Learning to Love the Psalms (Book Review)

Book Review: Learning to Love the Psalms, by W. Robert Godfrey. Sanford, FL: Reformation Trust Publishing, 2017. $14.42. 257 pp (hardcover).


One hundred fifty psalms. Have you ever thought that when the time came to organize this book, they were just randomly put in order based on when they were discovered or when they were written or by some kind of lottery drawing? We know better than that, as God is a God of order. Something divinely inspired by the Holy Spirit could not have been produced with that type of chaos. Is there structure and are the patterns clear in the psalms?

Dr. W. Robert Godfrey is president emeritus at Westminster Seminary in Escondido, California, and current chairman of Ligonier Ministries. In his book Learning to Love the Psalms, Dr. Godfrey breaks down the psalms into five distinct books. Each has its own clear theme, relation to its surrounding psalms, earthly manifestations pointing to a future spiritual fulfillment, and ending doxology. According to Dr. Godfrey, the one great theme of the psalms is “God’s goodness and unfailing love for the righteous.”

After several introductory chapters explaining overall themes and styles used in the psalms, Dr. Godfrey goes into detail explaining the five books in the psalms. Within each book section, he first takes a step back with a chapter explaining the structure and purpose of the book. Then he spends an entire chapter on five or six specific psalms within that book. Doing this brings to life how the book’s aspects are illustrated.

Dr. Godfrey does a wonderful job of helping us see who is speaking in the psalms. Seventy-three psalms were written by King David, but that means that 77 have other authors. These men wrote psalms about their own struggles, and psalms of praise. They also wrote psalms on behalf of Israel, God’s Old Testament church. But psalms are such a large part of the New Testament canon, as the New Testament contains 326 quotations from the psalms. The psalms about the king ultimately point us to our king Jesus Christ. As Dr. Godfrey states, “(Jesus) lived in the Psalms.” In Luke 24, “Christ declared that the Psalms were about Him.” Even the book of Hebrews is so influenced by the psalms that when the author brings out the authority and kingship of Christ, he uses passages from the psalms as confirmation.

Another thing Godfrey brings out in this book is how to understand the Hebrew poetry. That is the foundation for psalm structure. He generally uses the English Standard Version translation of the Bible. But when he laments the fact that the psalms are not as treasured and appreciated in the overall church world today, one of the reasons he gives is the diminished use of the King James Version of the Bible. The KJV was able to keep so many of the Hebrew poetic expressions. Modern Bible versions of today have lost these poetic expressions with their efforts to be contemporary in their language and sentence structure.

One poetic form explained in the book that I thoroughly enjoyed learning about was the importance of the center of the psalm. We are used to poems and books whose dramatic force is at the end. However, Hebrew poetry puts that dramatic force in the very middle. Think of a psalm now as a pyramid. Knowing this has totally changed the way I look at a psalm now. Godfrey gives an example of Psalm 23, so well-known to everyone. What is the very middle of that psalm? “Thou art with me.” That is the main point of that whole psalm. I bet you can now look at some of your favorite psalms, find the middle verse and the pyramid pinnacle, and realize there is a reason for why a verse is exactly where it is!

Our pastor likes to remind us to think of a certain thread that makes it way throughout the entire Bible. Think of the seed of Christ, which begins with the promise of Genesis 3, makes its way through the patriarchs and King David, is kept alive in the book of Esther, is shown as preserved in the genealogy of Matthew 1, and goes all the way through Revelation 22, where the seed is promised life in heaven with Christ eternally. The reverse of that is true in that the thread of the entire Bible is woven throughout the psalms. Where is the creation history of Genesis 1 also recorded and celebrated? Psalms 19 and 104!  Israel’s deliverance from Egypt is written about in Psalms 105 and 114. Psalm 137 speaks of the future suffering of Judah in Babylon. Where is the suffering and death and exaltation of our Lord prophesied? Psalms 21–26! Think of many verses in the psalms that express the joy of being in the house of God, which points us to our heavenly sanctuary and being numbered with the great voice of many people in heaven, as mentioned in Revelation 19. Dr. Godfrey does a fantastic job of opening our eyes to all these inter-biblical connections that are found in each psalm.

As you read through this book, it will make you appreciate the King James Version even more. The English Standard Version that Dr. Godfrey uses can seem so casual and modern that you will find yourself reciting the King James Version of the verse in your head as you read. The poetic form and higher reverence that the KJV provides is a real blessing to us, especially in the book of the psalms.

John Calvin referred to the psalms as “an anatomy of all the parts of a soul.” Every part of your soul will be touched as you discover seemingly hidden gems and find different sections of encouragement and confidence in God, even in the midst of sin and suffering. I highly recommend this book, as you will definitely “(re-)learn to love the psalms,” both in reading from the Bible and singing from the Psalter.  You will also have fun finding your very own new pyramids, even though they aren’t so new.


Originally published October 2020, Vol 79 No 10