Thursday, May 3, 2012

Book: A Commentary on the Psalms Volume 1: 1-41

Just a warning: the following post is a book review generated by sending me a free book to review. So, if reading book reviews is not your thing, or if you think that Kregel required me to be happy in my review, or any other such, you might skip this. Otherwise, here you go: (and, for the record, they required nothing of me. I do not recommend books I honestly do not like. See here for one I got free and did not recommend.)

This week, I have had the pleasurable task of reading through the over 800 pages of Allen P. Ross's commentary on Psalms 1-41. Here's a picture of the cover: Kregel Exegetical Library: A Commentary on the Psalms, Volume 1: 1-41

Now, writing a review of a commentary is not quite in my academic skillset. Or at least, I do not quite have the credentials to tell you if Dr. Ross, professor of divinity, has properly or improperly parsed his Hebrew verbs. Even if I thought I found a mistake, the right assumption for me is that I am confused about it and that he's right. Not that I found anything of those issues within the text, but that is not what I am qualified to address.

What I do feel qualified to get into with this text is its usefulness for plain old pastors like me. I have the average amount of education in the Hebrew language for most preachers: I passed it in seminary and promptly passed it from my mind. I will, then, take a look at this and how well it can be used by someone who remembers, vaguely, that there's some vocal shewa thing out there, and that the letters go right-to-left.

Ross opens his commentary appropriately: one cannot produce an academic study of a Biblical book without addressing setting, authorship, and textual issues. These usually lump under "Introductory Matter" but the Psalms are a different sort of challenge. While one can debate the author of Hebrews, for example, one will generally concede that no more than one or two individuals are behind the book. The Psalms could have one author (or more) per Psalm, so it takes a broader introduction to deal with them.

Ross presents first an effort to explain why we should study the Psalms. As beautiful as they are, it is often tempting to just chalk them up as poems to be enjoyed rather than also material to be studied. He presents evidence why there should be more than just casual appreciation of the poetry present.

He also well explains the challenge of translating the Psalms into English given the linguistic differences in general and the special challenge of translating poetry not only from one language to another but one culture to another. This involves some discussion of Hebrew language, including verb tenses and forms, but the discussion is not excessively technical.

There is a good background discussion of such issues as the numbering of the Psalms, the divisions of the Psalter into Five Books, and the headings that are present with some psalms. Further, Ross acknowledges some of the current theories regarding the origins of the Psalms and provides a defense of the more traditional interpretation of those origins.

He also addresses the original Hebraic divisions in the Psalter of five books, of which this commentary deals only with the first book, Psalms 1-41.

The explanation of the structure of poetry is well done, with examples shown in English for the reader to see the point. The introductory material draws from all of the Psalms, though the individual psalms to be considered are only the first 41.

Each psalm is given its own chapter, where the text is examined. Ross presents his own translation of the psalm and footnotes any major textual issues or translation arguments. I could rehash here my preference for seeing a standard translation used, but that is more of a concern in books intended for popular rather than research use. However, it is noteworthy that all of the English Biblical text in this book is the author's own translation, and so should be compared to a quality Bible translation. (Or your amazing Hebrew skills if you 've got 'em.)

These chapters then address the meaning likely behind the psalm, any special circumstances that led to it, and any poetic structures worth noting. Each chapter concludes with a summary of the message and application of the psalm in question. These sections provide clarity and a stepping-stone for the reader to help find the fuller idea in the text. The Hebrew used is well explained, though a bit of familiarity with the language smooths out the reading of Ross's text.

Ross uses the standard English all-caps LORD for the tetragrammaton YHWH rather than rendering the English equivalent. Some will fault that, others will praise it, and most of us will just see it as normal. In a reality from the digital era, it's not the KJV method of small-caps on the ORD, but a fully capitalized word, which web browsers and e-readers can handle. If you think that we should see Yahweh in al of those places, you will be disappointed.

It is one man's point of view on the Psalms and specifically on the first 41 of them. He comes from a text-first point-of-view and presents his information accessibly, so I am glad to have the book on my shelf and recommend that anyone seeking an academic look at the Psalms have it as well.

Buyer's Note: You can buy direct from Kregel here. Or from Amazon here. Be careful on Amazon—a pair of third-party sellers have this book listed under a slightly different title and it's currently $1,000. It's good. It's not that good. The full title is:

Kregel Exegetical Library: A Commentary on the Psalms, Volume 1: 1-41. ISBN: 978-0825425622

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