academic, 2023. Paperback. 240pp. $28.
I expected to read a well-written and useful introduction to the Psalms when I picked up Treasuring the Psalms by Ian Vaillancourt. I was pleasantly surprised to find that the book exceeded my expectations. Going beyond typical introductory books, it provides deep insight into the canonical shape of the Psalter and its theological meaning. And more than that, Vaillancourt does so while also reaching his target audience of college and seminary students as well as church groups.
A success of Treasuring the Psalms is that Vaillancourt possesses the skill of writing a book that is accessible both to academic and non-academic audiences. The book is structured in three parts: “The Story: Reading the Psalms Canonically”, “The Savior: reading the Psalms Christologically”, and “The Soul: Reading the Psalms Personally Corporately.” Across twelve chapters, along with an introduction and conclusion, it is full of biblical insight. I could give this book to a small group in a church or assign it in a classroom. One way that it appeals to both church and academic groups is by highlighting key words in the Psalms and providing both a transliteration and the Hebrew word itself in parenthesis. If a reader knows Hebrew, it’s great; if not, it’s easy to move on because the book does not assume you need to. As the author explains, “This way, those who work with Hebrew will be able to identify the words with greater clarity, and those who are not will be able to skip over them. A knowledge of Hebrew is not required in order to understand this book” (x).
As someone who not only has his Ph.D in the Psalms but has also himself taught on the Psalms in a classroom setting, I found myself learning new things, or at least sharpening my understanding of matters that I already knew. Vaillancourt has a particular gift of bringing technical details down to a common-sense level. Examples include how he explains the difference between individual psalms and their place in Psalter through a story about Joey Ramone of The Ramones. As Joey, whose real name is Jeffrey Ross Hyman, lay dying in a hospital, he listened to U2’s song “In a Little While.” Originally, the song was about a hangover. But Joey heard it as Gospel—“In a little while / This hurt will hurt no more / I’ll be home, love”). This even changed Bono’s interpretation of his own song! Now Bono, of U2, can only sing this song “through Joey Ramone’s ears” (17).
Applied to the psalms, something similar happens. Moses wrote Psalm 90 nearly 1,000 years before the last psalms were written after the exile, such as Psalm 137. But when we consider these individual psalms together in the collection of the Psalter they each take on “new depth” (19). This may remind us of how worship songs are put together for Sunday mornings; while each song was not crafted with each other in mind, the organizer of the worship service places them together for the sake of a unified worship service (19).
I relay these analogies to show how ably Vaillancourt illustrates how individual psalms and the final form of the Psalter work together. It can be tough to wrap one’s mind around, but Treasuring the Psalms provides an excellent explanation of such matters.
Other examples include the skilled use of exegetical detail, as when Vaillancourt explains that the word “set” in Psalm 2:6 literally means “poured out.” God poured out his Son on Mount Zion, we might then say. And this is because kings were anointed with oil poured onto their heads (53–54). I find such small details often help readers put the pieces together, and Treasuring the Psalms adds such details without feeling condescending or over-complicated.
One last example will suffice to show the point. Psalm 119 is well-known as a Torah psalm. It’s long and all about God’s law. But because Psalm 118 precedes Psalm 119 and because Psalm 118 presents the king as its subject (among other reasons), Vaillancourt thinks that Psalm 119 presents the ideal way that the king should view the Torah. After all, Deuteronomy 17:14–20 says that kings ought to be Torah experts, so it stands to reason that Psalm 119 shows us how the idealized Davidic king of Psalm 118 should view God’s law (29). Read the book to see the full argument. But I find such readings plausible and personally insightful.
With that said, I would like to point to two areas where Vaillancourt could have improved his work. First, during his exegesis of Psalm 110, Vaillancourt rightly pointed to the uniqueness of the psalm in which YHWH addresses David’s Lord. Given the psalm’s central use in trinitarian theology in the early centuries of the Church and its insight into an intra-trinitarian conversation (between the Father and Son), I wish he spent a bit of time pointing to the possible implications. Like Jesus’s baptism or transfiguration, this is one of the few places where we hear two persons of the Godhead communicating to one another. That seems significant. My complaint, however, could be accused of evincing the now tired observation that biblical studies and theology often don’t get along. But that’s not true of Vaillancourt’s work. Generally, Vaillancourt weaves together Scripture and theology skillfully and insightfully. But for that very reason, Vaillancourt could have spent a paragraph or two on the trinitarian implications. Even without this discussion, I have to concede that his interpretation of Psalm 110 is one of the clearest and (possibly) the best explanation of Psalm 110 that I have ever read.
Second, I appreciated Vaillancourt’s use of Calvin on the Psalms, but I wish he went as far as Calvin in his personal application. Calvin notes that the Psalms are an anatomy of all parts of the soul (168). Yet Calvin here virtually repeats line for line the work of Athanasius, who claimed to hear his teaching from an unnamed elder. Calvin and Athanasius (the latter particularly) articulate how the Psalms uniquely teach us to emote Christianity. Vaillancourt does show how the psalms of thanksgiving, lament, and praise work together to help us personally and corporately emote in worship. But I felt like there was a missed opportunity here. For example, Psalms 42 and 43 ask the question, “Why am I downcast, o my soul?” and the answer is that we might through this sadness draw near to God in hope (e.g., Ps 43:5). Here we have a spiritual reason for spiritual depression, one might say. When our souls are downcast, we try to entertain or medicate ourselves out of this “negative” feeling. But Psalms 42 and 43 tell us that this sadness might be for the purpose of finding hope in God. And one day, after going to him and staying with him, we might come to find that “God [is] my exceeding joy” (Ps 43:4). These sorts of observations bring the psalms to life.
That said, my criticisms might be too unfair. No author can do everything. And the genre of Vaillancourt’s book—for a classroom or small group—perhaps makes it difficult to focus on such matters.
If I teach the Psalms again in a classroom or church setting, I will use this textbook. And I will regularly recommend it. While I am often less exuberant in book reviews, Treasuring the Psalms is so good that I indulge here. If churches want to equip people to know and treasure the psalms, give it to small groups. And college and seminary professors should feel free to add it to their syllabi. The footnotes and bibliography will aid higher level students as wells, since Vaillancourt cites high level academic work, a virtue that I rarely see in books made for a more popular audience such as this; and yet a virtue that makes Treasuring the Psalms such a good introduction to “the songs that shape the soul of the church.”
Wyatt Graham serves as the Executive Director of the Gospel Coalition Canada, and as President of the Evangelical Theological Society of Ontario and Quebec. He teaches at various institutions, including Ryle Seminary, Redeemer University, and Heritage College & Seminary. He regularly writes a column called DE TRINITATE and at his website, WYATTGRAHAM.COM. You can follow him on Twitter at @WAGRAHAM.