Tackling the Psalms in One Volume

THE BOOK OF THE PSALMSPsalmsWEB
(THE NEW INTERNATIONAL COMMENTARY ON THE OLD TESTAMENT)

NANCY DECLAISSE-WALFORD, ROLF A. JACOBSON, BETH LANEEL TANNER
EERDMANS, 2014
1,073 PAGES
$60

“Reflecting the combined insights and strengths of three superior biblical scholars, this book is the most complete and detailed one-volume commentary available on the Psalms”: so boasts publisher William. B. Eerdmans. Before I comment on this mammoth book and respond to that claim, honesty demands that I begin with full disclosure: I am neither an Old Testament nor a psalms scholar. However, for more than 30 years I have read and taught the psalms, and, like a multitude of saints, I love the Psalms and pray them daily.

The authors of this work are, as Eerdmans says, “superior biblical scholars.” DeClaissé-Walford is Carolyn Ward Professor of Old Testament and Biblical Languages at McAfee School of Theology, Jacobson is associate professor of Old Testament at Luther Seminary, and Tanner is the Kansfield professor of Old Testament Studies at New Brunswick Theological Seminary. It is also true that they have put together a comprehensive commentary on the psalter in one volume.

At the beginning of the book, the writers acknowledge feeling relieved to be able to share the task among the three of them. Having agreed on their approach to understanding the psalter and primary sources to use, the authors self-assigned different sections of the psalter for study, translation and commentary and spent the next few years bringing the book to publication. This commentary is, therefore, a collection of the writings of three people. DeClaissé-Walford and Jacobson share the overall introduction. Introductions to each book and commentaries on each psalm have been shared among all three writers. Generally, this new addition to The New International Commentary on the Old Testament follows the format of the series.

I have already seen where I need to make changes to my teaching notes on the psalter.

I’ll begin with the commentaries. Jacobson takes on most of the first book (psalms 1-41) and contributes to a handful of psalms in Book Four. Tanner and deClaissé-Walford share the commentaries in books Two through Five. Jacobson’s style is more detailed (thus, the Book One commentary is the longest of the five), and each of his commentaries includes a reflection at the end. In the reflections, he offers pastoral suggestions relating the psalm to our living in relationship to God today. For instance, the reflection for Psalm 1 pays attention to the visual element in the psalm: “The book of Psalms begins with a picture,” Jacobson writes. He is referring to the tree planted by streams of water: “In the ancient world, the tree was a symbol of divine blessing,” while a stream could be a metaphor for instruction, he says. The reader is prepared to discover in the psalms a source of blessing and instruction. I appreciated these reflections, as they encouraged me to go beyond the intellect and allow the psalm to reach the heart.

INCONSISTENT EXECUTION

Unfortunately, Jacobson’s inclusion of reflections is not repeated by Tanner and deClaissé-Walford, who also tend to be less detailed in their commentaries. No explanation for this inconsistency is given. This lack of uniformity in format and detail also is reflected in the quality of the commentaries – some are brief summaries of stanzas rather than detailed explanations. Having said that, I must acknowledge the superior quality of the authors’ English translations, with some footnoted commentary explaining difficult terms. These translations illustrate the Hebrew language and cultural expertise of the authors, and I greatly appreciated their insight and ability to correct and improve on our most common English Bible translations. For instance, Tanner translates the second line of verse three in Psalm 37 as, “dwell in the land and shepherd faithfulness.” The New Revised Standard Version says, “so you will live in the land, and enjoy security.” Tanner says she finds this translation inexplicable and says the verb is an imperative rather than passive and means shepherd or protect. Her translation shifts greater responsibility onto God’s faithful believers.

The introduction to the psalter gives insightful information to both better understand the psalms and also the authors’ interpretive method. Jacobson and deClaissé-Walford share different aspects of the introduction. I’ll highlight two things I found intriguing and helpful in the introduction: The first is what they referred to as a “peculiarity of this commentary” – their decision not to translate into English the Hebrew term hesed (mercy), choosing instead to “treat it as a loanword from Hebrew to English – similar to ‘shalom.’” They maintain there is no adequate English term that covers the fullness of hesed. They argue that hesed is relational, describing “both internal character as well as external actions.” I hope they have begun a trend so that we adopt hesed as we’ve adopted shalom.

Second, I was intrigued by deClaissé-Walford’s discussion on the canonical shape of the psalter. She argues that the psalter isn’t a random collection of poems but, in its final form is a collection of purposefully placed works that shape the psalter into “five books that narrate the history of ancient Israel.” The collection begins (Book 1) with David’s reign and concludes (Book 5) with the celebration of the return to Jerusalem after Babylonian exile. This theory is interesting but inadequately explained and supported. For instance, Book 2 covers Solomon’s reign and yet is later described as being about David, not Solomon. Unfortunately, the introductions to each of the books fail to unpack this theory. I was left with more questions than answers.

Finally, while there is much in this one-volume commentary to admire, the lack of real collaboration among the three authors did undermine its quality. There are unnecessary repetitions, such as the explanation of the Hebrew term maskil by more than one author. Tanner explains the term in a footnote, and deClaissé-Walford explains it in her introduction to Psalm 42 and, a few lines down, includes a footnote directing the reader to Tanner’s explanation. However, as this book is commentary and thus generally used by a reader to seek information about a specific psalm, perhaps this repetition is necessary. I found it redundant.

Is this commentary worth its $60 price? Yes, if you’re a library serving biblical scholars and readers; yes, if you’re a psalms scholar and seek to broaden your understanding of the vast scholarship on the psalter (deClaissé-Walford, Jacobson and Tanner have drawn on voluminous sources) and yes, if you’re preaching through the psalms and can afford to buy it. I’m glad I have my review copy; I have already seen where I need to make changes to my teaching notes on the psalter.

Jackie L. Smallbones teaches religion and Christian education at Northwestern College, Orange City, Iowa.