Psalms Volume 1. NIV Application Commentary

By Gerald H. Wilson
Grand Rapids : Zondervan (2002). 1024 Pages.

Reviewed by Dr. William Barrick
14.2 (Fall 2003) : 356-357

The primary goal of The NIV Application Commentary is to provide the biblical expositor with a tool that will bring the message of Scripture into a modern context (7). To expedite that goal, the commentary is divided into three sections: “Original Meaning” (containing traditional exegetical material), “Bridging Contexts” (explaining the timeless truths of the text that move the reader closer to present-day application), and “Contemporary Significance” (modern application). If the individual contributors scrupulously adhere to the aims of each section, this series will be widely and profitably utilized in this generation and those to come. The last two sections of each psalm study are the obvious focus of this volume and are extremely helpful as guides to application for the devotional reader as well as the preacher.

Throughout his 27 years of teaching Old Testament, Gerald Wilson has successfully guided his students and challenged them to apply the Scripture to their lives and ministries. He is Professor of Old Testament and Biblical Hebrew at Azusa Pacific University, an Evangelical Friends (Quaker) theological institution where he has been recognized for excellence in teaching, scholarship, and service. His Quaker context, with its adherence to pacifism, seems to have prompted some observations regarding early Jewish pacifism (29) and may have influenced his interpretation at a few points by at least making him more sensitive to interpretive issues surrounding military language in the Psalms (e.g., 135-39, “Bridging Contexts” and “Contemporary Significance” sections for Psalm 3; cf. 721 where the author briefly explains how his Quaker context relates to his treatment of war in the commentary).

In the “Introduction” (19-81), Wilson makes some general observations about the collection, authorship, and title of the book of Psalms, as well as its historical use, poetry (poetic conventions, art, and techniques), psalm types, and psalm headings. His treatments of meter (36-39) and parallelism (39-48) are on target and balanced in the discussion of the differing views. His caution regarding extended chiasms (52) is greatly needed in a day when some have run rampant with chiastic discoveries. Unfortunately, in his discussion of psalm titles (75-81) the author makes no mention of the work of James Thirtle (The Titles of the Psalms: Their Nature and Meaning Explained [Henry Frowde, 1904]). Thirtle’s theory deserves discussion in any serious commentary on Psalms.

Following certain psalms, the commentator inserts various excurses on psalm types (e.g., 119-26, royal psalms; 139-48, laments). These discussions are more extensive than the introductory comments made in the first part of the volume (57-75). Scripture (996-1013) and subject (1014-24) indexes are helpful, but the latter is inadequate.

In the “Bridging Contexts” section for Psalm 1, Wilson alerts the reader to the fact that he cannot expound exhaustively every facet of each psalm. As he explains, “One never reaches the bottom of the well from which God’s life-giving water flows” (99). What he shares in this section is a personal selection, not the last word on insights or issues pertinent to each psalm. Even though this section of the commentary is generally well written, an occasional set of applications seem a bit overdrawn (cf. 258-65 regarding Psalm 11). A weakness shows up in a text like Psalm 22 which would seem to provide an opportunity for greater instruction about the Messiah rather than multiplying more anthropocentric applications, but the work provides only a tantalizing messianic taste in its final paragraph (428-29).

Psalm 2 is certainly a crux in messianic studies, but Wilson has chosen to stick with a past Davidic-dynasty interpretation (108). To do so, however, the author has to do some fancy footwork regarding the apparent world domination of the king (109) and ends up suggesting that the final admonition (v. 12) may have been “appended to the psalm at a later date when the messianic interpretation was already well established” (113). Wilson offers a scenario for a gradual messianization of Psalm 2 in his “Bridging Contexts” section (114-17). In his treatment of Psalm 45, he refers to “elements of ambiguity” that allow passages “to be exploited messianically” (703). His reluctance to accept a number of messianic references in the Psalms (cf. 313 regarding 16:10) carries over even in his handling of the Servant Songs of Isaiah (28 2 n. 16).

Throughout the commentary Wilson tackles selected NIV translational problems (e.g., 178 regarding Ps 6:2, 202 regarding 8:2, 268 regarding 12:2). His freedom to include translation critiques is a credit to the objectivity of the series’ editors. No translation is perfect. Respectable commentaries must deal forthrightly with such issues regardless of the translation chosen as the base for the series.

Every expositor of the Psalter should have this volume (and its yet unpublished companion for Psalms 73–150). This commentary has no equal. All others come up short in both quantity and quality of exegesis. Wilson does not shun difficult interpretive problems (e.g., 638-41 regarding 40:6-8) and repeatedly provides readers with a better understanding of the Hebrew text (e.g., 451 in regard to the meaning of nepes in 24:4 ). He consistently invokes Hebrew poetic devices when they are pertinent to sound exegesis (e.g., chiasm, 361, 495; merism, 203, 941; inclusio, 345, 967; wordplay, 182, 252-53; repetition, 158, 502-3). In the realm of application, only the 3-volume work of James Montgomery Boice comes close in value (Psalms, Baker, 1998). Wilson also introduces readers to significant interpretive topics like the covenant lawsuit (766-68). Occasionally he treats the readers to a pertinent word study that helps clarify the meaning of the text (778-79). As with many commentaries on lengthy books, the earlier psalms are treated more fully than the later. Footnote references to previous discussions are a welcome convenience for expanding the commentary on the later psalms.

Recommending this commentary in such glowing terms does not mean, however, that it has no shortcomings. For example, discussion regarding the divine name YHWH lacks an adequate historical and theological explanation (199-200). Due consideration must be given to Louis F. Hartman’s article regarding the names of God in the Encyclopaedia Judaica (ed. Cecil Roth [Jerusalem: Keter Publishing House Ltd., 1971] 7:680-81). This venerable Jewish encyclopedia declares that nonpronunciation of YHWH is not consistent with ancient Jewish practice and actually resulted from an aberrant interpretation of the third commandment. Another unfortunate bit of misleading information regarding the divine name arises in the author’s discussion of Exod 3:14 when he writes, “this type of imperfect verb form [’ehyeh] describes action that is not complete—either because it is continuing or because it still lies in the future” (210; see also, 349 n. 35). Neither incompleteness, continuousness, nor futurity are characteristic of the Hebrew imperfect (see Gary V. Long, Grammatical Concepts 101 for Biblical Hebrew [Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson, 2002] 94).

In addition, Wilson’s treatment of divine hatred (Ps 11:5) reveals either a weakness in his bibliology or an unfortunate choice of wording. In an attempt to resolve the difficulty one might have with the concept of divine hatred, the author says, “[W]e need to acknowledge that these human words were transformed when they were recognized as the authoritative Word of God” (253). Such an approach seems to deny the Holy Spirit’s superintending the writer of this psalm as he wrote (cf. 2 Pet 1:21).

Although the author normally accepts the ascription of Davidic authorship to those psalms whose headings make the claim, sometimes he questions the accuracy of the heading as well as Davidic authorship. A prime example is Psalm 20, which he dates to a time following the building of Solomon’s temple (382-84). Furthermore, he places Psalm 23 in an exilic (637) and Psalm 26 in a post-exilic setting (476-77).

This volume is well worth the purchase price even with its imperfections and the need to read it with a critical eye. Wilson’s contributions far outweigh any of this volume’s shortcomings. There is still room for a solidly evangelical, exegetical commentary on the Psalms, but until such a commentary appears, this is the one to have.