I am convinced that everything we experience shapes us. What we see, what we hear, what we feel — everything. Human beings are a startling blend of two powerful dynamics: we’re ethically wired, and we’re moldable.
In Psalms as Torah: Reading Biblical Song Ethically (Baker Academic, 2012), seasoned OT scholar Gordon Wenham explores the ethical shaping power of the Psalms. He concludes that what we say, pray, and sing profoundly influences who we are and who we become.
In the first half (chs. 1-4), Wenham surveys Jewish and Christian use of the Psalter through the centuries (ch. 1) along with scholarship’s recent emphasis on the form and function of individual psalms (ch. 2). Wenham prefers the more recent canonical approach, interpreting the psalms not only as individual works but also as a structured anthology demonstrating interrelationships and progression. He proposes that ancient religious texts (including the Psalter) were crafted for memorization and recitation (ch. 3), and then delves into speech act theory (the heart of the book) to show how the act of praying is inherently committal and therefore shapes us at a deep level (ch. 4).
In the second half (chs. 5-10), Wenham turns to the actual ethics of the Psalter including its explicit ethical instruction (chs. 5, 6), the effect of its narrative retellings (ch. 7), the virtues and vices it prescribes and denounces (ch. 8), the knotty issue of imprecatory prayers (ch. 9), and the various ways the NT reflects the ethics of the Psalms (ch. 10).
The Burden of the Book: The Shaping Power of Praying the Psalms
Christians often talk about “the power of prayer,” and rightfully so. But what’s usually meant is the power of prayer to change things by summoning the sovereign power of God. This book is all about the power of prayer, but Wenham is taking a different angle. He wants us to see that prayer not only reshapes the landscape of our lives by moving mountains but reshapes the landscape of our hearts by recrafting and renewing our attitudes and commitments.
[P]rayer has an impact on ethical thought . . . If we praise a certain type of behavior in our prayers, we are telling God that this is how we intend to behave. On the other hand, if in prayer we denounce certain acts and pray for God to punish them, we are in effect inviting God to judge us if we do the same. This makes the ethics of liturgy uniquely powerful. It makes a stronger claim on the believer than either law, wisdom, or story, which are simply subject to passive reception: one can listen to a proverb or a story and then take it or leave it, but if you pray ethically, you commit yourself to a path of action (57).
Therefore, it’s not enough for the church to retell the narratives, preach the gospels, and exposit the epistles. We must also pray the Psalms, individually and corporately.
From yet another angle, yet another Christian leader is calling for the church to weave the reading, reciting, praying, and singing of the Psalms back into its corporate life. But for Wenham, the issue at stake is not just the performance of biblical worship but the formation of biblical character. The Psalms are meant not just to punctuate the Sunday service but to permeate the souls of the saints. Most churches barely do the former. How can we even begin to enjoy the latter?
If the Psalms are God-crafted instruments for our shaping, then neglecting them will necessarily leave us misshapen. Thankfully, Gordon Wenham has added his voice to the burgeoning chorus calling for the reinstatement of the Psalms in the church’s worship. May God raise the chorus to a crescendo so that we might rejoin the harmony of the Psalter and all the benefits it brings.
Thanks to Baker Academic for providing a free copy for unbiased review.