One of the unfortunate things of the Christian life is our under-appreciation for the Old Testament. As our neglect for it increases, so does our lack of understanding. As our lack of understanding increases, so does our neglect of it. The cycle becomes almost endless and as I write these words, I wish I could say that I have been above that cycle since becoming a Christian, in fact, it was this lack of understanding that caused me to continue my education. While I read more books emphasizing the New Testament than not, I am thankful when others take on the task of teaching the Old Testament. It was exciting then to see three Messianic Jews join together to write a devotional commentary on the Psalms from a Jewish perspective.
Shalom in the Psalms not only offers insight from a the Jewish perspective, but also brings forth a new translation of the Scriptures from that same viewpoint. The creation and use of Tree of Life Version therefore, makes this book unique among many. At 346 pages, covering 150 Psalms though, amounts to only 2.3 pages devoted to every Psalm (and keep in mind that includes the text of the Psalm itself). As a result, expect the book to be very light, even by devotional standards. The three authors, Jeffrey Seif, Glenn Blank, and Paul Wilbur, have each taken a set Psalms and written the commentary so that each devotional note only has one author, rather than it being a collaboration. This makes the layout of the book fairly simple, with a recitation of the Psalm in the new Tree of Life Version followed by a few paragraphs of devotional insight, often with an emphasis on particular Hebrew words.
Because of its distinctive focus, the book can offer several benefits for readers:
- Use of the Old Testament: The devotional notes make extensive use of the Old Testament often referring to passages that correspond to the Psalm being discussed.
- Use God’s Names: I appreciate the use of God’s names utilized both in the translation (often Adonai) and in the devotional text itself. The names of God are many and oft times we forget that they are so vast both in occurrence and in meaning.
- Use of Language: Finally, while there are points within the translation I do not prefer, generally the authors have taken great care with the language they use. They are both very cautious and very deliberate with the words that they use. At one point they even clearly demonstrate their caution in a brief lecture on the word ‘awesome’ (pg. 53), a specific word that is a pet peeve of mine.
Combined with the unique focus, these points offer three unique aspects that come together to create a work that many of us need.
It is unfortunate though, that while there is great necessity for such a book, the authors self-imposed limitations greatly detract from what could have been a great work. We see those limitations manifested in three ways:
- Limited View of God: Because the authors have so highly elevated man, they have lowered the exaltation of God. The book definitely promotes a man-centered view (for example, pg. 29) in which worship of God is instigated not because of who God is, but because of what He has done for us (pg. 32). Even more, the authors seem to promote the notion that men are imperfect and God simply has to accept that imperfection because that is who we are (pg. 25). The book rarely exalts God to a higher level than merely proclaiming what He has done for men.
- Limited Theology: The low view of God is indicative of the weak theology of the book. Often the book is very legalistic and promotes a works-based salvation. At one point they suggest that blessing comes from righteousness (with little emphasis on God’s work in that righteousness) (pg. 21) and define a righteous person as one who seeks God (pg. 39). No mention of man’s sinfulness, no mention of God’s imputed righteousness, but rather a simplistic and underwhelming message that lacks any depth.
- Limited Hope: Finally there is a limited hope. With few indications of Christ throughout the whole book, readers are left-with a works-based theology that leaves them despondent. At one point the authors say that in order to remain in God’s presence we must become like God. Yet who of us could ever be like God? Without Christ there is no hope. At one point works-based theology is declared and then later on the stipulations of that work are so high no man could ever accomplish it, yet the authors don’t reveal anything beyond that and so readers can do nothing more than say, “I hope there is a way.”
Sadly, these major underpinnings have taken away from the book.
On a final note, I recognize that I have not addressed the quality of the translation. Not being skilled in Hebrew beyond the most basic level, I don’t know that I am qualified to approve or disapprove of the translation. All I can say is this. While there are certain disagreements I would have (such as their use of the word ‘happy’ in place of ‘blessed’) I found the translation to be very good and a bit more forceful than many translations. The words chosen created a greater picture of the depth of what is being conveyed in many of the Psalms. In that regard I enjoyed the translation, but I do question some of their liberality in translating specific words.
With all of that said, the book is disappointing. What could have been quite profound was very perfunctory. The book lacked any depth to it and furthered some of the eternal impacting misconceptions that people already have about Scripture and Christianity. It’s unfortunate that what could have been never was.
As alternate recommendations, I would urge readers to pick up a copy of Dr. William Varner’s Awake, O Harp or even Dr. Steven Lawson’s commentary on Psalms in the Holman Old Testament Commentary (Volume 1 and Volume 2). To purchase a copy of Shalom in the Psalms or a copy of my additional recommendations, click the blue links.
Disclaimer: I received a copy of this book from Baker Books at no charge for the purposes of review, however, that review did not impact my review which is a response of my own reading of the book.