Wenham Outlines Law in Psalms, Part 2

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

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

Most Christians have a longstanding, often personal relationship with the Psalms. 

In my case, when I went to Germany as a foreign student in 1978, I carried a New Testament with Psalms—the only book in the Old Testament (OT) that I spent much time with at that point in my life. Later, I took an active interest in the entire OT and added a Psalm to my daily devotions.

As a chaplain intern at Providence Hospital in 2011-2012, when I asked patients their favorite Bible verse, six out of ten answered Psalm 23. Pentecostals often answered Psalm 91, but many times mentioned even more interesting verses. Chances were good, however, that these other verses were also Psalms.


In his book,Psalms as Torah: Reading Biblical Song Ethically, Gordon Wenham notes that the Psalms and Isaiah are the two Old Testament (OT) books most often cited in the New Testament and as many as 121 out of 150 Psalms are cited or alluded to (181-182). Examples cited by Wenham include:

  • Luke’s Gospel amplifies the Psalter’s concern for the poor and women (182). 
  • The New Testament focuses on the righteous suffering highlighted in the laments that pervade the Psalter (185). 
  • First Peter has been described by some as a sermon based on Psalm 34 (186-189). The first three chapters in Paul’s letter to the Romans draws heavily on the theology of the Psalms, particularly regarding the nature, effects and consequences of sin (193).

He takes other examples from the Book of Hebrews (194-197) and Revelation (197-201).

In part 1 of this review, I gave an overview of Wenham’s argument. In part 2, I will look more closely at three of his arguments: the focus on law, reading the psalms, and comments on the precatory psalms, such as Psalm 137 cited in part 1.

Law in the Psalms

The relationship between the law and the Psalms is highlighted as a theme for Wenham’s book in its title: Psalms as Torah. Torah is the Hebrew word for law, but it also means instruction, as Wenham reminds us (7). Using the poetry of the Psalms to teach the law is a bit like using stained glass windows to teach the illiterate stories from the Bible in years past or, today, coming out with a comic book edition of the Bible for the functionally illiterate.[1]

Wenham argues his case for the law being found in psalms first through the structure of the psalms. The Psalter divides into five books just like the Pentateuch and the first psalm (1) and the longest psalm (119) both focus on law. In the first sentence of Psalm 1, we read:

“Blessed is the man who walks not in the counsel of the wicked, nor stands in the way of sinners, nor sits in the seat of scoffers; but his delight is in the law of the LORD, and on his law he meditates day and night.”(Ps 1:1-2 ESV)

Likewise, we read in Psalm 119:

“Blessed are those whose way is blameless, who walk in the law of the LORD!” (Ps 119:1)

In both topic sentences, the first word is blessed and it is related to delight and walking in concert with the law, which is an obvious source of emphasis to a postmodern reader. 

Less obvious is why Psalm 119 is highlighted in the Hebrew requires some explanation. Psalm 119 stands out in the Hebrew for three reasons: It is the longest psalm, it is an acrostic psalm, and it is found in the middle of book five. The first two reasons are related—an acrostic psalm has strophes beginning with each letter of the Hebrew alphabet—aleph to tau. The last reason—being in the middle—is the point of emphasis in a chiastic literary structure. Think of a chiastic structure as a journey where you go (ABCD), then return by the same route (DCBA), and the purpose of the journey is focused on your destination (D). Each of these three reasons highlight the importance of Psalm 119 to the overall purpose of the Psalter and Psalm 119 focuses on the law.[2]

Wenham make two other interesting points about the law in the psalms. First, the law appears in the Psalms often stated in positive terms rather than prohibitions found in the Ten Commandments. Instead of talking about adultery, for example, the psalms emphasize the blessedness of family. Second, Psalm 119’s acrostic structure pictures the law encompassing widely God’s will for humanity, not narrowly, as found in the Ten Commandments which anticipates Jesus’ interpretation of the law, not the compliance attitude adopted by the Pharisees.Just like Psalm 1 talks about delighting in the law, Psalm 119 expands rather than contracts the Ten Commandments.

Reading the Psalms

Wenham offers numerous pointers for reading the psalms, many times simply in passing, in part, because the ethical instruction provided by the psalms frequently is unconscious (1). Many psalms, for example, are written in the first person, addressed to God, and report on events that are outlined very briefly. The fifty-cent theological word that describes this sort of writing is laconic—using very few words—which my Old Testament professor repeated in practically every lecture.

Wenham summarizes speech act philosophy defining these words:

  • Performative acts—words that change our status, like a marriage vow.
  • Commissive acts—words that offer a promise.
  • Expressive acts—words that name an emotion.
  • Declarative acts—words that affect a change.
  • Assertive declaration acts—assertions that carry the weight of a declaration (65-67)

In prayer we often do more than one of these acts, a kind of exchange of vows with God. Noting the use of the first person, the kinds of acts, and the poetic and laconic language highlights the highly personal nature of the psalms and their use in prayer.

Justice and Pecatory Psalms

Pecatory psalms stand out in the Psalter because they are prayers that wish someone ill. Many times critics of the Bible will highlight these psalms in their complaints because they are decidedly not politically correct.

Wenham notes:

“Wheras modern readers see judging primarily as condemning the guilty, the Old Testament views judging primarily as an act vindicating the weak and exploited.”(113)

This point highlights the change in social position between the average first century Christian and today’s Christians in the United States. People routinely experiencing persecution will look on justice differently than those insolated from persecution. Thus, reading the pecatory psalms requires a change in perspective.

Let’s return a minute to Psalm 137, cited in part 1 of this review:

“O daughter of Babylon, doomed to be destroyed, blessed shall he be who repays you with what you have done to us! Blessed shall he be who takes your little ones and dashes them against the rock!”(Ps 137:8-9)

The writer of this psalm is a Jew living in exile in Babylon. When female slaves are taken, their babies are typically murdered so the psalmist here is evoking lex talionis, a eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth (Exod 31:23-25; Lev 24:17-21; Deut 19:19-21) or, in modern parlance, the punishment should fit the crime. Wenham notes that the psalmist does not suggest that they will take revengence themselves—punishment is left to God. In other words, the psalmist is simply asking for justice that has up-to-this-point been denied (112-113). 

If our postmodern sensitiivites have been offended by these pecatory psalms, it is only because we are accustomed to living in a relatively just society.


Gordon Wenham’s Psalms as Torah: Reading Biblical Song Ethically is an unusually clear guide to reading and understanding the Psalms, which should be interesting to any serious believer wanting to deepen their faith. I suspect that scholars will be citing this work for a long time.

[1]Wenham notes that most ancient societies encouraged enculturation through memorization and use of music. Hymns, poetry, and songs are memory aids for a periods before the modern era when paper was expensive and people learned their scripture through memorization.

[2]The middle of the first book of the psalms, Psalm 19, likewise focuses on law. 

Also see:

Thompson: Paul’s Ethics Forms Community

Other ways to engage online:

Author site: http://www.StephenWHiemstra.net, Publisher site: http://www.T2Pneuma.com.

Newsletter: http://bit.ly/Lent_2019

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