A Book Review from Books at a Glance
by Matthew E. Swale
James M. Hamilton, Jr. serves as professor of biblical theology at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and preaches at Kenwood Baptist Church. Because of his stout contribution to biblical theology (Crossway, 2010), many evangelicals waited eagerly for this Psalms commentary. For those interested in preaching biblical theology from specific biblical texts, Hamilton the scholar-pastor is uniquely positioned to guide.
The commentary’s series from Lexham Press is also uniquely positioned for biblical-theological reflection on the Psalms. The general editors (T. D. Alexander, T. Schreiner, and A. Köstenberger) explain that the Evangelical Biblical Theology Commentary (EBTC) aims: (1) to articulate a biblical book’s contribution to biblical theology; (2) relate the book’s themes that arise from exegesis to the whole Bible; (3) to equip ministers to bring biblical-theological exegetical reflection to churches (vol. 1, p. xxvii). The series uses the CSB translation but invites authors to diverge from it (vol. 1, p. xxviii), as Hamilton often does (see below).
Before commencing exposition and exegesis, Hamilton writes a lengthy introduction and a brief introductory explanation of “Biblical and Theological Themes.” The first subsection contains six well-researched subsections. The first subsection seeks to account for the editorial shape of the Psalter, which Hamilton sketches as a Davidic narrative. This is mostly based on superscriptions, but supported by structural, verbal, and thematic links among psalm-groupings (vol. 1, p. 6). The second subsection provides a strong defense of the canonical form of the Psalter as the inspired locus for interpreting the book and recognizing its congruence with the broader OT worldview (vol. 1, pp. 14, 20).
The third subsection, “The Canonical Shape of the Psalter,” briefly compares (in excellent tables) the concluding doxologies in Books I–IV and the five-book distribution of authorship superscriptions. The fourth subsection addresses superscriptions by (1) itemizing the information types and their usual placement in a marvelous, lengthy table (vol. 1, pp. 27–36); (2) arguing effectively for genuine Davidic superscriptions and then categorizing objections as either grammatical, historical, or theological (vol. 1, pp. 43–46); (3) proposing that David began the design program of the Psalter that later writers and editors grasped and completed.
In the fifth subsection Hamilton offers “proposals” of chiasm occurring in every subgroup in the Psalter, every book (combining Books II–III; 58), and even the whole book (vol. 1, pp. 55–56, 64). The sixth and final subsection explains Hamilton’s translation approach that aims to demonstrate thematic and lexical links between psalms and even within OT theology. Methodologically, his translation approach undergirds his desire to show the interconnectedness of the Psalms as a purposeful collection.
Under “Biblical and Theological Themes,” Hamilton uses N. T. Wright’s narrative worldview schema to explain the Psalter’s biblical and theological themes (cf., vol. 1, pp. 20, 71–88). The schema consists of a metanarrative and its resultant beliefs, ethics, liturgy, and culture. The advantage of this approach is that Hamilton shows from several angles his view of the (meta)narrative world of the Psalms: a messianic vision of YHWH establishing his rule against enemies through Davidic promises (vol. 1, pp. 72–73). For Hamilton, the Psalter shapes its readers (or those using the book in song) to encounter God (vol. 1, p. 79), align with the Torah (vol. 1, pp. 80–82), and adopt a typological hermeneutic that sees recurring patterns throughout the OT culminating in Christ (vol. 1, pp. 84–87).
Turning to the commentary proper, Hamilton introduces Books II–V with a brief discussion of verbal links that provide clues to each Book’s structure (e.g., vol. 1, p. 444) or narrative development (e.g., vol. 2, p. 151). Then each psalm’s treatment contains five parts. First, Hamilton explains his proposal for the psalm’s structure. Second, Hamilton presents his translation of the psalm alongside the CSB. The third part, “Context: Verbal and Thematic Links with Surrounding Psalms,” shows the ways each psalm interacts with its subgrouping or Book.
Fourth, Hamilton follows his outline of the psalm in its exposition, rather than structuring the exposition in a verse-by-verse format. The exposition is not technical and will be easily followed by non-specialists (see Conclusion below). Hamilton sometimes follows biblical-theological threads in this section, allowing the NT use of a text a voice in the interpretation (e.g., vol. 2, pp. 90–91 on Ps 82 in Jn 10). The fifth part of each psalm’s treatment is called the “Bridge.” Here Hamilton discusses ways that the psalm contributes to whole-Bible theology. For Hamilton, this often means solidifying Christological connections, and sometimes involves application.
Commendations and Considerations
Hamilton’s commentary possesses many strengths, including these four. First, evangelical students of the Psalms will find here a robust, well-researched, and effectively reasoned defense of traditional authorial views. He does not merely repeat prevailing wisdom but provides interesting new data like the table that details six “information slots” covering all the superscripted material in the Psalter (vol. 1, p. 27–36). Second, the commentary offers a unique tool by placing the CSB alongside Hamilton’s translation. This is helpful for two reasons: (1) readers can immediately compare two excellent translations; (2) Hamilton’s less traditional and more pioneering (occasionally idiosyncratic) translation decisions are immediately set alongside a more conventional translation.
Third, in Hamilton’s “Context” section he often presents the material in helpful lists that offer a quicker visualization of the connections among multiple psalms than prose would (e.g., vol. 1, p. 220). This makes Hamilton’s volume a robust evangelical addition to the growing list of commentators engaging in Psalter-exegesis (i.e., interpreting psalms considering their location in the purposefully designed Psalter) as opposed to mere psalm-exegesis (i.e., interpreting individual psalms irrespective of their location in the Psalter).
Fourth, many of Hamilton’s translation choices present exciting possibilities. For example, he translates לַמְנַצֵּהַ (“to the choirmaster,” ESV) as “for the preeminent one” (vol. 1, p. 37). He defends the decision lexically, yet it also leaves in the phrase an elasticity that could refer to a Levite, Davidic king, or the Messiah (vol 1., p. 38–39). This is one of many places where Hamilton demonstrates a refreshing sensitivity to patristic exegesis. For another exciting translation decision, Hamilton allows the noun מִזְמוֹר (“psalm”) in superscriptions to influence how he translates the verb זמר (usually “sing”). Thus, he renders Psalm 7:17, “And I will psalm the name of Yahweh” (vol. 1, p. 138). This offers two benefits: (1) it allows English readers to distinguish זמר from שׁיר (“sing”); (2) it elevates the Psalter’s intention that readers use its poetry to address Yahweh.
It is difficult to critique a scholar who reveres the subject matter enough to say, “I have not done [the Psalms] justice, but I have done my best” (vol. 1, p. xxix). Nevertheless, here are four considerations for readers interested in purchasing Hamilton’s commentary. First, one of the notable, and intentional, omissions in Hamilton’s commentary is that of genre classification. It has become standard in psalms commentaries since Gunkel and Mowinckel for the introduction to explain the major psalm-types, and then for the commentary to propose a genre classification for each psalm. Hamilton explains why he does not do this:
Against Gunkel, my concern is with the biblical book of Psalms…. Since we lack detailed reports that tell us how the individual psalms were used in ancient Israel, interpreting the Psalter as a book in the context of the canonical collection of books is a far safer procedure…. Whereas Gunkel’s and Mowinckel’s interests were in the history of religion, genre classification, and the life setting in which the psalms were used, my interest is in what the canonical form of the text was intended to communicate (vol. 1, pp. 16–17).
Gunkel and Mowinckel sought cultic settings for each psalm, and Hamilton is right that focusing on the text is “safer” and more objective than that largely abandoned pursuit. However, many evangelical commentators still find genre classification valuable in Psalms studies. Classifying psalms does not mean adopting an entire historical-critical project since, as Jason DeRouchie notes, “biblical warrant” exists in 1 Chronicles 16:4 for categorizing types of psalmic expression (How to Understand and Apply the Old Testament, 68).
A second consideration concerns Hamilton’s penchant for chiasm (which this writer shares). In fairness, Hamilton calls the macro-chiasms (spanning something larger than one pericope) “proposals” (vol. 1, pp. 55–56). He commendably avoids dogmatism here. Nevertheless, he proposes chiastic arrangements in every subgroup in the Psalter, each of Books I–V, and even the whole book (vol. 1, pp. 56–64). The readers should note that some are more convincing than others, but all of them offer grist for reflection about what Hamilton sees as the primary rhetorical and mnemonic literary device in the Psalms and in all Scripture (vol. 1, p. 54).
Third, regarding the introductory section called “Biblical and Theological Themes,” readers should not expect an accessible list of theological themes like those found in some commentaries (e.g., Ross, Terrien, or Mays). As noted in the Overview above, he adopts a metanarrative approach that limits the themes mentioned but still has its merits. Furthermore, since Hamilton’s goal with Wright’s schema is to expound the biblical authors’ worldview (20), the systematic category of divine simplicity seemed an odd choice as one of two “Truths Derived from the Master Narrative” in this section (vol. 1, pp. 77–78). Because of Hamilton’s desire to inculcate the psalmists’ worldview, a theme expressly stated in Psalter would make more sense.
Fourth, those seeking help in pastoral application should note the commentary’s approach thereto. The series aims to “relate biblical theology to our own lives and to the life of the church” (vol. 1, p. xxvii). Hamilton sees this occurring uniquely in the Psalms:
Words used in worship, the Psalms, re-tell the story, reinforce the truths, and re-present the promises of consequence and reward for the behaviors encouraged and condemned…. And all this comes not through lecture but poetry. Poetry used in worship has a way of trickling down into our assumptions, building out the things we take for granted, and penetrating to the depths of who we are. As we sing the songs of the faith, our drives and urges, appetites and dispositions are brought into line with the stories and direct instructions of the Torah (vol. 1, pp. 81–82).
Therefore, applicational reflection sometimes occurs either in the “Exposition” (e.g., vol. 2, p. 448) or “Bridge” (e.g., vol. 2, pp. 322–23). However, the commentary does not necessarily offer suggested applications for each psalm. Instead, at the outset, Hamilton encourages readers to imbibe the poetry’s theological beauty as a means of transformation. This is not a weakness per se, but readers should know that they will not find an application section for each psalm as some commentators offer (e.g., Estes, Ross, Wilson).
This long-awaited commentary does not disappoint. James Hamilton’s passion for Christ, dedication to the biblical text, and grand vision for whole-Bible theology coalesce to offer a treatment of the Psalms that is as substantive as it is bold and pioneering. He preached, taught, and prayed the Psalms concurrently with the writing of this commentary—and it shows (vol. 1, pp. xxix-xxx, 2). Those looking for exegetical minutia, genre classification, or traditional application may benefit from pairing this commentary in their sermon preparation or research with a more traditional (e.g., VanGemeren), technical, (e.g., Ross), or applicational commentary (e.g., Wilson). But where traditional, technical, or applicational commentaries are weak, this commentary is strong: theological connectivity that will strengthen Christian interaction with the Psalms immensely.
Matthew E. Swale
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PSALMS, by James M. Hamilton Jr.