The Psalms as Christian Lament: A Historical Commentary (Review)

Published: RTR 73, no. 3, 2014

The Psalms as Christian Lament: A Historical Commentary

Bruce K. Waltke, James M. Houston and Erika Moore (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2014). 626 pp. $28.00.

ISBN: 978-0-8028-6809-1

The tenor of the work is evident from the luminaries who commend it: not only a range of OT scholars, but the likes of J. I. Packer and Haddon Robinson. It is not a merely ‘academic’ publication. The authors work their way through the seven Psalms which have historically been taken as the ‘penitential Psalms’, plus some extras (and therefore do not deal with all those Psalms that have been termed ‘lament psalms’ by genre), putting each into the light of their interpretation across Church history, before proceeding to exegesis and significance. The aim is to ‘provide a basis for a theology of lament’ (p. xi). The authors are aware that this is contrary to current Christian culture, and are deliberately seeking to recapture an essential Scriptural teaching for the practice of the Church and Christians today. Lament is ‘to express impaired or disrupted relationships’ (p. 5), and this pain must be added to praise, ‘as a renewed focus for hope’ (p. 2).

Houston takes the history of commentary portion, and Waltke does the exegetical work, except for that of Ps 39, which is done by Moore. Delightful vignettes are given of the commentating fathers, as though we can grasp how they were vivified by the very Psalms they were studying. These historical sections do not always seem to have an impact on the exegetical sections, however. There is the sense that one is reading two separate books. Still, the chapter on Ps 32 is more integrated, commencing with a sketch of Augustine, followed by a consciously Pauline/Augustinian interpretation of the Psalm (with Calvin and Spurgeon cited for good measure).

The exegetical expertise of Waltke can be taken for granted, and needs little explication here. On the Psalms that are dealt with (Pss 5, 6, 7, 32, 38, 39, 44, 102, 130, 143), one will find something of value. For each Psalm, appropriate canonical-Christological and new covenant connections are drawn, and contemporary relevance is discussed. There are occasional issues, though, in relation to poetic structure. It is not entirely accurate to call a one paragraph statement on the structure of a Psalm, ‘Form Criticism’. For some Psalms, there is the acceptance of multiple, conflicting structures. Should the division be Ps 5:1–2 and vv. 3–6, or vv. 1–3 and vv. 4–6 (or if both, can this be further explained)? Multiple chiastic structures for the same Psalm are stacked up without differentiation of the advantages of one over the other. Are there any controls for discerning chiasms?

Further on structure, the finding of gematria in extremis in Ps 6 is intriguing (pp. 52–53. If one does not know what gematria means, a brief glossary is appended to the book). The two halves of the Psalm (excluding the superscription) have 39 words, which totals three times the numerical value of the tetragrammaton (3×26). The four strophes across the two halves are also regimented: 24 words, 15 words, 15 words and then 24 words. The balance of and within the halves is undeniable, but 2×39 is not 3×26, so further explanation is needed, and more than just counting words, what effect does a 24-15-15-24 pattern have?

The book may read as though it were divided, but this is not to deprecate its value. Apart from the obvious benefit for Old Testament scholars, serious-minded preachers will be able to draw on the breadth of material to produce a fine homiletical series on the Psalms of lament. The book does not give sample sermons, but the source material is there, waiting to be harnessed: the exegetical raw data, Waltke’ s vibrant reflections on each Psalm’s pastoral significance, and the voice of the Church fathers to give deeper colour and rhetorical inspiration. The preacher would still need to decide on each Psalm’s outline, for those places in the book where multiple structures are offered.

It would be easy to miss the significance of this book. It is not ‘just’ a book about exegesis and the history of Psalms interpretation. It is a call for the Church to come back to its historical and Scriptural roots. A convincing exegetical and historical case is made for recapturing a theology of lament, and the book also provides the trajectory by which such can be inculcated.