Psalms Commentaries

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This is part of a larger project reviewing commentaries on each book of the Bible. Follow the links from that post for more information on the series, including explanations of what I mean by some of the terms and abbreviations in this post. You can see my annotated Amazon Listmania! list of Psalms commentaries if you want a quick overview of what I think are the most important commentaries before looking more deeply at this more detailed review.

Gerald Wilson's NIVAC on Psalms 1-72 is my favorite of all the Psalms commentaries. It's technically a popular-level commentary, but it's a good deal more in-depth than most NIVAC volumes in the area of Original Meaning, and it's even got a fairly significant introduction, something very uncommon for this series. As with most of them it's very good in its Bridging Contexts and Contemporary Application sections. The main point is to move from the original setting to contemporary application through deriving the general principles behind what the text says in its original setting. Unfortunately, the commentary is incomplete. It really is the first place I look for anything on the first 72 psalms. This one seems to be especially good with theology, and it's got a much greater degree of exegetical detail than some other popular-audience commentaries. [Update: Wilson has died. I'm guessing that this volume will be reassigned (or perhaps completed by someone else as a co-author if Wilson has made enough progress for the publisher to want to use his work).]

The WBC on Psalms is in three volumes. Volume 1 on Psalms 1-50 is by Peter Craigie. It's recently been updated by Marvin Tate, who did the second volume on 51-100, but you can still get the original by Craigie. I haven't looked at the updated version yet, but I imagine it strengthened the weaknesses in Craigie's volume in ways that the series' later volumes tended to improve upon. Volume 3 on 101-150 by Leslie Allen is now in its second edition, with exactly the sort of improvements that I'm expecting Tate did for Craigie. These three commentaries as a set form my favorite detailed treatment of the Psalms. There's some variation among the contributors. Craigie tends to be more theological than the others and is my favorite of the three. He is also strong on comparative linguistics, especially Ugaritic, and practices a moderate form criticism. Tate offers the most detail and is the heftiest of the three volumes (even after the other two have been revised), but he's less theological. Allen is somewhere in between. None of them draw enough connections with the New Testament for my preferences. Craigie's work is also the most dated, though the update by Tate should remedy that. With that update and the revision to Allen, those two volumes are very recent in their current form, and Tate is only 15 years old. All three start with a strong text-critical section and conclude with a summary of the basic meaning, with detailed commentary on each verse in between. There's some contemporary significance in the last section. The original versions of volumes 1 and 3 had much less of that, but the revised versions have a lot more than the originals did. One distracting feature of some Psalms commentaries is over-speculation about which ritual settings each psalm might have originated in, and these volumes focus more on what scholars can say with some confidence.

This is just about the most recent, complete, in-depth commentary on this book. The longest book in the Bible doesn't draw many full-length commentaries very often. There's only one complete academic commentary on Psalms that I know of that's more recent (Terrien), and that's nowhere near as detailed in terms of actual commentary. All three authors stand within the evangelical tradition, somewhat broadly construed. All three of them take views that I'm not willing to endorse in terms of historicity (though I'm not sure I'd deny most of those statements either), but they're all more conservative than you'll find in any other recent academic commentary on the Psalms. Allen is probably the least conservative of the bunch. But this is as conservative as you'll get for now at this level of detail. The forthcoming NICOT by Rolf Jacobsen, Nancy deClaisse-Walford, and Beth LaNeel Tanner might remedy that, but I know very little about the theological perspectives of any of those authors.

The Interpretation commentary by James Mays is a standout in a number of ways. While I often have reservations about this series, I really like this one. The reason I hesitate to recommend the series as a whole is that there isn't a very large ideal audience for it. It's supposed to be intended for a lay audience, who by definition are not prepared to handle complex details and intricacies of arguments. It doesn't present such details. The problem is that I'm trying to recommend commentaries as a conservative evangelical, and this series tends to accept conclusions that evangelicals will tend to resist, but the argumentation isn't always there in these commentaries to evaluate, and the intended audience isn't equipped to evaluate them to begin with. Some of them are nonetheless valuable for connections with contemporary settings, and a few are especially good in terms of theological probing. Mays is at his best when he's doing the latter, and he has an eye for the New Testament throughout the commentary. Some psalms get much more coverage than others, but he does treat every psalm.

The EBC contribution is by Willem VanGemeren. This commentary is packaged with commentaries by other authors on Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and the Song of Songs. VanGemeren's work takes up most of the volume, however, and this commentary is worth the price of the whole volume. I think Ross on Proverbs is pretty good as well. VanGemeren is at his best when sticking close to the Hebrew text, and this commentary is stronger on close exegesis than many in this series. VanGemeren is especially good when treating the Hebrew language. This whole series is being revised and/or replaced, but it may be a while before the OT volumes are done. VanGemeren's revised commentary will occupy a whole volume when it's done. Out of the conservative evangelical commentaries, this is one of the best. I much prefer Wilson, but his isn't complete. VanGemeren has more depth than most of the others in this category, and it's much more recent than the other one I consider to be as good, which is Derek Kidner's TOTC.

Kidner's two volumes are densely packed with solid exegesis, with careful attention to the Hebrew words. Kidner is theologically acute, and his musical background leads him to explore musical elements of the psalms that many commentators ignore. Language and form are among his strong suits. A more recent commentary is probably worth having, however, and the amount of space alotted to Kidner is much less than either VanGemeren or Wilson, so this would not be a first choice for me. It's cheap enough that it's a nice supplement, and I look at it as often as I look at VanGemeren, but if I had to choose I'd choose a more recent one with more space.

The first volume released of the Hermeneia on Psalms has just recently come out. It's by Frank Hossfeld and Erich Zenger. It's actually the second volume of the commentary, covering Psalms 51-100. It promises to be the scholarly standard for some time to come. Two things stand out from what I've looked at so far. One is a redactional history of the psalter, with a comprehensive picture of exactly which psalms come from exactly which period and how each layer involved alterations to the previous layer of development. I detected very little support for this massive structure, which serves as most of the introduction to this second volume. It amazes me that such speculative postulations can count as scholarship. The same issue arises in smaller scope with respect to the development of each psalm, usually with some commitment to a certain view of which parts of a psalm must be from which period in Israel's history. I looked in vain for convincing arguments for these claims. It seemed more as if it was a coherent structure from which to interpret the psalms that had come to support itself in the minds of the authors. The second feature that struck me as unusual is that Hossfeld and Zenger have an eye toward the New Testament, which they will reserve for discussion after their entire discussion of the psalm itself is complete. Their assumption that NT authors never cared a whit about the original context and just lifted things to fit some new idea regardless of the original context strikes me as at odds with all the evidence about how NT authors used OT texts, but even giving attention to the NT use of the psalms is remarkable in a mainstream scholarly series that explicitly disavows any attempt to serve homiletical purposes. These issues aside, I expect this three-volume work to be the standard scholarly commentary on the Psalms, in both careful exegesis and social background (a hallmark of this series).

[Update: The Review of Biblical Literature's review of Hossfeld and Zenger by Thomas Kraus is now online. I see two points worth adding in light of the review. Hossfeld and Zenger seem to incorporate more fruits from study of the Septuagint than most other scholars, but they remain remarkably conservative in terms of emending the Hebrew text and prefer to stick with the Masoretic Text when at all possible to explain the text as it stands. This combination of tendencies is extremely rare in Old Testament commentaries. Usually those motivated to spend more time in the Septuagint will be tempted to favor it far more than I would like. This increases my interest in this commentary considerably.]

Samuel Terrien's ECC is an odd duck. The two New Testament volumes released in the ECC are among the most detailed commentaries ever released on those books, but the only Old Testament volume isn't anywhere near as lengthy. It's very scholarly, with a lot on form, structure, and speculative historical settings (e.g. Psalm 45 is a long song written for Ahab and Jezebel). The author's specialty is strophic structure. This book is a major contribution to that field of study, though with any major contribution there will be many controversial aspects that haven't had a chance to stand up to criticism from other scholars. He especially focuses on what musical characteristics he thinks he can infer from the text, and he places the role of the musician in ancient Israel's worship on a level of importance rivaling prophets and priests, a move that I think is unwarranted even given the emphasis on musicians in Chronicles (and his placement of sages in this group seems to me to be even less motivated). He uses a lot of technical language without explaining it, sometimes with terms that aren't even standard, and he also uses archaic language in his translation of the psalms. I've read reviews that place this among the best commentaries on the psalms, but I had trouble getting much out of it when I was leading a Bible study on the psalms. There's some detail on language but not as much as Craigie, Tate, and Allen. Hossfeld and Zenger's level of detail dwarfs Terrien's. It was nearly useless to me in Bible study prep, dealing so little with the theological questions I was wrestling with or the connections with the New Testament that I wanted addressed. He does deal with theology, but it's only suggestive and hypothetical, usually without really handling complex questions and often read through the themes of his previous work (e.g. the elusive presence of God). It isn't that helpful on application sorts of questions either, though I don't expect that of a scholarly commentary. I do expect a little more of some other things that I didn't see here. Terrien just doesn't do much actual commenting on what the psalms say. Given how many people have recommended this pretty highly, I was seriously disappointed.

Two other popular-level commentaries on the Psalms are worth mentioning. Michael Wilcock's two volumes on Psalms in the BST series are extremely brief. There's little more than you would expect in an exposition. Wilcock is very good at what he does, but he doesn't do very much more than present what a good exposition would present. A good expositor ought to have more behind a study than what the exposition actually says, and these volumes won't help a lot with this. Thinness is common in the BST, but other volumes in this series have a lot more depth. The longest book in the Bible deserves more space than much shorter books, but that's not how it turned out in this series. Wilcock's comments sometimes read like a summary of the text, often with short divergences into theological or applicational issues, usually well enough done for their length, but I was disappointed when I had a chance to look through these volumes. Many questions I was asking weren't even addressed, and he often said too little to help when he did deal with them. Solid scholarship does stand behind Wilcock's work. He's always thorough in his own preparation. It's just that we don't see very much of the fruit of that in this commentary.

The NIBC is by Craig Broyles. I spent a lot less time looking at this one. He seems to have a little more depth than Wilcock, with a little more of an eye toward the kinds of questions I'm interested in, but it's still fairly brief. You'll find a lot more in VanGemeren or Wilson, and even Kidner will answer a lot of questions not dealt with in either Broyles or Wilcock. Broyles is much more recent than VanGemeren or especially Kidner. His perspective seems to me to be a little closer to the moderate or moderate conservative viewpoint, somewhere near Craigie, Tate, and Allen (or perhaps even less conservative). I think Wilson is noticeably more conservative, and VanGemeren, Kidner, and Wilcock are much moreso. I don't think Broyles will approach the historical skepticism of Mays, Terrien, or Hossfeld and Zenger. As I said, though, I've spent a lot less time in this volume as I did in any of the above commentaries.

The Anchor Bible commentary on Psalms by Mitchell Dahood takes up three volumes. It's very dated at this point. Dahood's specialty is comparative linguistics, particularly with Ugaritic, but later commentators often criticize him as going too far, assuming a linguistic connection simply because of a similar form when a more reasonable explanation is at hand within the Hebrew language itself. You won't find much in here on theology, connections with the New Testament, or contemporary application, but its value for the scholar makes it still worth a mention.

The Continental Commentary is by Hans-Joachim Kraus. It's dated as well and has the same tendencies as most critical commentaries, especially from the previous generation. The publication date is deceptive. This English translation was completed in 1989, but the commentary was published in German in 1979. Yet Amazon lists the publication date for one of the volumes as 1993. Kraus garners more respect than most critical commentaries, and it hangs on in most bibliographies and commentary reviews as a very important commentary, even though it's well out of date on many issues and lacking in some features that newer commentaries tend to spend more time on.

Arthur Weiser's OTL is in the same category as Kraus and Dahood, but I see his name mentioned a lot less frequently than either. This commentary is older even than Dahood. I've never looked at it myself. Weiser is criticized for making a lot our of his speculative reconstructions of festivals that he thinks serve as the background to particular psalms. The deceptive publication date issue arises with this book as well. It's from the early 60s, despite what Amazon will tell you.

Franz Delitzsch is still worth reading (I would say much more worth reading than a few of the commentaries immediately above). His commentary gets as many or more references in some of the later commentaries than Weiser does. Theology, New Testament connections, and application are all treated, and the scholarly basis is as good as it could get for the late 19th century. It's too dated on most matters to count as one's primary commentary, but it's especially helpful to have access to if you want a somewhat conservative voice to supplement later commentaries with issues than standardly not handled or not usually handled well in academic commentaries.

John Calvin's commentary is similarly valuable. It's the oldest of all of these, but it's stood the test of time in many ways. It's online in five parts: Introduction and Psalms 1-35, Psalms 36-66, Psalms 67-92, Psalms 93:1-119:20, and Psalm 119:21-Psalm 150.

The forthcoming NICOT by Rolf Jacobsen, Nancy deClaisse-Walford, and Beth LaNeel Tanner may well turn out to be excellent. As I said above, I know little about these three scholars, and it's not clear how much room they'll be given. The publisher has told them they have just one volume, but that hasn't stopped a few others in this series who ended up with two anyway. Gordon Wenham's forthcoming Apollos commentary promises to be excellent. Hossfeld and Zenger's third volume on Psalms 101-150 will be out next, and then after that they're doing volume 1, so they can write the whole commentary before writing the introduction. I don't have any idea when these commentaries will be appearing. John Goldingay is doing Psalms for the Baker Commentary on the Old Testament Wisdom and Psalms series. Psalms 1-41 will be out in June, with two other volumes to follow at some point. Wilson's second volume would have taken the prize for my most-anticipated forthcoming volume, except that I suspect we won't see any of that work now. I don't know who would be doing Psalms 73-150 instead. See my Forthcoming Commentaries post for quite a few others.

Update: Tyler Williams draws attention to a few more Psalms commentaries I didn't mention. I haven't looked at any of them, so I can't very well review them, but he says some things about them in his own commentary review, which he links to in that post.

9 Comments

I'm currently using James Montgomery Boice's Psalms: An Expositional Commentary as a devotional. I don't think I'd really call it a commentary in the truest sense as it is a series of sermons, but still insightful at times. For the meatier stuff I go to the Word Bible Commentary. I'm glad to hear that the NICOT will finally publish a Psalms volume.

Many thanks for these reviews. I am linking tothem from my website in the relevant pages, e.g.

http://www.biblicalstudies.org.uk/psalms.php#comm

Keep up the good work.

In Christ,

Rob

Great post. You have provided an excellent resource for students of the Psalter.

Your post has been received and will be included in the upcoming Christian Carnival

oh, wait a minute. you made it into last week's one after all. Nevermind!

I have published a free online commentary on the entire book of Psalms (over 700 pages) in pdf format at my website
www.bibleoutlines.com

What do you make of Robert Alter's translation and commentary?

I haven't seen it, but his work seems to me to tend toward good literary observations with a skeptical framework as to the truth of any of the accounts and not much concern for any theological framework. What I look for in a commentary is not usually emphasized in his work. It wouldn't be the best use of my time, but he gives observations that commentators should be paying attention to, and I'd like my commentators to have taken into account what he's said. I just don't want to spend my time being the direct beneficiary of his work.

It appears the Jamie Grant has been assigned to write the Psalms Volune 2 in the NIVAC series. No date is set for publication though.

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