Holy Community
Review of Gordon Wenham’s “Psalms As Torah: Reading Biblical Song Ethically”

Gordon J. Wenham (PhD, University of London) is tutor in Old Testament at Trinity College, Bristol, England, and professor emeritus of Old Testament at the University of Gloucestershire. He is the author or editor of numerous books, including Story as Torah and commentaries on Genesis, Leviticus, and Numbers.

huckabyRev. Chuck Huckaby is the Minister of Congregational Life at First Protestant Church in New Braunfels, TX. You can find his page on Facebook.com

Wenham's "Psalms as Torah" is a powerful apologetic for the Psalms as the means by which the instruction of God laid out in precept form elsewhere is internalized. Through the medium of chant and prayer, those internalized precepts form one’s character in ways that simple reading or listening to sermons can never do. It does not deal with Psalm singing per se, but the conclusion that God’s people cannot live out a biblical ethic without internalizing the Psalms (or “Psalter”) deeply is nearly inescapable after reading this fine work!

Wenham begins by reviewing Jewish and Christian approaches to the Psalter and noting the history of higher criticism as it pertains to the Psalms and concludes that the “canonical approach” is a valid approach to interpretation. The “canonical reading” starts from the premise that the people organizing the Psalter as we know it may actually have understood the material as well or better than a higher critic arriving on the scene centuries later with an axe to grind! The critic’s tendency to atomize the text and dismiss it - according to the canonical reading - ultimately inhibits the process of viewing any text constructively.

Wenham’s discussion breaks new ground by discussing the role of anthologies designed to be memorized both in the ancient Near East and in the history of Christian catechesis. He  does a respectable job demonstrating that the Psalter was primarily structured to be memorized for corporate liturgical and personal devotional purposes. Internalized in this way, the Psalms challenge the worshiper to the core when didactic methods like preaching might be heard and easily dismissed. One example of a liturgical text’s ability to viscerally challenge is evident in the potential internal conflict one has while praying a phrase such as “forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors”. One cannot recite the prayer without committing to a course of action. The technical term for this phenomenon where speech determines destiny is the “speech-act” theory. Classically, though, the phrase lex orandi, lex credendi - “the law of prayer is the law of belief” - sums up how liturgy (in this case the meditative recitation of the Psalms) forms the soul.

Wenham then analyzes in several chapters how the Psalms function as “Torah”. The Psalms do not break new ground in the sense of providing new revelation regarding the will of God revealed to Moses. They do, however, provide practical training in how the righteous discern the “weightier” matters of God’s Law. Wenham’s proposal is that the Psalms essentially enable one to live out the precepts of God’s Law without running afoul of Jesus’ condemnation reserved for those who “tithe mint and dill and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness.” (Matthew 23:23 ESV). He notes how the Psalms by their various emphases train the hearer to focus on the key aspects of God’s Law which then become (in this reviewer’s opinion at least) the basis for New Testament ethics.

Many great Christian Leaders such as John Wesley and C.S. Lewis might have benefitted from Wenham’s discussion of the so-called “imprecatory Psalms”. These leaders have attempted to be “more Christian than the Psalter” by eliminating Psalms calling for God’s just intervention in graphic terms to be stricken from public use as “unfit” for Christian minds. As Wenham notes, these psalms simply zealously pray for God to intervene when human justice has failed. They routinely ask no more from God than the for the perpetrators of evil to be repaid in a way fitting their crimes. The lex talionis or “an eye for an eye” principle always mitigated punishments in the Torah by making sure that punishments “fit the crime” and no more. The imprecatory psalms ask for justice to be done - no more than has been freely given by the evil ones, but no less if these people do not repent.

Wenham’s work is highly suggestive in many ways. For instance, would the Sabbatarian debates of Reformed Protestantism have occurred if the emphasis on the Sabbath in the Psalms had been considered normative by more Protestants? Are the Psalms a crucial key to understanding the abiding “equity” of the Old Testament Law for New Testament Christians that have been under appreciated far too long? Should we go back to at least singing as many Psalms as we do other material in our worship?

Wenham’s work is scholarly and readers may be surprised to find one third of the volume composed of endnotes, index, and bibliography. While the book excels in documentation, it fails in terms of application. By implication (i.e. the versions quoted, the NRSV and ESV) we understand Wenham seems to prefer somewhat more literal translations of the Psalms from the Tyndale-KJV tradition yet updated for modern use. Likewise, he refers to Psalm singers and those who formerly memorized the Psalms as a whole but offers no suggestions for moderns to appropriate the Psalms more diligently. No models to consider for this enterprise are suggested either.

Scholars cannot be criticized too greatly for their lack of proficiency in pastoral application. Given that Wenham’s father and brother specialized in the study of the New Testament (and Wenham himself ventures into that territory), one might have hoped for more on how modern “New Testament” Christians might see the Psalter in light of the new covenant wherein we reside. Is there a proper “Christocentric” way to read the Psalms? Does it shed light on our use of the imprecatory psalms in some way? If so, how? These issues may have been profitably addressed to a greater degree.

These shortcomings aside, Wenham’s work is a powerful tonic for those seeking encouragement to revisit the Psalms anew - for personal devotion, for worship renewal, and as nothing less than a hermeneutical key for properly unlocking the abiding value of Moses’ Law.

Psalms_as_TorahBaker Academic, 2012 (Paperback, 256 pages)

You can purchase “Psalms as Torah: Reading Biblical Song Ethically” through the Colson Book Store.  Purchases help financially support this ministry.