Review: Timothy Keller with Kathy Keller, My Rock; My Refuge: A Year of Daily Devotionals in the Psalms (2015)

I know I was not alone in using this devotional on the Psalms over 2016 and since we are currently only a week into 2017, I thought I would offer a review, mainly by way of a recommendation of a resource which has aided me in my understanding and appreciation of the Psalms.

To give a bit of background on the authors, Tim Keller is a renowned Christian speaker and pastor, who was influential in founding Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York, and Kathy is his wife. Tim has also written a number of other influential Christian books in the last decade, notably The Reason for God: Belief in an Age of Scepticism (2008). I have had the opportunity to hear him speak when he came over for the Oxford Intercollegiate Christian Union (OICCU) main events’ week in 2012, where he delivered some compelling talks on parts of John’s gospel.

The structure of this devotional on the Psalms is relatively simple. The 150 psalms are divided into 365 sections with each day having the text in the NIV translation (something for which the Kellers’ agent fought hard!), followed by a short devotion on a pertinent theme in the passage, and a sort of springboard prayer. There is a handy introduction section which gives some background to the Psalms, which concludes with the thought that the Psalms were Jesus’ song-book (hence the title in America of The Songs of Jesus), as well as some guidance as to how to use the devotional.

The Kellers provide a lot of helpful, genuine devotion that frequently penetrates to the heart of the Psalms, and occasionally offers subtle insights into better-known passages. While credit cannot really be given to the Kellers for this, I can think back to a few occasions throughout the year where a given psalm was particularly timely. For instance, I happened to read Psalm 27 on a day I had set aside to spend time on a retreat and felt the call to “dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life” (Psalm 27:4); and the reading for 24th June took us to Psalm 75 where we were reminded, following the vote that the UK would leave the EU, that ‘it is I [God] who hold its pillars firm’ (Psalm 75:3) and that ‘He [God] is in control of everything in history.’ I am sure many people would have similar stories about how influential verses came up and helpful insight was offered while going through this devotional. I often read the devotional with the feeling that the Spirit had guided its composition.

There are, however, some aspects in which this devotional might not gain approval from everyone. I shall look at three areas and judge how justified such a reaction would be.

Firstly, some might feel that the actual devotion each day is too short and, in some cases, slightly narrow. The Psalms are admittedly notoriously difficult to contextualise and while there are occasional notes regarding how certain psalms fit together and the background to some of them, I occasionally felt I would have appreciated more on how the Psalms would have been received at the time by original worshippers. There are, however, as is characteristic of Tim Keller’s work in general, excellent links and references – especially Christocentric ones! – to other parts of the Bible that flesh out aspects of particular psalms, which more than compensate for this. Moreover, the Kellers certainly makes allowances for other themes being possible in a given passage each day. I remember watching a clip from a lecture from David Pawson who lamented that some people spent more time reading the devotion than the day’s biblical passage. In a similar vein, I am sure Tim and Kathy Keller would be very happy for one’s own devotional reading to lead someone in a slightly different track from the suggested theme each day!

Secondly, some might feel that parts of the devotional are a bit outdated or could be more current. This might be felt with relation to the lyrics of hymns that frequently appear in the prayer at the end of each section. Certain millennials may not recognise the songs or poems which the Kellers quote, which could be perturbing. While the devotions are short (roughly 150 words) and it is difficult to develop much given such space, I occasionally wondered if Keller could have used his broad cultural knowledge more liberally, as he does in many of his other works, to unpack and explain denser aspects of the Psalms. While there are many helpful notes from the late commentator Derek Kidner, could we have heard more current thoughts from Keller himself?

Thirdly, some, perhaps who come from more liberal or less Reformed backgrounds, might find this devotional to be a little too Reformed for their liking. This isn’t my analysis or overriding feeling; but I can imagine that it is something with which some might struggle. There is a lot on sin and penal substitution. Of course, this is the very essence of the gospel; but some may feel that the Kellers go on about it to too great a length. More positively, there are many helpful reminders of how great God’s grace is –  something which is certainly important to hear every day! I can also recall one excellent perspective provided on Biblical meditation versus other forms of meditation. Writing on Psalm 103, there is a comment in the devotion that “Biblical meditation, unlike the popular varieties, is not a relaxation technique for emptying the mind but rather one that fills it with truth, using thought and memory to set your heart on fire.” These are wise words that illustrate that Christianity and mindfulness can belong closer together than some might think.

Overall, the Kellers’ devotional on the Psalms is definitely a resource that I would recommend. It has  helped me see how valuable the Psalms are in Scripture – there is much truth in the Kellers’ comment that “[e]very situation in life is represented in the book of psalms.” When broken down, reading the Psalms in a year is not too daunting a pursuit, and these devotionals can certainly help along the way. Writing a devotional on the Psalms is no straightforward task and even if I might question some of the ways in which the 150 psalms have been divided and have valued a little more by way of background and more illustrative explication, the Kellers are to be commended for seeing the project through and producing some great insights along the way. All in all, My God; My Refuge… is a very good starting point for anyone wishing to go deeper with God through reading the Psalms.

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