Torah and Psalms by Jeffery Leonard

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.

Jeffery Leonard, "Torah and Psalms", n.p. [cited 3 Dec 2021]. Online: https://www.bibleodyssey.org:443/en/passages/related-articles/torah-and-psalms

Contributors

Leonard-Jeffery

Jeffery Leonard
Associate professor of Biblical Studies , Samford University

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.

A West Semitic language, in which most of the Hebrew Bible is written except for parts of Daniel and Ezra. Hebrew is regarded as the spoken language of ancient Israel but is largely replaced by Aramaic in the Persian period.

The set of Biblical books shared by Jews and Christians. A more neutral alternative to "Old Testament."

Another name for the biblical book of Psalms or for a copy of this book bound separately from the rest of the Bible.

(rhetorical) The art of persuasion in writing and speech.

Prov 3:1

My child, do not forget my teaching,
    but let your heart keep my commandments;

Ps 78

God's Goodness and Israel's Ingratitude
A Maskil of Asaph.
1Give ear, O my people, to my teaching;
incline your ears to the words of my mouth.2I will open my mo ... View more

Ps 105













God’s Faithfulness to Israel

1 O give thanks to the Lord, call on his name,
    make known his deeds among the peoples.
2 Sing to him, sing praises ... View more

Ps 135


Praise the Lord!
    Praise the name of the Lord;
    give praise, O servants of the Lord,
2 you that stand in the house of the Lord,
    in the courts of the ... View more

Ps 136

God's Work in Creation and in History
1O give thanks to the Lord, for he is good,
for his steadfast love endures forever.2O give thanks to the God of gods,
for ... View more

Ps 78

God's Goodness and Israel's Ingratitude
A Maskil of Asaph.
1Give ear, O my people, to my teaching;
incline your ears to the words of my mouth.2I will open my mo ... View more

Ps 106

A Confession of Israel’s Sins

1 Praise the Lord!
    O give thanks to the Lord, for he is good;
    for his steadfast love endures forever.
2 Who can utter the ... View more

Ps 34

Praise for Deliverance from Trouble
Of David, when he feigned madness before Abimelech, so that he drove him out, and he went away.
1I will bless the Lord at al ... View more

Ps 37

Exhortation to Patience and Trust
Of David.
1Do not fret because of the wicked;
do not be envious of wrongdoers,2for they will soon fade like the grass,
and wit ... View more

Ps 49

To the leader. Of the Korahites. A Psalm.

1 Hear this, all you peoples;
    give ear, all inhabitants of the world,
2 both low and high,
    rich and poor toge ... View more

Ps 111

Praise for God's Wonderful Works
1Praise the Lord!
I will give thanks to the Lord with my whole heart,
in the company of the upright, in the congregation.2Great ... View more

Ps 112

Blessings of the Righteous
1Praise the Lord!
Happy are those who fear the Lord,
who greatly delight in his commandments.2Their descendants will be mighty in the ... View more

Ps 139

The Inescapable God
To the leader. Of David. A Psalm.

1 O Lord, you have searched me and known me.
2 You know when I sit down and when I rise up;
    you disce ... View more

Ps 37

Exhortation to Patience and Trust
Of David.
1Do not fret because of the wicked;
do not be envious of wrongdoers,2for they will soon fade like the grass,
and wit ... View more

Ps 37

Exhortation to Patience and Trust
Of David.
1Do not fret because of the wicked;
do not be envious of wrongdoers,2for they will soon fade like the grass,
and wit ... View more

Prov 10

10 The proverbs of Solomon.

A wise child makes a glad father,
    but a foolish child is a mother’s grief.
2 Treasures gained by wickedness do not profit,
     ... View more

Ps 19

God's Glory in Creation and the Law
To the leader. A Psalm of David.
1The heavens are telling the glory of God;
and the firmament proclaims his handiwork.2Day t ... View more

Ps 119

The Glories of God's Law
1Happy are those whose way is blameless,
who walk in the law of the Lord.2Happy are those who keep his decrees,
who seek him with their ... View more

Ps 119

The Glories of God's Law
1Happy are those whose way is blameless,
who walk in the law of the Lord.2Happy are those who keep his decrees,
who seek him with their ... View more

Ps 1

BOOK I
(Psalms 1-41)
The Two Ways
1Happy are those
who do not follow the advice of the wicked,
or take the path that sinners tread,
or sit in the seat of scoffe ... View more

Ps 1

BOOK I
(Psalms 1-41)
The Two Ways
1Happy are those
who do not follow the advice of the wicked,
or take the path that sinners tread,
or sit in the seat of scoffe ... View more

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