A Book Review from Books At a Glance
by Fred G. Zaspel
In the midst of Psalms studies myself, I was eager to see this new commentary, the first of three Psalms volumes in Kregel’s Kerux Commentaries series. This commentary groups and treats the Psalms according to genre or psalm-type.
- Volume 1: Wisdom Psalms
- Volume 2: Lament Psalms (no scheduled release date yet)
- Volume 3: Praise Psalms (no scheduled release date yet)
This arrangement makes sense, and it helpfully cements these broad categories in the mind of the reader, although it may present some frustration to the preacher who in his preaching schedule is treating the Psalms consecutively.
The first section of the book provides a lengthy introduction to the Psalter and to the Wisdom Psalms. The introduction to the psalter treats the usual matters of authorship, provenance, readership, date, historical setting, and it provides a brief description of the leading psalm types. This section shows an acquaintance with Psalms scholarship and is of value to the diligent student, although I will lodge some objections below. The introduction to the Wisdom Psalms defines and describes Old Testament “wisdom” and the use of this genre in the Psalter, providing a broad conceptual context for the psalms treated in this commentary.
The bulk of the book is given to an exposition of the wisdom psalms, which the authors treat under two rather traditional heads: wisdom about God’s ways (Pss. 1, 15, 37, 49, 73, 78, 127, 128, 133, 145) and wisdom about God’s Word (Pss. 19, 91, 111, 112, 119, the so-called Torah psalms). These distinctions are helpful even though, as the authors acknowledge, precise classifications of the Psalms are often uncertain and not mutually exclusive.
The approach to each psalm is not straightforward like traditional commentaries, but it is becoming more common to treat matters of exposition and application separately. Treatment of each psalm begins with matters of literary structure, exposition, and biblical and theological observations. The bulk of space here is given to exegesis. Then the commentary moves to “preaching and teaching strategies.” I’m generally not a big fan of commentaries that separate these matters so, but in this case I did not find it distracting at all. The exegetical guidance is careful and provides a closer understanding of the text, and the “preaching” sections build on the foregoing expositions with ease of transition and with suggestive “strategies” and contemporary insight and application. All this is a boon to the preacher.
I have benefitted from the reading and am glad to have this book as a resource. Preachers will find it useful, and preachers are, after all, the intended audience of the Kerux commentary series. But before recommending it I would want to register criticism regarding a few foundational issues in the introductory section. I focus on these introductory matters because these issues directly affect our interpretation of the Psalms.
First, this comment on the use of the Psalter in the New Testament caught my attention:
When the NT apostles used Scripture for evangelistic or edificatory purposes, they sometimes appealed to what the author or speaker being quoted was saying to his audience, but often the words cited are taken out of context and the application made for those in the first-century A.D. is not exegetical but applicational. How these words were relevant for these readers’ needs was more important than the original, contextual sense of those words.
The authors’ point here, as they go on to explain, is that the apostles used the Psalter to convince their Jewish hearers about Jesus. But to allege that in so doing they took the Psalms “out of context” and that their argument, then, was “not exegetical” would seem to cut the ground from beneath their christological argument altogether. Would the Jewish hearers find an argument convincing that was grounded in a misuse of the biblical text? More importantly, is the New Testament christological understanding of the Psalter grounded in an apostolic misuse of it, something less than contextual exegesis?
Perhaps the authors could have explained themselves better, but in my view, this is a very mistaken way to represent the apostles’ use of the Old Testament. Better, it would seem, to explore just how the apostles “saw Jesus” in the Psalter and then shape our own hermeneutic accordingly. I would argue further that this mistaken approach at times will inevitably cause us to miss intended messianic orientation (e.g., Psalm 91). This is a discussion for another time, but must we, for example, lift Psalm 34:20 or Psalm 40:7–8 “out of context” to see Christ there? Even in Psalm 1, for that matter, is there no responsible, contextual, exegetical way to find Jesus? Must we take the psalm “out of context” in order to find Jesus?
The second issue that I find objectionable is the authors’ explicit rejection of the genuineness of the Psalms’ superscripts. Although the authors assure us that we should treat the superscripts with respect, they judge them to be later additions and therefore not part of the inspired text. This is much in keeping with contemporary scholarship, ever since the influence of Wellhausen, but it goes against all historical and manuscript evidence. It is conjecture without any textual support. No Hebrew manuscript of the Psalms we possess and no ancient version lacks these superscripts. More importantly, a discounting of the genuineness of the superscripts goes against their use by Jesus and the New Testament writers whose arguments rested on their authority (on this see Waltke and Houston, Psalms as Christian Worship, 85-91).
The authors offer but one argument to support their contention that the superscripts are not genuine, and I find it puzzling:
For whatever purposes, the OT psalms were anonymous. Yet, a number of the psalms have a heading, known as a superscription, that at times may indicate authorship. Unfortunately, the information in the superscriptions, handed down with integrity and reliability in the Masoretic text (MT), were not part of the original or earliest manuscripts. They were added by later editors, who were not the authors and, therefore, not working under divine inspiration as usually accorded to the biblical books per se. When compared with the superscriptions in the ancient Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible Psalter (LXX or Septuagint), they differ. For instance, twenty-two psalms in the Septuagint lack a superscription (1, 2, 104, 105, 106, 110, 111, 112, 113, 114, 115, 116, 117, 118, 135, 136, 145–50).
So the argument is that the superscripts are absent in the Septuagint of these 22 psalms. Perhaps I am missing something here, but I cannot see how their argument works. Two objections immediately come to mind. First, twenty-one of these psalms lack the superscript in the Masoretic text also, so their absence in the Septuagint is of no consequence. Second, the superscript of Psalm 110 is in fact present in both the Septuagint and the Hebrew text; it seems a mistake to include this psalm in their list. Still, the authors’ argument here is unclear at best and offers nothing of substance in support of their position.
They may have had in mind the additional superscripts that appear in the Septuagint Psalter, but this very different question would not help their case either. Additional superscripts in the Septuagint reflect nothing about the originality and genuineness of the superscripts in the Masoretic text. And in fact, there are strong reasons to accept the additional “of David” superscripts of the Septuagint as genuine also, at least in Book IV of the Psalter (see Waltke and Houston, Psalms as Christian Praise, 13-16). Or perhaps the authors are arguing that mere differences in superscripts between the Hebrew text and the Septuagint raise doubt as to the genuineness of both. It is not clear. In any case, the argument is extraordinarily weak, especially for such a vital point and in opposition to all manuscript evidence.
It may be helpful to note that psalms and hymns in the Old Testament outside the Psalter have superscripts (cf. Hab. 3:1-19; Is. 38:9; note also Ps.18:1 quoted in 2Sam.22:1). And in fact, religious Ugaritic texts from Ras Shamra, from a timeframe both prior to and parallel to David, regularly contain superscripts also. This would appear to have been the norm. So if all the Hebrew manuscript evidence favors the genuineness of the superscripts, and if other psalms and hymns of biblical tradition and those of Israel’s contemporaries all include superscripts, what is the ground for doubting their genuineness in the Psalter? And most importantly, as I have already mentioned, Jesus and the apostles understood the superscripts as genuine and in fact grounded their theological argument on it (e.g., Matt. 22:41-45).
This lack of confidence in the superscripts goes against all evidence—manuscript, historical, and biblical—and seems to rest only on doubts rising from the critical school. Nor is this a matter of mere academic interest—these issues regularly have direct bearing on interpretation. A lack of confidence in the authorship and historical settings designated in many of those superscripts will leave the interpreter completely at sea: precise interpretation will be impossible and corresponding application speculative. If the writer of the psalm is David, that is one thing, but if he is Mr. Everyman, that is quite another. Is Psalm 4 about handling personal conflicts, or does it reflect a rebellion against the king and perhaps a pending coup? The answer to this question determines the interpretation of the Psalm. And if the subject of a given Psalm is indeed David (or the Davidic king) we will again encounter issues of christological interpretation. And where the superscript links the psalm to a particular event in the life of David, we are obliged to familiarize ourselves with that chapter of his life in order to interpret that psalm responsibly (e.g., Psalm 3).
A related problem here is that the authors of this commentary sometimes assume a late date of the psalms. Again, this has become fashionable since the rise of the critical school, but it will lead us to miss indications of a royal orientation of a given psalm and, again, to misapplication.
The final criticism I would raise is related to the others. The paragraph cited above concerning the superscripts assumes that in their work the Psalter’s editors were “not working under divine inspiration.” But the editors who performed their service during or shortly after the exile produced a final text of the Psalter that the faithful community in Judaism and Christianity have consistently regarded as inspired Scripture (see Bruce Waltke on Textual Criticism in NIDOTTE, 1:51-67). The authors do not explain why they have broken with this traditional understanding of the inspiration of the Psalter.
Most of my space in this review has focused on the introductory section of the book because of the importance of the issues raised there. These matters touch larger issues such as the role of the Psalter in the biblical canon and even the use of the Psalms by Christ and his apostles. But these questions also have direct bearing on our understanding of the Psalter itself, and the position the authors have taken can lead the interpreter astray from the get-go. Thankfully, however, these problems do not affect the interpretation of every psalm, wisdom psalms perhaps less frequently than others, and the authors of this commentary still wish to “respect” the superscripts. And so with these important caveats held in mind, I still find the commentary a useful addition to my Psalms library.
Fred G. Zaspel
Buy the books
PSALMS, VOLUME 1: THE WISDOM PSALMS: A COMMENTARY FOR BIBLICAL PREACHING AND TEACHING, by W. Creighton Marlowe and Charles Savelle, Jr.