When churches or denominations are looking for top leaders today, what qualifications do they seek? What are the non-negotiables? Probably not on that list is one that was on the list in former days.
At the Seventh Ecumenical Council, in AD 787, it was decreed that “everyone who is raised to the rank of episcopate shall know the psalter by heart” (Canon II).
That’s right: You want to be a bishop? Okay, let’s hear you recite all 150 psalms from memory. Then we can talk.
Now, this was not hard-nosed legalism but clear-eyed, churchly realism. If you plan to be in a position of authority in the church, to teach, to admonish, to shepherd, then your address had better be 150 Psalms Street. Here are God’s words to us that become our words back to God. Here is wisdom sung, laments wept, praises uplifted, sins confessed, doctrine taught, holy history rehearsed.
You are not at home in the psalms? Then you have no place in the pulpit.
Of course, the psalms are not only for bishops and pastors, but for kindergartners, nurses, soldiers, and farmers. When I was a truck driver, I recited them in the cab of my Freightliner. How many four-year-olds already have Psalm 23 memorized? And Jesus himself, as he hung bleeding atop the cross, used his dying breaths to exhale the prayers of the psalms.
But because these poetic prayers were originally written in another language (Hebrew), at another time (c. 1500-500 BC), and in another culture (Israelite), they are also a challenge for us moderns to understand. The figures of speech strike us as eccentric; the Hebrew idioms don’t always come across in English; the militaristic language is baffling; and all this talk of smashing the teeth of the wicked and breaking their arms, what’s up with that?
To help us navigate the psalms, probe their depths, and untangle their mysteries, we need wise guides
More importantly, though, most Christian readers confess that these psalms are the prayers of the Messiah, and are about the Messiah, how exactly that works is something we struggle with. Is David talking about himself or the Son of David? How does this dark and forlorn psalm, oozing with lament and sorrow, relate to Jesus? Do all 150 psalms connect to Christ or only a select number of so-called “messianic psalms”?
To help us navigate the psalms, probe their depths, and untangle their mysteries, we need wise guides. Such guidance has been there since the earliest days of the church. The church fathers wrote sermons on them; the Reformers composed commentaries on them; and there are resources still produced today on this central book of the Bible.
One of these resources is a new commentary by James M. Hamilton, Jr., entitled Psalms: Volume 1 and Psalms: Volume 2. These are part of the Evangelical Biblical Theological Commentary series, published by Lexham Academic. These two volumes were released just last year (2021). Dr. Hamilton is a professor of biblical theology at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and preaching pastor at Kenwood Baptist Church.
I have been using his commentary for the last couple of months. I am very pleased with it, and I think most students of the Scriptures would be as well. Here are a few reasons why.
One of the strengths of Hamilton’s work is that he convincingly demonstrates how the book of Psalms is a carefully structured whole. It was not as if, at some point in history, the 150 psalms were shuffled like a deck of cards and, voila!, that became the standard arrangement. There was nothing helter-skelter about it. As has been demonstrated by many scholars—and carefully explained by Hamilton—the five books within the psalter (1-41, 42-72, 73-89, 90-106, 107-150), and the individual psalms within these books, follow a discernible pattern. This pattern, in turn, informs how we read them and interpret them.
With each psalm, Hamilton places two translations side-by-side: the Christian Standard Bible (CSB) and his own. The author’s translation is purposefully “rough” and literal. That is, it retains some earthy Hebrew idioms; sticks close to the original word order; and seeks uniformity of translation so that the reader can more easily see how words and phrases are repeated within various psalms. Much to my joy, Hamilton also renders the Hebrew word chasidim as “lovingkind ones,” not “godly ones” or “saints,” as most English translations do. The word chasidim is formed from chesed, the lovingkindness of Yahweh. Thus, the “lovingkind ones” are those marked by the chesed of God.
Because he confesses that the Scriptures are the Word of God, inspired by the Spirit, Hamilton also pays careful attention to intertextual connections between all parts of the OT and NT. In other words, he doesn’t just ask, “What does this psalm mean?” Rather, he asks, “What does this psalm mean in the context of the book of Psalms, the OT books that came before it, and the OT and NT books that were written after it?” Through such a canonical approach, he is able to demonstrate how theological themes, begun in Genesis and Exodus, are echoed in these psalms and expanded upon in later books.
Finally, and most importantly, the author, time and again, helps us to see how individual psalms relate to the person and work of the Messiah. Sometimes, this happens typologically, since David understood that he and his sufferings were a figure of the coming Son of David. At other times, the psalm is theologically or thematically connected to the Messiah’s work. With other psalms, like Psalm 1, the “blessed man” is Christ himself, who is then called both “King” and “Messiah” in Psalm 2. At the end of his exposition of every psalm, Hamilton provides a paragraph or two that he calls a “Bridge.” In this section especially he relates the content of the psalm to the New Testament.
Hamilton writes lucidly. He has that rare gift of walking the tightrope between the academy and the church, being able to communicate to both groups in the same book.
These two volumes, while based upon and building upon scholarship, are also accessible to all students of Scripture. You don’t need to have a Ph.D. or know Hebrew to profit from them. Hamilton writes lucidly. He has that rare gift of walking the tightrope between the academy and the church, being able to communicate to both groups in the same book.
As you pray the psalms, teach them, or preach them, have Hamilton’s work close at hand. I am grateful for his contribution to the church.