Psalms As Torah: Reading Biblical Song Ethically

May 2, 2012 — Leave a comment

9780801031687Psalms as Torah is the most recent book published in the Studies in Theological Interpretation series. I’m gradually trying to collect all of them, and am only 1 short at this point, though this is only my 2nd to review (here’s the first). So far though, this is my favorite one and it has pushed me to start reading the Psalms on a monthly cycle. Historically speaking, this kind of sustained attention to the Psalms is hardly radical. In many ways, someone in my position could not legitimately call themselves a “master of theology” if they were not also a “master of the psalms.” With that in mind, this book helped me realize I needed to make some changes.


Gordon Wenham is writing something of a sequel to his previous work, Story as Torah, this time focusing on the “ethic taught in the liturgy of the Old Testament, the Psalter” (1). Wenham points out that the songs we sing “both implicitly and explicitly” teach theology and ethics (3). With this in mind, he wants to investigate the theology and ethics taught in the Psalter since “they must give an important window into Old Testament theology and ethics” (5). His book serves then as “an attempt to begin to deal with a blind spot in current biblical and theological thinking” (7).

The first chapter details various Jewish and Christian approaches to the Psalms. Rather than focus on “critical debates about the date of the psalms of the historical reliability of the narrative accounts of Old Testament worship,” Wenham is concerned to “simply record what the canonical texts say about the use of the psalms in Old Testament times” (11). Essentially, this opening chapter gives a broad overview of the history of the usage of the Psalter and concludes with our modern state where “songs with catchy tunes have tended to displace the psalms, which not so easy to sing” (25).

Optimistic that this is just a “blip” in the history of the usage of the Psalter, Wenham presses on to unpack their traditional function. Chapter 2 digs into critical approaches to the Psalter and settles on using a canonical approach to interpreting them, which “builds on the insights of earlier form-critical studies of the psalms” (40). At this point, the stage is set for Wenham to begin examining the ethical and theological functions of the Psalter.

Chapter 3 opens with a short history of how sacred texts were used in the ancient Near East. He notes that the Psalter fits into the category of an anthology, and drawing attention to the work of Paul Griffiths, points out that “religious anthologies are meant to be memorized” (49). In the age of the printing (and now digital) press, it is sometimes lost on us why you would memorize something you could just easily have on your shelf. But in a time when manuscripts were hard to come by, important things were memorized, not just read and shelved. With respect to the Psalter, it was often memorized, particularly by people in my position in the church. As Wenham concludes, “the written text’s main purpose was to ensure that the work was correctly memorized by those who would later recite it or sing it to the people” (56). It would appear then I have my work cut out for me!

Chapter 4 examines how prayed ethics makes unique claims on the speaker. Drawing on speech-act theory, Wenham points out that “using this categorization of speech acts…one could say that praying the psalms involves the worshiper in many commissive speech acts: the psalms as prayers are really a series of vows” (67). While there are “no major attempts to use speech act theory to illuminate the ethics of the psalms,” this chapter is definitely a step in the right direction. In praying the psalms, the worshiper is committing himself to God in both behavior and attitude.

Chapters 5-7 turn the focus to how “law” functions in the Psalter and constitute the heart of the book. Chapter 5 suggests the Psalter itself is framed by “law” and much of the material within it is focused on the law as the supreme revelation from God. Chapter 6 then presents a fascinating survey of the Decalogue’s role in the Psalter. Wenham shows the various places each command from the Ten Commandments shows up and is meditated on within the Psalter. While not an exhaustive survey, it illustrates well the point that the Ten Commandments are “at the heart” of the ethical thought in the Psalter. Finally in chapter 7, Wenham provides an overview of the Psalms’ use of pentateuchal narratives. In doing so, the Psalter draws out that “the national tendency to sin and the disasters that ensue,” as well as “the long suffering mercy of God, whose steadfast love endures forever” (137). In this way, the Psalter provides a commentary on the history of the Old Testament that Wenham sees justifying Martin Luther’s assessment of the Psalter as a “mini-Bible.”

Chapter 8 goes into a little more detail about how the Psalter treats various vices and virtues in addition to the law. Here, special focus is placed on the role of the wicked and the righteous in the Psalter. Chapter 9 turns to the role of prayers for divine intervention in the Psalter and deals with how we are to appropriate imprecatory psalms in our current cultural context. Wenham makes the important point that while the psalmist will pray for judgment on his enemies, there is no hint that he will be the one to carry it out. Rather than looking at these psalms as expressing desires for vengeance and destruction, they can be seen as expressions of dependence on God to execute justice and trusting that He will do what is right. Finally in chapter 10, Wenham draws connections between the ethics taught in the Psalter and what we find in the New Testament. His conclusion is that the Psalter “had a strong influence on the New Testament writers, especially in the formulation of their ethic” (202).

Concluding Thoughts

Overall, I found this book extremely insightful and immediately practical. It basically changed my approach to devotional reading to be more “Psalm-centric,” and after reading through the Psalter over the course of last month separately, my wife and I are reading through the Psalms daily together this month. I’ve been particular guilty of neglecting the Psalms, but Wenham’s book has shown me the importance the Psalms have in the Christian life and inspired me to study them more diligently. I would hope if you pick up a copy of this book it would do much the same for you. Though some of the other books in this series can be rather technical in nature, this book is well suited in style, and for the most part in content, for the average reader. It would make a great study for a small group or a church staff, and hopefully many people will do just that!

Book Details

  • Author: Gordon J. Wenham
  • Title: Psalms as Torah: Reading Biblical Song Ethically
  • PublisherBaker Academic (February 1, 2012)
  • SeriesStudies in Theological Interpretation
  • Paperback: 233pgs
  • Reading Level: Bible School
  • Audience Appeal: Prophets interested in the priestly dimension of the Psalms
  • Gratis Review Copy: Yes (courtesy of Baker Academic)


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I'm an avid reader, musician, and high school Bible teacher living in central Florida. I have many paperback books and our house smells of rich glade air freshners. If you want to know more, then let's connect!

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