The Power of the Psalms

By Gordon Wenham

From pre-Christian times to the present, the book of Psalms have been the most used and most loved part of the Old Testament. In the fourth century Athanasius wrote, “Whatever your particular need or trouble, from this same book you can select a form of words to fit it, so that you not merely hear and then pass on, but learn the way to remedy your ill.” The saintly King Alfred sang the psalms by day and night. The great reformers Luther and Calvin strongly encouraged the use of the psalms in worship, an outlook enshrined in the Book of Common Prayer.

Though in the New Testament the psalms are the most quoted book of the Old Testament, they have been strangely neglected in modern biblical scholarship for their impact on theology and especially ethics. Studies of Old Testament ethics tend to concentrate on the laws of the Pentateuch and the wisdom books such as Proverbs. Despite Paul affirming that whatever was written in former times was written for our instruction (Rom. 15:4), scholars have neglected both the narratives of the Bible and the songs of Scripture in constructing the ethic of the Old Testament. In Story as Torah (Baker Academic, 2004), I attempted to remedy the neglect of biblical narrative in ethics, and in my latest book, Psalms as Torah (Baker Academic, 2012), I point out the importance and influence that the psalms have had and continue to have.

I argue that the psalms are the most potent form of ethical instruction in the Bible. This is because they are songs to God that are meant to be sung in public. Augustine said that “to sing once is to pray twice”; in other words, prayers that are sung leave much less scope for the mind to wander. Similarly, Luther pointed out that adding music to the words involves the whole personality in the act of worship, saying, “Music is to be praised as second only to the Word of God, because by her are all the emotions swayed.” The musical dimension of the psalms thus gives them a special potency.

But their use in public worship gives them even more cogency.  One sings or speaks the psalms before one’s fellow worshippers, so that one comes under peer pressure to utter the psalms’ words and sentiments. Other people will notice if one stops singing because one does not agree with the psalm’s message! At the same time, if to avoid such attention one keeps on singing but does not mean it, God will notice and one will be guilty of hypocrisy, a kind of spiritual perjury.

This use of song in worship thus has a peculiarly powerful authority. Other texts in the Bible require only passive assent. In ancient times, and still to some extent today, people heard the Bible rather than read it themselves. And hearers may accept the message of a parable, if they have correctly understood it, but that hearing does not require any verbal assent from the hearers. Similarly the laws may be read aloud, but at the most the hearer will be expected to say Amen. But singing a psalm or other liturgical text involves worshippers in publicly endorsing its ideas. In my book I compare reciting the psalms to taking an oath in court. One is committing oneself to its ideas before many other people and in the presence of a God who reads the heart. This makes singing a psalm or worship song a very serious matter: you are committing yourself to its ideas in an active and public manner. This is one reason why the psalms constitute such an influential part of the ethics and theology of the Bible. To use them in public or private prayer is to assent to their message and values in a very active way.

Nearly fifty years ago, Donald Evans (The Logic of Self-Involvement) applied Austin’s theory of speech acts to the significance of worship texts, such as creeds. He pointed out that to say, “You are king” in the context of worship is more than a statement of detached academic theology; it expresses an attitude and in many cases a commitment to the God who is addressed. Statements made in worship are performative; that is, they change the situation. In marriage vows, for example, statements such as “I take you to be my husband” make a couple husband and wife. Though the performative function of worship language is not often as obvious as this, Evans argues that most remarks in worship either express commitment to God or at least a positive attitude to him. And—although it seems to me this has not been realized by earlier writers on Old Testament ethics—this concept offers great insight into the efficacy of the psalms in implanting their principles, both theological and ethical, into the worshippers’ consciousness.

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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.

For more information on Dr. Wenham’s book Psalms as Torah, click here.

Comments

  1. Robert Lee (PhD) says:

    Signing the Psalms

    The two books have been immensely influential on my personal and public worship have been; Gordon Wenham’s book ” Psalms as Torah” and Alec Motyer’s ” Journey” . I am fortunate to worship in congregational participant environment where free worship expression is encouraged. Singing the psalms, initially in my private personal worship has brought a deeper commitment, focus and also a freer release of worship. Public delivery of a song from the Psalms does require the initial preparation in private but has brought a response in worship from others in public.
    Many new worships songs take words from the Psalms but reading a psalms, enjoying the context and formulating your own song from the words is to be highly recommended!

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