Psalms. 3 vols.: Psalms 1–41, Psalms 42–89, and Psalms 90–150

Written by John Goldingay Reviewed By Willem A. VanGemeren

John Goldingay, David Allan Hubbard Professor of Old Testament at Fuller Theological Seminary, has written a useful exegetical, expository, and applicatory commentary on the Psalms. He opens up the commentary by highlighting five introductory issues: the Psalms and history, the Psalms as poetry, the Psalms and worship, the Psalms and spirituality, and the Psalms and theology. The following aspects of his approach are of interest to the reviewer because they shape Goldingay’s approach to the Psalms.

  1. Goldingay postulates that Jewish leaders collected prayers and praises that were widely known and used at the Temple (1:21) in order to “provide God’s people with 150 examples of things one could say to God” and to shape the community by giving it “a teaching manual for worship and prayer” (1:23). The book of Psalms is a witness to “the history of the people of God, the history of the leaders, and the history of individuals” (1:24).
  2. Goldingay argues that the historical background of the individual psalms is lacking or not important to the message of the psalms. He questions the authenticity of specific historical allusions in the heading or in the text on the ground that they lack specificity (1:24–25). He generalizes the references to historical connections (Moses, David, Solomon) in the headings by speaking about “the petitioner,” “the worshipper,” or frequently “the psalm.” Further, the names in the headings suggest to him an imaginary framework for reading the psalms. For example, in reading Ps 90 one should imagine “Moses … (as) an appropriate person … uttering a plea for Israel, as he did that at Sinai” (2:23–24). His position on the Korahite and Asaphite psalms is ambivalent. Of the former, he comments “These are presumably the Korahites.… The heading may indicate that these psalms were composed by members of this group and/or formed a part of its repertoire” (2:701). He comments on the Asaphite psalms that the headings may “imply the conviction that they were composed by Asaph” (2:696). As for David, he concludes that the headings with the name of David were added subsequently to the composition of the psalms when David “became a hero for Bible readers” (1:29). He restates this point in the Glossary of volume 3: “It is unlikely that any of these Davids personally wrote any of the Psalms. It [the mention of David] may often invite us to imagine David using the Psalm” (3:754). He sees little “pattern or logic in the links with David in the latter part of the Psalter” (3:293), but others have argued the opposite (Childs, Howard, McCann, VanGemeren, Westermann, Wilson, Zenger). Goldingay admits that there are evident groupings and thematic connections between individual psalms, but he follows the rabbinic dictum that there is no structure in the book of Psalms. He concludes that the only structure is the genre of the Psalter (prayer and praise) that opens up the world of the spirituality of the ancient community (1:35–37).
  3. Goldingay reveals his commitment to modernity in the section, “The Modern Quest” (1:30–32). The modern quest occupies itself with the growth of the Davidic tradition in the Psalter. The exploration of the tradition is for a twofold purpose: the search for the historical context of texts and the reconstruction of Israelite religion. Goldingay confesses that he is not directly interested in the former, but is convinced that “the modern believing community” (1:31) must face the nature of Israel’s religious contributions. The “power and authority” (1:31) of the Psalms lies in the perpetual witness to the communal belief that the prayers and praises of the psalms transcend the particular occasion or person. The power and authority of the Psalter does not derive from knowing the human author, but from hearing the voice of God in the Psalms. His bifurcation of the divine from the human dimensions of Scripture is not surprising. More surprising is Goldingay’s suggestion that many of the authors were women and later headings notwithstanding, the reader must imagine feminine concerns to come to the fore when reading the psalms (1:32–33).
  4. Goldingay’s discussion of the distinctive features of Hebrew poetry reveals a critical assessment of modern attempts at changing the Hebrew text to conform to modern expectations of what poetic lines should look and sound like. He further encourages modern readers not to abstract a conceptual or doctrinal reading that separates the text from the experiences of modern readers (1:43–44), but instead to enter into the lyrical and metaphorical language of poetry, strange as it may sound to modern ears.
  5. Goldingay treats spirituality separately from the theology of the Psalter in order to bring out both the human and divine dimensions of the Psalms.

a. Under the former he places prayer, confession, trust, anger, and praise (1:58–68). Goldingay’s comments on worship and prayer reverberate throughout the commentary. With his emphasis on liturgy and worship, Goldingay deviates from a growing number of scholars who take the main purpose of the Psalter to be pedagogical. Psalm 1 as an introduction does not set the agenda of the Psalter, but rather it “constitutes a preemptive strike” (1:90) by its opening on a note of happiness during times of adversity and protest or lament. He admits that acceptable worship requires a lifestyle of wisdom, but “Psalm 1 hardly invites us to see the Psalter as a teaching about right living.” (1:91). Even individual prayers are set within the context of corporate worship (1:49).

b. Under the latter he develops God’s involvement with his creation. He writes, “Theologically, the psalms are the densest material in the entire OT.” By “dense” he means rich, complex, and multifaceted. He looks at three areas: God’s involvement in the world (Israel, the king, and messiah), God’s concern with life and death, and the relationship of the Psalms to the NT.

i. Because of God’s involvement in all aspects of life and his sovereignty extending to the whole of creation, the psalmists correlate his involvement with individuals, the people of God, and the nations (1:70–72). They declare “that the real world is one where Yhwh reigns, and sends worshipers out into that world to live with the conviction” (1:71). Goldingay intends to listen to the voices of the psalmists without interference from the NT. He holds that the early church read a “new significance” into the Psalms (1:72). I agree with him that the psalms are not predictive prophecy, but is the relationship between OT and NT as strained as he sees it? There is a providential connection between the Psalms and the NT (so Christopher R. Seitz, Figured Out: Typology and Providence in Christian Scripture [Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2001]), and intertextual patterns connect the two testaments (see Frances Young, “Typology,” in Crossing the Boundaries: Essays in Biblical Interpretation in Honour of Michael D. Goulder [ed. S. E. Porter; P. Joyce, and D. E. Orton; Leiden: Brill, 1994], pp. 29–48). Moreover, the Psalter has an eschatological hope in which David figures prominently (see David C. Mitchell, The Message of the Psalter: An Eschatological Programme in the Book of Psalms[JSOTSup 252; Sheffield: JSOT, 1999]). For Goldingay hope lies primarily in Yahweh’s commitment to the godly community, and less so to the Davidic king. He argues that the Lord’s commitment to David is suspended because “that throne has been unoccupied for over 2500 years” (3:297). Instead, he advances the argument that the Psalms contribute to the OT witness for the democratization of the Davidic ideal in the post-exilic era: “They (the kingship psalms) became open to appropriation by the people as a whole in the present instead of having their fulfillment for an individual king postponed until the future” (1:73). Let me return to the relationship of OT and NT at the end.

ii. He views the situation of dead believers in the OT and NT to be similar. They are in Hades, asleep as it were, waiting for the resurrection of the body (1:74–75). He objects to the overly positive portrayal of the afterlife in Christian circles and argues in favor of taking this life more seriously.

The commentary on each psalm follows this pattern: Translation, Interpretation, and Theological Implications. Under Translation, Goldingay offers an original translation with a strophic analysis and select grammatical, syntactic, and textual notes. Under Interpretation, he first offers helpful insights into the psalm as a whole (genre, stylistic and poetic devices, structural connections, theological insights, and interpretive comments of a general nature) and then explains select aspects of each strophe. Under Theological Implications, Goldingay may suggest his own theological insights (e.g., see Ps 103) or those of others (e.g., see Ps 130). Terms that require repeated explanation are marked with an asterisk and defined in the glossary, located at the end of each volume. One will also find a subject and author index in each volume. The latter reflects Goldingay’s extensive reading bridging the ancient and modern writers on the Psalms.

The reviewer is grateful for Goldingay’s fine contribution that spans exegesis, exposition, theological reflection, and application. He expresses reservations with some of Goldingay’s views of the place of David in the Psalter, the role of imagination in reading the headings, the editing of the Psalms, and the feminine voice in the Psalter. Yet apart from these caveats, Bible students, church leaders, pastors, and Bible teachers will greatly benefit from this set.

One of the nagging issues that remains, however, is the relationship between the Psalter and the NT. Positively, Goldingay clarifies several issues where the psalmists’s attitudes appear to be incompatible with Christian teaching, such as imprecations and anger. His treatment of these psalms, or sections thereof, counter Christian biases against the OT by bringing out similar expressions in the NT. He observes, “What the OT and NT do is fill out the nature of biblical faith for each other. It is not the case that theological insight develops through Scripture in such a way that the NT provides a kind of theological filter by which unacceptable aspects of the Psalms or other aspects of the OT can be strained out by being reinterpreted” (1:76). Thanks, Goldingay. Well put. I also agree with his emphasis that the NT cannot be read without a deep familiarity with the OT and that the NT writings allude extensively to the theological world of the OT (1:76).

Nevertheless, Goldingay keeps the two worlds of OT and NT apart. The use of the OT text on the lips of Jesus and the apostles takes on a different meaning. He comments that they do “not take up the meaning of the verse in its context, the meaning it would have had for its writer or for believers who used it in OT Israel” (1:76), but “they do so in a way that ignores those words’ intrinsic meaning when the Holy Spirit first inspired them” (1:77). By distinguishing meaning (OT) from significance (NT), Goldingay remains modern in his approach to the OT.

In the commentary that follows, I have often noted the way the NT quotes the psalm, but in the light of considerations just outlined, I do not attempt to show that this reworking corresponds to the Psalms’ own meaning. Nor do I make the NT the filter or lens through which we read the Psalms. A modern aspect of the commentary is that I want the Psalms to speak their own message and to let them address Christian thinking, theology, and spirituality rather than be silenced by a certain way of reading the NT that fits modern Christian preferences. (1:78)

(See also Goldingay’s article “Hermeneutics,” in Dictionary of the Old Testament: Wisdom, Poetry, and Writings [ed. Tremper Longman III and Peter Enns; Downers Grove: IVP, 2008], pp. 267–80.)

Is it really possible to read the text within its own context? If so, what is that context? Evidently not the canonical context as suggested by Childs and others (see E. Zenger, “Der Psalter als Wegweiser und Wegbeleiter: Ps 1–2 als Proömium des Psalmenbuchs,” in Sie wandern von Kraft zu Kraft: Ausbrüche, Wege, Begegnungen: FS Bischof Reinhard Lettmann [ed. A. Angenendt, H. Vorgrimler; Kevelear: Butzon & Bercker, 1993], pp. 29–47). While he makes a serious attempt at reconstructing the reception of a text by the community, can one read the OT text as a Christian with commitments to the modern scholarly reading of the OT without equal commitments to the pre-modern reading of Jesus, the apostles, the church fathers, and classical Christian writers? Another approach suggests that interpretation of texts is always intertextual and that a Christian reading of the OT engages not only with canonical connections within the OT, but also with the NT. Canonical interpretation encourages the diachronic interface of reading texts at a number of levels (intertextuality): the text by itself (in its co-text and context); the text in connection with other texts of a similar genre, tradition, or theme; the text in a collection or book; and the text in subsequent interpretations (the NT). See the helpful article by P. E. Koptak on “Intertextuality” in Dictionary of the Old Testament: Wisdom, Poetry, and Writings (pp. 25–32).

In conclusion, I shall illustrate Goldingay’s approach by looking at his commentary on Ps 110, a psalm extensively cited in the NT. He connects it with Ps 2 as twin psalms (3:291) and argues that both psalms offer no prospects of a future messianic king. He comments on Ps 2, “The psalm implicitly forestalls ideological appropriation in another way” (1:106). In his commentary on Ps 110, he observes, “There is no indication that it speaks of a future king, nor any necessity to reckon that it would be interpreted messianically by the time the Psalter reached its present form” (3:292). He rejects the NT appropriation of this psalm because “as a whole it does not fit him (Jesus) and most of its application to him in the NT requires it to be understood in a way that would not correspond to its meaning in any OT context” (3:292). He clarifies his position: “In light of Jesus’ coming, the Holy Spirit inspires people to see significance in the OT that was never there before” (3:299, emphasis mine). What is that OT context? Goldingay vacillates. He constructs a temple context, but admits that the text is not supportive of a liturgical reading. I appreciate his caution in reading the text for what it says: “canonical interpretation must mean letting different parts of Scripture have their say, not silencing some by others we prefer” (3:300). But the reverse is also true. Some interpretations may filter potential ways of reading OT texts by silencing the hermeneutical challenges the NT poses to the interpretation of OT texts.

Willem A. VanGemeren

Reformed Theological Seminary, Jackson, USA

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