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J. V. Fesko. Songs of a Suffering King: The Grand Christ Hymn of Psalms 1-8. Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage Books. 123+x pages. ISBN 978-1-60178-310-3.
This is an excellent and edifying book. A Christ-centered exposition of the first eight chapters of the book of Psalms, suitable for private devotional reading or small group study, Songs of a Suffering King doubles as a plea for Christians to use psalms more fully and frequently in their worship, by both praying and singing them. Each psalm’s chapter-long exposition concludes with “Questions for Further Study” and a metrical version of the psalm (for singing). Fesko also directs readers to online resources (where mp3s of suitable tunes can be found, for example) to assist those wanting to sing the psalms. The end-of-chapter questions, I admit, do not impress me, being more of the “let’s see if you were paying attention to what you just read” than the “let’s more deeply reflect upon and find ways to apply what you’ve learned” variety. But, then, persons leading group studies should not find it difficult to think up suitable questions of their own best suited to their contexts.
As noted, Songs of a Suffering King’s exposition of Psalms 1-8 is Christ-centered. This is true in the fullest possible sense. Fesko explains, “We often make the mistake of identifying only some of the psalms as messianic, such as 2, 22, and 110. Instead, we must identify all of the psalms as messianic—they all point us to Christ” (18). In support of this, Fesko notes how, on the road to Emmaus, Jesus pointed out to his disciples how things concerning him “were written in…the Psalms” (18, quoting the New King James version). This citation, of course, does not prove that every psalm is about Christ, only that information about Christ may be found “in” the Psalms, a fact perfectly in accord with the common assumption that only certain psalms are Messianic. However, since Scripture does identify King David (in his positive aspects) as a type of Christ (as no Christians I know would doubt and as Fesko makes clear), taking all his psalms as typical of, and only perfectly fulfilled in, Christ does not strain credulity. In fact, upon reflection, it seems more natural and less strained than not doing so. Additionally, if Fesko’s assumption that not only the psalms as individually written but also their editorial arrangement is inspired (4-5), then the excellent fit between Psalms 1-8 in sequence and Christ’s life, a fit on display throughout Songs of a Suffering King, makes his belief that every psalm speaks of Christ all the more plausible. Fesko, one should note, does not suggest that some anonymous editor after David arranged and modified the book of Psalms. Rather, he seems, in agreement with “ancient rabbinic tradition,” to believe David responsible, not just for writing most of the psalms, but for “the deliberate editorial arrangement of the Psalter” in its entirety, much as Moses was responsible for the final form of the Pentateuch (Ibid.). That David should have edited and arranged all the Psalms adds credence to the idea that even those psalms not originally written by David speak of Christ, since David’s (inspired) Messianic intent then lies aback the entire collection.
Acceptance of this Christ-centered approach has certain benefits. For instance, psalms often judged harsh and vengeful, such as Psalm 3, become much less troubling seen in this light (45-6, 71-2). While we (like David) are ourselves sinful and so not qualified to call down God’s judgment upon others, and are ourselves (also like David) mere creatures who cannot know with certainty whether any individual now in rebellion against God might someday repent and believe the gospel, Christ suffers neither of these shortcomings: being sinless, he is qualified to judge sinners; being divine, he knows who will and will not repent. What from ordinary human lips would be sinfully harsh and vengeful is from Christ’s lips an expression of God’s “absolute righteous wrath” (46). And, as Fesko emphasizes, “we must worship our triune Lord for all of His attributes—His mercy, love, benevolence, and kindness, and also His wrath, vengeance, justice, and judgment” (46). Therefore, “we can and most definitely should pray against the unbelieving world in general and against those whose lives reveal a blatant blasphemy and opposition against God and His kingdom,” as well as “pray that God would judge the unrepentant, those known only to Him” (46). (Arguably, even praying for condemnation of “those whose lives reveal blatant blasphemy and opposition against God and His kingdom” is more than we sinful and fallible creatures can justify. Even these, we seem obligated to grant, are not, so long as they live, beyond the reach of God’s sovereign grace. When the classic film Cromwell (1970, directed by Ken Hughes) suggests that its title character, played by Richard Harris, called upon God to damn the king, it suggests Cromwell acted inappropriately.)
As well, when expressions of anger in the Psalms are seen as Christ’s divine and perfectly holy anger, not the anger of sinful and finite humans like David and ourselves (which surely would not merit inclusion in the Bible), we are better able to draw rightly the distinction between righteous and unrighteous anger. “When we move the fulcrum of our anger from Christ to ourselves,” as we might easily do if we forsook the Christ-centered reading and so found in some psalms justification for being vengefully angry toward others, such as false accusers (94, discussing Psalm 7), “we cross the line of righteous anger to sinful self-righteous anger” (57), Fesko writes. “It is one thing,” he adds, “to be angered over the world’s blasphemy against God. It is entirely another thing, however, to be filled with anger and indignation because we have been offended” (56). So vanishes any justification for personal vengeance, or the self-centered anger underlying it, by Christians (in case verses like Romans 12:19 weren’t clear enough). So also vanishes any alleged tension or conflict between New Testament teaching and the harsher psalms.
Songs of a Suffering King also includes some interesting disagreements with manners of expression prevalent among today’s Christians. Whereas today’s Christians often assert the need to “love the sinner but hate the sin,” apparently assuming that this is what God does, Fesko emphasizes how Scripture attributes sinful actions to sinful hearts (69), so that “the sin and the sinner are irrefragably [undeniably, indisputably] joined” and God, in “manifestation of His perfect justice and holiness,” “not only hates the sin but…also hates the sinner!” (70). Thus, “God’s holy hatred, his just wrath and condemnation, hangs over the sinner’s head” (Ibid.), unless and until the sinner repents.
Another locution common among today’s Christians is that which defines grace as “God’s unmerited favor.” Fesko finds this inadequate. “God’s grace is…His demerited favor,” he writes. In the case of David, “In other words, David did not merit God’s favor, but neither is His favor [solely] unmerited—that is, undeserved. Rather, it is demerited, in that David has received God’s favor in spite of his demerits, his sins” (81). (Since anything demerited must also be unmerited, demerited things being a subset of the larger set of things unmerited, I’ve added “solely” in brackets. I don’t believe Fesko would find this clarification objectionable.) Prior to reading Fesko’s remarks, it had never occurred to me that there could be anything inadequate in describing God grace as his “unmerited favor.” Now, however, I can see that it really does fall short. There is a difference between saying God saves persons who have done nothing to deserve to be saved (their salvation is “unmerited”) and saying God saves persons who have done everything to deserve not to be saved (their salvation is “demerited”). Both statement are correct, but the second makes more clear just how amazing God’s “amazing grace” really is.
Songs of a Suffering King is not wholly without weaknesses, at least not without points of possible concern or discomfort. Though I encountered no difficulties serious enough to make me deduct a star from my book rating, I do think some merit mention. One of these is Fesko’s reference to Eden as a “garden-temple” (21) or “temple-garden” (111). I see this as a difficulty only because Fesko nowhere in the book explains why he considers Eden a “temple,” nowhere relates his biblical basis for this identification. Additionally, he nowhere says why Eden’s being a “temple” is relevant or important to his discussion of Psalms 1-8. Since God did manifest himself personally in Eden, and since one can understand a sacrifice to have been offered there (Genesis 3:21), I don’t reject the possibility that calling Eden a “temple” is appropriate. If it is to be called so, however, one would like to know in detail why, and why it matters in our reading of Psalms 1-8.
Another area of difficulty also concerns the Genesis account. After showing how the New Testament applies Psalm 8 to Christ’s reign (citing Hebrews 2, Ephesians 1, and 1 Corinthians 15), Fesko adds the following: “If Psalm 8 is a prophecy of Christ, then we must realize that the opening chapter of the Bible serves the same purpose” (116). He adds: “Genesis 1 and Psalm 8, therefore, are not primarily about man…but rather prophetic promises of Jesus’ reign, one that has been inaugurated in His resurrection and ascension…” (Ibid.). Since humans only enter the picture at verse 26 of Genesis 1, I assume Fesko mainly has just verses 26 and following in view. Seeing the historical events described in Genesis 1:26 and following as have typological significance isn’t necessarily problematic. The “If..then” Fesko asserts is not obviously true, however. Does David’s use of the story of humanity’s creation to typify Christ imply that Moses must have had similar typology in mind when he wrote Genesis? No doubt David could have intended, and his recipients could have understood, the Messianic meaning. Does the same apply to Moses and his original recipients? Whether or not Fesko has made the case for this elsewhere (this is not his only book, though it is the only one I’ve read), he does not make the case in Songs of a Suffering King.
Additionally, given how unwilling many Christians are to take what the early chapters of Genesis say at face value (that is, as meant in the same straightforwardly historical fashion most take the later chapters to be meant), claims about how one should interpret Genesis 1 should always include explanation of what one does and does not mean to imply. For instance, when he suggests that Genesis 1 is “primarily” prophetic of Jesus’ reign, does Fesko mean only to add the prophetic or typological understanding on top of the historical understanding, or might he consider dismissing the ostensible historical meaning? His exposition of Psalms 1-8, where he always grants the link between each psalm’s content and David’s life situation when writing it, suggests that he only means to point out the prophetic or typological significance of the historical events, not to cast doubt on the literal truthfulness of the (ostensible) history. Given how eager many are to dismiss the literal content of Genesis 1 (and other early chapters of Genesis), however, I’d be more comfortable if Fesko had made his stance clear and explicit. (While he may do so elsewhere, he has not done so in this book.)
Fesko also fails to support an assertion he makes about the consequences of Adam’s sin. Whereas in Genesis God promises only death (normally understood by Christians to mean both mortality, and so eventual and inevitable physical death, and spiritual death, separation from God) as the consequence of disobedience (Genesis 2:17), Fesko asserts that through his sin Adam “forfeited his dominion over the creation” (111). Maybe he did, but Fesko present no argument demonstrating such. So far as I can determine from Genesis or from Songs of a Suffering King, humanity’s God-granted dominion over the creation, with all its privileges and responsibilities, remains intact in spite of the Fall.
A final point of possible concern to some, such as to those dedicated to an especially literal interpretation of “end times” prophecy, might be the suggestions here and there in Songs of a Suffering King of Fesko’s own eschatology. Concerning Revelation 19:15, for instance, where Christ is portrayed judging the nations with a sword issuing from his mouth, Fesko writes: “If we realize that Christ’s Word, the gospel, is a double-edged sword, then it is through the proclamation of the gospel that Christ brings the nations under judgment, even at this moment” (30). Those who understand this passage as referring to a future judgment, not to something currently in progress, do not miss the association between this sword and Christ’s Word. Rather, they see the image of Revelation 19:15 as emphasizing that Christ’s judgment of the wicked “in the last day” will be based upon his Word (John 12:47). Those who understand Revelation 19:15 in this way may find Fesko’s “even at this moment” mildly uncomfortable.
More uncomfortable for some might be Fesko’s present-tense reference to the new heaven and new earth (see Revelation 21). In saving us, Fesko relates, Jesus “permanently and irreversible brings us into the new creation, the new heaven and earth, where He…rules” (114). Rather than a literally remade creation still in the future, the new heaven and new earth, in Fesko’s eschatology, are (it seems) just a picture of the spiritually new order of things that is Christ’s kingdom, the domain of his rulership over his elect. While not uncommon either today or historically, this view is sure to prove objectionable to partisans of the contrary (“literal”) understanding.
In my judgment, none of these difficulties or areas of discomfort reduces the book’s ability to edify Bible-believing readers. Even readers averse to Fesko’s eschatology (it’s not an eschatology I’m prepared to endorse) should find that the wealth of positive materials makes his rare eschatological remarks worth enduring. If you’re shopping for some devotional reading or something to study in your small group, you could do worse than Fesko’s Songs of a Suffering King.