On the heels of my review of The Psalms, ESV, I thought it perfect timing to offer my readers more on Israel’s songbook. Enter Allen Ross and his massive, three-volume project, A Commentary on the Psalms, published by Kregel as part of their “Exegetical Library” series. (Volume 1, Volume 2, Volume 3 forthcoming Fall 2014).
“That the Psalter has for ages served as the book of praises and prayers for the worshiping community as well as for devout individuals in their private meditations should be enough to prompt churches of today to reconsider their place in the instruction and development of the spiritual life of the church. They should be the model for our songs of praise, the instruction for our prayers and meditations, and the inspiration for our quest for piety. They should also be considered for their benefit to our understanding of what worship is about, for they were inseparably bound to Israel’s worship by divine inspiration…The church is missing one of its richest experiences if it ignores the Book of Psalms or relegates it to a routine reading in a service without any explanation” (28-29).
Ross goes on to suggest that this neglect is precisely what has happened in modern times. When we read or use the Psalms, we do so without explaining them. And Ross is correct in his assertion, “A clear explanation…does not come easily” (29), which is due chiefly to a variety of interpretive approaches, the dense and sometimes elusive poetic language, and complex grammar and syntax.
So this is the occasion for Ross’ commentary: The immense value of the Psalms for the church, coupled with their relative neglect on the one hand and the difficulty in their interpretation on the other hand. This, then, is a commentary for the church.
Purpose and Audience
In Ross’ own words, “My purpose in writing this commentary was to focus on the chief aim of exegesis, the exposition of the text” (11). Essentially, he wants to equip those who preach and teach with a better foundation for faithfully preaching and teaching the Psalms in such a way that the clear display of their value will cause them to be reclaimed for the church.
This purpose “circumscribes” everything he will write: “I have tried to keep in mind my chief concern, that is, what a pastor or teacher needs to have for the development of an expository message” (11).
Highlights from Introductory Material
Readers will immediately note how much thicker volume 1 is than volume 2, and this is because of 179 pages of introductory material! For such a large commentary, Ross keeps a keen eye on the issues at hand. Even in his introductory content, where many commentators feel free reign to pursue many a rabbit trail, Ross keeps his audience and his purposes in mind.
I often nod off in commentary introductions. Its not that the subject matter is boring, but when it is presented as bare facts with little context, it becomes boring…and I often feel that way in commentary introductions. Because Ross keeps his eye on the prize, his Psalms suffers from this less than other commentaries.
In his section on “Titles and Headings in the Psalms”, Ross does an excellent job of presenting a useful, yet balanced portrait of the composition and the structure. Often people, particularly “expositors”, highlight interpretations that “preach well”, which in and of itself is not bad…but when “what preaches well” becomes a chief criterion for selecting the interpretation to advocate, rather than, for instance, “what is correct” (!), then the expositor does the audience a grave injustice while doing injury to the author and the text. Ross describes the “monarchy—failure—exile—hope of restoration” arrangement of the five books, and in doing so, he simultaneously demonstrates the value of being aware of this arrangement and the liability of leaning too heavily on this arrangement for the interpretation of individual Psalms. This structure “preaches well”, but it is ancillary to the chief concerns of the interpreter when it comes down to it. He demonstrates this fair, measured scholarship throughout the book (as far as I’ve seen so far).
Other introductory sections include:
- “Text and Ancient Versions of the Psalms” (in which he takes the dense subject of textual transmission and criticism and makes it eminently accessible).
- “Interpreting Biblical Poetry”, which includes a well-organized 24-page explanation of the various forms of parallelism and figures of speech to be found in the Psalter (essential material for any study of biblical poetry).
- A section on the various sub-genres in the Psalms (i.e. lament, praise, pilgrim, enthronement, royal, and wisdom Psalms, etc), which is arguably one of the most important topics for correct interpretation. Its what keeps us from reading, for example, a newspaper, a cartoon, a novel, and a recipe in the same way!
- “Psalms in Worship”—both ancient Israel and the church.
- A useful section on the “Theology of the Psalms.”
- A section on “Exposition of the Psalms.” As far as I’m concerned, this section is pretty unique in commentaries. Here, Ross outlines and explains a process that expositors can follow to create a solid exposition of any given Psalm. This is basically a specialized form of inductive Bible study particularly focused on poetry, which I heartily applaud!
Quality of Commentary
As with the introduction, Ross’ commentary proper is measured and balanced. He wanted to write a commentary that “would be easy to read, but not simplistic” (13). He is thorough and sometimes technical, but not in the choppy, dictionary-style prose that some commentators have taken. Any technical or Hebrew words are in parentheses, which is of benefit to both the scholar and the layperson. While Ross refuses to gloss over textual difficulties, he explains them in a way that is helpful to the expositor. While he develops biblical theological and typological themes, he does so in a balanced and appropriate manner (not a “Jesus behind every word” approach!).
For each Psalm, Ross includes:
- Introduction, which includes the full text (his own translation), information on the composition and context, and an exegetical analysis.
- Commentary in Expository form. This is not verse-by-verse, as some commentaries are, but rather section-by-section (with verse numbers included)
- Message and Application.
One aspect of Ross’ commentary that truly sets it apart (aside from its general high quality!) is his concern for the expositor. He truly sticks to his stated purpose in that he presents his commentary within the structure of his “homiletical outline” and concludes with a “summary expository idea” or “a short statement of the message” for each and every Psalm (18). Lest you fear he is reading his outlines into the Psalms (as some homiletical outlines indeed do), from what I can tell his outlines seem quite expositional in that they follow the flow of the passage well.
Ross’ commentary is full, as clear in the fact that it is three-volume set. However, he sticks to his goal, and for that reason its nice to read and deeply useful to many different readers.
Comparison with Other Available Resources
I have not used enough Psalms commentaries to speak authoritatively, but there are a handful to which I will briefly compare Ross. Willem VanGemeren has an excellent commentary in the Expositor’s Bible Commentary set. His is only one volume, so it is more concise, though not less technical. I have found VanGemeren very helpful, but sometimes the brevity has left me wanting more. As with Ross’ set, the Word Biblical Commentary series allotted three volumes to the Psalms. The difference, though, is that in WBC, each volume is written by a different author, so the consistency isn’t even. Peter Craigie wrote volume 1 (Psalm 1-50), and his is a highly celebrated commentary. But WBC is notorious for its cumbersome format. It is also more technical than Ross and VanGemeren. While I haven’t used his Psalms commentary, I know that John Goldingay’s writings, while very stimulating and useful, do not fit the label “balanced” and “measured” to the degree which Ross’ Psalms does. I would not use Goldingay alone, though I would highly recommend using him…alongside VanGemeren and/or Ross.
As Ross writes in the preface, “I have a gained fairly good sense of what needs to be explained and how it can be done in a limited period of time” (12). In other words, he has studied the Psalms for a long time and he is able to help those with less experience focus in on what is most important for the sake of teaching and preaching the Psalms well. This is his stated purpose, and I wholeheartedly believe he has achieved the purpose with flying colors. His scholarship in this commentary is consistently fair, measured, balanced and useful.
When I hear an Old Testament scholar like Robert Chisholm Jr. call this “The finest commentary on the Psalms available today”, my attention is officially piqued. While I’m not well versed enough in the literature to confirm this claim, I have no reason, based on my interactions with the text and the literature, to doubt it. Old Testament scholar Eugene Merrill concludes, “Every generation or so a benchmark publication emerges that eclipses all works of the genre that have preceded it and sets the standard for all subsequent attempts. Ross has accomplished this in his commentary on the Psalms.” Even if one disagrees with Merrill, there is no doubt that Ross is a “new” voice amidst the commentators to which any serious student of the Psalms must now pay heed.
I highly recommend that you pick up a copy of The Psalms, ESV and Ross’ commentary to use alongside it!
(Side Note: Quality of the binding shouldn’t factor into this sort of review, but I must say…this is also an excellent desk edition, as the book sits open on its own without being forced or weighted—an uncommon characteristic of plain ‘ole hardback books!).