Monday, December 30, 2013

Commentary on the Psalms: Volume 1 (1-41), Book Review

Title: A Commentary on the Psalms: Volume 1 (1-41)
Author: Allen P. Ross
Publisher: Kregel, 2011
Price: $44.99 (amz)
Binding: Hardback
Pages: 887
Allen Ross is a professor of Old Testament at Beeson Divinity School and has designed this volume to be used by teachers and preachers of the book of Psalms. He aims to present in his commentary “what a pastor or teacher needs to have for the development of an expository message” (12).

To give an orientation to the study of the Psalms, Ross provides an introductory section that engages the requisite critical and hermeneutical considerations. He highlights both the value and difficulty of studying the Psalms. On the one hand, “the church is missing one of its richest experiences if it ignores the Book of Psalms or relegates it to a routine reading in a service without any explanation” (29). On the other hand, a student of the Psalter must also grapple with textual variants, divergent translation traditions, a wide-ranging reception history, and the difficulty of discerning poetic forms and figures of speech. In his discussion of these technical issues, Ross consistently takes conservative, evangelical positions (e.g., affirming Davidic authorship of psalms attributed to him in the superscriptions, see 42-47).

A clear strength of this volume is its focus on the structure and literary features of each psalm. Ross begins by acknowledging that “there is no final word on the Book of Psalms” (11). People have used the psalms for a stunning variety of purposes, so a work attempting to analyze them must have a specific task in mind. Ross focuses “on the chief aim of exegesis, the exposition of the text” (11). In pursuing this goal, Ross seeks to equip his readers to teach all the psalms. “By exegetical exposition,” Ross means that “the exposition should cover the entire psalm, and that it should not only explain the text verse-by-verse but also show how the message of the psalm unfolds section-by-section” (12).

Accordingly, the largest section of the introductory material focuses on the nature of Hebrew poetry and the literary form and function of the individual psalms (e.g., Laments, Imprecations, Praises, Royal Psalms; see 81-145). Because these literary features form the warp and woof of the Psalter, they should receive careful attention. Ross provides here a helpful and straightforward literary orientation to reading biblical poetry.

Once readers understand these literary features, they must then seek to explain them. This movement is a central concern for Ross. He notes in this regard that “the development of the exposition from the exegesis is basic to this commentary” (17). For each psalm, Ross gives a translation with discussion of textual variants and translational difficulties in the footnotes. He then briefly sets the psalm in its literary/thematic context within the Psalter and notes the structure of the psalm (through an exegetical summary and outline). Next he gives a “commentary in expository form” that articulates the main point of each section and sub-section of the exegetical outline. Ross concludes his treatment of each psalm by discussing its message and application. Here Ross usually tries to connect the meaning of the psalm both to the lives of contemporary readers and also to any relevant theological themes from the New Testament.

In this focus and commentary structure, Ross connects a careful reading of the psalm with a fruitful preaching of the psalm. Because this connection exists, the structure of the sermon should mirror the structure of the psalm. The help that Ross provides for those attempting this task gives his commentary considerable value. 

As noted, Ross highlights the importance of understanding individual psalms in their own right. Recognizing that “the psalms were not arbitrarily added to the collection,” Ross also admits the need to relate them to the larger collection. Though he surveys recent work on the Psalter that seek to discern an overall shape and hermeneutically significant arrangement of the psalms (52-63), Ross cautions against “the tendency to see connections and patterns that may not be there, or if they are there, are only slight” (62). “Until the details are worked out to satisfaction,” Ross argues, this type of study “will seem to be artificial and forced” (62). Because Ross is not interested in working out any of those details himself, his commentary will be more helpful in the study of individual psalms than in the study of their strategic arrangement within the Psalter.

In urging the value of the Psalms for the life of the church, Ross notes that in modern churches, “The use of the psalms has almost fallen by the way to the detriment of the spiritual life of the church, and the prayers, hymns, and songs that have replaced the psalms in worship do not have the substance, power, and beauty that they have” (25). Through his warm and engaging exposition, Ross has done a part in helping these psalms re-enter the life and worship of the churches.

Praise the Lord!

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