Building an Old Testament Library: Psalms — Daniel

Joel M. LeMon

Biblical interpreters have been blessed with a number of excellent recent commentaries on Psalms. Many of these deal extensively with theological and literary issues. Ellen Charry explores the context, structure, and “theological pedagogy” of Pss 1-50 in the recent Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible series (Brazos, 2015). Wesleyan readers particularly will appreciate David L. Thompson’s commentary on Pss 1-72 (Beacon Hill Press, 2015). For a theologically oriented commentary on the entire Psalter in one volume, there is the offering in the New Cambridge Bible Commentary (2014), by Walter Brueggemann and W.H. Bellinger, two luminaries in Psalms scholarship.

Even if one is not completely comfortable with reading poetry in Hebrew, a full-fledged critical commentary can be tremendously rewarding. Among multi-volume works, John Goldingay’s contributions to the Baker Commentary on the Old Testament Wisdom and Psalms stand out for their astounding breadth and depth (Baker Academic, 2006-08). The best recent, one-volume critical commentary is cowritten by Nancy deClaissé-Walford, Rolf Jacobson, and Beth Laneel Tanner (New International Commentary on the Old Testament [NICOT]; Eerdmans, 2014). English-speaking audiences are also gaining access to the work of F-L Hossfeld and E. Zenger (Hermeneia; Fortress, 2005, 2011). Two volumes, covering Pss 51–150, have been published. In addition to its careful text, form, and literary-critical contributions, these commentaries are valuable for their use of ancient Near Eastern iconography.

With its diverse and sometimes arcane maxims, many struggle to understand the book of Proverbs as theologically normative. But help is out there. For an explicitly theological perspective on Proverbs (and Ecclesiastes), see the commentary in the Belief series by Amy Pantinga-Pauw (Westminster John Knox, 2015). Bruce Waltke’s comprehensive two-volume commentary in the NICOT (Eerdmans, 2005, 2006) approaches the book and its challenges from an expressly evangelical perspective. He writes with the pastor-theologian in mind, though always with an eye to larger scholarly debates in which his conclusions often go against the mainstream (e.g., authorship and organization of the book). Christine Yoder’s commentary in the Abingdon Old Testament series (Abingdon, 2009) is a modern classic that distills the best of current scholarship with an eye for theological appropriation. One other commentary deserves mention, namely, E.F. Davis’s work, which appears in the same volume as her treatment of the Song of Songs and Ecclesiastes (Westminster Bible Companion; Westminster John Knox, 2000). In this tidy volume, Davis argues that Proverbs can serve as an ordering mechanism for communities during periods of social crisis and disorder.

Ecclesiastes seems to cut against the grain of much of the OT with its ruminations on human nature and existence. Among the most worthwhile commentaries on this complex book is C.L. Seow’s classic contribution to the Anchor Bible (Doubleday, 1997). Seow’s lengthy introduction to Ecclesiastes is a tour-de-force. Another recent commentary with a sophisticated but decidedly different approach is Peter Enns’s commentary in the Two Horizons Old Testament Commentary series (Eerdmans, 2011). Craig Bartholomew’s contribution in the Baker Commentary on the Old Testament (Baker Academic, 2014) is another valuable resource for the scholarly and theologically inclined reader. Finally, William P. Brown’s commentary in the Interpretation series (Westminster John Knox, 2000) should be required reading for thoughtful Christians whose experiences and observations resonate with those of Qohelet.

While modern Christians often struggle to understand how the Song of Songs functions as Scripture, in earlier epochs the book was a source of sustained and earnest theological reflection. R.A. Norris Jr.’s The Song of Songs: Interpreted by Early Christian and Medieval Commentators (The Church’s Bible; Eerdmans; 2003) summarizes and captures the spirit of these early interpreters who looked to the Song for insight into the mysteries of the relationships among the church, God, Christ, and individual believers. Robin Jensen’s elegant commentary in the Interpretation series is a modern example of how the book can function as a source of theological reflection (Westminster John Knox, 2005). While such theological reflection is absent in O. Keel’s commentary (A Continental Commentary; Fortress, 1994), the volume is most certainly worthwhile. His iconographic approach to the Song of Songs provides the best means of apprehending the figurative language that pervades the Song. Among all of these commentaries, the NICOT volume by Tremper Longman III (Eerdmans, 2001) hits the sweet spot, combining the best of historical-critical work with a sensitivity to the theological implications of the book.

Scholarship on the book of Isaiah has long been concerned with its literary cohesion and its inner tensions. Since the early twentieth century, many scholars have treated the book in its three discrete “parts”: Isa 1–39, 40–55, and 56–66. This is especially true in the critical commentary literature. For readers seeking a high level of detailed, technical discussion, the recent work of Marvin Sweeney on Isa 40-66 is invaluable (Forms of the Old Testament Literature; Eerdmans, 2016). The same is true for J.J.M. Roberts’s commentary on First Isaiah in the Hermeneia series (Fortress, 2015). Patrica K. Tull’s commentary on First Isaiah (Smyth and Helwys Commentary Series; Smyth and Helwys, 2010) is another excellent recent contribution, one that brings historical-critical and modern theological issues directly into conversation. Two other classic commentaries deserve mention: Joseph Blenkinsopp’s monumental three-volume commentary in the Anchor Bible (Doubleday, 2000-2003) and Brevard Childs’s commentary in the Old Testament Library (OTL; Westminster John Knox, 2001). In contrast to Blenkinsopp, Childs’s commentary is contained in one volume, illustrative of his goal of understanding Isaiah in its final unitary form.

The complex and apparently jumbled character of the book of Jeremiah puzzles many readers. Leslie Allen’s commentary in the OTL (Westminster John Knox 2008) focuses on the final form of the text while attending to earlier stages of its composition. Allen shows a clear sensitivity to the theological implications of the work, even when they are disturbing. Terence Fretheim’s contribution to the Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary (Smyth & Helwys, 2002) exhibits a similar sensitivity to literary and historical issues in a format that is accessible to an even wider range of readers. W. Brueggemann’s A Commentary on Jeremiah: Exile and Homecoming (Eerdmans, 1998) offers the most compelling and often unsettling discussion of the theological claims of the book of Jeremiah. Those seeking in-depth treatments of historical-critical issues should look elsewhere, for Brueggemann believes that the book of Jeremiah belongs ultimately to the church and synagogue, not the academy. His interpretation is thoroughly and unrelentingly theological.

Four very different commentaries on the short book of Lamentations are worth reading. Kathleen M. O’Connor’s commentary Lamentations and the Tears of the World (Orbis, 2002) connects the experiences of ancient and modern suffering communities. In so doing, she reveals the book’s profound pastoral value: Lamentations gives voice to grief. Adele Berlin’s commentary in the OTL (Westminster John Knox, 2002) focuses on literary-critical issues to uncover the religious worldview that the text conveys. Her commentary is notable for its exploration of Lamentations’ theology of destruction, which “eschews systematization.” F.W. Dobbs-Allsopp’s work (Interpretation; Westminster John Knox, 2002) demonstrates a close attention to the poetic features of the book and helpfully situates Lamentations alongside similar ancient Near Eastern literary genres. Finally, Robert Salter’s commentary in the International Critical Commentary (T&T Clark, 2010) provides an up-to-date analysis of the book for those looking for technical discussions.

The book of Ezekiel presents a rich collage of literary images. M.S. Odell’s commentary (Smyth & Helwys, 2006), with its frequent references to ancient and modern art, is particularly useful for bringing the colorful text of Ezekiel to life. Throughout her commentary, Odell identifies the Neo-Assyrian characteristics of Ezekiel’s imagery, form, and theology, but nevertheless maintains that Ezekiel presents a “radical alterity” to neo-Assyrian culture and ideology. Brad Kelle’s recent offering, Ezekiel: A Commentary in the Wesleyan Tradition (New Beacon Bible Commentary, Beacon Hill, 2013), will appeal to pastors and scholars of any stripe. Kelle shows real skill in balancing historical, literary, and theological issues in this work.

Modern readers rightly struggle to reconcile the different types of literatures within the book of Daniel. C.L. Seow’s accessible commentary (Westminster Bible Companion, 2003) reveals the single theological message about God’s sovereignty that pervades Daniel’s diverse parts. Readers of Daniel may also puzzle over its prophecies. In modern American Christianity, one frequently encounters dispensationalist interpretations of these prophecies. D.E. Gowan’s work (Abingdon Old Testament Commentary; Abingdon, 2001) is commendable for directly and sensitively engaging these issues. The technical commentary of J.J. Collins (Hermeneia; Fortress, 1993) is a classic treatment of the book’s manifold textual problems. Yet the most important and masterful commentary on Daniel happens to be one of the most recent: Carol Newsom’s volume in the OTL (Westminster John Knox, 2014) with contributions on reception history by Brennan Breed. This work is the gold standard not just for commentaries on Daniel, but for commentary writing in general.

Posted Mar 15, 2017