Psalms 1–72 by Richard J. Clifford is one of the latest contributions to the Abingdon Old Testament Commentaries series. The commentary begins with a brief introduction to the book of Psalms in the Hebrew Bible followed by a general sketch of the first seventy-two psalms of the Psalter. Clifford evaluates each psalm by three criteria: literary analysis, exegetical analysis, and theological/ethical analysis.
Clifford is Professor of Old Testament at the Weston Jesuit School of Theology in Cambridge, Massachusetts. His primary areas of interest are the Old Testament, biblical languages and ancient Near Eastern religions/cultures. He has published extensively including a two volume commentary on the Psalms as part of the Collegeville Bible Commentary on the Old Testament, and Proverbs in the Old Testament Library collection for Westminster John Knox Press.
The stated purpose for each volume in the Abingdon Old Testament Commentary series is “to provide compact, critical commentaries on the books of the Old Testament for the use of theological students and pastors.” (Patrick Miller, General Editor, p. 9) Clifford completes the aforementioned task with clarity and precision in this work. Beginning in the general overview of the book of Psalms (pp. 15–35) Clifford addresses the Psalms’ relationship to worship, the categories of various psalms, poetical/rhetorical features, and theological concerns within the book of Psalms. Though the introduction is relatively brief, Clifford succeeds in providing a basic foundation for understanding the book of Psalms.
Brevity is one word that comes to mind when describing Clifford’s work on individual psalms throughout this commentary. An average of only three to four pages is given to each psalm. Clifford uses each page expeditiously as the pages are filled with information vital in developing a greater understanding of each psalm. He also carefully interweaves psalm scholarship into his comments as space allows.
Psalms 1–72 also demonstrates Clifford’s mastery of ancient Near Culture and its inter-relatedness to the psalms of Israel. There are many references to other hymns from Ugarit, Mesopotamia, and Egypt. Clifford exemplifies a good understanding of the biblical canon as he constantly describes the intertextuality of various psalms within the larger canon. There are frequent references to biblical events that may serve as possible background for given psalms. An equal number of references are also made to the New Testament’s usage of individual verses and psalms as well.
The author’s comments on each psalm serve as dependable aids for the interpreter struggling to make sense of the psalms. His description of Psalms 37:25b “yet I have never seen the righteous forsaken … ” (NIV) exemplifies the artful manner in which he deftly handles the interpretation of given texts. Clifford writes, “The singer’s claim never to have seen the righteous forsaken or their children begging bread may seem startling to modern readers. Such claims in Wisdom literature are typical rather than exhaustively empirical. They tell one how the universe ordinarily works, not how it always does.” (p. 190) I remember how startled I was as a young seminary student when my theology professor read Psalm 37:25 and followed his reading of this verse with the statement, “I have.” The professor went on to describe the innocent children and parents he had watched who were ravaged by starvation and disease while serving as a missionary in Africa. Clifford ably reminds us that the writer of Psalm 37:25 is speaking in general terms, and that with life there are always exceptions.
This is a solid, well-written commentary on the first seventy-two psalms of the Hebrew Psalter. One simplistic question, however, remains unanswered in the writing of this book, “Does this commentary make a significantly new contribution to the field of Psalm studies?” My personal response to this question is a qualified “no.” In many respects it is just another part of a commentary series. If your personal or college library is short on interpretive reference material focusing on Psalms 1–72 then it will make a fine contribution to your library, but if you have access to a number of studies on the psalms then this commentary can be skipped.