Reformation Commentary on Scripture Series

Pslams 73-150

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Herman J. Selderhuis
  • Downers Grove, IL: 
    IVP Academic
    , November
     2018.
     350 pages.
     $60.00.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9780830829583.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

This is the second volume on Psalms in the Reformation Commentary on Scripture Series dealing with Books 3, 4, and 5 of the Psalms—Psalms 73-150. Editor Herman J. Selderhuis is a strong Reformation scholar who provides very helpful short introductions to each Psalm, indicating biblical and theological emphases in the biblical writing, and ways in which these were developed and accentuated by early modern Reformation interpreters. This book is a treasury of insights and theological wisdom derived from a wide number of Reformation scholars in the excerpts provided for each Psalm.

Taken together, the Reformation writers give voice to the wide range of human emotions found in these Psalms themselves. A strong realism shines through in expressions of fear, despair, thanksgiving, and love. The interpreters’s view these biblical expressions in light of the theological understandings to which they point: human freedom and action, God’s ongoing providence, God’s justice, as well as God’s comfort, judgment, and the need for divine worship.

A framework of God’s covenant with Israel is foundational for these interpreters. Significant too are the Christological interpretations which emerge in these theologians. The Psalms are set in the immediate context of Israel, but point beyond to God’s new covenant in Jesus Christ. There is a “double sense” of literal and Christological interpretations at work here, according to Selderhuis. In their fuller sense, the Psalms may be interpreted with an ultimate reference to Christ and the people the Holy Spirit gathers into the Christian church. Viewed within this context gives the biblical writings and their interpretations an ongoing, paramount significance for contemporary readers.

Relatedly, Selderhuis points out that “these commentators give their attention to the meaning of the vivid figurative language employed by the psalmists in accordance with the doctrine of accommodation, which affirms that God adapts divine revelation to the limited understanding of humanity” (lii). John Calvin, especially, emphasized this sense of God’s accommodation in Scripture (cf. Calvin on Psalm 86:6-10; 91 and 88:3-9; 100).

On display throughout are the distinctive theological emphases of these theologians, built on exegetical findings. Thus, as Martin Luther writes: “Every psalm, all Scripture, calls to grace, extols grace, searches for Christ, and praises only God’s work, while rejecting all human works” (366). Or likewise, “Christ’s kingdom and power are hidden under the cross” (375). For Calvin, “[t]he guilt of original sin is not confined to one faculty of humanity only; it pervades our whole constitution” (266); and in reconciliation, “[s]inners are not reconciled to God by satisfactions or by the merit of good works, but by a free and an unmerited forgiveness” (57).

Roman Catholic interpreters are represented with extensive extracts from Robert Bellarmine and Cardinal Cajetan. Desiderius Erasmus is also quoted—on sin: “One should blush with shame not only for serious offenses but also for more trivial ones, for every sin is horrid and loathsome and therefore shameful” (93); and on God’s listening: “It is a source of great joy to be the poor person of God … God only listens to the poor. What except everlasting death awaits the person whom God does not hear?” (89).

Sometimes the language is direct and colorful, as when the Anabaptist David Joris urged confession of secret sins, writing “[t]herefore spit out and confess it; do not be ashamed of it” (114). Luther also does not disappoint, offering “God raises up the poor from the earth, and lifts up the needy out of the dunghill” (225). 

Commentators reflect on the deep piety of the Psalms on issues such as God’s hearing and answering prayers. Wolfgang Musculus, writing on Psalm 86:1-5 said, “[w]e are admonished in this passage [as to] how we should not fail in praying even if we may not be immediately heard, but rather press hard without interruption until we are helped” (90). This perseverance is based on the hopes grounded in God’s promises to have mercy, to help, and to save. The Scot theologian, Robert Rollock, wrote that “the Scriptures are full of promises without which that full persuasion of faith and spiritual confidence cannot be” (318). In addition to having imparted the knowledge of God’s “saving health” in his “dear son our Lord Jesus Christ,” Theodore Beza said on Psalm 130, “[y]ou comfort me in a thousand afflictions, you have borne with me in ten thousand sins, you have upheld me in innumerable temptations” (316). 

Relationships with others should be marked by love, exemplified especially in Psalm 133. Philipp Melanchthon’s comment was extensive: “Love is directed toward all, even our enemies, and obeys God according to all that has been commanded, with a certain joy in it and in union with him, and it exists on account of God to render all the duties commanded by God to others, even to our enemies” (330).

The Psalms look to God’s word to give life and provide guidance, as epitomized in Psalm 119. The Lutheran theologian, Nikolaus Selnecker, argues that this Psalm “is truly of the utmost importance to have God’s Word in purity and listen to it gladly” (257). The Reformed Hebraist and theologian, Konrad Pellikan, expressed this devotion when he wrote, as in a prayer: “Impress in my heart a trust and love of your word so that according to it I always desire to live, ‘because I have raised my soul to you,’ [Psalm 143:8] to please you with an eager desire” (369).

In a broad sense, Reformation commentators sought to follow the admonition of the Anglican theologian, Alexander Nowell, who urged “we ought to be the scholars of Christ to the end, or rather, without end” (188). Yet their scholarship was not detached from Christian living—it was its outcome. The goal of Scripture study was, as Luther put it, to be “a truly Christ-formed person” (369). 

This excellent volume shows the range and the distinctiveness of Reformation commentators. It provides exegetical and theological insights which have enduring values and demonstrates the engagement of these scholars with the beloved book of Psalms, which in his Preface, Calvin called “an anatomy of all parts of the soul.” 

About the Reviewer(s): 

Donald McKim is an Independent Scholar from Germantown, Tennessee.

Date of Review: 
February 25, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Herman J. Selderhuis is Professor of Church History and Church Polity at the Theological University Apeldoorn (Netherlands) and Director of Refo500, the international platform for knowledge, expertise, and ideas related to the sixteenth-century Reformation.

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