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Touring the psalms

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Believers Church Bible Commentary

James H. Waltner

Herald Press, 2006. 833 Pages.

Writing a commentary for the book of Psalms is much like writing a tour guide for an entire continent. The landscape (whether geographical or biblical) is huge and diverse. There are the famous “must-sees; and the out-of-the-way corners that also deserve a closer look. But always, there’s more land (or Scripture) to pay attention to than one can do justice to in a single volume. Anyone who aspires to write a commentary on Psalms must be both bold and disciplined. James Waltner rises to the task in his recent contribution of Psalms to the Believers Church Bible Commentary Series.

Waltner is likely unknown to most Canadian Mennonite Brethren; he pastored in the American Midwest and California for nearly four decades and has served in the Mennonite conference in various leadership positions. His interests in the Old Testament, preaching, and pastoral care are evident throughout this volume.

Waltner’s commentary marks the 20th year and 20th volume of the Believers Church Bible Commentary (BCBC) series.

In most BCBC commentaries, each section is followed by two further explorations: “The Text in Biblical Context” – locating the passage in a larger biblical-theological framework – and “The Text in the life of the Church.” For this Psalms commentary, however, these two sections have been merged into one, partly (one suspects) for reasons of length, and partly because the psalms, more than any other part of Scripture, playa unique role as the voice of the worshipping church.

Another useful feature of the BCBC series is the collection of essays found at the end of the volume. Waltner writes helpful articles on the standard introductory issues in psalm interpretation (e.g. Hebrew Poetry, Psalm Genres, Musical Terms), and on a number of word and theme studies (e.g. Holiness, Judge/ Judgement/Justice, Names of God). Most of these essays offer the standard fare; if you have some good Psalms commentaries on your bookshelf, you won’t find much that’s new here – only what is trustworthy.

As well (and as might be expected in an Anabaptist commentary series), Waltner offers several essays focusing on themes relating to peace: Enemies, Imprecation (curse), Vengeance, War and War Images, Wrath of God. These themes are rarely treated with such consistency in other commentaries, making this one of the BCBC’s key offerings.

For each psalm, Waltner’s commentary provides a preview, outline, explanatory notes, and comments on “the text in the biblical context and life of the church.” This final section is really the shining contribution of the volume. Practical issues of theology, church practice, worship, mission, and pastoral ministry are explored, following the trajectories set by the psalms.

Waltner’s standard approach in this portion of the commentary is to leave readers with questions for reflection and discussion. For example, writing on Psalm 29, Waltner concludes with a section entitled “Demonstrations of God in Nature.” He writes: Psalm 29 declares that the very world is God’s voice! In modern times people have found out many more wonderful things about the world. But do people today have a comparable literature of astonishment? Or is today’s problem that of praising the scientist, while failing to praise the God who made both the world and the scientist? Such use of leading questions rightly emphasizes the need to read and interpret the psalms in conversation with other believers.

Waltner is also attuned to the use of the psalms in the church’s worship. He writes with a broad knowledge of, and frequent reference to, the classics of music and hymn – which is refreshing to those of us who miss these in contemporary worship, but which may puzzle or alienate music leaders unfamiliar with this spiritual heritage.

Waltner also provides a service to students of the psalms with his annotated bibliography at the end of the book. Two recent and excellent volumes that should be added to Waltner’s bibliography are William Brown’s Seeing the Psalms: A Theology of Metaphor (2002), and, John Eaton’s The Psalms: A Historical and Spiritual Commentary (2003).

I have a few minor quibbles with the commentary. The author seems to be writing from, and to, the American context much more than a Canadian context. Occasionally, even a well-read Canadian is left in the dark by some of the American cultural references. I don’t fault an American author for this; but one might expect a publishing house such as Herald Press, which is explicitly binational, to be more inclusive in its editorial policy.

I also question the use of technical (rather than informal) transliteration of Hebrew words. The technical forms are much less useful to non-specialists (being harder to understand and pronounce), who nevertheless make up the intended readership of the commentary.

Finally, given the wide range of topics for reflection and application that Waltner addresses in the commentary, a subject index would have made a useful addition to the reference tools at the end of the volume.

The Bible calls us to “teach and admonish one another with psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs.” James Waltner has provided a solid and thoughtful volume to prod us in that direction, guiding readers on a spiritual tour through one hundred and fifty “sites” of ancient biblical worship. Congregations will certainly be enriched if pastors, teachers, and worship leaders spend time exploring both the liturgical and practical applications Waltner suggests.

—Randy Klassen teaches biblical studies and directs the concert choir at Bethany College, Hepburn, Sask. He is a member of West Portal MB Church, Saskatoon.

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