Reviewed by Stacey Swanson
With each new generation of scholars, there is a need to update biblical commentaries and other resources to reflect these developments so as to remain relevant. In many cases, interpretative issues surrounding Scripture are reflective of larger trends in both the academy and in society. Developments in linguistics and archaeology help to inform the direction of ancient Near Eastern and Old Testament studies. It is for this reason that the Tyndale Old Testament Commentary (TOTC) series has published an updated edition of their Psalms volume. The series as a whole aims to “engage with as full a range of interpretative issues as possible without being lost in the minutiae of scholarly debate” (7), making this volume useful to scholars and laymen alike. Tremper Longman’s 2014 volume on the book of Psalms is an update to Kidner’s commentary, which was published in 1973 in the TOTC series. Kidner’s work was split into two volumes — 15 and 16 — in the series; while Longman’s commentary is printed in one volume, it is also identified as Volumes 15-16, apparently to maintain continuity within the series.
In the Introduction to this commentary, Longman briefly acquaints the reader with valuable information regarding the textual characteristics of the Psalms. This includes a history of textual transmission; the composition, collection, organization, and use of the book in antiquity; an overview of the eight types of lyrical poetry found through the Psalms; Hebrew poetic conventions employed; and a theology of the book of Psalms. Longman notes that the Psalms provide individual pictures of God the Father’s character, but he also advocates for a Christological reading of the Psalms (48). It is helpful for readers to note that Longman does not see the book of Psalms as having a “systematic and overarching structure” (14). He states, “It is crucial to note that the book of Psalms is not a theological textbook, but rather the libretto of the most vibrant worship imaginable. The book of Psalms does not only want to inform our intellect, but to stimulate our imagination, arouse our emotions and stir us on to holy thoughts and actions” (9). It is the “heart of the Old Testament.” While Psalms may not be a theological textbook, it most certainly contains theological messages, and Longman seeks to bring this to light throughout his commentary.
Rather than examining individual verses, Longman examines larger segments of text. Each Psalm is divided into logical units of three to five verses. Each textual division is accompanied by a heading, which summarizes the overarching message of the verses. This approach is deliberate and a reflection of linguistic theory which asserts that a message is communicated “in larger blocks rather than in shorter segments” of text (8). Longman’s primary focus, therefore, is not on the textual or grammatical nuances of individual verses but on the larger message that emerges based on the arrangement and relationship of smaller segments of text. The emphasis of this approach is on discerning meaning from the message of the text rather than examining the minutiae and technical issues within the text. The fact that the biblical text is not reproduced in the commentary reflects this mindset. It is the message and meaning of the text that is of primary concern. Longman uses italics to signal that a word being discussed is found in the Psalm. This proves to be a helpful feature for orienting oneself to the text since the English text of the psalms is not included. There are transliterations of Hebrew words in some of his comments as well as in footnotes, but Hebrew font is not used.
Each Psalm is examined in three stages: context, comment, and meaning (it should be noted that Psalms 70 and 117 are exceptions to this; they receive abbreviated treatments due to their content and length respectively). First, Longman places each psalm in its broad literary and historical context. The type of contextual information Longman provides is literary and historical in nature. Since he does not see an overarching structure to the Psalter, he examines each psalm individually and generally does not give much consideration to a psalm’s place within the book. However, there are exceptions; he does note, for example, that Psalms 1 and 2 are “a two-part introduction to the Psalter” (55). In the context section of Psalm 34, Longman notes that it is written as an acrostic poem in the Hebrew and that the psalm was composed by David in the city of Gath. He makes connection to 1 Samuel passages and explains David’s plight for “political refuge from Saul with the king of Gath” (169). The primary message of a psalm is also noted in the context section and, if possible, connected with the historical context. The context section is generally brief, only one to three paragraphs, but there are several lengthy exceptions.
The comment section for each psalm offers exegetical summary and evaluation of two to three verse sections. There are explanations and clarifications of English word choices, as in Psalm 34:4-7 where “poor” is clarified to mean humble rather than lacking in material goods (169). The comments often feel like a theological summary of the verses, though they are not lacking in details that are helpful for understanding the text. The meaning of Hebrew words (in their transliterated state) are sometimes discussed and explained, and connections with other biblical texts are made.
The meaning section contains a “Christian,” or Christological, reading for each psalm, an approach which Longman embraces for the whole of the Old Testament (10). The meaning of the messages expressed in every psalm is Christological in nature. Every psalm tells the reader something about Jesus and His work. This suggests that in order to properly understand a psalm’s message, one must connect it to a work of Jesus. Longman’s suggested methods for doing so on one’s own are: read a psalm as a prayer to Christ, sing a psalm as a prayer of Jesus, or understand that these psalms presents pictures of God and find their ultimate expression in Jesus (49-50). Because of the Christological focus of the meaning section, any New Testament citations of a particular psalm are noted here.
The book has an easy-to-read quality in which information is communicated clearly and in a manner that is useful to scholars and laymen alike. Longman provides an excellent organization framework for readers to begin their study of Psalms. His interpretative approach is quite Christological, yet at the same time, is considerate of the literary and historical context of the psalms. A possible limitation for some is that the biblical text is not reproduced. This is somewhat of a nuisance as one must constantly look back and forth between the commentary and Biblical text. A second limitation is that this commentary is not intended to be a highly technical one. Rather, it is more useful for helping readers to understand a Christological approach to the Old Testament. The scope of the meaning sections throughout the book is a bit narrow. Longman gives the impression that the psalms are only properly understood when they are illustrative of Jesus’ life and works. It leaves the reader with the impression that a psalm may only be properly understood if a connection to Jesus is made. This Christological exegesis is one method used to interpret the Old Testament, but it is not the only method, and readers should be aware of this.
Stacey Swanson is currently working on her PhD at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School.
Buy the books
Psalms: An Introduction And Commentary