‘The Psalms: Strophic Structure and Theological Commentary’ by Samuel Terrien

Samuel Terrien, The Psalms: Strophic Structure and Theological Commentary, A Critical Eerdmans Commentary, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2003.

This large single volume commentary has been available for just over ten years. I have only recently read it. I am reviewing it here as I think it merits wider attention than it appears to have received. The author, Samuel Terrien, devoted much scholarly attention to the Psalms throughout his long academic career. He passed away, at the age of 90, in 2001, just before the publication of this commentary. His longevity and scholarly interest mean that he is unusually placed to have experienced first hand a number of key developments in Psalms scholarship. He saw how Gunkel’s form-critical approach all but destroyed the nineteenth century’s scholarly consensus on the late date and origin of the Psalter. He witnessed firsthand the impact of Mowinckel’s call to take the original cultic context of the Psalms seriously. More recently he was able to observe a very different movement for interpreting to the Psalter, as Wilson spearheaded what Terrien, and others, refer to as the canonical approach.

Why is this long period of engagement with hermeneutical approaches important to readers of this commentary? Well, so often scholarship can be coloured by either a resistance to change, or the opposite problem, of a grasping after the latest fad. Terrien is well-placed to offer insightful wisdom on the merits of psalms interpretive paradigms, both old and new.

So often in biblical commentaries, the obligatory introduction, can be a bland rehearsal of the expected topics, but this is not the case here. Terrien’s introduction is detailed enough, and yet also concise and fresh enough, to allow the reader to quickly orient themselves on both the Psalms and Terrien’s approach to them. He starts by pointing out the remarkable longevity and vitality of the Psalms; explaining helpfully that this is all the more surprising given the complex ancient near-eastern cultural background to the Psalms. He helpfully surveys the origin and growth of the Psalter. This is important as it indicates that he gives serious attention to some recent developments in scholarship which explore the formation of the Psalter as an intentional, rather than haphazard, collection. He moves on to look at both the music of the Psalms and what he calls the strophic structure. This detailed attention to structure, where each psalm is examined in its own right, is highly unusual, at least in my commentary collection. Terrien then moves on to discuss the form-critical aspects of the various individual psalms. It is clear that Terrien wants to use the fruit of form criticism, but it is also apparent that such an approach is a backdrop to the individual psalms, rather than operating centre stage as an end in itself.

Towards the end of the introduction is, what I found the most illuminating section, a discussion of the Theology of the Psalms. It looks at the Psalms in a way I have recently found rewarding; as being profoundly theological in what they reveal about the nature of Israel’s God. Terrien is aware that, to a large measure, any such attempt at systematisation of the Psalms, is always approximate and provisional: “On account of their extreme diversity, the 150 Psalms do not lend themselves easily to theological synthesis” (p.44). He offers the following headings as one way in which the theology of the Psalms can be organised without imposing a straight jacket on interpreting them:

A. God’s Presence and Absence.
B. The Creator of Nature.
C. The Sovereign of History.
D. The Judge of the Enemies.
E. The Protector if the Poor and Healer of the Sick.
F. The Master of Wisdom.
G. The Lord of Life.
H. Theology and Doxology.

So what of the commentary proper? How does Terrien organise his work on the individual compositions? This is where we see just why the commentary has the subtitle of ‘Strophic Structure and Theological Commentary’. For each Psalm, he offers a new translation. I personally found these exhibited a good balance of faithful translation and poetic elegance. He also provides a very thorough bibliography for each psalm. This will be particularly helpful for those wishing to follow-up his arguments based on literary and strophic structure, as much of the key literature which supports his arguments are journal articles and monographs. Terrien does, of course, acknowledge the textual differences within the MT of the Psalter. He is, however, generally conservative in avoiding hypothetical emendations of the text, which is commendable in my view.

Terrien then looks at the form of the psalm. This is not a simple revisiting of Gunkel’s form-critical categories, although these are often mentioned. Rather Terrien is keen to ensure that the unique nature of each psalm is not eclipsed by a small number of categories, he therefore pays close attention to the specific, as well as generic form of the compositions. He then moves on to look at the individual strophes (already clearly identified in his translation). I frequently found the identification of these literary units insightful for understanding the psalms and engaging with them. This was true in the vast majority of cases. Some readers, might join me, in being less convinced in some cases. Despite some reservations, I think this focus on structure is a key strength of the commentary and this approach means it makes a fresh contribution to the large number of available commentaries. In this sense, it very much does what a commentary should do, in presenting a proposal that engages the reader in grappling with the actual text.

The examination of each psalm then concludes with a section titled ‘Date and Theology’. Placing the two topics together is a very sobering reminder that to some extent the two issues cannot be easily separated. The theological reflection is very helpful, this is particularly so in an age where some commentaries seem very thin on theological reflection.

The twin features of a close structural analysis of each Psalm and the willingness to look at the theological contribution of each psalm makes this an excellent resource for the thorough teacher and preacher. I would however suggest that it be complemented by a second commentary to see an alternative expert judgement on the shape of the text.

In my view the commentary makes a sensible use of the vast body of form-critical and cult-critical studies. Terrien refers to literary forms and contextual information which is illuminating, and he most helpfully avoids the more tentative overarching hypotheses which do little to help interpret the Psalms for use in the Church. He also helpfully pays attention to the canonical method, although, I am not entirely convinced he has worked out all the implications of this interpretive approach. For example, he alludes to the importance of psalms 1 and 2, as psalms that function as an introduction. He also sees both psalms 73 and 90 as being twin poles within the Psalter. Neither of these ideas is really worked out or seriously referred to within the commentary on individual psalms.

As well as preachers benefiting from this work, scholars of the future will want to address the case for the certainties of identifiable strophic structure that Terrien finds in all the canonical psalms. I am very grateful for the many fresh insights I have gained from this work. This commentary is also available relatively cheaply because if it’s publication date, which makes it am excellent supplement to an existing library on the Psalms.

Author: PsalterMark

Psalm addict, disciple, son, husband, father, academic, theologian, cacti grower, steam enthusiast and ale drinker

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