My Journey with the Psalms

I was born and grew up amid the gentle hills of Renfrewshire, between St Mungo’s green city and the sea. During my first degree—English Literature and Music—the Holy One pulled me from the mire, and I began to read the Bible, especially the Psalms. He blessed me, saying, Call on me and I will show you great and unsearchable things that you do not know. I went on to read Theology. Then I taught in a boys' school in Zimbabwe, where I began to teach myself Hebrew. One day, in the late 80s, when my study door was open to the wind swaying the palm trees in my garden, I sat with the Hebrew Psalms open in front of me. I fell into a deep reverie, wondering where their music had gone and whether it could ever be traced. Determined to investigate this mystery, I returned to Britain to do a Masters in Biblical Interpretation and a PhD in Hebrew Bible (Edinburgh). 
     Out of my doctoral research emerged The Message of the Psalter: An Eschatological Programme in the Book of Psalms (1997). It proposed that the Book of Psalms was not simply an ad hoc collection of Israelite devotional lyrics, but had an underlying narrative about the coming of a bridegroom-messiah, his brief reign, his violent death; the scattering of Israel in the wilderness, their subsequent regathering and further imperilment, and the appearance of a heavenly conqueror who summons the nations to worship in Zion. The book became influential in Psalms studies. Some, of course, said I was reading Christian suppositions into the Psalms. But I maintained (and still do) that such a narrative is found from the Caananite Baal Cycle, through the prophets, into rabbinic literature. The idea of a messianic meta-narrative in the Psalms is now widely accepted, even if some still dispute the details of my hypothesis. 
     When I finished The Message of the Psalter, I was faced with the question: "How do I put this into practice?" Friends studying New Testament found it easier. The NT is about teachers and preachers: they became teachers and preachers. But there are no teachers or preachers in the Psalms. Just righteous kings and directors of music. No-one was advertising for a righteous king. But, on the other hand, I had already been a pastoral musician for years. In fact, just about every church I ever visited said, “You play the organ? Will you lead our music?” And it seemed to me that, to sanctify the world, praising his name was as important as preaching his word. So I continued in my role as Director of Music in a central Edinburgh church, ran a recording studio in the Pleasance, worked with John Bell in a Church of Scotland project for remetricizing the Psalms, and composed a big Christmas Cantata
     In 2000, I married, moved temporarily to Brussels till my wife finished her medical degree at Louvain, and got a teaching job here. I was asked to lead the music at Holy Trinity’s afternoon service in 2001, then, in 2006, to become Holy Trinity’s Director of Music. And I’m still here today. I've introduced to Holy Trinity an annual Baroque Bach Passion and an annual Mozart Mass, lots of new songs and anthems, and other stuff too.
     After The Message of the Psalter, most of my written output for the next eighteen years was journal articles and talks. This was partly due to the demands of a young family and music ministry, but I was also researching big issues. First, there was Messiah ben Joseph, the dying messiah of rabbinic Judaism. The prevailing wisdom was that the figure was post-Christian. But this, as I show in the book, is hard to believe. So my publications between 2004 and 2009 concentrated on Ben Joseph, a subject central to the messianism of the Psalms. From 2007, my growing sense of the Psalms as songs bereft of music took me through ancient synagogue and church psalmody. In 2009, I discovered the work of Suzanne Haïk-Vantoura. Although the academic community ridiculed her work, I realized her insights were vital. So I wrote on this too. Finally, in 2015, I published The Songs of Ascents: Psalms 120 to 134 in the Worship of Jerusalem’s Temples. Then, with another eighteen months of work, I gathered my researches on Ben Joseph into one 142,000-word volume, Messiah ben Joseph (2016), where I propose that this mysterious figure's origins lie in the Pentateuch.
     That's most of my story so far. I've become a biblical scholar who directs choirs and orchestras, writes polyphony, and works with Cubase, and a musical director who studies Bible, rabbinics and masoretics. I find music and biblical study inseparable. I can’t do one and not the other. Maybe it's a left-brain, right-brain thing. But it’s linked to my conviction that music is heavenly speech. (See Chapter 15 of the Songs of Ascents on that subject.) I have become an asserter of what others deny. When they said the Psalms were a random collection of lyrics, I showed they were a messianic programme. When they said Israel’s music was lost, I showed it wasn't. When they said Messiah ben Joseph was rabbinic, I showed he was biblical. When they said the Masoretic cantillation was medieval, I showed it comes from the Jerusalem temple. I’ve revealed the resting-place of the holy ark and remade the case for the pronunciation of the ineffable name. Perhaps I’ve become like Athanasius contra mundum. But all the facets of my work reflect the one paradigm of the Book of Psalms, its righteous kings, and directors of music. And if the Holy One is glorified, then I am fulfilled.
     I have other projects on my to-do list, both musical and literary, for as long as I may live. You can read about some of them elsewhere on this site.