The Songs of Jesus (Book Review)

songs-of-jesusMartin Luther famously quipped the Psalms are a “little Bible.”  Israel’s inspired hymnal has served for nearly 3000 years as the devotional songbook of God’s people.  The Psalter is certainly the most precious and read portion of all the Bible.  But not many devotional literature on the Psalms has risen to the level of “classic”.  One exception: Charles Spurgeon’s Daily Treasures in the Psalms is beloved by many.  Now there may be a new classic in the making.  Pastor and author Tim Keller, along with his wife and partner in ministry Kathy, have given the world The Songs of Jesus: A Year of Daily Devotions in the Psalms (SOJ).  I received this little book as a Christmas gift from my wife in 2015.  When January arrived I found myself skimming SOJ just to see what it is like.  My first impression is it’s unlike anything else Keller has published in book format.  He’s mostly known for his trenchant cultural and psychological insights as a sophisticated Christian apologist.  That being said, the author on several occasions in his public speaking has surprised the audience that he is really a pietist at heart.  If that is the case, then SOJ is a window into the heart of one of the most influence Christian leaders in the early twenty-first century.  The appeal of this little devotional is sneaky.  At first it appeared to me simplistic—not meaty or deep enough.  Most of the one-page devotionals fall short of filling the page.  Surely more could be said!  But, day by day, as I gave it a chance, it really began to grow on me.  The format of (1) Psalm verses, (2) devotional commentary, and (3) prayer functions just as it’s intended.  To engage the mind, yes, but primarily the heart.  And so as the days and weeks passed by, SOJ became my gateway to the Psalms and my regular spark of prayer to God in Christ.

Keller’s devotional has many strengths.  Here are just a few.

First, it includes the entire text of the Psalter.  All 150 psalms in the NIV are printed at the top of the page.  Thus SOJ is not just a Christian year-long devotional, it is truly a Psalter.  This fact alone lends it staying power.  The reader will not need a copy of the Bible to read, meditate, and pray the Psalms.

Second, the devotions and prayers are not the labor of some 3 month study leave.  Keller, along with his “research and editorial book team,” is usually able to churn out an excellent book with only a few months of writing.  Sure, he is certainly pulling from his prior source material and years of study as a pastor-theologian, but still he is prolific.  However, SOJ was cooked on the slow-burner.  Its reflections are the fruit of years of daily reading, meditation, study, and prayer through the Psalms.  And it shows in the deep and quiet meditations that seem to observe the frenetic pace of modernity with the wisdom of a sage.  The bibliography is impressive, showing a mix of older and contemporary sources.  The books used the most are commentaries by Kidner (volume 1 & volume 2), Longman, and Motyer (the latter in the New Bible Commentary 21st century edition).  Also cited often are John Newton’s Olney Hymns, The Collects of Thomas Cranmer, and George Herbert’s poetry.

Third, despite a few critical reviews charging Keller with moralism, this devotional is thoroughly Christ-centered.  While not every devotion mentions “Jesus” or “Christ” by name, an honest reading of the devotions as a whole bear the distinct mark of Christian theology.  This is not a Jewish book with references to Christ tacked on in obvious places.  For example, one Amazon reviewer criticized Keller’s treatment of Psalm 35 for the March 9 and 10 devotions as not being Christ-centered because they do not mention Christ at all.  But March 9 and 10 are parts 2 and 3 of the devotional material on Psalm 35.  The first devotion for Psalm 35 (vv. 1-10) on March 8 makes the direct connection between David and Christ explicit, and applies the text in a specifically Christian matter in all three parts of Psalm 35.  One could say that Psalm 35 is first placed in a Christo-centric framework, and then applied for the Christian through subsequent comments.  The title of the book is “The Songs of Jesus” for a good reason.  Keller, like most Reformed biblical theologians, reads the psalms not only as songs about Jesus but also as songs on the lips of Jesus.  From the back cover:

The Book of Psalms is known as the Bible’s songbook–Jesus knew all 150 psalms intimately, and relied on them to face every situation including his death.  Two decades ago, Tim Keller began reading the entire Book of Psalms every month.  The Songs of Jesus is based on his accumulated years of study, insight, and inspiration recorded in his prayer journals.  Kathy Keller came to reading the psalms as a support during an extended illness.  Together they have distilled the meaning of each verse, inviting readers into the vast wisdom of the psalms.  If you have no devotional life  yet, this book is a wonderful way to start.  If you already spend time in study and prayer, understanding every verse of the psalms will bring you to a new level of intimacy with God, unlocking your purpose within God’s kingdom.

Fourth, SOJ is self-consciously an “on-ramp” to prayer and meditation on the psalms themselves.  Keller doesn’t want you to reflect so much on his words or insights.  If he did want that he would have included much more of the content he first planned to add.  While some may conclude that the devotions are too short, I conclude they are brief by design.  To what end? As training wheels that come off when the reader begins to think and pray himself.  That is perhaps the greatest strength of this Psalms devotional.  It trusts the reader to use it as an aid rather than a replacement for personal worship.

If there are any weaknesses in SOJ, they are just quibbles.  Why are the pages gilded only on the top edge?  Why not include all books previously published by Keller in the long list entitled “Also By the Author.”  The list includes many other books by different publishers other than Viking Penguin Random House (publisher of SOJ).  Why isn’t Ministries of Mercy in the list?  Why not include a devotion for February 29?  Perhaps the non-canonical Psalm 151—just kidding!

At first I wondered why there are not many online reviews of SOJ.  Perhaps because this book is not vintage Keller many of his devoted readers shy away from it.  Perhaps because it was released in late 2015 as a one-year devotional that is just now being finished by its readers in 2016—the first whole year it could be used.  Perhaps because reading the Psalms as daily devotionals sounds so pedestrian to modern evangelicals who are so into the latest and greatest book.  Perhaps because Reformed people mostly don’t read daily devotionals unless they are in Tabletalk magazine or they are trying to have “couple time” with their spouse.  Perhaps because many readers got bogged down in the early psalms and didn’t allow enough time for the sweetest of these short yet deep devotions to digest.  I don’t really know.  But I do hope that this review will encourage many to get 2 copies of SOJ, one to read and another to share.

After a year of devotions, it seems to me that The Songs of Jesus deserves a wide readership.  Who knows?  Maybe, just maybe, it will become a classic!

Resources

Preview the contents of The Songs of Jesus

Praying the Psalms, by Redeemer Presbyterian Church

Six Reasons You Need the Songs of Jesus, by Tim Keller

How the Psalms are Actually Songs of Jesus

Religion News: interview with the author about the book

Tim Keller’s sermons on the Psalms

Reviews

Amazon

Anchored in Christ

Chesterbrook Taiwanese Presbyterian Church

Goodreads

Longing 4 Truth

Travis Agnew

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