A Commentary on the Psalms: a book review

Thus far I am highly impressed by the Kregel Exegetical Library. I  have reviewed Robert Chisholm’s commentary on Judges and Ruth and Allen Ross’s commentary on book one of the Psalms (Psalms 1-41). Both of those volumes combined exegetical depth with homiletic insight. These are commentaries which are sensitive to genre, literary style, and the historic setting of the text. They also are written by critically engaged confessional scholars and chock-full of insights. Now Allen Ross has returned with a second volume on the Psalms. A Commentary on the Psalms: Volume 2 (42-89) examines books two and three of the Psalms.

Because this is volume two of a proposed three volume treatment on the Psalms (Volume three planned for November 2014), this volume does not include the extensive and helpful introduction to the Psalms. Instead Ross jumps right into commenting on the text. Like the previous volume, Ross begins his commentary on each chapter with a fresh translation, notes on textual variants, a discussion of the composition and context, and an exegetical analysis. Then he provides a verse by verse commentary on the text. and concludes with  a brief section on the message and application of the text. This format allows Ross to dig deeply into the language, history and message of the Psalms while drawing out the implications for our life now.

This is a great follow up to Ross’s Volume One and makes me look eagerly ahead to the next installment. I recommend this book for scholars, students and pastors. Anyone who is interested in exploring in-depth the Psalms, will find Ross an insightful guide [Ross wrote my intro to Biblical Hebrew text, so I am grateful to the ways he has opened up the Hebrew Scriptures to me]. The strength of this commentary is in its attention to exegetical details. I give this commentary five stars: ★★★★★

Notice of material connection: I received this book from Kregel Academic for the purposes of my honest review.

Is-ness is Good; See and Taste: a book review

Theology is word care, or, if you like, Word care. Theologians explore sacred writ and tradition, reflecting on the meaning of words and Word. They help us see the full meaning and implications of our  belief. This is what makes O Taste and See such a joy to read. Poet-Theologian and New Testament Scholar Bonnie Thurston turns her gaze on one of the best known and loved verses from the Psalms, Psalm 34:8, “O Taste and See that the Lord is Good; happy are those who take refuge in Him.” As only a poet (or Biblical scholar?) can, she explores the depths of the words, and helps us attend to what they mean for us.

After a brief introduction orienting readers to the world of the Psalms and this Psalm, Thurston explores the first part of this verse (O Taste and See that the Lord is Good) by taking a ‘backward journey’ through it. She begins by reflecting on how ‘the Lord is’–God’s Being–His Is-ness (chapter 2). She then reflects on God goodness (chapter 3). God is revealed in Bible and made manifest in the world as good, gracious, as Love.

Having established the identity and character of the God, Thurston invites us the feast. We are to ‘see God’ and ‘taste God.’ These sensory metaphors take us from the realm of theology to the world of experience. Thurston connects ‘seeing God,’ to the Word.  This is where God is revealed to us, but who is it that sees God?  The pure in heart and those who know that God’s Being provides the ground for their own being. Seeing is a metaphor for understanding, and our understanding comes as God reveals himself to us. She makes a nod toward Karl Barth for upholding the concept off revelation–God’s own self disclosure-over reason, though she  expands his concept beyond the world of scripture, seeing God revealed in nature and religion as well (I can hear a  Barthian nein here). Thurston relates ‘Tasting God’ to the sacrament of communion. When we come to the table we partake in a meal where Christ–God made flesh–is revealed to us.

Thurston’s explication of this Psalm is enriched by her love of words. As she takes us on a journey reflecting on God’s ‘Is-ness’ and goodness, she also unpacks each word. Each chapter begins with etymology. She traces the meaning of the words in the Bible (the Divine name, Goodness, Seeing, Tasting).  She was a New Testament scholar and so gives  more weight to the Greek (likely her strength) and prefers to discuss the Psalm’s words in the Septuagint. But as she does this, she traces these words forward, showing how the concepts of God’s Being and Goodness are described in the gospels and Paul’s letters. If I have one small critique it would be that I wish she explored the Hebrew world a little more (the language that gave us this psalm).

One of the things I loved  was the way Thurston synthesized and drew on a wide range of scholars and spiritual writers from diverse theological perspectives. Catholic, Orthodox and Protestant writers all provide Thurston with source material. She draws generously on a spectrum of theologians which include the likes of Sallie Mcfague and Dorothy Soelle on the one side and Alister McGrath and J.I. Packer on the other. This is an ecumenical book in the best sense.

Despite the theological depth (and breadth) of this book, it is not a work of academic theology. This is a book about spiritual experience. In it, Thurston shares her own journey  experience and understanding of this Psalm. It was in the basement St Paul’s Memorial Episcopal Church in the mid 70’s that she first heard and sang R. Vaughn Williams choral arrangement of “O taste and See”(xiii-xiv).  That congregation, years of study,daily reading of the Psalms and prayer has also shaped her understanding. This book unfolds her deepening experience of God. She speaks with  confidence in the being and goodness of the God of whom she has tasted and seen.

And so I recommend this book to you. This is a theologically rich meditation on a single verse from the Psalms (okay,  half a verse); yet Thurston attends to the full meaning of these words and invites us to experience the God who is good and the God who is. Happy are those who take refuge in Him. I give this book five stars: ★★★★★.

Thank you to Paraclete Press for providing me a copy of this book in exchange for this review.

Entering Deeper into the Psalms: a book review

I know that I’m not alone in loving the Psalms. Many of us have found comfort, strength and words for prayer. My own love for the Psalms was whetted years ago when I read Eugene Peterson’s devotional works (especially The Long Obedience in the Same Direction and Answering God). Since that time I’ve read many good many more books on the Psalms, some devotional, some academic. I have a short list of books I really like on the Psalms, and am happy to add a new book to my list!

The Psalter Reclaimed: Praying and Praising with the Psalms by Gordon Wenham

So I was excited when I saw Gordon Wenham’The Psalter Reclaimed: Praying and Praising with the Psalms. Wenham is one of my favorite commentators  and is an adjunct professor at Trinity College, Bristol. I have appreciated his writings but have never read his treatment of the Psalms. In the Psalter Reclaimed,  Wenham culls together his lectures on the Psalms delivered between 1997 and 2010. Despite the occasional nature of these essays, there is a remarkable cohesion to the book as a whole. Wenham examines the liturgical use of Psalms and their personal devotional use in prayer. He also discusses the Messianic nature of the Royal Psalms (and in what sense they are Messianic), the ethics of the psalms, the value of praying the imprecatory Psalms, the vision of God’s steadfast love as expressed in Psalm 103, and the Psalm’s vision of the nations (enemies of God who at last lift their voice in praise).

This may be one of the greatest introductory books on the Psalms for the sheer breadth of what Wenham is able to cover in a short book. He comes from a strong Reformed Anglican tradition and therefore has a lot to say about the liturgical use of Psalms  to enrich our corporate worship and to provide moral instruction.  He discusses the various genres of Psalms in his section on ‘praying the Psalms’ and demonstrates how the various types (i.e. Pslams of Lament, praises,  Royal Psalms, etc.) speak to the various seasons of the Christian life.  This emphasis on the liturgical and personal use of the Psalms makes this a great introductory book for anyone seeking to enter deeper into the Spirituality of the Psalms

But Wenham is not simply writing a lay introduction. These essays also discuss how current scholarship enriches our understanding of the text.  And so he shows how speech-act theory helps describe the performative nature of the Psalms, Canonical l criticism reveals the meaning behind the Psalm superscriptions and the internal organization of the book,  he proposes a theological hermeneutic which takes the Royal Psalms past their historical-literary context into the realm of New Testament fulfillment, and he reviews historic and current discussions  of the imprecatory Psalms and whether they may be  appropriately prayed by Christians. Wenham’s skill as an exegete and a scholar are evident throughout.

I especially liked his treatment on the ethical import of the Psalms because Wenham’s Story as Torah was the book that alerted me to the way ethics were embedded in Hebrew Narrative. In abbreviated form he gives a compelling case for the ethical use of Psalms to provide moral instruction and encourages modern readers to mine the Psalms for what it tells us about Biblical Ethics.

Because this book is an edited collection of earlier lectures there is some overlap in the chapters which you wouldn’t expect in a full length monograph. Wenham also doesn’t say everything that needs to be said on the Psalms (though he points us to some great resources). But this book is an introductory text and I think that anyone’s understanding of the Psalms will be enriched by reading this. I recommend this book to scholar, student, clergy and lay-person alike. I give it five stars: ★★★★★

Thank you to Crossway books for providing me a copy of this book in exchange for this review.

Lord Do Not Rebuke Me in Your Anger: Psalm 38 (the Seven Penitential Psalms)

Psalm 38:title–22 (NIV)

A psalm of David. A petition.

Lord, do not rebuke me in your anger

or discipline me in your wrath.

Your arrows have pierced me,

and your hand has come down on me.

Because of your wrath there is no health in my body;

there is no soundness in my bones because of my sin.

My guilt has overwhelmed me

like a burden too heavy to bear.

My wounds fester and are loathsome

because of my sinful folly.

I am bowed down and brought very low;

all day long I go about mourning.

My back is filled with searing pain;

there is no health in my body.

I am feeble and utterly crushed;

I groan in anguish of heart.

All my longings lie open before you, Lord;

my sighing is not hidden from you.

10 My heart pounds, my strength fails me;

even the light has gone from my eyes.

11 My friends and companions avoid me because of my wounds;

my neighbors stay far away.

12 Those who want to kill me set their traps,

those who would harm me talk of my ruin;

all day long they scheme and lie.

13 I am like the deaf, who cannot hear,

like the mute, who cannot speak;

14 I have become like one who does not hear,

whose mouth can offer no reply.

15 Lord, I wait for you;

you will answer, Lord my God.

16 For I said, “Do not let them gloat

or exalt themselves over me when my feet slip.”

17 For I am about to fall,

and my pain is ever with me.

18 I confess my iniquity;

I am troubled by my sin.

19 Many have become my enemies without cause;

those who hate me without reason are numerous.

20 Those who repay my good with evil

lodge accusations against me,

though I seek only to do what is good.

21 Lord, do not forsake me;

do not be far from me, my God.

22 Come quickly to help me,

my Lord and my Savior.

When we read Psalm 32 we explored the experience of having been forgiven and set free. Psalm 38 takes us back into the same territory that Psalm 6 put us in, even beginning with the same words. Repentance is cyclical. Sometimes we buckle under the weight of our sins, sometimes we know fully the joy of being forgiven.

But this Psalm speaks more explicitly about how sin stands behind his calamity. The psalmist knows that his peculiar suffering is caused by his sin [Note: Suffering doesn’t always have sin as a direct cause, other psalms explore the suffering of the righteous].  He speaks of God’s wrath, his guilt, his sinful folly, his sin and iniquity. His sin has caused him to suffer and his health to falter.  He longs for forgiveness, healing and restoration but he experiences none.  And he feels isolated and alone. Even the good that he offers others is repaid harshly.

David (presumably the author of this Psalm) suffered for his sin.  He knew that God was right to be angry with him. He had disobeyed God’s law and misused his power when he took Bathsheba and had Uriah the Hittite killed in battle (more about this when we discuss Psalm 51).  He sinned when he trusted in his army instead of God. At times his anger burned hot and he acted rashly. When he was older he failed to address the sins of his sons Amnon (who raped his half sister Tamar) and Absalom (who avenged Tamar and forcibly wrested the Kingdom from David’s hands for a time).  I think he had difficulty confronting his sons because he was guilty of the same sins. A little leniency from David meant that he reaped the whirlwind and many whom he called friends and allies betrayed him.

We do not know the occasion of this Psalm (or even if   the superscription ‘of David’ means that he  wrote this psalm). But we’ve experienced this. Have you held on to Sin in your heart and seen it poison everything in your life? Have you been bitter against someone who betrayed you and abused your trust?  You were justified in your anger but when bitterness grew in you, you were the one who suffered.  All your relationships were poisoned and you felt isolated and alone.

How about lust? Are you tempted to treat others as objects to be used for your own satisfaction? Or greed? Are you constantly reaching for just a little more and find yourself consumed by your own consumption? Does your pride prevent you from turning to God or others for the help you desperately need?And the list can go on. I know it because I am sinner too and in my own way have suffered what the Psalmist describes.

But the Psalmist knows more than the weight of his sin. He knows that hope for forgiveness and restoration are found in God. He lays his soul bare and cries, ” Lord, do not forsake me; do not be far from me, my God. Come quickly to help me, my Lord and my Savior.” His own actions may have caused his suffering and isolation. His health deteriorated because of anxiety and guilt over what he had done. But he knows that he can do nothing to aleviate his condition. If there is freedom and life and hope, it will come when the God of salvation draws near.

May we also look to the Savior of our souls to free us from the sin that entangles us.  Teach us Lord to turn our hearts to you.

Blessed is the One Whose Sins Are Forgiven: Psalm 32 (Seven Penitential Psalms)

The Seven Penitential Psalms were chosen because they teach us about confession; yet they do not all teach us in the same way. Our first psalm (Psalm 6) lamented personal suffering and sadness which comes from sin. The tone of Psalm 32 is different. It is not a lament at all. Instead this is a psalm of thanksgiving for God’s forgiveness.  At the end of Psalm 6, the psalmist feels heard and awaits the Lord’s sure deliverance. Here the psalmist sings of a lived reality.  His sorrows were swallowed up by the mercy of God. Here is Psalm:

Psalm 32 (NIV)

Of David. A maskil.

Blessed is the one

whose transgressions are forgiven,

whose sins are covered.

Blessed is the one

whose sin the Lord does not count against them

and in whose spirit is no deceit.

When I kept silent,

my bones wasted away

through my groaning all day long.

For day and night

your hand was heavy on me;

my strength was sapped

as in the heat of summer.

Then I acknowledged my sin to you

and did not cover up my iniquity.

I said, “I will confess

my transgressions to the Lord.”

And you forgave

the guilt of my sin.

Therefore let all the faithful pray to you

while you may be found;

surely the rising of the mighty waters

will not reach them.

You are my hiding place;

you will protect me from trouble

and surround me with songs of deliverance.

I will instruct you and teach you in the way you should go;

I will counsel you with my loving eye on you.

Do not be like the horse or the mule,

which have no understanding

but must be controlled by bit and bridle

or they will not come to you.

10 Many are the woes of the wicked,

but the Lord’s unfailing love

surrounds the one who trusts in him.

11 Rejoice in the Lord and be glad, you righteous;

sing, all you who are upright in heart!

The psalmist is aware of the isolation and loneliness of being a sinner. He remembers how his bones ached and his spirit withered. He knew that he was the recipient of God’s wrath. But then he confessed his sins–did not hold back anything but declared them all. And then he experienced absolution, freedom, total forgiveness and joy. With confidence he exhorts us to shed our obstinance and petty pretense and seek forgiveness from the God of grace.

Have you experienced what the Psalmist describes? There was a time when I felt the weight of my sin and resented God’s goodness (if God weren’t so good, he wouldn’t demand so much would He?). But then I experienced God’s goodness afresh–His Grace abounding to my sin-sick-soul. And in that moment I felt loved by God and the freedom of forgiveness. But I am from a people of unclean lips and I have unclean lips. I don’t do confession well. I bet you don’t either.

I feel like our gut response to sin in our lives is to pretend it isn’t there. Sure we aren’t perfect but we really aren’t that bad either, right? So we excuse our faults and make sure that we do more good than bad. We hide from the ugly parts of ourselves and we hide from one another too. And God. When God and others see us for who we truly are we feel exposed. We are naked and ashamed so we run and hide.

What this Psalm suggests to me is that another way is possible. To the extent that I have bared my soul to God in confession I am able to latch on to the forgiveness He offers through Christ.  It is when confess our sins that we know the freedom of forgiveness.  What we hold back from God, God will not bless. What we give to Him is transformed in His hands. I pray for myself that I would be bold in my confession and honest with myself about where my thoughts, words and deeds hurt the ones I love. In better moments I pray that for you too. Join me in confession and let us experience the freedom of God’s forgiveness together!

Lord Do Not Rebuke Me In Anger: Psalm 6 (Seven Penitential Psalms)


Psalm 6

For the director of music. With stringed instruments. According to sheminith. A psalm of David.

1 LORD, do not rebuke me in your anger
or discipline me in your wrath.
2 Have mercy on me, LORD, for I am faint;
heal me, LORD, for my bones are in agony.
3 My soul is in deep anguish.
How long, LORD, how long?

4 Turn, LORD, and deliver me;
save me because of your unfailing love.
5 Among the dead no one proclaims your name.
Who praises you from the grave?

6 I am worn out from my groaning.

All night long I flood my bed with weeping
and drench my couch with tears.
7 My eyes grow weak with sorrow;
they fail because of all my foes.

8 Away from me, all you who do evil,
for the LORD has heard my weeping.
9 The LORD has heard my cry for mercy;
the LORD accepts my prayer.
10 All my enemies will be overwhelmed with shame and anguish;
they will turn back and suddenly be put to shame.

 

This is the first of the so-called Penitential Psalms. Psalm 6 is a personal lament Psalm a petition for relief from suffering. Bible commentator Peter Craigie calls it “A Prayer of Sickness.” But is this Penitential Psalm about Sin?  With the exception of the opening verse where the psalmist cries, “Do not rebuke me in your anger/ do not chastise me in your wrath” there is no hint of wrong doing by the author. Instead this psalm lays bare personal anguish. The psalmist is feeble–physically suffering and disturbed in the depths of his soul. He longs for salvation and the lovingkindness (covenant love) of God. And yet the psalmist is overwhelmed with thoughts of death, with sickness, with crying and grief. At the heart of his suffering he feels abandoned by God.

I’ve heard many a preacher say, “If you feel distant from God, guess who moved?” This phrase is to warn us of the dangers of our ever wandering heart. But the writer of Psalm 6 doesn’t feel like he’s moving. If anything, he feels stuck. But he longs for God, for restoration and life.  This psalm gives words to the experience of sadness, grief, sickness, abandonment and physical anguish. This is why Christians through the ages have associated this Psalm with our response to personal sin. Ought we not feel broken and sad when we know what our sin cost God?  This psalm names the appropriate response to our wickedness.

When I think about this I wonder: when the last time I felt anguish for the state of my soul?  I tend to think of myself as not too bad. Sometimes I feel bad about something I’ve said or did but this doesn’t occupy my thoughts for too long. In a consumer culture I always have something at my finger tips which promises relief from personal anxiety. I can escape my problems by reading a good book or watching a bad movie. I can gorge myself on copious amounts of chocolate or with a good glass (bottle) of wine.  I seldom consider the depths of my sin, and if I do, I do not do it very long.   Yet Lent is a time for taking an honest look at yourself. So I am a sinner, but I do not know personal suffering of the magnitude that the Psalmist describes. I have had my share of  hard times and personal anxiety. I long for more joy, peace and contentment in my life.  I have felt grief and a myriad of little aches and pains, but this Psalm invites me deeper: to a place of total brokenness for my sin.

The brokenness of the Psalmist does not end in brokenness. The Lord hears his cries  and the anguishing, “How Long?” I think the lesson in praying this Psalm is that God is the God who hears. You do not need to deny your sorry estate. You do not need to repress personal disappointment and anguish of the soul. You do not need to numb your perceptions with sensual pleasures. When you turn to God with your Sin and suffering, He will bring healing and restoration.

This Psalm is good news for my sin-sick-soul.  When I read it, I ask God to feel more fully the weight of my sins. But I am no masochist. God in Christ has paid for my sins and will restore to life and health the parts of me that are marred by sinfulness. The God who hears will not leave me to suffer but will surround me with His mercy and Grace.

 

Confession is Good for the Soul: an Introduction to the Seven Penitential Psalms

During last year’s Lent, I had a series of posts on the Seven Deadly Sins. Those posts were  a way for me to examine my heart, repent and explore alternative practices. This year I will look at the Seven Penitential Psalms.  These psalms (Psalms 6, 32, 38, 51, 102, 130, 142) were designated the Penitential Psalms in the 7th Century (though four of them were known as such much earlier). because of how suitably they expressed repentance.  In the Middle Ages they were recited after Lauds (Morning Prayer) on Fridays through Lent and were used in Medieval confessions.

These psalms help us pay attention to the way sin feels in us. When I looked at the Seven Deadly Sins, I was exploring how habitual sin affects us.  These reflections are somewhat different. The Psalms name the reality of sin in our lives and express sorrow for it. They also talk about what sin does to our heart, our minds, our bodies and our soul. So I invite you to read these Psalms along with me and trust that through Christ Jesus the grace of God extends to our sin-sick-souls.

The Penitentials  are an invitation to be clean, to be whole, and fully restored. When I compose my reflections on each of these Psalms I will not ask you to do anything. Instead I want to hold out the mercy of God. The Psalms utter our longings for wholeness and freedom. They also instruct us in way of freedom.

But I want to be honest with you. Confession is good for the soul but it is also hard. It is much easier to ignore your sin, shrug it off as no big deal than to take a long hard look at the way Sin stains our best efforts. I am a sinner but a poor penitent.  Absolution comes to those who confess but first we have to take a hard look at ourselves.   I do not know where these reflections will take me (us?) but I hope we will have the courage to repent and turn our hearts to God.