the ethics of the Psalms

Psalms as TorahI want to say this is a book I read recently, but on reflection it was probably over a year ago. So here are some highlights that have remained in my memory since then.

Gordon J Wenham. Psalms as Torah: Reading Biblical Song Ethically. Baker Academic, 2012

This is a fascinating treatment of the Book of Psalms from the perspective of what the psalms teach us about how to live our lives. Whereas the contrast in books like Proverbs and Ecclesiastes is between the wise and the foolish, the contrast in the book of Psalms is between the righteous and the unrighteous (that’s the ‘ethics’ of the subtitle).

Wenham discusses several stimulating topics. One is how closely you involve yourself in the ethics of the Psalms when you pray them or (better) sing them. He doesn’t write from an exclusive psalmody position, but he does clearly wish that people made more use of the psalms for singing in individual and public (corporate) worship. But the Psalms very plainly align you (the singer) with the godly and against the ungodly. This serves on the one hand to encourage you, if you are actually one of the godly, by giving you ways shared with the Lord’s people in all times and places to express your allegiance to the Lord and  your willingness to live in obedience to him. On the other hand, it exposes your hypocrisy and dissimulation, if you are not one of the godly, when you not only listen to God’s Word read and preached but yourself use the very words of God to call for his vindication of the righteous and overthrow of the wicked. This provides a sobering reminder of how seriously we should consider the words we use in worship.

Another aspect of the Book of Psalms which Wenham brings out is the significance of its internal structure. After the introductory psalms 1 and 2, the book consists of five mini-books:

  • Book 1 – Psalm 1 to 41 – the righteous and the wicked (the righteous suffering at the hands of the wicked and calling to God for deliverance)
  • Book 2 – Psalm 42 to 72 – mainly biographical about David during the difficult times in his life (persecuted, betrayed and captured, mourning, guilty)
  • Book 3 – Psalm 73 to 89 – the fall of Jerusalem and the monarchy
  • Book 4 – Psalm 90 to 106 – looking forward to a future David who will lead to the universal recognition of Jehovah
  • Book 5 – Psalm 107 to 150 – the new David  installed by Jehovah as priest and king and praising the Lord before the nations

Each of the books ends with a doxology (41:13, 72:18-19, 89:52, 106:48, and 146-150), and psalms on the topic of the covenant made with David are placed at the ‘seams’ of the books. Within these books are of course the groups of psalms which are more familiar and obvious from their titles or themes (eg 146-150). So the arrangement of the psalms in their order isn’t haphazard but deliberate and instructive.

This arrangement is one of the things (along with their poetical form and the musical accompaniment) which Wenham argues makes the psalms easier to memorise and supports the idea that they are actually intended to be memorised. Memorising something is a way of both making it your own and opening yourself to being shaped and mastered by it. By memorising the psalms you appropriate their perspective on right and wrong, and you submit to the view they present of what God approves and what God condemns.

And the structure makes the law of God a key feature of the Psalms. Its composition in five books echoes the five books of the Pentateuch. Then Psalm 1, which extols God’s law, sets the scene for the whole of the Book of Psalms and its view of the righteous vs the ungodly/sinners/scorners. Psalm 19 (‘the law of the Lord is perfect…’) is placed at the midpoint of Book 1, and Psalm 119 (the longest psalm and a beautifully and elaborately formed one, all about the law of God) is located at the centre of Book 5. So that the prominent place given to God’s law, and its definition of good and evil, in the way the psalms are arranged reinforces how important the law of God should be to us and how keen we should be to reflect this in our worship and in our lives.

The final thing that sticks in my mind is how Wenham handles the imprecatory psalms (Psalm 35, 109, etc). He mentions various points to remind us how these psalms are thoroughly consistent with the virtues of the righteous which everyone admires and which are extolled in plenty other psalms (kindness, honesty, etc).

  • The psalmist appeals to God for help against his oppressors, specifically addressing God’s character as the God who cares for the poor and needy who are unjustly persecuted
  • What the psalmist asks for is an application of the ‘talionic principle,’ ie punishment which is proportionate and fits the crime (‘let his net that he hath hid catch himself: into that very destruction let him fall’) – he’s asking for justice, not revenge
  • The psalmist is not intending to intervene himself, the vindication is left to God
  • The psalmist is not being persecuted for wrong-doing but for his allegiance to God’s cause, which is ultimately a sign of hostility against God himself (so he is calling for God to take action to vindicate himself ultimately)
  • He doesn’t want others of the Lord’s people to be put to shame if he is brought low by those who hate the Lord (so he is calling for God to honour his own credibility for the strengthening of his people)

By using the imprecatory psalms, worshippers (1) express sympathy with the fear and pain of those who suffer unjustly, (2) bring the needs of the poor and the oppressed to God, in the conviction that God is concerned about injustice and will eventually deliver justice for his own name’s sake, and (3) are forced to reflect on their own possible complicity in violence and oppression (if God cares about unjust suffering, so should we).

All in all, this was a most enlightening and worthwhile read. Although it makes an academic contribution to the scholarly study of Old Testament ethics, it isn’t beyond the reach of the lay reader – it’s accessible and informative, and opens up some very valuable reflections on how we can use and benefit from this important part of Scripture.

(Wenham has also written another book on the Psalms which is directly aimed at a general readership, and which provides an overview of this and other topics in the Book of Psalms. It too is worth the read – The Psalter Reclaimed: Praying and Praising with the Psalms (Crossway, 2013).)