Monday, January 10, 2022

Great Commentaries on the Psalms

The Psalms got me through 2020-2021.

When the pandemic hit, I was finishing up a multi-year study of the Gospel of Matthew and immediately jumped back into the Letter to the Philippians--my go-to book for understanding the essentials of gospel ministry (3rd time through from this pulpit!).

But when we were done with Philippians, I wasn't at all sure where to go next, and a dear saint from our church family suggested we turn to the Psalter, the songbook in the center of our Bibles. After some initial hesitation, it was clear that this was exactly where the Lord wanted me to find Him for the next year.

I ended up preaching 45 messages from the Fortifying Truth of the Psalms, not quite a third of the whole thing, but just about every Sunday for a whole year. I hope it was good for our church. I know it was exactly what I needed--rich songs to express the entire sweep of everything going on my heart--good, bad, ugly, sad, everything.

The soundtrack of my sermon prep nearly every week was the amazing EveryPsalm project from Poor Bishop Hooper. One time, Jesse Roberts even sent me the next song a week early so that I had it in my head and heart for preaching (thanks, Jesse!).

And these guys, through their books, were my constant companions as I studied and wrote each week. Let me say a few words about each of them. I read some others, too, but these were my favorites, and most helpful to me. Though I've only met two of them, they all feel like old friends:

John Stott, Favorite Psalms

I've owned this one the longest. It actually belonged to my Grandma Mitchell, my Dad's mom, and I inherited it when she died in 1999. It has short but substantive exposition of Stott's most favourite (I'm sure the Anglican pastor would have included the British "u" in his original manuscripts) psalms with full color pictures that match each of the inclusions.

I got to meet Dr. Stott at a conference at Elmbrook church in the late 1990's. A wonderful experience. It may be because of how many times I've referenced this book over my pastoral ministry, but I've found that most of his favourite psalms have become my favorite psalms.

Derek Kidner, Psalms 1-72, Tyndale OTC (vol.14a) & Psalms 73-150, Tyndale OTC (vol.14b)

Of course, Stott's book doesn't cover all of the Psalms. To do that you need bigger longer books. Strangely enough, Derek Kidner covers all of the Psalms in two very short books. As I always say, Kidner is precise, concise, and incisive. I've worn out my copies and bought new ones for Heather to use at home. If you can only have two commentaries on the Psalms, I'd make it these two. I have referenced them the most for the last two decades of ministry.

Tremper Longman, Tyndale Old Testament Commentary: Psalms (vols.15-16)

If Kidner's were the books I have referenced for the Psalms the most over the last two decades, Tremper Longman's was the one I have referenced the most in the last 5 years. He covered the same ground as Kidner with this newer one-volume tome. I'm constantly amazed at his ability to summarize the text, connect it to other places in the Bible (especially the New Testament), and do it without academic jargon. I don't always agree with every single one of his interpretive decisions, but his treatment is the ones I want to read first.

Timothy Keller, The Songs of Jesus 

Keller's little book isn't a commentary. It's a devotional. He's read commentaries such as Kidner's and then distills the insights into 3 short paragraphs that retain the mood and tone of the psalm and quickly move into highly relevant application for our hearts and lives today. I've read through it several times now, and each time I get numerous new things out of it. Sometime in 2021 I got my hands on Dane Ortlund's In the Lord I Take Refuge: 150 Daily Devotions through the Psalms which is similar and similarly good.

Alec Motyer, Psalms By the Day: A New Devotional Translation

Motyer's book is also not a commentary, per se. It's more of a rich translation based on Motyer's advanced scholarship and knowledge of Hebrew. Even better than the translation, however, are the many footnotes (often going for pages beyond the text!) that explain his translation. And then at the end of each section is a devotional thought that draws it all together. Very satisfying to read carefully while taking notes!

Dale Ralph Davis, The Way of the Righteous in the Muck of Life (Psalms 1-12). Slogging Along in the Paths of Righteousness (Psalms 13-24), and In The Presence of My Enemies (Psalms 25-37)

Here's some good free advice for you if you are a preacher: Read everything that Dale Ralph Davis writes on the Old Testament. His sermons-turned-into-commentaries are some of the bestest things I've read on Judges, 1-2 Samuel, and 1-2 Kings. And he's also great on the Psalms as these 3 volumes demonstrate. I've said it before, and I'll say it again: His books are perfectly delightful concoction of pungent wordsmithing, scholarly erudition, homespun storytelling, and warm-hearted piety. They are how devotional-level commentaries ought to be written. Did I mention that you should read them?

Willem A. VanGemeren, The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, Rev. Ed, Psalms (vol. 5)

And last but not least, I loved using Dr. VanGemeren's big book on the Psalter. In my seminary days, I had Dr. VG as a professor for classes on the Prophetic Books of the Old Testament, and I believe he was working on this updated version of the EBC at the time (it came out about 10 years later). I can hear his soft Dutch accent in my mind as I read his erudite scholarship on each psalm. While it is much more academic than the others I've listed above, it is also very readable and has a surprising amount of practical application sprinkled within its pages. 

In addition to these commentaries, I also found the notes in the CSB Study Bible, ESV Study Bible, NIV Study Bible, NIV Biblical Theology Study Bible, and the online NET Bible truly helpful, as well.

Year from now, if the Lord gives me length of days, when I look back on the era of COVID-19, I'm certain now that one of the major things I will be certain then is that God used the Psalms in these months to shape and reshape who I am by giving me songs to sing about Who He is.