DeClaissé-Walford, Jacobson, and Tanner, Psalms (NICOT)

DeClaissé-Walford, Nancy J., Rolf A. Jacobson, and Beth LaNeel Tanner. Psalms. NICOT; Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 2014. 1073 pp. Hb; $60.   Link to Eerdmans

I have occasionally taught through sections of the Psalms and found the lack of quality resources frustrating. Most one or two volume commentaries are so brief they hardly merit consideration. I find Dahood’s three volumes in the Anchor Bible brief and idiosyncratic; even Hans Kraus in the Continental series never really had what I was looking for in a commentary.

NICOT PsalmsThis situation has changed considerably in recent years. In fact, this is a good time for Psalms commentaries. In the last several years, we have seen three volumes from John Goldingay (Baker, 2006, 2007, 2008) and three from Allen P. Ross (Kregel 2012, volume 2, 2013; and volume 3, 2016) as well as two excellent “historical commentaries” from Bruce Waltke and James M. Houston, The Psalms as Christian Worship (Eerdmans, 2010) and The Psalms as Christian Lament (Eerdmans 2014) and The Psalms as Christian Lament (Eerdmans, 2016, see my review here). This new volume in the New International Commentary Series on the Old Testament is another welcome addition to the study of the Psalms.

Rolf Jacobson wrote most of the fifty-four-page introduction, with the exception of the section on the canonical shape of the Psalter, DeClaissé-Walford contributed this section. First, Jacobson discusses the title, text and translation of the Psalter. The main concern of this section is the often bewildering numbering of the Psalms. While there are 150 Psalms in all modern translations, the actual numbering varies between the Hebrew Bible and Septuagint. In fact, codices Leningrad and Aleppo have only 149 since Psalms 114 and 115 are combined into a single psalm. The standard text most are familiar with dates to the Second Rabbinic Bible (1524-25). With respect to translation, the commentators in this volume have sought to provide as literal a translation as possible, although they render masculine pronouns in the plural in order to maintain gender inclusiveness (similar to the NRSV). One unique feature is the transliteration of hesed in the 255 times the word appears in the Psalter. Since it is always difficult to adequately render this word in English, the commentators have chosen to consider hesed as a loanword, like shalom.

Second, Jacobson deals with the problem of the authorship of the Psalms. This necessarily requires a brief study of the superscriptions since many of these Psalm headers may be understood as a claim of authorship. The common psalm header le-dawid can be understood in several ways other than “written by David.” The approach of this commentary is that “for practical purposes, all psalms are anonymous” (11). Jacobson offers a short explanation of other information found in psalm headers although many terms remain obscure.

The third section of the introduction is a short overview of the contributions of Form Criticism and Historical approaches to the Psalms. This is an important section since Form Criticism has been most fruitful in the study of the Psalter. Many Psalms to follow conventional patterns and must have developed in some kind of life-situation (Sitz im Leben). The contributions of Gunkel and Mowinckel, Gerstenberger and Westermann have influenced the study of the Psalms for most of the twentieth century. Jacobson includes the more recent work of Walter Bruggemann as a development in Psalms research. Building on the foundation of Paul Ricoeur, Bruggemann understands the Psalms in terms of “orientation-disorientation-reorientation” (17). The commentary resonates with the earlier form-critics (Westermann vs. Brueggemann), but the individual commentators are “sensitive to the canonical story of the Psalter” (19) in their description of the genre of an individual psalm. While Jacobson lists and describes five psalm types, many psalms do not fit neatly into any particular form.

In the fourth section of the introduction, DeClaissé-Walford discusses the canonical shape of the psalter. Beginning with McCann’s 1993 collection of essays on the shape of the Psalter, DeClaissé-Walford surveys several attempts to describe the collection of Psalms (including her own contribution, Reading from the Beginning: The Shaping of the Hebrew Psalter (Mercer University Press, 1997). She observe there are several sub-collections (Asaph, Korah, Ascents, etc.) as well as several doxologies marking out five separate books of Psalms. The collection was made after the exile in order to “offer the hermeneutical rationale for the survival of the postexilic community” (29). By briefly surveying the “plot” of the Psalter, she argues the five books of psalms narrate the history of ancient Israel (Books 1-2), the reigns of King David and Solomon and the dark days of the divided kingdom and eventual destruction of those kingdoms (book 3); the Babylonian exile (Book 4) and the restoration of the community to the land (Book 5) (38).

Jacobson describes the poetry of the Psalms in the fifth section of the introduction. After discussing the most common feature of Hebrew poetry, parallelism, he very briefly discusses “evocative language.” Essays on Hebrew poetry tend to be tedious, especially for people who do not read the Hebrew text. This section, however, is remarkably readable primarily due to the lack of examples which attempt to replicate the Hebrew text. He describes the features well without the often confusing syllable counts and transliterated Hebrew. I expected more out of the section on evocative language, it is barely more than a page long. Understanding how metaphors and other imagery function will pay dividends for interpreting the Psalms and I think readers of a commentary on the Psalms would be well-served by a more developed introduction to this sort of language.

The last major section of the Introduction discusses themes and theology of the Psalter. Jacobson recognizes the difficulty in developing a “theology” of the entire Psalter since it represents such a wide variety of contexts and perspectives. This diversity is demonstrated by citing a wide variety of commentators who have suggested a “theological center” for the Psalter. Other approaches to the theology of the Psalter focus on genre or sub-collections. It is easier to think in terms of a theology of the Psalms of Asaph, for example, than the whole collection. This commentary attempts to understand the theology of each psalm individually rather than develop a synthetic theology of the whole Psalter.

In the body of the commentary each of the three authors cover each Psalm in a few pages. All Hebrew appears in transliteration and most technical details are found in the footnotes. After a short introduction discussing structure in the genre of the psalm, the author provides a short outline and fresh translation. These translations have a number of footnotes covering textual critical issues, citing LXX and other versions, targumim, and the Dead Sea Scrolls where available. Following the translation the commentary section works through the psalm stanza by stanza. Since most syntactical comments appear in the footnotes to the translation, the main commentary reads smoothly with only occasional reference to secondary sources.

Following the some of the commentary sections written by Rolf Jacobson a brief reflection on the psalm appears. In this section there are connections to larger biblical theological interests, but also occasionally historical interpretations of the psalm. I am not sure why this is limited to only a few Psalms since I found them very interesting and helpful from a “history of interpretation” perspective. I appreciate the fact the authors for each Psalm are identified at the end of the article on each psalm.

Despite the length of the commentary, some of the commentary sections are unfortunately brief. Beth Tanner only has four pages of commentary on the twelve verses Psalm 26, including translation and notes. Jacobson writes eight pages on the eleven verses of Psalm 29. The lengthy and important Psalm 51 has only six pages. The 72-verses of Psalm 78 are covered in only 3 pages, although there are few exegetical problems in this rehearsal of Israel’s history. Unfortunately even a very long commentary cannot offer the same sort of detailed, verse-by-verse analysis of a Psalm one finds in a commentary on Ephesians, but that may not be necessary in most case. Some Psalms are more difficult and have generated far more secondary literature, so it is not surprising some Psalms are treated in more summary fashion.

There are a few sub-units in the Psalter that may have merited an excursus. For example, an introduction to the eleven Psalms of Asaph is only about a page in the introduction to the third book of the Psalter and a short footnote on the header of Psalm 73.  On a few occasions DeClaissé-Walford addes a short additional note on the use of a Psalm in the rabbinic tradition (for example, on Ps 42, 402; Ps 45, 416). I found these side-notes interestingly, but they were a bit of a tease since they appear so rarely in the whole commentary.

Often Christian commentaries on the Psalms are interested in the so-called messianic Psalms. While there are occasional notes in this direction, this commentary is not distracted by later interpretations of the Psalms, whether in the New Testament or by later Christian or Jewish interpreters. For example, Psalm 45 is a royal psalm often associated with the messiah. In her comments on the psalm, DeClaissé-Walford points out the line from the Aramaic Targum on Psalm 45 which interprets the king as “King Messiah” as well as the common (and unfortunate, in my view) Christian interpretation of the bride in the psalm as the Church and the King as Jesus. Having recognized these later interpretations, her commentary rightly focuses on the Hebrew text without advocating for these theological interpretations. Beth Tanner’s comments on Psalm 22 refrain from the Christological interpretation until the concluding paragraph. Even though I personally am very interested messianic interpretations of the Psalter, I appreciate the writers’ commitment to keeping this to a minimum in their commentary.

Conclusion. Any new volume of the NICOT series is welcome, but this is an excellent contribution to the study of the Psalms. Do not be misled by the fact this is a single volume commentary on the Psalms: the book is a full exegetical commentary on the whole Psalter and belongs on the shelf of every serious student of the Psalter.


Other Commentaries in the NICOT Series:

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