Book Review: A Commentary on the Psalms, Vol. 3 (90-150) by Allen Ross

A Commentary on the Psalms (Vol. 3) (Ross)Every generation of Christians must study and apply the Scriptures afresh in order to hear the voice of God speaking by his Spirit to his church through his Word. Wisdom does not neglect past interpreters, teachers, and authors; we lean on them for insight and wisdom as we dialogue with the dead. But we must always “bake fresh bread” from God’s Word so that we don’t merely traffic in inherited interpretations synthesized by others.1

Therefore, even though book-making is an endless endeavor and “much study is a weariness of the flesh” (Eccles 12:12), I am always grateful for the winds of fresh exegesis blown in by the work of responsible biblical scholars.

This year Dr. Allen Ross of Beeson Divinity School published the third and final volume of his Psalms commentary covering Psalms 90-150 for the Kregel Exegetical Library series. Writing for “pastors, teachers, and serious students of the Bible” (11), Ross explains these 61 psalms with his customary exegetical nuance, structural clarity, and practical relevance.

Overview

This third volume covers Books IV-V of the Psalms (90-150). Ross introduces each psalm with (1) a fresh translation, (2) detailed notes on translations and textual variants, (3) suggestions about the psalm’s composition, genre, and historical context, and (4) an exegetical overview which includes a one-sentence summary and a detailed outline. The expositional sections (the meat of the commentary) are then organized beneath an expository outline with main points and sub-points, concluding briefly with a summary of the psalm’s overall message and its contemporary application. In outline form:

  • fresh translation
  • text-critical notes
  • composition and historical context
  • one-sentence summary
  • detailed exegetical outline
  • multi-level expository outline with thorough expository notes
  • summary of overall message and application

Exegetical, Expositional, Devotional

Every commentary is unique, but broadly speaking, biblical commentaries can be identified by their exegetical, expositional, or devotional approaches. These are not mutually exclusive categories, but many commentaries lean strongly toward one or two of these styles. It’s quite challenging to blend all three. Yet Ross moves adeptly among careful exegesis, broader exposition, and devotional takeaways. His references to Hebrew grammar, verb tenses, literary devices utilized in Hebrew poetry, and other more academic issues are brief and clear, making the commentary insightful for someone trained in Hebrew while remaining readable for all.

Example: Psalm 90

To get a feel for Ross’s approach, let’s take a well-known psalm: Psalm 90. I wrote my dissertation on Psalms 90-106, so I’m familiar with its structure and flow.

Psalm 90 stands as an ancient pillar in the Psalter. As the only psalm ascribed to Moses, and with its foreboding yet hopeful tones, this psalm plays a stark tune that slowly grows brighter as the psalm concludes with hopeful supplication.

Ross engages various perspectives on the Mosaic superscription and concludes (wisely, in my view) that the historical Moses authored the psalm. He then calls Psalm 90 a “communal lament” with some “wisdom” features, following the traditional taxonomy of psalm genres established by Hermann Gunkel and modified by his protégé Sigmund Mowinckel. In the commentary section, Ross aptly structures the psalm as follows, principlizing the main points to demonstrate the psalm’s immediate relevance to contemporary readers. The psalm can be subdivided in different ways due to the overlap among its grammatical and thematic transitions, but Ross’s divisions and subdivisions do justice to the flow of the psalm and help illuminate its overall meaning.

  1. In contrast to the everlasting God, human life is brief because of God’s anger over sin (vv. 1-10).
  2. In view of the incomprehensible power of God’s anger, people need God’s instruction to use their time wisely (vv. 11-12).
  3. In view of this transitory and troubled life, people also need God’s compassion to give them a joyful and productive life (vv. 13-17).

I was especially impressed by Ross’s treatment of verses 11-12, as he unearths a life-changing point embedded in difficult grammar and multi-step logic.

One Limitation

There’s just one main limitation I see in this very good commentary: Ross does not examine each psalm in its psalmic context or delve into the rich waters of the Psalter’s overall structure. Careful, progressive reading through the Psalter shows what ongoing scholarship continues to demonstrate: the Psalms are strategically arranged, revealing both purposeful placement and a cohesive message. Evaluating shared terminology between psalms, complementary or contrasting themes, and the progression of psalms as you move through the Psalter — each of these methods can shed further light into the message not only of each individual psalm but also the entire book of Psalms.

Conclusion

Nevertheless, with this new commentary that explicitly aims to address each individual psalm apart from its placement in the book, Allen Ross has provided a fresh, careful, clear, through exposition of the Psalms. He excavates the text verse-by-verse in its original language while illuminating its features, explaining its meaning, and clarifying its message, so that the contemporary church can hear the voice of God speaking by his Spirit through his Word.

 


1 I first heard the phrase “fresh bread” from D. A. Horton in the context of preparing fresh sermons.


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