The Psalms: Strophic Structure and Theological Commentary
This commentary, the magnum opus of the late Samuel Terrien, former professor of Hebrew and Cognate Languages at Union Theological Seminary, New York, is the first Old Testament volume to be published in the Eerdmans Critical Commentary series. According to the book jacket the series promises to be “critical” in the sense that it provides a “detailed, systematic explanation of the biblical text.” However, Terrien’s commentary is better labeled literary-theological than critical. In the preface he says, “For reasons of accessibility to the nonspecialist, notes of textual criticism and of comparisons with the ancient versions have been reduced to a minimum and discussed within the commentary” (p. xiv). Yet this seems to run counter to the stated purpose of the series.
Specific topics in the introduction include the role of the Psalms for different faith communities, the ancient Near Eastern background, the origin and growth of the Psalter, text and versions, the music of the Psalms, strophic structure, literary genres, the theology of the Psalms, and the New Testament use of the Psalms. Terrien’s theological categories are theocentric; he discusses God’s presence and absence, as well as His roles, including Creator of nature, Sovereign of history, Judge of enemies, Protector and Healer, Master of wisdom, and Lord of life.
In the commentary proper Terrien includes his own translations, which are archaic in style and littered with “thee’s and thou’s, hast’s and thy’s.” In the preface he states that his translations are not “as fluid and poetic as the renderings of Coverdale in 1535 and the King James masters of 1611” (p. xiii). But why would anyone want to emulate such antiquated works? Translation by its very nature should reflect sensitivity to modern idiom.
Terrien takes a relatively conservative text-critical approach. He writes, “As far as possible, I have rigorously respected the scribal testimony of the Jewish tradition, especially the consonants of the Masoretic Text” (p. xiii). Unfortunately his text-critical work is not always as careful as it should be. For example he states that the Kethib reading of the verb “flee” in Psalm 11:1b has a feminine vowel, which, he suggests, may hint that “the fugitive who had been wrongly accused was a woman” (p. 148). But this is clearly erroneous; the Kethib assumes a masculine plural reading, while the Qere suggests the feminine singular. Furthermore, if one chooses the feminine singular reading, the addressee would be yv!po=n^, “my soul.” Rather than indicating a female addressee, the feminine verbal form simply agrees grammatically with the feminine noun vpn (cf. Pss. 62:6; 103:1–2, 22; 104:1, 35; 116:7; 146:1; Isa. 51:23).
Terrien’s text-critical conservatism is also evident in his treatment of Psalm 2:12a. He retains the traditional reading “kiss the son,” arguing that alternative readings such as “in trembling kiss his feet” are “superfluous” (p. 86). He appeals to interpretive tradition, notes that the presence of Aramaisms is not necessarily indicative of a late date, observes that an emendation would compromise the “rhythm” of verses 11b–12a, and reasons that “the kiss has to be addressed not to God but to his representative on earth.”
Terrien’s translation of each psalm is arranged according to his proposed strophic structure. He then presents a bibliography of the psalm, a discussion of its form, interpretive comments, and observations on the psalm’s date and theology. The bibliographies are particularly thorough and include many non-English sources.
Because of space limitations a detailed critique of only three psalms is included here. Terrien proposes a chiastic structure for Psalm 11, but the alleged correspondences reflect loosely connected thematic parallels, not concrete verbal parallels. This leaves one with the impression that the chiasm is more a testimony to Terrien’s creativity than a structure intended by the psalmist. This is frequently the case with other chiastic structures proposed throughout the commentary. Terrien calls Psalm 11 a complaint, but it is better classified as a psalm of confidence, perhaps composed in response to an assuring oracle. His comments on the psalm are concise, even cursory in places. He does take some space to discuss the theological ramifications of verse 4 and its reference to Yahweh’s heavenly throne. He makes the important point that Yahweh, though ruling from the heavens, is immanent and involved in His creation. Terrien says the psalm cannot be dated precisely, suggesting that Josiah was perhaps its hero. Unfortunately the death of Josiah is erroneously dated 509 B.C., one hundred years after its actual date (p. 151). Surely the editors of the commentary should have detected and corrected this error. Terrien divides Psalm 18 into four “chants” (vv. 2–20, 21–32, 33–43, 44–51). However, it is preferable to divide the psalm as follows: verses 2–3, 4–20, 21–30, 31–32, 33–46, 47–51. Verses 2–3, 31–32, and 47–51 display numerous verbal links, suggesting that they are an introduction, central transitional interlude, and conclusion, respectively. Verses 33–46 constitute a victory report. Terrien’s treatment of verses 21–25 is disturbing. He contends that the psalmist, in protesting his innocence, “shows a certain naiveté when he parades and struts with the indulgence of a pious devotee” (p. 200). He understands the psalmist as “the distant ancestor of the theological adversaries of the apostle Paul and the later proponents of Pelagianism.” Terrien imposes a Pauline grid on the ancient text that is foreign to the thought world of its author. In protesting their innocence the psalmists were not claiming to be morally perfect (cf. 38:3, 18 with 18:20; 40:6–10 with 18:12; and 41:4 with 18:12). Instead they were affirming their devotion to Yahweh and asserting that they were innocent of the charges brought against them by their enemies. The psalms use the categories “righteous” and “wicked” in a functional and relative sense; the psalmists’ protestations of innocence must be interpreted within this framework.
In his treatment of Psalm 22 Terrien lays out an intriguing structural outline based on the pairing and grouping of pronouns (p. 230). Yet his suggestion (following Renaud) that the “actors” in the psalm “may be engaged in a mystical dance” is mystifying (p. 228). Departing from his text-critical conservatism, he translates 22:17b, “they bind with cords my hands and feet” (p. 225), though he acknowledges that “like a lion” and “dug” are possible alternatives to “they bind” (p. 233). Unfortunately, he fails to engage the text beyond this cursory level. He translates verse 21, “Deliver me from the mouth of the lion, and my wounded flesh from the horns of bulls” (p. 225), understanding “you have answered me” at the end of line two as a suffixed noun “my wounded flesh” (p. 233). His proposal seems to find support from the Septuagint, though he fails to mention this.
In his interpretation of Psalm 23 Terrien perpetuates the erroneous notion that tw#m*l=x^ means “shadow of death” (p. 236), even though an examination of the term’s usage elsewhere reveals that it means “gloom, darkness.” Terrien offers no discussion of the word, an omission that seems inexcusable in a “critical” commentary.
From the preceding remarks it should be apparent that this commentary is sometimes deficient with regard to critical, exegetical analysis of the text. Its strengths are its detailed bibliographic lists, literary observations, and theological insights. Despite its shortcomings at an analytical level, the commentary contains many useful insights and is a fitting witness to its author’s long and distinguished career.