A Review of the Two Psalm Volumes in the Brazos Theological Commentary Series

Jason Byassee, Psalms 101–150, Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible, Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2018.

Ellen Charry, Psalms 1–50: Sighs and Songs of Israel, Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible, Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2015.


Background to the Two Volumes

Rather unusually this review concerns two books. The reason for reviewing both current volumes on the psalms in the Brazos Theological Commentary series together will become apparent as the review unfolds.

The Brazos Theological Commentary series has been around for just over a decade. There are a little over twenty volumes now available which means that the project is around fifty percent complete. The series is, in my view, very welcome. Many commentaries admirably fulfil the textual work expected of what might broadly be termed historical criticism, but few offer anything of help in the next step for those who see the Bible as Scripture and want to see it efficaciously at work in the Church. Whilst this commentary series is committed to such a stance of faith, it is also broadly ecumenical. The Series Preface, found in each volume, makes is very clear that the contributors have been given immense freedom by the editors regarding the approach they adopt and the version of the Bible they use. This welcome ethos does inevitably mean that the series will be both stylistically and theologically uneven—very much more  than most over series, given its deliberate theological intent. This unevenness is especially acute for the Psalter because of the multi-author approach adopted for this book. For understandable reasons the Psalter is not being authored by a single author. Rather more surprising is the singling out of Psalm 119 in its own volume, although it is covered in outline in Byassee’s volume. The other two forthcoming volumes are:

  • Psalm 51–100, written by Lauren Winner.
  • Psalm 119, written by Reinhard Hütter.

The two published books on the Psalter adopt very different approaches. In their respective volumes the authors justify their chosen hermeneutical methods. Ellen Charry, like many Christian Old Testament scholars, avoids christological interpretive approaches. Her introduction concisely, but clearly, sets out the rationale for this hermeneutical agenda. Jason Byassee’s approach could not be more different, as he puts it: ‘I offer here what we might call a “christologically maximalist” interpretation of the psalms’. This will not be a surprise to anyone who is familiar with his Praise Seeking Understanding: Reading the Psalms with Augustine published by Eerdmans in 2007.

Such is the diversity in the two approaches that some readers might anticipate wanting to read one and not the other. This reader, however, has found both books to be delightfully profitable in spite of their distinct differences. One reason why what appears to be a problem is only a minor issue is the very richness of the biblical material. Neither Charry nor Byassee come anywhere close to even outlining the immense theological riches of the fifty psalms they cover. Both, albeit in very different ways, examine the psalms theologically to help their readers on the way to appropriating the psalms. Neither aims at providing a final theological word on the psalms they explore.

Ellen Charry, Psalms 1–50: Sighs and Songs of Israel

Charry adopts a very consistent and structured approach as she examines Psalm 1 to 50 in turn. Each psalm s examined under three headings. The opening section for each psalm considers their Canonical Context and Themes. This is especially welcome in the light of recent scholarly developments. It has become clear over the last thirty years that the Psalter is purposefully edited and such an appreciation has significant implications for any theology of the psalms. The importance of this is evident at the outset as in the opening sentence on Psalm 1 Charry states that ‘The canonical authority of the opening poem of the Psalter is vast’ [p.1]. This is a breath of fresh air, as some older commentaries all but dismiss Psalm 1 as having no theological significance. Only a few more recent commentaries pay attention to the canonical setting of each psalm. The second section for each psalm Is headed Structure and Dynamics. Importantly, in these sections Charry does far more than look at the literary structure. Her concern is unpacking the rich interplay of the literary and theological dynamics of each psalm—each literary unit is explored in turn so as to discern its theological claims and significance. The third and final section is Theological Pedagogy. In this, usually short, section the overall theological implications of the psalm are outlined. In this way Charry leads her readers to the further work they need to do to appropriate the psalms for themselves. This works well given the inevitably wide range of perspectives, presuppositions and purposes that readers are likely to bring to the commentary. The book also pays fruitful attention to whose voice speaks the various psalms and subsections. Charry’s approach does mean that she stops short of seeing the psalms as ‘spoken’ by Christ or the reader.

Jason Byassee, Psalms 101–150

Byassee’s approach is far less systematic than Charry’s. He does not see the need for approaching each psalm in the same consistent manner—so gone are the headings and sub headings that Charry uses. Pointing out this stark difference is not a criticism but simply the acknowledgement that this is a wholly different enterprise. Some prospective readers might be deterred by Byassee’s commitment to christological maximalism. There are two reasons why such a hasty decision should not be made. Firstly, it is important to remember that until the last two centuries to a large extent all Christian interpretations of the psalms were highly Christological. Secondly, despite the Christological self-designation Byassee adopts, he has no desire to pursue the more allegorical approaches that have made modern interpreters so wary of pre-critical interpretation. In simple terms Byassee brings the Rule of Faith to the Psalter and expects to find Christ there—he leaves it to the reader to judge the success of some of the more imaginative interpretive choices. The real strength of Byassee’s volume will be for the preacher and teacher of Scripture who wants to use the psalms through a Christological lens. As I read the majority of chapters I felt like I was reading something akin to an excellent sermon or teaching outline—in this way reading this volume was a rich devotional experience. Byassee writes in such a way that his approach invites the reader in and leaves them wanting to run further with the rich intertextual and theological gems he presents.


I recommend both volumes despite the immense difference in the approaches they adopt. Given their respective hermeneutical choices, and the space limitations of the series, they both do an admirable job of encouraging the reader to continue to grapple with the theology and theological implications of the Psalter. One final comment is worth making; the immense freedom granted by the editors is, I think, a strength of this series, permitting works that are rich and stimulating, each from a coherent scholarly and theological tradition. Nevertheless, some readers will want to check the approach adopted before buying any one volume.




Exodus: Apollos Old Testament Commentary

Exodus: Apollos Old Testament Commentary, Desmond Alexander, London: Apollos, 2017. xxpp. 764pp. hb, £39.99, ISBN 978-1-78359-434-4 / $45.00, ISBN 978-0-8308-2502-8

IVP kindly supplied a copy of this book for review. For those unfamiliar with the Apollos Old Testament Commentary series, its stated aim is to combine rigorous academic commentary with interpretation for the contemporary evangelical church. In this specific volume ahead of the commentary proper, is a 32 page introduction to the Book of Exodus. The opening section on ‘the exodus story’ (pp.1–4) provides a helpful and insightful statement of the theological purpose of the Book of Exodus. For Alexander, Exodus 15:17 is an especially important verse. He understands it as crystallising the idea that the exodus of the people of God from Egypt is a preparation of Israel at one mountain (Sinai) in anticipation of dwelling with God before another (Zion) in the Promised Land. Alexander helpfully stresses the breadth of the nature of salvation portrayed in Exodus. He outlines its motifs of redemption from slavery, purification, ransom from death and sanctification. Three short sections orientate Exodus within (i) its literary context, i.e. Genesis to Kings, (ii) the rest of the Old Testament/Hebrew Bible, (iii) the New Testament. The differences of opinion as to the structure of the book are usefully outlined and the author concludes that chapter 18 (Jethro’s visit to Moses) is a ‘hinge’ between chapters 1–17 (Israel’s escape from captivity) and 19–40 (Israel’s covenants with Yahweh).

A large section of the Introduction is concerned with the relationship between the Book of Exodus and history. Alexander outlines the archaeological evidence for an exodus of people from Egypt with regard to its correspondence with the Book of Exodus. Alexander does not advocate a definite date for the events described in Exodus, pointing to the lack of evidence, especially with regard to the conquest of Canaan. Some readers, even those of an Evangelical stance, might feel that Alexander has been too accepting of even the finest details of the account of Exodus—his approach is not especially sympathetic too approaches that privilege literary form over historicity.  Alexander appears to favour an early date for the events described in the book of Exodus but he recognises that certainty is not possible based on the limits of both text and archaeology. The Introduction concludes with a postponement of any decision about the route of the Exodus until the commentary proper and some comments on the text of the book.

I found navigating the main body of the commentary frustrating at times as the major section headings and occasional excurses are not listed in the contents page. Each of the smaller textual units is examined in five sections:

  • Translation: Alexander’s own translation of the verses is presented. This translation is fluent and engaging.
  • Notes on the text: The rationale behind the choice of key words and phrases made in the translation is presented and important textual variants are discussed. All of the Hebrew is transliterated and important matters of grammar explained at length.
  • Form and structure: The textual unit is explored at length. Here Alexander is especially helpful in justifying the reason for the identification of the specific verses as a unit and the relationship of the unit to other parts of Exodus. A key strength is the thorough exploration of intertextual relationships of the unit with the rest of Scripture, especially the Book of Genesis.
  • Comment: It is here that the passage in unfolded in detail in a verse-by-verse manner. The focus remains tightly upon the passage in its original context.
  • Explanation: In this section, Alexander helps the reader start the interpretive journey from ‘then’ to ‘now’. It is here that the passage is engaged with theologically and Alexander puts the passage into New Testament perspective. This step is helpful for the preacher and is the most distinctive feature of this commentary (and indeed the series) compared to some other full-length technical commentaries. This reader found these sections to be helpful ‘points of departure’.

In its entirety this commentary makes two theses as to how the Book of Exodus should be handled. The first thesis is methodological and is, perhaps surprisingly, not made readily apparent in the Introduction. The second is theological and central to Alexander’s understanding of the whole book. In turn these two theses are:

  1. The enterprise of source criticism in its documentary and fragmentary forms has been rather unfruitful. This is not because Alexander rules out complex textual development per se, but rather classic source criticism has not found anything like scholarly consensus. Indeed, time-and-again Alexander shows that literary units are just that, units, and programmatic efforts to dissect them are sterile exercises which are unwarranted. The commentary would have been a lot shorter without the consideration of the possibilities afforded by source critical approaches and some more conservative readers might have welcomed their omission. However, these sections taken together provide a thoroughgoing challenge to anyone pursuing the source critical approach for understanding the Pentateuch.
  2. At the outset (pp.1–2) points out the role of Mount Sinai in Exodus as a preparation for living with Mount Zion in the, to quote Alexander, the ‘land flowing with milk and syrup’. This approach is both nuanced and compelling.

To conclude, the identification of these two theses makes this commentary not only a very good technical commentary on the Book of Exodus but ensures it makes specific methodological and theological contributions to the scholarship on what is a pivotal text of the Hebrew Bible. In summary, anyone wanting a rigorous and thoroughgoing examination of Exodus from a stance of Christian faith will find what they need in this latest addition to the Apollos Commentary series.



‘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.