Psalms For You by Christopher Ash – A Review
The Book in a Nutshell
Psalms for You is a valuable addition to the Good Book Company’s ‘For You’ series, which offer a kind of devotional commentary format that aims to warm hearts and equip those preaching; as they state, ‘to read; to feed; to lead’.
Christopher Ash models teaching the Psalms by taking sixteen pairs of psalms, chosen because they offer representative ‘types of psalm’, which he then unpacks and applies.
I think it’s fair to say that often our approach to the Psalms is to have our ‘go to’s, that we often come back to. Nothing wrong with favourites of course, but when it comes to teaching and preaching through the Psalms, this approach surely misses their collective richness, as well as any sense of intentionality or structure to how the psalter is comprised.
Who wrote the book?
Christopher Ash is Writer-in-Residence at Tyndall House, Cambridge, and has served as a pastor and as Director of the Proclamation Trust’s Cornhill Training Course. He has written numerous books, one of my favourites being Zeal Without Burnout (see my review here).
Christopher Ash’s work on the Psalms has been a blessing to the church over the last few years – and a significant influence, certainly amongst British classical evangelicalism. As we’ll see, he particularly advocates for approaching the psalms once we’ve understood how they point to Jesus. Ash’s two volumes, ‘Teaching Psalms’ in Proclamation Trust’s Teaching… series, have been very popular. Volume 1 laid out some of his own earlier thinking on reading the Psalms as Christian Scripture, whilst Volume 2 gives a brief introduction to every psalm in the Psalter. I believe Christopher is now writing a fuller commentary on the Psalter.
Why should I read the book?
Anecdotally, I sense interest in the psalms has increased over lockdown, but generally in modern evangelicalism they seem often neglected, perhaps often left to just be used in summer sermon series (guilty as charged!). If we’d compare ourselves with previous generations, we’d see the psalms having a much more central role both in the life of our churches and in daily discipleship.
Ash wants to show us the value of the psalms – particularly in how they teach us to pray (‘The Psalms give us a window into how Jesus learned to pray…’) and how to feel (‘they reorder our disordered affections…[and] form within us a richer palette of rightly-directed emotions’).
The book also unpacks Ash’s emphasis on the importance of seeing that Jesus would have prayed and sung the psalms. We rightly make much of Jesus Christ fulfilling the Old Testament, but Ash underlines that these psalms find their fulfilment ‘on the lips of Jesus’. He first prayed and praised his Father through these psalms – and that makes all the difference to how we then appropriate them. As such, Christ is the ‘conductor and song-leader of the people of God’: we join Christ’s choir to sing the psalms ‘as the songs of Jesus, led by Jesus, shaped by Jesus, guided and taught by Jesus’.
Therefore Ash invites us to ask three simple questions for each psalm: 1) Who is speaking? 2) What did the psalm mean in old covenant times? 3) What did it mean for Jesus and what does it now mean for us in Christ? Admittedly, that last question is probably the most complex. There has been some discussion as to whether this approach – singing the psalms ‘through the lips of Jesus’ – is quite how the New Testament authors use the Psalms, particularly when many of the psalms aren’t written by a king. I think some of this hangs on whether you believe there is an inherent tension in the psalms that drives us to Jesus. Do the psalms presume a perfect singer (not in the sense of belting out a faultless tune, but in terms of moral righteousness!), or do the psalms seek to capture something else when they speak of being ‘blameless’ or ‘righteous’?
How much is the book & how big is it?
Unsurprisingly, this is one of the biggest books in the ‘For You’ series, coming in at 288 pages. That said, don’t let that put you off. The formatting and presentation makes it very readable and my guess would be that most people use this as a book they dip in and out of, rather than read straight through. At the time of writing you can pick it up from the publisher for just over £10. There is an accompanying Good Book Guide available for small group Bible studies.
Who will benefit from this book?
This is an encouraging source of devotional material, offering the reader a spiritual guide to walk through thirty-two psalms, but it will also be a great aid and stimulant to those preaching through the psalms. I’ve certainly found it such as we’ve preached through various psalms over this summer (!). Ash is careful in his exegesis, but also passionate in his Christ-centred approach – and each one is well applied.
Ultimately, Ash has invested deeply in the Psalms over the last few years. His previous publications on the psalms have meant his approach has been sharpened by the engagement of others, as he notes in the Acknowledgements in this volume. And of course, this interaction and journey makes this resource all the more of a worthy investment for us.
You can pick up Psalms For You from the publisher here.
Disclaimer: I received a free review copy of this book from the publisher, but I hope this is still a fair and honest review.