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Torah and Psalms

While most Psalms are concerned with worship, some focus on the theme of torah, drawing instruction from wisdom and history and celebrating the torah’s laws.

The Conversion of Ezra
Julius Schnoor von Carolsfeld

Psalm 1 opens with a rousing first line: “O, the happinesses [plural!] of the person who ….” But what kind of person does the psalmist believe will find this great surplus of happiness? The next few lines tell us: the person who says no to those the psalmist calls “wicked,” “sinners,” and “scoffers” and instead says yes to God’s torah.

What exactly is torah?

Although the word “Torah” is most commonly used today to refer to the first five books of the Bible, at its most basic level, torah means “instruction.” It is the sort of instruction that includes the wisdom parents pass along to their children (see Prov 3:1) and the lessons learned from Israel’s historical traditions. But torah is also strongly associated with legal instructions, so much so that when the Jews of Alexandria translated the Hebrew Bible into Greek, they translated torah as nomos, “law.”

What role does torah play in the Psalms?

The book of Psalms touches upon each of these various facets of torah. Some psalms are concerned mainly with learning from Israel’s history. When Ps 78 prefaces its long walk through the nation’s history with the call, “Give ear, O my people, to my torah” (v. 1), it is clear that the psalmist’s emphasis is on instructing the people with lessons from the past. Other historical psalms do the same, encouraging the people to heed God’s past dealings with the people and respond with praise (Ps 105, Ps 135, and Ps 136) or repentance (Ps 78 and Ps 106).

Alongside these historical psalms are psalms that emphasize the wisdom aspects of torah (e.g., Ps 34, Ps 37, Ps 49, Ps 111, Ps 112, and Ps 139). These psalms share in the wisdom rhetoric of books like Proverbs, Job, and Qoheleth, but they also explicitly combine wisdom’s instruction to the legal language of torah. Like Proverbs, Ps 111 insists, “The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom” (v. 10), but it also adds talk of “covenant” (a relationship based on legal obligations; vv. 5, 9) and “precepts” (v. 7) to its wisdom language. Ps 37 draws a direct connection between those who “utter wisdom” and those who “have God’s law [torah] in their hearts” (vv. 30-31). Ps 37 is also significant for the extended contrast it draws between the righteous and the wicked, a constant theme in passages like Prov 10 and, importantly, in the last category of torah psalms, those psalms that make torah their primary focus.

Psalms 1, 19, and 119 are quintessential Torah psalms. More than half of Ps 19 celebrates God’s torah. Ps 119 ups the ante by devoting 176 verses, eight verses for each letter of the Hebrew alphabet, to the praise of torah. The emphasis in these psalms is on the legal aspect of torah, as torah is set alongside words like precepts, commandments, ordinances, and decrees. Far from being a burden, Ps 119 considers God’s laws to be a delight (v. 77), a treasure more valuable than riches (v. 72), and a safe path that guards against stumbling (vv. 1, 9, 32, 45). The same can be said for Ps 1. For this psalmist, delighting in and meditating on God’s torah is what paves the way for both happiness (v. 1) and success (v. 3). With its placement at the head of the Psalter, it seems likely that Ps 1 is also meant to make a statement about the book of Psalms as a whole. To be sure, Psalms is a book of worship, but it also a book of torah.

  • Leonard-Jeffery

    Jeffery Leonard (PhD, Brandeis University) is associate professor of Biblical Studies at Samford University in Birmingham. He is the author of Creation Rediscovered: Finding New Meaning in an Ancient Story and various articles in the Journal of Biblical Literature, the Journal for the Study of the Old Testament, and other venues. His research interests include inner-biblical allusion, source criticism, and creation traditions.