Going Back to the Beginning

I reviewed volume 3 of Allen Ross’s commentary on the Psalms some time ago. It seems a bit backwards, starting at the end and only then going to the beginning, but I was so thoroughly impressed with volume 3 that I thought it would be worth my time to work through volume 1 and 2 as well. Volume 2 is waiting for me to crack open its spine, and as each volume comes in at around 930 pages, it might be waiting for a while yet.

41RK4MMfRgLThe style, layout, and approach in this volume is the same as in volume 3, so I don’t feel the need to revisit it is great detail. In my previous review, I highlighted the ease of interacting with the structure of Ross’s work, and the treasure trove of information that he provides for each Psalm. What sets this volume apart is the lengthy introductory essay in the front.

Composing almost 200 pages of the first volume, it covers the necessary explanations of Ross’ approach, and how to make the most of these commentaries. While the essay was not necessary for my reading of volume 3, having now spent some time with it, I dearly wished I had read, at the very least, “Literary Forms and Functions in the Psalms” (p. 111-145). Ross handles the minutiae of this section throughout his exegesis, but I found his summary and his presentation of the big picture to be a great help as I worked through volume 1. For instance, while I had read about royal and lament and wisdom psalms previously, enthronement psalms were new to me. The general concept, and its conceptual history, fascinated me, and gave me refreshed perspective when looking at Psalm 41 or 99. And there were additional categories in this section to consider, such as the Songs of Zion, which greatly added to how I interact with the Psalms as I read them now.

Of course, saying that a commentary changed one’s perspective is not new, nor is it limited to Biblical studies. But the nature of Ross’s writing is different from the commentary one picks up on Hemingway or on the Iliad. The point of understanding the Psalms better is to approach God’s revelation and purposes with eyes open wide. Here, though the poetic form of each psalm provides challenges, exegesis is so helpful in grappling with texts that can be difficult or even opaque at times.

As Ross nicely summarizes the issue: “the exegetical exposition . . . is the one method that guarantees the entire psalm will be explained, correlated and applied in a clear, interesting, and meaningful way” (179). Ross certainly approaches this goal in his commentary, and his observations and study will benefit any Christian wishing to better understand these worship “essentials”, both of the past and for today (147).




Keeping Up Your Greek with the LXX

9780825443428One of the easiest things to do, when the grades are in and classes over, is to let your language skills slip away. Sometimes this is simply an issue of time management, but at other times it is a matter of interest; I don’t keep studying because I do not have a professor to keep it engaging. Fortunately, books come along that do serve that purpose of renewing the interest of the mind with material that is new or appealing. Karen Jobes’s Discovering the Septuagint: A Guided Reader is just such a book.

To Protestants, the LXX often appears to be a curiosity (shedding light on Catholicism in some way) or an experiment in translation. I teach the Septuagint every Spring, and the reactions from students is fairly predictable. “Why is this so strange? I don’t understand these changes here.” And those are all from the English translations. What I have hope to do in the past, but been unable to do thus far, is bridge the gap between my students’ Greek classes and their Classical studies. Jobes’s book is perfect for this, and laid out in a manageable format, which can be used by students, teachers, or laymen alike.

While the book doesn’t get into too much apocryphal material aside from 73 verses from the “Additions to Esther,” the selected texts stand out as great examples of how the Hebrew and Greek inform one another, sometimes with stark differences between them. Because the book is more of a introductory language textbook, there are relatively few critical comments to slow down the chapters. Thus, what you have is a quick-paced study of the Greek Old Testament that can breathe life into dying Greek skills that have sat too long in disuse.

As stated in the front matter of the book: “if we are to better understand the New Testament and the world in which it was produced, then we must acknowledge the role of the Septuagint in how the Bible has come down through history to us,” (p. 12). If for other reason, this is a great starting point for truly digging deep into the LXX.

The Joy of Exegeting the Psalms

Ask most high school students what kind of literature the enjoy the least, they’ll likely say poetry. Its symbolism and patterns often create a sense of tedium for many readers. Of course, poetry is a beautiful form of writing, and as I say to my own students when we memorize poetry throughout the school year, appreciating the mastery of a single word can bring joy and satisfaction far beyond  merely reading a poem.

I have noticed a tendency of Christians, myself included, to sometimes take the same perspective on the Psalms. Originally written in Hebrew, English translations of the Psalms appear in different forms and try to encapsulate the beauty of the original language in a number of ways. A helpful way to explore these Biblical songs and poems is through an exegetical study, clarifying some of the ways the Hebrew text stresses and highlights ideas and concepts. If, like me, you’re not a Semitic languages scholar, then a nice commentary is a good place to start.

Dr. Allen P. Ross has 9780825426667authored a three-volume set of exegetical commentaries on the Psalms for Kregel Academic. I have reviewed two other entries in the Kregel Exegetical Library (Exodus and I & II Chronicles), and was fortunate enough to get my hands on the final entry in Dr. Ross’s trilogy. While I do hope to eventually acquire the rest, examining Psalms 90-150 proved a great adventure in and of itself.

The format is simple, with substantial background and contextual information before each psalm that demonstrated the immense amount of study that has been spent on the poetic parts of Scripture. I will use Psalm 119 to detail some of the highlights of Ross’s work.

While it is the dominant psalm of the Biblical collection, Psalm 119 has cause some to despair over its apparent repetition of ideas and words. Ross, however, concludes that this is the result of a poor reading of the text. First, the Psalm should be seen as a literary work. In terms of dating, Psalm 119 seems to have been written prior to the Exile (461) and is written in such a way that a preacher could approach the text from various ways to preach through it either by stanza or theme or both (463). After drawing the background information together, Ross works through the Psalm using its acrostic format as the outline. Each section is translated, followed by a brief content summary and exegetical outline. This outline also serves as the main points for the commentary, which is delivered in an expository form making it easy for pastors to work through the content in small sections.

As a result, Ross gives a work that any Christian could pick and work through, while also being a wonderful aid to a pastor who wants to lead their congregation through the Psalms.

History, Exegesis, & Hebrew

When I think about books of 9780825425592the Bible that automatically engage my imagination and senses, I & II Chronicles does not immediately jump to mind. Eugene H. Merrill’s commentary does not change that, but it does offer a thorough perspective with loads to appreciate. Another addition to the Kregel Exegetical Library, a series I have explored previously, Merrill’s work is expansive.

Merrill reminded me that these books are more than mere history, serving as “a theological or ‘sacred’ history, recounting not only Israel’s past, but in a truncated sense a history of the world since Adam,” (pg. 22). And this is the lens that Merrill proposes to understand the book and its place in the Christian tradition. Merrill deals honestly and forthrightly with issues of chronology and source material, but offers a traditional, orthodox perspective that is edifying.

A highlight of the commentary, for me, was the “Theology” sections at the end of each chapter. After a thorough analysis of the Hebrew for a given portion, Merrill sets aside space to wrestle with the implications of such linguistics. It is these sections that helped the book to be more than a bland exegetical book on a standard historical work. Merrill ties everything together in these sections, making the exegesis practical and pertinent.

Still, the book is not as cumbersome as other commentaries. It’s 640 pages do justice to the topic at hand, and would serve and pastor or student of the Bible well when digging deep into the historical part of the Old Testament. Kregel has produced excellent commentaries in this Exegetical series, and Merrill’s contribution is no exception.

The Toughest Part of the Text

9780825443633I teach students how to read their Bibles, basic exegesis skills, and broad application of God’s Word. Despite this, I still have a hard time nailing down the Prophetic Books. Some of the smaller ones (e.g. Jonah, Nahum, Malachi) present less challenges than the major books (Isaiah, Jeremiah, Lamentations, Ezekiel, Daniel). Trying to unpack the dense theological meaning and complicated historical contexts of these books is tough when you’re staring at fifteen seventh graders. They typically respond in one of two ways: 1) discouragement when reading the Prophets, or 2) refusal to understand them without some “hidden” meaning.[1] That’s why I was so excited when Kregel Academic put up Gary Smith’s Interpreting the Prophetic Books: An Exegetical Handbook. Although the book is designed to be used in sermon creation, it has use in a number of educational settings.

The format of the book is perfectly laid out to maximize your engagement of the text. While each chapter deals with the individual prophets as they’re laid out in the Old Testament, the main chapters in Interpreting the Prophetic Books follows a different format. The first chapter is a brief (but excellent) engagement with the nature of prophecy. As one of the most easily misunderstood, and sometime abused, genres of Scriptural writing, this section is vital. Old Testament studies can be dry, but Smith writes winsomely so that the reader doesn’t come away feeling stuffy or dusty. His section on “Deciphering the Imagery” was the highlight of the chapter, making access to such a difficult aspect clear and concise. Smith goes on to deal with themes from each book (chapter 2) the context of each prophet (chapter 3). “Issues in the Prophetic Texts” is a wonderful exploration of the problems plaguing interpretations of the books, but Smith is careful not to alienate his readers here. Chapter 5 serves as a very brief advisory section on how to preach these texts, and while interesting, primarily is crafted for preachers of the Word. Chapter 6, “From Text to Application” is also designed for the preacher, but it has wonderful implications for the classroom. It is a sampling of the steps outlined in the previous chapters, using two specific passages from the OT. Seeing Smith’s process actually laid out reveals its import for settings beyond the pulpit. Specifically, his explanation of how to create a thematic outline for an individual lesson is one of the most lucid examples of teaching the Prophetic literature I have read.

I don’t think this is a book I would necessarily recommend to everyone, however. Teachers and preachers would benefit greatly from its insights, but because it is a brief exploration of some of the more complicated aspects, it will probably leave the laymen without any background knowledge still lacking for understanding the context and interpretive complications. It is without a book that I will be using in my own Bible classes in the future.

Exegeting Exodus

9780825425516Studying the Bible in Hebrew is not for the faint of heart. As a young man, I learned first-hand how having a working knowledge that allowed me to use a Hebrew Greek concordance could enhance my study of God’s Word. Of course, I also learned that I had just enough knowledge to be dangerous to others and myself. It is often easier to latch on to an obscure meaning of a Hebrew or Greek word in order to make some kind of argument that suits your own personal interpretation. I have had discussions regarding the word “σταυρός” in the Gospels, where my dialogue partner was adamant that the word always meant “pike or pole” and demonstrated how Christians frequently believed lies passed on through history (a largely irrelevant point, even if true). I have also been on the receiving end of teaching that said Psalm 100 makes explicit the command to lift your hands in praise, despite the word there (“תּוֹדָה”) rarely meaning “to lift your hands” and the word most likely not meaning that in this particular Psalm. These kinds of disagreements are common, and have taught me two things: the need for my own humility, and the need for wiser input. Enter Duane Garrett’s A Commentary on Exodus.

A Commentary on Exodus is a masterpiece of Scriptural study. Garrett teaches Old Testament Interpretation and Biblical Theology at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, and his experience in both realms shows. The 130 page “Introduction” weaves history and textual criticism and theological debates into a coherent tapestry that illuminates the grand story of the Israelite people as they left the Egyptian kingdom. Garrett addresses the various “problems” with the text, and walks through the orthodox (and not so orthodox) ideas related to interpreting Exodus. He lands pretty clearly in the historically orthodox position, but he is cautious about asserting things that, in fact, are not known for certain. “In short, we have ample reason to believe that the biblical account is true, but we do not have sufficient evidence to specify the details of when it all happened and of what pharaoh was present,” (103). This kind of confident reticence is prevalent throughout the book, and is one of its charms.

The two portions of the commentary that were the most profitable in my reading were Part III and the Appendix. Part III, the longest section of the book, concentrated on the twelve miracles of the exodus, beginning with the transformation of Moses’ staff into a serpent and concluding with the death of Pharaoh’s army. Garrett’s break down of the twelve events into four categorical levels of intensity provided an insight I had not previously explored: the movement from warning to death. This is only one of the multiple highlights of Garrett’s exegetical prowess, and he continued to be just and astute in his concluding exploration of “The Songs of Exodus.” Though the Appendix is the shortest section of the book, Garrett’s thesis that these songs perhaps served as Israel’s earliest hymnody, as well as his pointing out sections I had not previously noticed to be poetic, prompts the reader for further study of this fascinating topic (722).

While the exegetical nature of this commentary might scare some laymen from picking it up, I believe that would do them a disservice. Garrett’s academic, yet winsome style makes this book accessible to a wide audience. The entire line of Kregel Exegetical Library books would be a welcome addition to any library, but this contribution on Exodus is a premier complement to the Biblical text. If I could only pick one commentary to have on the topic, it would be this one.