This commentary, following the same author’s volume on Psalms 1–72, is in a new series edited by John Walton and Mark Strauss. The series aims to serve pastors and teachers not only by minimising technical discussions (these are placed in endnotes, along with reference to specialist commentaries) but also by being more than merely a devotional commentary. So, the style and structure of the commentary aims to give preachers ready access to what they need for preparing a sermon. To a large degree, the commentary succeeds in this aim.
Each psalm is introduced with a summary ‘Big Idea’ (following Haddon Robinson’s emphasis in his books on preaching). Sometimes the Big Idea is a bit long and cumbersome, e.g., for Ps 94: “God’s blessing is his primary mode of relating to humanity, and lest we misunderstand God’s judgment, when we are disobedient, his judgment is the secondary mode, not the preferred” (p. 164). I also wondered if the Big Idea might come later in the section because it runs the risk of giving an ‘answer’ before the detail is digested by the preacher. Nonetheless, the Big Idea, with key themes, helps keep clarity through each section.
Sections on ‘Understanding the Text’ and ‘Text in Context’ were very helpful and concise in orienting the reader to the text. Particularly useful was seeing the flow of psalms, common phrases, and words and ideas often expressed in a table which added to clarity. Where psalms quoted or referred to earlier Old Testament texts, or were quoted in the New Testament were included here. This again was a useful section on the whole.
Then followed a summary outline of the psalm. Often these were too complicated to fit into a sermon outline, e.g., the outline of Ps 106 has six main points, all of which have sub-points, and in three of the sub-points, there are sub-sub-points (pp. 257–58). Nonetheless, the summary outlines remained helpful, and often were pithy.
The historical and cultural background section attempted to see each psalm in the light of the history of Israel and the psalm’s use in Jewish practice. Titles of psalms were usually dealt with here if they referred to something historical.
Then follows a concise commentary on major words and phrases in the psalm verse by verse, though not every verse is commented on. Never does the commentary get bogged down in technical matters. Biblical cross-references of phrases and words were frequent and useful. This section dealt mostly with the meaning of phrases and words and only rarely was Hebrew quoted. A reader does not at all need Hebrew to use this commentary effectively.
A weakness of this section, however, is in addressing the use and impact of language. Given that psalms are poetry, to be sung, and to stir emotion and heart, there was unfortunately very little about the style of language, its rhetorical purpose and impact and the value of singing the psalm. Given that the series is aimed to help people teach and communicate the text effectively, I fear that sermons by preachers simply using this commentary might be tempted to be dull, lacking emotion and passion.
Then follow two sections, on ‘Theological Insights’ and on ‘Teaching the Text.’ These draw out issues of theology in the text and then pointers to approaching a sermon on the text. Overall these sections were useful, helping deepen reflections on some of the theological issues in the light of the whole of scripture.
There was no section specifically on links to Christ or the New Testament, but that was not a weakness as appropriate references were made here and there. Perhaps not every psalm has a New Testament reference, so I was pleased that the psalms were allowed to speak for themselves and not merely packaged into a tight Christian mould. For example, Bullock suggests that Psalm 100 celebrates the gospel given for the world and links the psalm with the Great Commission. He helpfully states that in the OT the gospel is represented by God’s covenant with Israel and mentions Jesus’s reference to this in John 8:56. He then says, ‘The nuances change, and the covenant assumes various forms, but the substance is the same: the character of the one self-revealing God’ (p. 209). Bullock has a good sense of the Bible’s unity leading to Christ.
The final section on each psalm was the weakest, ‘Illustrating the Text’. The illustrations were average, on the whole, and perhaps limited in their origins. A biography of a missionary to Algeria and the novels of George MacDonald featured very prominently in this section throughout. Personally, I find such illustrations occasionally useful but often remote. I realise, however, that such a section in the book can hardly remain contemporary for readers in years to come. For me, this section could largely have been omitted.
Finally, there was no direct section on applying the text. That might have been more useful than illustrating the text. Application in preaching is often a weak point, as the literature on sermon preparation keeps saying. The New International Version Application Commentary series attempts to address this issue, but this series could also be of more benefit in doing likewise.
I’ll be preaching on a psalm soon. Will I use this commentary (and the first volume which I have not yet read)? Yes, I will. While the volume was around six hundred pages, substantial in itself, on average each psalm is less than ten easy-to-follow pages. That is not too long, and not to brief, to be of great value for pastors and preachers. I would supplement it, where possible, with a commentary that engages more in the language and rhetorical impact of the psalm, so that as I preach I attempt to create the same impact in preaching the psalm as the psalm itself sought to do to those who read or sang it.