Book Review: A Commentary on the Psalms: Volume 1 (1-41)

A Commentary on the Psalms: Volume 1 (1-41) by Allen P. Ross.

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With thanks to Kregel Publications for the review copy!

While it may possible to read through this entire volume for the purpose of this review, I never read commentaries that way. As such, I will focus on a handful of psalms to serve as the focal point of this review. Volume 1 spans the first 41 psalms and from them I will provide a brief synopsis of Ross’s treatment of psalms 1, 2, 22 and 23. At the outset I must say that I am no expert on the psalter or the language in which they were written; in fact, I’m barely a novice, so my reflections will be in accordance with the measure of knowledge I have of the psalms. With that said, let’s commence with the review.

Ross’s introductory section (180 pages!) covers some of the typical issues (date, authorship, provenance, etc.) encountered in most commentaries, but he doesn’t devote whole sections to them. He instead intersperses discussion of these issues throughout the commentary itself as he finds them relevant. His attention then is paid to matters that are more particular to the psalter: abbreviations, the psalms’ value, the text and versions of the psalms, and titles and headings. Reading through these chapters shows the reader the psalms’ truly variegated nature. Following these chapters, Ross attends to other matters that are more broadly applicable, but important for understanding the psalms. These chapters cover the history of interpretation (which shows quite a diversity of approaches), biblical poetry (a notoriously untamable beast!), literary forms and functions in the psalms, theology of the psalms, and an exposition of the psalms. I won’t deal with these sections except to say they are helpful in equipping the reader with the appropriate tools necessary to begin the interpretive process in the psalter.

The first psalm I chose to evaluate is arguably the most important in the entire collection—Psalm 1. It’s place at the head of the psalter is not accidental and, as Ross argues, it along with Psalm 2 sets the theme for the whole psalter: the way the righteous are to live among the ungodly and the salvation the righteous have in their divinely chosen king (182). Psalm 1 is indeed concerned with the comparison of the righteous and the wicked and Ross ably works through the details so that the reader is clear on some of the important nuances in the descriptions. One aspect here I appreciate is his attention to the description of the ungodly (which plays out primarily in the footnotes). Discussing each of the three terms used to describe these “ungodly” each bear a slightly different nuance and drawing such distinctions can prevent unnecessary and inaccurate depictions of those outside the faith. Ross also draws attention to the apparent escalation of the descriptions of the two groups as well as to the verbs used to describe their actions (or inaction in the case of the righteous). All this reinforces the point—to enjoy the “heavenly blessedness” of God is to pursue life in the fashion of the righteous and abstain from undue influence from the ungodly. In general, Ross’s interpretation of this psalm is fairly consistent with how I understand it (not a claim to the veracity of said interpretation!) and there’s nothing here that one probably wouldn’t find in most standard commentaries.

Psalm 2 is a regal psalm that serves to remind God’s people of His plan for them in the absence of a Davidic king (199-200).  Here, as in the previous psalm, Ross offers a fairly straightforward interpretation that would find resonance with more conservative interpreters, though I don’t know that those who are less conservative would find much to disagree about.  I certainly don’t consider that a bad thing, for I myself am in that camp more times than not.  One thing that readers will notice here is that Ross does not spend a great deal of time tackling matters of how this psalm (or part of it) is used in the NT, specifically in Hebrews 1.  While he addresses the language of sonship in footnote 25 (p. 208), he leaves it at that and focuses on the psalm itself in the commentary.

Psalm 22 presents several challenges to interpreters, a couple of which are understanding the textual variants and how it (the psalm) is interpreted Christologically.  Ross gives some  attention to the text-critical questions, but keeps things fairly manageable due to the nature of the commentary, namely to remain accessible.  Though I personally do not enjoy reading about and sorting through text-critical issues, it is a good and necessary part of exegesis and Ross makes the issues fairly understandable without oversimplifying them.   As to the matter of Christological appropriation of the psalm, Ross claims that though Christians will find it nearly impossible to read the psalm and not think of Christ’s suffering, we must first read it in light of the psalmist’s experience of suffering.  Once readers can interpret the psalm in its original context can the parallels and Christological overtones be seen and heard.  Ross handles this psalm in the same erudite manner as those before and after it, providing a solid interpretation supplemented with abundant discussions of various theologically significant vocabulary in the footnotes.

Psalm 23, arguably the most well-known psalm of the whole collection, is also ably handled by Ross.  In fact, of the four psalms I focused on, this was the most enjoyable to read.  This is due partly to the general familiarity I have of the psalm, but also because of Ross’ explanation of the text (what’s a commentary for if not that!).  While certainly this psalm is committed to the memories of many in the KJV or other older translation, Ross demonstrates a number of points concerning how one translates the psalm that show more accurate ways in which to translate it.  As with the previous psalms (and others I skimmed), there are grammatical references aplenty!  Overall, Ross’ exegesis of the 23rd psalm is solid and thoroughly readable.

Though I’ve not read many commentaries on the psalter (and what I have read has been on particular psalms, never a whole volume), I’ve worked with them enough to know what I expect from the commentary in general and whether or not it will be helpful to the overall interpretive process. I can say that after my examination of Ross’s commentary I am assured that many will find great help in this volume (and presumably the coming volumes 2 and 3), even those whose training in Hebrew far exceed my own.

Perhaps the most commendable aspect of this commentary is its accessibility, a goal that many commentators either eschew or miss altogether.  To benefit from Ross’ commentary one need not have advanced knowledge of Hebrew to work through the exegetical discussions.  However, some facility in Hebrew will be beneficial, perhaps even necessary, to fully benefit from Ross’s work.  Ross, whom I know primarily through his introductory Hebrew grammar, offers plenty in the way of grammatical analysis and categorization of usage.  While for me this is helpful, it may not be to some, only because some of the categories require minor explanations (which are standard fare in Hebrew grammars).  In fact, it’s the one element that stands out about this volume in comparison to other commentaries on the same level, which is why I say some facility in Hebrew will help gain the fullest benefit from the commentary (just keep Ross’s grammar handy and you’re good to go!).

Another feature that I appreciate is the absence of transliterations.  I am no fan of them so I was glad to see that Ross does not employ it, but rather puts terms/phrases being discussed in quotes as a translation and provides the Hebrew in parentheses.  I also appreciate the relegation of more technical discussion to the footnotes (and by implication the absence of endnotes!), which of course is the whole purpose of footnotes, thereby providing opportunities for deeper study for those interested.  I must admit that at times I was a little frustrated that the information I was after was in the footnotes and didn’t receive quite the attention I would have liked, but again this is in a way a commendation for Ross for keeping more technical points and discussions out of the main text.

One other interesting aspect of the commentary is its layout—each psalm is arranged structurally according to the Hebrew text, yet Ross takes another step and arranges the discussion homiletically.  For those teaching or preaching through the psalms, this could be a great help.

I did encounter a few minor annoyances while reading through the commentary.  For one, there is the occasional use of rather esoteric vocabulary.  Because of the nature of Hebrew poetry, some technical jargon is to be expected and thankfully Ross keeps it to a minimum; yet, the presence of words such as epizeuxis and tapeinosis aren’t really necessary in a commentary written on this level, even with brief definitions provided.  Second, there were a few instances in which I was hoping for a more helpful discussion in the footnotes (as I mentioned above).  For example, in the discussion of Psalm 22, Ross claims that Jesus’ enemies knew Psalm 22 as a messianic psalm and thus quoted from it in order to mock and deride Jesus as he suffered (536).  While I find it very likely that by the time of Christ’s death this psalm was being read through a messianic lens, Ross only points to one example from Jewish literature that substantiates this idea.  I only wish there were more discussion of this.  Again, this is comparatively minor complaint, especially given the detail some Hebrew words/concepts are given, but I hoped for a little more here.  Third and finally, I had hoped for a little more background to explain the figurative language that permeates many of the psalms.  I am certainly not saying such was entirely absent—hardly!  The literal reality that stands behind figurative speech can really bring the text to life and such is the case when Ross fills us in, but it’s not quite enough to satisfy me.  Again, this is more a personal preference and not necessarily a critique of Ross.

You might think that a commentary that addresses 41 psalms in just over 700 pages (for the commentary proper) would be verbose, but not so. Part of this is due to the length of some of the psalms themselves and part is due to Ross’s extensive footnoting (as previously mentioned), but in general he provides rather concise discussion for each psalm.  Ross’s style is easily read and never comes across as pedantic and that makes this particular volume quite handy.  Again, this series is not going to be as helpful to some (those whose own scholarly pursuits intersect with the material presented), but there is more than enough insight and exposition to benefit the vast majority of those for whom it was written.  I would recommend this volume to any who are studying the psalms, but especially for those whose training in Hebrew and OT is/has been minimal.

Αυτω η δοξα

6 thoughts on “Book Review: A Commentary on the Psalms: Volume 1 (1-41)

  1. May I ask about theological reflections on the psalms? Also, are each psalm discussed by verses, thoughts, etc? And I am guessing that Ross provides his own translation? I have to agree that I also am no fan of transliteration and am happy to hear that a Hebrew font has been used throughout. So, according to your conclusion, is this volume really intended for more of a general audience rather than the specialist? Just wondering.

  2. Rick: There is a brief section at the end of each chapter (psalm) where Ross offers some theological and application-type thoughts. I didn’t comment on them because they are not a significant part of each discussion, but ok for a few thoughts about each psalm. Ross also discusses the psalms mostly by unit, though occasionally he tackles verses individually. And your guess is correct–he uses his own translation. As for the audience, Ross definitely writes more for the church and less for the academy, if you know what I mean. He writes that his target audience is “pastors, teachers, and all serious students of the bible,” which certainly could include academic folk, but I think their gain from this work would be comparatively minimal.

    1. Thanks for letting me know as I had been considering this volume (though I may perhaps elevate another set for purchase on the Psalms).

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