Reviewed by Anthony Lipscomb
Biblical commentaries come in all shapes and sizes, so to speak, all seeking to explain in one way or another the biblical text. Some commentaries may primarily exposit the biblical text with the preacher in mind. Other commentaries may take a highly technical approach by dealing with text-critical, linguistic, and/or compositional concerns, to name a few. And still, other commentaries may fall somewhere within the spectrum between the expositional and the technical. In general, despite various methodological approaches and foci, biblical commentaries conduct more or less a verse-by-verse analysis of a given book or corpus. The latest contribution by Bruce K. Waltke, James M. Houston, and Erika Moore, entitled, The Psalms as Christian Lament: A Historical Commentary, joins this tradition of clerical and scholarly endeavor, but not without breaking the mold of the usual form.
Psalms as Christian Lament (henceforth PACL) represents a fascinating meeting ground between biblical commentary and Church history, a convergence introduced in Waltke and Houston’s 2010 collaboration, The Psalms as Christian Worship (PACW). In both volumes, the authors choose specific Psalms that speak to the themes of worship or lament. They then detail the Psalms’ interpretive histories by Christian expositors and perform extensive analyses of the texts, in that order. James Houston, founding principal and former chancellor of Regent College and the college’s first professor of spiritual theology, discusses the interpretive histories of the select Psalms within the Christian tradition. Bruce Waltke, Distinguished Professor of Old Testament at Knox Theological Seminary, Fort Lauderdale, and professor emeritus of biblical studies at Regent College, Vancouver, brings the Psalms to life in the exegetical portion of the commentaries. Waltke’s work constitutes the majority of the content in both volumes. In PACL, Erika Moore, professor of Old Testament and Hebrew at Trinity School for Ministry, Ambridge, Pennsylvania, contributes the exegetical portion of Psalm 39.
Turning to PACL more specifically, the authors immediately express their concern for the way modern (Western) Christianity has “cheaply” equated biblical lament with “psychological complaint” (xi). The authors harshly criticize Walter Brueggemann, in particular, as one who imposes a psychological rubric on biblical lament, stating: “Brueggemann’s fixation with the lament form, summarized in his theme of ‘orientation-disorientation-reorientation,’ is a revolt against biblical orthodoxy in that it provides a psychological alternative, and then suggests a new approach to biblical interpretation. This psychological lament becomes a new tool for subversion, to destroy covenantal faith between God and humankind” (4). The authors hope that their study may correct postmodernist impositions, as they see it, and “provide a basis for a theology of lament” (xi).
As a basis for a theology of lament, PACL does not attempt a comprehensive study of lament, nor does the study seek to synthesize an actual theology of lament as expressed in the Psalms. Instead, one finds a highly selective study. Rather than deal comprehensively with the psalms that contemporary scholars have identified as lament, the authors have chosen ten psalms that have resonated as lament at some point in time within the pre-modern Christian interpretive tradition. The authors write: “We have, in fact, in our collaborate effort to combine the history of the interpretation with contemporary exegesis of selected psalms, simply taken the traditional ‘seven penitential psalms,’ of which Psalm 51 was already selected in our previous work, together with Psalms 5 to 7 as a cluster, together with special pleas for Psalms 44 and 49” (xi). There does appear to be an editorial discrepancy in the authors’ statement for “special pleas for Psalms 44 and 49.” While the authors do in fact treat Psalm 44, they do not actually include Psalm 49, often recognized by scholars as a “wisdom psalm,” but instead the authors include Psalm 39. The seven penitential psalms, which are regarded by scholars as a special subset of the lament genre, include Psalms 6, 32, 38, 51, 102, 130, and 143. In penitential psalms, as described by Waltke in PACW’s treatment of Psalm 51, “the psalmist is in distress born out of a consciousness of sin and longs and hopes that the God of mercy will intervene” (465). As such, the so-called penitential psalms serve as a natural choice for a study of lament in the Hebrew Psalter. Finally, as indicated above, Psalm 51 is not treated in PACL since it already appears in PACW.
Organization and Content
PACL begins with a prologue, which is followed by an opening chapter addressing the state of scholarship on biblical lament, the reception of biblical lament in Western society and postmodern culture, and the idea and expression of biblical lament itself, which, according to the authors, contemporary Western culture has often failed to appreciate or adequately realize. The next ten chapters treat the ten select psalms. PACL concludes with a helpful six-page glossary of technical and historical terms, as well as author, subject (at eight pages, the subject index is quite substantial), and Scripture indices. The study does not have a formal conclusion to summarize the whole, and in light of the fact that the earlier published PACW opens with broader issues of Psalms interpretation to set the commentary proper of both PACW and PACL into context, one may venture to guess that a subsequent companion volume(s) could appear along the way, perhaps with a formal conclusion to the series.
The commentary proper proceeds chapter-by-chapter in numerical order of the selected psalms. A basic format applies to each psalm: (1) an interpretive history of the psalm within the Christian tradition, entitled, “Voice of the Church”; (2) an original translation of the Hebrew text with extensive footnotes that deal with text-critical and linguistic issues, entitled, “Voice of the Psalmist: Translation”; (3) a “Commentary” of the psalm divided into two subsections: the first addressing literary context (the psalm’s form or genre and the psalm’s rhetoric), and the second detailing a verse-by-verse, clause-by-clause exegesis of the psalm; and (4) a “Conclusion” to the chapter.
Houston’s approach to the interpretive history of the selected psalms varies from one psalm to another depending on how prominently a psalm has resonated as lament throughout Church history and how much written reflection on a psalm has survived to this day. The authors’ desire to cover interpretations found in different periods of Church history also influences how a history of interpretation is treated. For example, in the chapter on Psalm 5, Houston focuses his efforts solely on Jerome (342-420), his life as a biblical scholar, his work on the Psalms, and in particular his interpretation of Psalm 5. As for Psalm 32, Houston focuses his attention on the interpretation of Jerome’s contemporary, Augustine. However, in his discussion of the interpretive tradition associated with Psalm 44, Houston includes not just one interpreter as representative of the “Voice of the Church,” but four: Origen (c. 185-254), Thomas Aquinas (1226-1274), Martin Luther (1483-1546), and John Calvin (1509-1564). Here, Houston masterfully packs the respective interpretations of each exegete into concise, readable, yet immensely informative one- to two-page vignettes. Houston does not deal too heavily in contrasting the representative interpretations of Psalm 44, partly because comparable records do not exist for each figure. For instance, while we have Aquinas’ commentary on Psalms 1–54, Commentaire sur les Psaumes, as a source for direct and substantial reflection on Psalm 44, only Luther’s university lecture notes on the Psalms from when he was a fledgling professor (1513-1515) seems to be our only relevant source. Consequently, Houston does not have much to report on Luther’s engagement with Psalm 44. In the chapter on Psalm 102, Houston gives voice specifically to a Catholic tradition of interpretation, represented singly by John Fisher (1469-1535), Bishop of Rochester, and then juxtaposes this voice with a Reformed tradition, represented by French reformer, Jacques Lefèvre d’Ètaples (Faber Stapulensis, c. 1450-1536), and Italian reformer, Peter Martyr Vermigli (1499-1562). Houston’s eclectic approach to histories of interpretation creates for the reader an adventurous journey through Church history.
The “Voice of the Psalmist” (i.e., translation and commentary) portion of each chapter does not attempt to analyze each psalm in light of the interpretive tradition(s) that Houston presents in the preceding “Voice of the Church” section. Instead, translation and commentary deal directly with the Hebrew text and ancient versions, having occasional recourse to how later benefactors of a psalm may have echoed a psalm’s original language, with the result being a goldmine of textual, structural, semantic, and literary insights.
There is much to commend this work. The amount of historical and biblical data alone certainly qualifies PACL as a go-to volume for anyone studying the interpretation of the select psalms. PACL also makes significant strides toward a Christian theology of lament by recovering for us the diverse, lamenting “Voice of the Church.” Yet, while this reviewer finds little at fault with PACL, there is one aspect of the book worth a reviewer’s lament. The authors do not explain their reasoning behind their choice to present the “Voice of the Church” before the “Voice of the Psalmist.” For some, it may be preferable to walk through the exegesis of a psalm in preparation for exploring how past interpreters understood and used it. Even still, there may, in fact, not be any disadvantage to the authors’ organization, as this reviewer found himself time and again drawn back to the historical surveys in light of the superb exegesis that follows, repeatedly engaging the text and its interpreters.
Anthony Lipscomb is a student at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School pursuing a ThM in Old Testament.
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The Psalms As Christian Lament: A Historical Commentary