Through the Psalms? 2 Books to Help
Before the mid-50 degree winds blow Psalms of Summer too far back into my homiletical consciousness, I want to highlight two Psalms commentaries I used every week this summer.
1. Revised EBC
In the EBC set’s previous edition, Psalms was only available in a larger volume that also contained Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and Song of Solomon. Now, with some expansions and revisions, it is its own 1,000-page volume.
VanGemeren’s introduction is detailed, offering the kind of thorough but not verbose overview anyone reading or preaching on the Psalms would want. Among other issues, he writes about Psalm types, the formation of the Psalter, theology in the Psalms, and literary/poetic devices–in addition to parallelism, he lists and describes 16 devices.
The typical pattern is for each Psalm to begin with an Overview (covering its themes, structure, authorship, and so on). Then follow “Commentary” and “Notes” for each passage. The Commentary section is verse-by-verse exposition; the Notes include more detailed technical insights, especially delving into the Hebrew text. 22 “Reflections” throughout the commentary offer additional explanation of important themes.
To take just one look inside the commentary, Psalm 13:5-6 in the NIV (1984) reads:
But I trust in your unfailing love;
my heart rejoices in your salvation.
I will sing to the LORD,
for he has been good to me.
Of these verses VanGemeren says:
Though he has experienced deep despair, the psalmist does not give up. His feet did not slip. He held on to the promise of God’s covenant love: “your unfailing love” (hesed). He is not overwhelmed by his troubles, but in his depression he says, “But I trust.” The emphatic “But I” (v.5) is a surprising response from the heart of a depressed person. Because life may be so bitter for some, it is only by God’s grace that the heart of faith may groan, “but I.”
As with the Revised EBC volume, the introduction to Psalms Volume 1 in the NIV Application Commentary series (NIVAC) covers good ground: authorship, historical use of Psalms (in temple worship, as well as the move “from public performance to private piety”), poetic conventions, Hebrew poetry specifically (parallelism, use of refrains, acrostics), Psalm headings, and types of Psalms.
Wilson–after an informative historical survey of attempts to categorize Psalms–highlights three “main” Psalm types: Praise, Lament, and Thanksgiving. He also notes other types, like royal Psalms and wisdom Psalms. The introduction spans more than 60 pages and (thankfully) exceeds what one might expect to find in an “application commentary.”
The NIVAC series has as its primary goal “to help you with the difficult but vital task of bringing an ancient message into a modern context.” It employs three sections for each Psalm to (quite successfully) accomplish the aim:
- Original Meaning: “the meaning of the biblical text in its original context.”
- Bridging Contexts: “to help you discern what is timeless in the timely pages of the Bible–and what is not,” i.e., what applies only particularly to a context and not universally.
- Contemporary Significance: the application section, including suggestions for the preacher or teacher or reader of the passage.
The text of each Psalm is printed in full before its commentary, which I appreciated. This first volume covers Psalms 1-72 (Books I and II of the Psalter). The author is as adept in the text’s Original Meaning as he is in Bridging Contexts or discussing its Contemporary Significance. Wilson won’t write your sermon for you, but he gives the preacher or teacher plenty to chew on, both for herself and for her congregation. Especially illuminating in the application section is Wilson’s Christological read of many Psalms.
Here are just two examples of the kind of edifying insights that fill Wilson’s NIVAC volume:
1. He notes the walk…stand…sit progression of Psalm 1, and does so with a nice turn of phrase:
The order of these verbs may indicate a gradual descent into evil, in which one first walks alongside, then stops, and ultimately takes up permanent residence in the company of the wicked.
2. When Sons of Korah in Psalm 46 call the congregation to a counterintuitive praise session, they do so in the midst not just of some tragic events befalling God’s people—it’s the complete disintegration of all of life that is the dominant metaphor in these verses. Wilson says that when the Psalm speaks of mountains falling into the sea, this “amounts to a moment of uncreation.”
Praying with Many, Many Others
Wilson puts it well:
Thus, whenever you read the psalms, when you sing them or pray them, you are praying, singing, and reading alongside a huge crowd of faithful witnesses throughout the ages. The words you speak have been spoken thousands–even millions–of times before: in Hebrew, Greek, Latin, English, and a myriad of other languages. As you read or sing or pray, off to your right stand Moses and Miriam, in front of you David and Solomon kneel down, to your left are Jesus, Peter and Paul, Priscilla and Aquila, while from behind come the voices of Jerome, St. Augustine, Theresa of Avila, Luther, Calving, and more–so many more!
Thanks to Zondervan for review copies of each of the above, given to me with no expectation as to the content or trajectory of my review. Find the Revised EBC volume here (Amazon) or here (Zondervan). The NIVAC Psalms volume is here (Amazon) or here (Zondervan).