What do the Psalms mean?
Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries (Volumes 15-16): Psalms
Author: Tremper Longman III
Publisher: IVP Academic (www.ivpress.com)
It caught me by surprise! Someone I knew to be a Christian for many years spoke about The Psalms in the Bible as though they were a riddle that needed to be solved. “What do they mean?”
In hindsight it’s not so startling. What does a New Testament believer make of verses like, “Blessed shall he be who takes your little ones and dashes them against the rock!” (Psalm 137:9).
Similarly, Christians today may balk at using swords in worship: “Let the high praises of God be in their throats and two-edged swords in their hands, to execute vengeance on the nations and punishments on the peoples, to bind their kings with chains and their nobles with fetters of iron, to execute on them the judgment written! This is the honor for all his godly ones. Praise the Lord!” (Psalm 149:5-9). The typical modern worship service looks tame in comparison.
After reading some of the psalms, a non-Christian friend was somewhat shocked by the irreverent expressions. I guess he figured the Bible contained only pious sentiments, not people expressing grief, turmoil and complaint as you find in this Hebrew poetry. So what does it all mean?
This complete revision of the original two volume set (now one book) in the Tyndale Old Testament Commentary series goes a long way towards answering that question. In trying to provide an update that conforms to modern standards, the format is updated “to reflect a key emphasis from linguistics, which is that texts communicate in larger blocks rather than in shorter segments such as individual verses” (8).
The upside is a concise analysis of texts that are naturally grouped together as a unit. The downside, if there is one; readers don’t get exposition of every verse. On occasion users may want more insight and will need to turn elsewhere. Buyers should keep in mind this is not an exhaustive commentary. What you get is careful and structured exegesis of blocks of thought with a few highlights of individual verses.
It all starts with a Context section that provides the background for each psalm. The Comment section features standard commentary. The concluding Meaning section focuses on key theological themes and seeks to relate them to New Testament understandings of Scripture.
One praiseworthy aspect: the author consistently is careful to avoid inserting New Testament revelation into the Old Testament meaning of a passage. For example, the understanding of the afterlife is not nearly as developed in the Old as in the New. When the author of Psalm 17:15 writes, “As for me, I shall behold your face in righteousness; when I awake, I shall be satisfied with your likeness,” the original meaning is not exactly clear. Longman points out that there is no prior reference to sleep in this passage. Even so, he surmises, “Whatever the meaning in its Old Testament context, the light of the more robust teaching on the afterlife given in the New Testament allows us to read it in that fuller sense” (110).
This commitment to letting words be defined by their context is what makes this a valuable resource for study. It’s essential to determining meaning. This succeeds admirably in this regard.
The author further adds value by reiterating common styles and themes. In his opening remarks on Psalm 77 Longman writes, “The psalmist informs his hearers that he turned to God for help. His distress is unspecified, as is typical in the Psalms, allowing later worshippers to use this prayer as a template for their own addresses to God in the midst of similar, though not identical, troubles” (286). Here and elsewhere the author makes the point that the psalms omit references to specific historical events so that they can be used by anyone facing like circumstances. It underscores that these words can be prayed today.
If you have ever struggled with this kind of prose, this book is worth it just for the introductory section on the different types of language and subjects in the book of Psalms. As someone who seeks to better understand poetry, I find it helpful.
This volume reflects an academic approach, so if you are looking for the inspirational, get this along with something like A Treasury of David by C. H. Spurgeon. As much as I might like the latter, if I could only have one commentary on the Psalms, I would not go wrong with this one. It quickly puts me in touch with the relevant historical background and provides central meanings. This is an excellent place to start on the road to discovering, “What does it all mean?”