Building an Old Testament Library: Psalms — Daniel

Tim Meadowcroft

The size and richness of the book of Psalms means that good one-volume commentaries are few and far between. My choice of a one-volume commentary would be that of James Mays in the Interpretation series (Westminster John Knox, 2011), although it is not the easiest of reads. But for me, the best commentary by a country mile is the three-volume set by John Goldingay (Baker Commentary on the Old Testament; Baker Academic, 2006, 2007, 2008). Like Mays, Goldingay approaches Psalms as a book of prayer and worship and his commentary is filled with technical, pastoral, and spiritual insight. Although not a commentary as such, C.S. Lewis’s Reflections on the Psalms (first published 1958, and reprinted frequently) remains of enduring worth. It contains plenty of comment on individual psalms.

Commenting on the book of Proverbs brings into sharp relief the challenge of any biblical interpretation: an appreciation of both the coherence and the diversity of the text. For a good overview of the message of Proverbs, the treatment by Kathleen Farmer in the International Theological Commentary series volume on Proverbs and Ecclesiastes (Eerdmans, 1991) is helpful if a little brief. For a more detailed treatment, Bruce Waltke’s two volumes in the New International Commentary on the Old Testament (Eerdmans, 2004, 2005) are an exhaustive treatment of the material hand in hand with a lively sense of the living word of God therein. Paul Koptak’s commentary in the NIV Application Commentary series (Zondervan, 2003) will help the reader bridge the gap between text and sermon.

The variety of treatments of Ecclesiastes reflects the ongoing challenge of that book to the Christian interpreter. Graeme Ogden’s Qohelet (Sheffield Phoenix, 2007), honed by Ogden’s years of professional involvement in Bible translation, is a useful volume for gaining a sense of just what it was that the Preacher was trying to say. A somewhat fuller treatment in more traditional commentary form is that by Daniel C. Fredericks and Daniel J. Estes in their volume on Ecclesiastes and the Song of Songs (Apollos Old Testament Commentary; InterVarsity, 2010). The authors succeed in combining an eye for technical detail with an alertness to the message for today. Jacques Ellul’s Reason for Being: A Meditation on Ecclesiastes (Eerdmans, 1990) is not a commentary in the traditional sense, but rather a meditation on the questions of life thrown up by the Preacher. One does not have to agree with all of Ellul’s conclusions to gain great value from his thinking about such timeless themes as work, time, wisdom, and wealth.

Song of Songs also deals with timeless themes, and in particular the never-ending fascination of erotic love. Commentators approach this in a number of ways. An interesting technical commentary (with some intriguing ancient pictures!) is that by Othmar Keel (Continental Commentary; Augsburg Fortress, 1994). It is filled with background detail that enlivens understanding of the Song. Somebody looking for a standard and thorough evangelical treatment of the Song will find that in Richard Hess’s work (Baker Commentary on the Old Testament Wisdom and Psalms; Baker Academic, 2005). Like others, he wrestles with the status of the couple’s relationship. For a vivid contemporary translation/paraphrase of the Song, I recommend the work of Chana and Ariel Bloch, The Song of Songs: A New Translation, Introduction and Commentary (Random House, 1995; University of California Press, 1998; Modern Library Classic, 2006). (I acknowledge collegial advice given on Song of Songs by Yael Klangwisan.)

The study of the book of Isaiah is a vast sub-discipline within biblical studies. There are two solidly reliable treatments that I recommend for anyone who is looking for insight into some of the complexities of this vast book as well as pointers to its application. The first is the two-volume work by John Oswalt in the New International Commentary on the Old Testament (Eerdmans, 1986, 1998). The second is by Alec Motyer (InterVarsity, 1993). Motyer will reassure those who prefer a single authorship of Isaiah. For a lively literary reading filled with theological and pastoral insight, see John Goldingay, The Message of Isaiah 40-55: A Literary-Theological Commentary (T. & T. Clark, 2005).

Commentary on Jeremiah has tended to focus quite strongly on form critical issues. A sound and helpful, if unspectacular, evangelical treatment that focuses on the message of Jeremiah himself is that of J.A. Thompson (New International Commentary on the Old Testament; Eerdmans, 1980). Walter Brueggemann (Eerdmans, 1998) executes an end run around the debate over the origins of the book by focusing on what he calls the Jeremiah tradition and offers much expository insight. Similarly, R.E. Clements (Interpretation; Westminster John Knox, 2011), focuses on the acute situation in which Jeremiah’s readers and hearers found themselves, and in doing so points the contemporary preacher to moments of contact with his or her own hearers. (I acknowledge collegial advice given on Jeremiah by James Harding.)

The small book of Lamentations has attracted considerable recent commentary. It is a book with competing voices – Israel lamenting over unfair treatment or Israel seeking forgiveness in the light of just punishment – and commentators divide over which is the defining voice. A solid approach to the book from an evangelical perspective is that of Paul House in the same volume as commentary on Song of Songs by Duane Garrett, Song of Songs/Lamentations (Word Biblical Commentary; Thomas Nelson, 2004). House places the more traditional reading emphasis on Israel’s experience of justified punishment. F.W. Dobbs-Allsopp (Interpretation; Westminster John Knox, 2002), listens acutely for the lamenter’s pain and focuses on that in his commentary. A literary reading is supplied by Adele Berlin (Old Testament Library; Westminster John Knox, 2004). (I acknowledge collegial advice given on Lamentations by Miriam Bier.)

Ezekiel is not an easy book to understand! Commentaries on Ezekiel tend to come in waves. After a pause, there have been some good attempts on Ezekiel in recent years. As with the other prophets with large bodies of material, comprehensive one-volume commentaries are hard to find. A fine two-volume work is that of Daniel Block in the New International Commentary on the Old Testament series (Eerdmans, 1997, 1998). Block provides solid but not excessive technical information alongside application. Robert Jenson is responsible for the commentary in the Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible series (Brazos, 2009). He writes explicitly as a Christian theologian seeking God’s word to the church in the ancient text. One of several older commentaries still good on more detailed textual work is that of Walther Eichrodt (Old Testament Library; Westminster John Knox, 2003). (I acknowledge collegial advice given on Ezekiel by James Harding.)

There has been plenty of interest in the book of Daniel on the part of commentators over the past generation or two. The one that I have found of the most all-round benefit is Ernest Lucas in the Apollos Old Testament Commentary series (InterVarsity, 2002). Lucas succeeds in drawing out the message of the book while also paying judicious attention to complex issues of history, eschatology, and composition. Another commentary that has been around for a while now but remains a good one for similar reasons is that of John Goldingay (Word Biblical Commentary; Thomas Nelson, 1989). Tremper Longman III (NIV Application Commentary, Zondervan, 1999), while more conservative on some of the critical issues of dating and application than either Lucas or Goldingay, brings similarly insightful comment to the meaning of Daniel for today.

Posted Mar 12, 2014