Book Review: Bruce Waltke, The Psalms as Christian Lament: A Historical Commentary

Waltke, Bruce K., James M. Houston, Erika Moore. The Psalms as Christian Lament: A Historical Commentary. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 2014. 328 pp., Pb., $28.00.  Link to Eerdmans

This book is a follow-up to The Psalms as Christian Worship (Eerdmans, 2010). Like the previous volume, the goal of The Psalms as Christian Lament is to provide an “informed historical-theological-pastoral insights into ten lament psalms” in which the others who provide a basis for a “theology of lament.” In order to achieve this goal, each chapter begins with a short history of interpretation before turning to an exegetical study of the Psalm. Sometimes this historical study includes a single scholar, other times there are several are included.

Bruce Waltke, Psalms as LamentWhy study these particular Psalms? As the authors point out in their introduction, Christians often struggle with the idea of lament. Our worship tends to be positive and uplifting, only rarely does a congregation offer a lament to the Lord as a form of worship. Yet the Psalter includes many worship songs in which the psalmist cries out before the Lord, lamenting their suffering and oppression. According to the introduction, there are forty-two individual laments and another sixteen corporate laments. This means lament is one of the dominating genres in the Psalter.

The book studies ten lament psalms, including six of the seven traditional penitential psalms (Psalm 51 appears in the previous volume). Each chapter begins by listening to the “voice of the church.” This section James Houston selects one or more ancient commentary on the Psalm as an example of how the Psalm was read at various points in church history. By examining the range of ancient and medieval writers on the following list, it seems clear the examples were chose to provide various kinds of commentary on the Psalms. There is both chronological and theological diversity in the chosen commentators. Houston does not quote the historical commentaries at length, so in this sense the book is not the same sort of tool as the Ancient Christian Commentaries (InterVarsity Press). After introducing the writer and placing him in historical context, Houston focus on how the individual writer drew theological implications from the Psalm under examination.

  • Psalm 5 and Jerome.
  • Psalm 6 and Gregory of Nyssa.
  • Psalm 7 and Chrysostom, Charlemagne, Alcuin and Alfred the Great.
  • Psalm 32 and Augustine.
  • Psalm 38 and Ambrose, Augustine, Theodore of Mopsuestia, Cassiodorus and several medieval penitential commentaries.
  • Psalm 39 and Erasmus.
  • Psalm 44 and Origin, Aquinas, Luther and Calvin.
  • Psalm 102 and Catholic vs. Reformed/Evangelical repentance.
  • Psalm 130 and Hilary of Poiters and John Owen.
  • Psalm 143 and Augustine, a few medieval penitential commentaries and John Calvin.

After this historical section, for nine of the chapters Bruce Waltke provides a new translation of the psalm with textual notes on syntax and textual variants. Erika Moore provides the translation and exegesis for Psalm 39. After his translation, Waltke sets the literary context of the Psalm by observing canonical links to nearby Psalms. For example, Psalm 32 has a number of lexical and thematic links to Psalm 31, implying the two Psalms could be read together. This juxtaposition in the canon of the Psalter can provide some insights for interpretation. In addition to literary context, Waltke comments briefly on Form Critical approaches to the Psalm. For the most part this is a short note explaining why the Psalm is a lament or penitential Psalm. Waltke also briefly comments on “Rhetorical Criticism,” by which he means the structure of the Psalm (stanza, strophe, etc.) Sometimes these are summed up into a single section on “form and structure;” the headings are inconsistent in the book. In the final section before the commentary he provides a very short summary, the “message of the Psalm.”

In the body of the commentary Waltke proceeds more or less verse-by-verse based on the structure of the Psalm outlined in his Rhetorical Criticism section. This is a technical, exegetical commentary and Hebrew appears in the body of the commentary often untransliterated. I noticed Moore’s commentary on Psalm 32 Hebrew always transliterated. The body of the commentary runs ten-twelve pages on average, a few are longer. Since commentaries on the Psalms are usually sparse in exegetical detail and nuance, I am very pleased with Waltke’s exegesis of the Hebrew Bible.

Conclusion. Like the previous volume, The Psalms as Christian Lament: A Historical Commentary will appeal to many Christians who want to read the Hebrew Bible through the lens of some of the greatest exegete of the Church. Although it does not provide access to the original commentaries of these ancient writers, the summaries will give most readers a sense of how Christians have approached Psalms of laments at various times in history.

However, I think the organization of the chapters could be improved. I would have preferred to have the historical material after the exegetical section. To my way of thinking, I prefer to have a solid idea of what the Hebrew text actually says before encountering how it was understood later in Church history. Placing the historical section first cannot help by color the reading of the Psalm, perhaps obscuring the meaning of the text as it appears in the Hebrew Bible. To be fair, the book is subtitled A Historical Commentary; any reader who shares my suspicion of Reception Criticism can simply read the sections in reverse order.

Reading how a particular Psalm was understood by the later church is important and I appreciate these sections (especially since church history is not my specialty). This project makes me wonder of a similar book could be written which focuses on the Psalms as Jewish Scripture. I would be very interested in reading a commentary which has the same level of exegetical rigor but traces the reception of selected Psalms through the Second Temple Period (including the New Testament), then beyond the Second Temple Period into medieval Jewish exegesis. I know bits and pieces of this exist, but I know of nothing like this single readable volume for Jewish exegesis.

The Psalms as Christian Lament is an excellent contribution to the study of the Psalms if only for Waltke’s exegetical comments. That the Christian history of interpretation is included is a bonus.

NB: Thanks to Eerdmans for kindly providing me with a review copy of this book. This did not influence my thoughts regarding the work.

Book Review: G. K. Beale and Benjamin L. Gladd, Hidden But Now Revealed

Beale, G. K. and Benjamin L. Gladd.  Hidden But Now Revealed: A Biblical Theology of Mystery. Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity, 2014. 392 pp. Pb; $27.00.   Link to IVP

Greg Beale is well-known for his work on the Old Testament in the New, including The Commentary on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament (Baker, 2007) and an important monograph on John’s Use of the Old Testament in Revelation (LNTS; London: T&T Clark, 1999). His commentary on Revelation in the NIGTC series was especially interested in allusions to the Old Testament in the book of Revelation. Ben Gladd published his Wheaton dissertation as Revealing the Mysterion: The Use of Mystery in Daniel and Second Temple Judaism with Its Bearing on First Corinthians (BZNW; Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 2008). Their new book Hidden but Now Revealed is popular presentation of the findings of these more technical works as well as an opportunity for both scholars to revisit the idea of mystery in the New Testament. There are several sections of this book which are dependent on their early published works, especially Beale’s Temple and the Church’s Mission (NSBT 17, 2004).

Beale, HiddenIn the introduction of the book the authors deal with the problem of intertextuality. By this term the authors refer to inner-biblical allusions. The term intertextuality has become “faddish” (22) and is usually not well defined. They do however review Richard Hays’s criteria for detecting allusions to the Old Testament in the New Testament. As Beale has said a number of other contexts, recognizing allusions more of an art than an exact science. This is an important issue for Beale and Gladd since the will argue the use of the word “mystery” in the New Testament often alludes to the book of Daniel.

The book begins with a survey of the use of mystery in Daniel. Beale and Gladd argue “the revelation of mystery is not a totally new revelation but the full disclosure of something that was to a significant extent hidden” (33).  Earlier studies on mystery emphasized the complete hiddenness of the revelation. The main proposal of this book is the suggestion a mystery refers to something that was always present but veiled or unknowable in some very real way.

The example the authors use is Nebuchadnezzar’s vision in Daniel 2. Nebuchadnezzar was given a revelation in a dream, but he did not remember it. Daniel reveals the mystery to the king because God has made it known to him. The revelation unveiled by Daniel refers to hidden end time events (34). The second example of a mystery is Daniel’s own visions. He receives a cryptic revelation which must be interpreted by angelic message (for example, 8:19-26). The third example is Daniel’s realization the seventy years of captivity were over while he was reading the book of Jeremiah. God revealed the duration of the exile to Jeremiah and Daniel observes what God revealed to the earlier prophet.

The authors argue the twofold structure of partial hiddenness and fuller revelation is what makes something a “mystery.” A revelation is “mostly hidden” but needs to be interpreted in order for the mystery to be fully known. Throughout the book Beale and Gladd use phrases like “mostly unknown” or “partially hidden.” If the mystery is unknowable until the time of the interpretation is given, I do not see how this is much different from the usual explanation of a mystery as unknowable until it is revealed. In each of the examples from Daniel, the content of the mystery is unknown to the reader until God choose to reveal it to Daniel.

As is expected in a biblical theology, the bulk of the book traces each use of mystery in the New Testament. The authors argue the term is most often used in eschatological contexts often coupled with allusions to Daniel. For example, there are six chapters devoted to the use of mystery in the Pauline letters. The letters are approached canonically rather than chronologically and include Ephesians and Colossians as examples of Pauline letters.

I will cite one example: In Romans 11:25, the mystery describes Gentile salvation and the restoration of Israel. Since this is a reversal of Jewish Old Testament expectations, it is not surprising Paul would label it a mystery. The authors detect an allusion to the book of Deut 32:21 in this passage is since that is the only place in the Old Testament where there is a reversal of the pattern “Gentile first, then the Jew.” For the authors, that Gentiles would be the catalyst of Israel salvation is “largely hidden in the Old Testament” (93). Mystery in Romans 16:25-26 is an allusion to Genesis 49:10. The unanticipated element of the earlier text is the Gentiles would yield themselves voluntarily to the messiah’s reign by the “obedience of faith” (96).

The authors see a twofold pattern in Paul’s use of mystery not present in the Old Testament. There is no clear prediction of a two-stage fulfillment of Jew and Gentile redemption. While there might have been hints, it was unknowable until Paul revealed it in the book of Romans.

I have two main questions about the argument of the book. I am curious about the motivation for the definition of mystery as something “hidden in a text” until revealed by God at a later time. The mystery of Gentile salvation apart from the Law, for example, does not seem to be found in any Old Testament text at all, a fact recognized by Beale and Gladd: “The Gentiles, Paul says, become full members of the covenant community only through faith in Christ (Gal 3:29). This is precisely the teaching Paul deems an unveiled mystery in Ephesians and Colossians and considers to be absolutely central to his ministry” (213).

But this particular use of mystery does not strike me as consistent with the definition drawn from Daniel. Some kind of Gentile salvation is clear from the Hebrew Bible, but their salvation apart from the Law is not even hinted at in the Old Testament. I am more inclined to read this as Paul claiming Gentile salvation apart from the Law was totally hidden prior to his mission and not to be found in the text of the Old Testament.  This mystery is  therefore most like Nebuchadnezzar’s dream, unknown until God revealed it to him and called him to his mission to the Gentiles.

I suspect the motivation for their view of mystery is to enhance the continuity between the Testaments so that the present age (which is called a mystery in Paul) can be seen as part of God’s plan of salvation. In fact, late in this this book Beale and Gladd refer to inaugurated eschatology (already/not yet) which is so pervasive in the New Testament (and NT scholarship) as a mystery (296-7).

My second question is more along the lines of method. Is the use of the word μυστήριον consistent between the various writers of the New Testament? Does Matthew’s plural use of the word (τὰ μυστήρια τῆς βασιλείας τῶν οὐρανῶν) have the same nuance of meaning as Paul’s use in Ephesians 3:3? Should the “mystery or godliness” in 1 Tim 3:16 be read as a “hidden in the Old Testament until revealed”?  It seems to me “hidden until unlocked” is forced into 1 Tim 3:16. In Revelation 1:19-20 the “mystery” is not hidden in the Old Testament, unless the reader applies Beale’s “church as the eschatological Temple” view. While there is much in his The Temple and the Church’s Mission I find attractive, it seems forced into Revelation 1:19-20 in order to make mystery always mean “hidden until unlocked.” Likewise the use of mystery in Revelation 17 seems different than the others, especially if the word appears on the head of the Great Whore.

These caveats aside, Hidden But Now Revealed is an excellent example of the practice of biblical theology. Beale and Gladd have assembled a great deal of data which is extremely helpful for understanding the context of each example of μυστήριον in the New Testament. Their conclusions are for the most part drawn from the text of the Bible, although there are some places where I think Beale’s view of the “church as temple” have skewed the data.

This book should set the agenda for discussions of mystery for years to come.

NB: Thanks to InterVarsity Press for kindly providing me with a review copy of this book. This did not influence my thoughts regarding the work.  I am preparing a longer review-article for a journal and will post a link when it is published.