Psalms as Torah

In Psalms as Torah, Gordon Wenham explores the ethical imperatives of the psalms and how a canonical interpretation of the psalter ought to lead to a changed life. The book divides nicely into two sections: a review of historical Psalm interpretation and theoretical implications of worship for ethics; and a look at the specific ethical content of the Psalms (mainly looking at its focus on the tongue and language).

Naturally, the theoretical implications fascinated me the most. I remain the worst kind of theory nerd – an ignorant one. Wenham uses speech act theory to claim that the Psalms act both as speech and as act. The best example of this are wedding vows. These are words but they are also acts that change the lives of those who say them. Likewise, when you sing “My soul will praise the Lord” that is both a virtuous sentiment and an actual act of praise. It commits you to a future act and thus recommits the worshiper to the central ethical position of the psalms: reliance on God. Similarly when you ascribe virtues to God, you commit yourself to practicing those same virtues. There is a rich overlap here between some fun linguistic theory and liturgics (which, on reflection, was probably there in Pickstock’s After Writing, if I had the eyes to see it).

Wenham emphasizes that the historical memorization of the Psalms for worship further embeds the worshiper in the ethical world of the Psalter. By keeping these songs before our minds we can transform ourselves more into the image of God – we constantly reconfess our dependence on God and our desire to become more like him.

This further encourages me in the peculiar practice of the RPCNA to spend so much energy in singing the Psalms a cappella. It forces us to continually reflect on God’s word and, in a way, embody the virtues contained in it. Also, it aids memorization amazingly. I’m not entirely sure that exclusive a cappella psalmody is the only acceptable practice (according to the regulative principle of worship) as the traditional RP position holds but I have found it to be a very healthy spiritual practice thus far.

Wenham’s look at the specific ethical content of the Psalms is appealing because he doesn’t attempt to stretch his point further than it can go. While much of the Ten Commandments can be found in the Psalms he doesn’t force them all to be found there, rather showing that the main focus of the psalms is against sins of the tongue. Still, the overall theology of the psalter reinforces the core ethical position of the absolute dependence of humanity on God. Human self-sufficiency is the chief mark of folly in the psalms as in life.

In Psalms as Torah, Wenham manages to provide a decent introduction to the psalter together with a look at it in a specifically ethical context. This gives me a good deal to think about for the service tomorrow. My actions rarely reflect the Psalms’ guarded language or dependence on God. O my soul, trust in the Lord!


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A comms professional in DC, I hope to not lose my soul and keep thinking about interesting books here.

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