Review of J. Goldingay Psalms Vol. 2

Journal of Hebrew Scriptures - Volume 9 (2009) - Review

John Goldingay. Psalms. Vol. 2: Psalms 42-89 (Baker Commentary on the Old Testament Wisdom and Psalms; Grand Rapids: Baker Academic Press, 2007). Pp. 744. Hardcover, US$44.99. ISBN 978-0-8010-2704-8.

In this second volume of his expansive commentary, Goldingay continues to offer his detailed, learned, and helpful treatments of the Psalms. As in Volume 1, the exegesis of each psalm proceeds in three sections. (1) “Translation”: Goldingay's translations are based primarily on the Masoretic Text of the Leningrad Codex as published in BHS, and he has “aimed at a translation that sticks closely to the dynamics of the Hebrew, even if this sometimes means it is not as elegant as a translation for reading in church” (p. 12). (2) “Interpretation”: These sections generally begin with Goldingay's analysis of the structure and movement of the psalm. They continue with a discussion of the genre(s), followed by consideration of possible liturgical and/or historical settings of the psalm. Then, Goldingay offers detailed commentary, generally proceeding verse-by-verse. (3) “Theological Implications”: Varying in length from a paragraph to several pages, these sections demonstrate how the Psalms are, as Goldingay has described them in Volume 1, “a teaching manual for worship and prayer” (Volume 1, p. 23) and a “manual for spirituality, for relationship with God” (Volume 1, p. 58).

Other elements of the volume are, as in Volume 1, a “Glossary” (pp. 695-707; the glossaries in the two volumes overlap, but are not identical), “Bibliography” (reflecting the contents of this volume), “Subject Index,” “Author Index,” and “Index of Scripture and Other Ancient Writings.” In his “Author's Preface,” Goldingay refers the reader to the “Introduction” contained in the first volume (pp. 21-78). Thus, he says very little about his approach, except to distance himself very explicitly from two current approaches that are popular in Psalms scholarship - that is, consideration of the significance of the shape and shaping of the book of Psalms, and the study of the redaction history of individual psalms. Goldingay rejects both of these endeavors as excessively speculative. Concerning attempts to discern and assess the significance of the shape of the book of Psalms, for instance, he concludes, “[i]t seems to me to involve too much imagination in the connecting of too few dots” (p. 11). Thus, to summarize the perspective that he has outlined in detail in Volume 1, Goldingay says, “I remain of the view that the main focus of Psalms study needs to be the individual psalm” (p. 11).

Even so, Goldingay is not averse to pointing out literary and conceptual links between psalms; and he also recognizes that his own approach involves a degree of speculation. His assessments of the origins and settings of individual psalms contain generous use of words like “imagine,” “possible,” and “might” (see, for instance, p. 481 where “might” is employed nine times in the discussion of the possible origins of Psalm 78), thus indicating the awareness that certainty is elusive. Such scholarly humility is appropriate and commendable.

In his “Series Preface,” editor Tremper Longman III indicates that this volume is aimed at “scholars, ministers, seminary students, and Bible study leaders,” but especially at “clergy and future clergy” (p. 8). Of these different constituencies, scholars will probably find most helpful Goldingay's innovative translations and the material in the sections labeled “Interpretation,” including (and perhaps especially) the footnotes, which contain a wealth of bibliographic material from a wide range of sources.

As for clergy and seminary students, they will probably find especially useful the sections labeled “Theological Implications.” Indeed, given the fact that the series is aimed especially at clergy and future clergy, along with the fact that “the message of the biblical book is the primary focus of each commentary” in the series (p. 8), these sections take on added significance. And they will be helpful to the intended audience, since they cover thoughtfully and clearly a range of topics that are important to the church and synagogue - for instance, the status of Jerusalem among the three Abrahamic faiths (pp. 93-94, 437), the nature of faithful worship and prayer (pp. 120-121, 242, 271, 297, 361, 447-448, 616, 643), the character of God (pp. 378, 530, 569-570), the shape and scope of God's will for church and world (pp. 209-210, 284, 297, 304, 334, 641), the related issues of vengeance and retribution in the Psalms (pp. 162, 334, 356, 456, 529), and more.

I find it especially helpful and encouraging that Goldingay is constantly aware that he and most of his readers (including myself) share a privileged economic position in the world, and that we are part of a nation that often thrives by oppressing much of the rest of the world, sometimes by the exertion of brute force in places like Iraq (see the mention of Iraq on pp. 233, 284). This reality, combined with the cultural accommodation of many sectors of the church in the United States and the Western churches' “need to ‘mourn their demise'” (p. 543), makes Goldingay's direct advice to clergy and future clergy extraordinarily important and timely: “The psalm [Psalm 65] therefore suggests the further reflection that it is the task of pastors to lead the church in public acknowledgment of the nation's waywardness and rebelliousness, not standing superior in relation to it, but identifying with it” (p. 284). In short, Goldingay hears in the Psalms a message that invites the submission of nationalistic interest and fervor to the vision of God's larger purposes for the entire world. Faithful worship and spirituality will embody and facilitate such submission; or, as Goldingay puts it as he reflects on Psalm 66: “In worship, world and people of God belong together” (p. 297; see also pp. 304, 334). Again, in a broken and divided world, this affirmation could hardly be more important and timely. I trust that clergy and future clergy will hear, learn from, and share the message of the Psalms that Goldingay has so effectively illuminated, as this series of commentaries intends. As for biblical scholars, many of us too will certainly appreciate Goldingay's illumination of the message of the Psalms; and in any case, his work will be an indispensable resource for future academic study of and comment upon the Psalms.

J. Clinton McCann, Jr., Eden Theological Seminary