How to Use a Commentary to Study the Psalms

psalm-44-commentaries

Dig and dig and dig, and you’ll never reach the full depths of the Bible. Your lifetime will be a journey to the center of its worth. That doesn’t mean the Bible-gold you’ve discovered so far is iron pyrite; it simply means you should never stop digging.

And here’s the great thing: the wealth of other diggers is available to you. Many of them wrote down what they discovered. They were fallible diggers, yes, some more so than others . . . But for a tiny investment you can have what it took them a lifetime to amass.

This is part four of a three-part series on how to study a psalm, particularly Psalm 44 (read the first post in the series here). Consider this one a bonus post; let’s talk about how to get help from commentators.

It’s after I’ve processed a passage of Scripture as best I can, and often before I begin to apply it to my life, that I look for help and insight from (current and past) teachers of the church. I join Spurgeon in believing that it’s foolish to ignore that help and insight if it’s available to you. Logos makes it so very available: type “Ps 44” into the Passage Guide and you’ve got it.

I remember when I first consulted a commentary, age 18 or so. I really had no idea what I was looking for—except answers to my questions. I didn’t know that commentators often write brilliantly helpful introductions to Bible books, borne out of their long inductive study. I didn’t know that they often make their own perceptive and helpfully innovative translations of the books they work on. I didn’t know that commentaries come in conservative and liberal and Catholic and Jewish and Orthodox flavors—nor that evangelicals can get certain benefits out of them all. I didn’t know that commentators do the hard work of staying abreast of the scholarship on a given book, continuing a conversation on it which has gone on for many centuries.

I didn’t know that some commentaries are more devotional, some more technical, some more homiletical. In my mind, the best are all three—because evangelicalism at its best combines deep piety with an attention on the exact wording of the Bible and a desire to apply it searchingly to real life.

Derek Kidner

I can’t write such words without thinking immediately of Derek Kidner in the Tyndale Old Testament Commentary (in two volumes: Psalms 1–72, Psalms 73–150). The best way I know how to initiate someone into the world of commentators is to point them to an exemplar par excellence such as he. I never fail to get spiritual and exegetical insight from him, and he’s the first I check. Plus, he writes so well! It’s as if the literary-aesthetic pleasures of the Bible have themselves shaped his commenting. I often burst into smiles as I read.

Kidner doesn’t disappoint in his comments on Psalm 44. It was he who alerted me to the role v.22—“for your sake we are killed all the day long”—plays in the psalm’s artful argument:

The innocent sufferer goes through many heart-searchings in the Psalms. But the larger unit, the nation, is less often sure of its innocence: its sins can all too easily account for its sufferings. This psalm is perhaps the clearest example of a search for some other cause of national disaster than guilt and punishment. It comes within sight of an answer at the point of its greatest perplexity: ‘Nay, for thy sake we are slain …’ (22). Momentarily it sees that God’s people are caught up in a war that is more than local: the struggle of ‘the kings of the earth … against the Lord and his Anointed’ (2:2). (185–186)

Kidner observed two things I didn’t until he showed it to me: there is something of an implied answer to the question of undeserved suffering in that powerful verse 22: “For your sake we are killed all the day long.” Interpretation? 1) The psalmist knows at some level that his suffering is happening from and to God. 2) And I may be a civilian casualty, as it were, in a conflict much bigger than me.

There are two nuggets of gold for you out of Psalm 44, dug up by Derek Kidner.

Waltke, Houston, and Moore

Next I like to check a commentary I’m pretty excited about, a collaborative work by Bruce Waltke, James Houston, and Erika Moore called The Psalms as Christian Lament: A Historical Commentary. The format is one I haven’t seen before, and it’s something I hope will bring real help to the church: it combines a traditional exegetical commentary by Waltke with a canvassing of the church’s historical exegesis of a given psalm by Houston (Moore contributed exegesis of Psalm 39). If specific application is an essential aspect of the interpretive task, then seeing how Christians of the past sought to faithfully use Psalm 44 should be helpful to me.

And it’s not just Christians who have used Psalm 44 in belly-clinging-to-the-dust times. Houston says of Psalm 44:22 (“for your sake we are killed…”),

Throughout the Holocaust literature—memoirs, poems, rabbinic responses, in public arguments over Jewish resistance or passivity—this one verse has echoed its distinctive death knell. (175)

Houston found a comment from Jewish scholar Herbert Levine who says that

Few verses in the Psalms have been as important as this one [Ps. 44:22] in the history of Jewish response to catastrophe. (183)

This is exactly the kind of treasure we pay our biblical scholars to dig up. It enriches my understanding of a psalm to see how other readers who profess belief in Yahweh have sought to use it.

When Houston digs into ancient Christian uses of Psalm 44, he notes that early church father Origen used this psalm “as the model prayer of the martyrs.” (177) I find this useful. As a comfortably middle class redheaded 35-year-old with a family, a mortgage, and a lawn tractor, reading the psalm as a martyr did not occur to me. Reading the psalm through the eyes of a Christian martyr is enriching—and instructive, because no Christian is guaranteed to avoid martyrdom.

When it comes to the exegetical comments, Waltke concurs with Origen. He thinks this maskil—a word of uncertain  meaning, though Waltke suggests from its etymology that it means “making prudent”—is given to the church to teach martyrs (and regular Christians) that

The calculus of covenant blessings and curses is not a simplistic quid pro quo; before enjoying covenant blessings the faithful may expect to suffer undeservedly…. This maskil was written to give martyrs the theology they need to survive suffering for righteousness’ sake. (190, 208)

That’s gold ingot, gold dug up from Psalm 44 and shaped by a Christian mold.

And so is this:

As a pilot who loses visual contact in a cloud turns to his instrument panel to fly his airplane safely, so the inspired psalmist, when having lost rational contact in the fog of undeserved sufferings, finds his bearings by locating himself within the metanarrative of salvation history and by reflecting on God’s attributes. (208)

That’s why the psalm begins with a recital of God’s mighty acts in the past and ends with an appeal to God’s steadfast love. Wow. Thank you, Waltke.

(There are more commentaries worth checking: bestcommentaries.com recommends Craigie (WBC), Wilson (NIVAC), Goldingay (BCOTWP), VanGemeren (REBC), and some oldies: Plumer and (the inimitable) Spurgeon. But we’ll stop here for now.)

Conclusion

I spent quite a few hours in Psalm 44 in the last few weeks. It suddenly leapt off the page at me when my wife asked a perceptive question about the psalm, having just read it in her own daily Bible reading.

And I’m going to hold on to Psalm 44, despite my non-martyr status. Does any American Christian seriously believe that violent persecution could never come to us? I don’t have a martyr complex or a death wish; I like my lawn tractor as much as the next guy. I’m not an alarmist or a whiner. But Paul told Timothy, that “while evil people and impostors will go on from bad to worse, deceiving and being deceived,” those who “desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted” (2 Tim 3:12–13). Studying Psalm 44 has given me beautiful lines to use in prayer in the day when persecution reaches me and mine.

mark ward
Mark L. Ward, Jr. received his PhD from Bob Jones University in 2012; he now serves the church as a Logos Pro. He is the author of multiple high school Bible textbooks, including Biblical Worldview: Creation, Fall, Redemption.

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