Is Psalm 119 a Psalm of Lament?

In any study of the Psalms the student will quickly encounter the classifications of the Psalms. The basic classification system was started by a German Old Testament scholar known as Hermann Gunkel (1862-1932). The Psalms are generally grouped into one of seven basic genres: hymns, lament, thanksgiving, confidence, remembrance, wisdom, and kingship. (as found in An Introduction to the Old Testament by Tremper Longman III and Raymond B. Dillard pp 246-52. There are some exceptions.) The classification of a genre to a Psalm can affect the manner in which it is interpreted.

Most scholars classify Psalm 119 as a Wisdom Psalm or a Torah Psalm because of its emphasis on the law of God. Even though C. H. Bullock classifies this as a Torah Psalm he does state that “the poem does not fit into a single literary genre (other than the acrostic poem), but contains traces of several genres, like the individual lament (v. 107), the song of trust (v. 42), the song of thanksgiving (v. 7), the hymn (e.g., vv. 71-72) and the wisdom aphorism (vv. 9, 99).” Encountering the Book of Psalms, p. 221)

This past weekend I read Gordon Wenham’s newest book from Baker Academic called Psalms as Torah. Wenham argues that the Psalms insofar as they provide patterns for our songs and prayers become “one of the most potent forms of ethical indoctrination.” (2) He writes,

“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)

In chapter five, “The Concept of the Law in the Psalms,” Wenham demonstrates that the Psalms are framed by law beginning with Psalm 1 which he notes introduces not only the Psalter but also the third section of the Hebrew canon, the Writings. (78) The Psalmist shows a passionate devotion to the law. We see this most clearly in Psalms 19 and 119.  But he notes that “this devotion is coupled with frequent acknowledgments of failure to live up to the law’s highest demands . . . These prayers for divine aid in keeping the law show that the psalmist has a sense of perspective and humility in the face of his own shortcomings. He should not be acused of pride or self-righteousness.” (97) It is during this discussion that Wenham raises the question of the genre of Psalm 119. He notes that the psalm is often classified as a wisdom poem praising the law’s perfection. But a closer analysis, he suggests, will show that “it is an individual lament in which the author prays to be delivered from his troubles so that he may keep the law with his whole heart.” (83) He continues,

“But although its ideas own much to the Wisdom literature and even more to Deuteronomy, it is not just an anthology of sayings praising God’s revelation. It is a prayer. It is a ‘supplication from a situation of distress.’ In a footnote, Sigmund Mowinckel characterizes it as an ‘individual psalm of lamentation.’ In a long study, Will Soll demonstrates that Psalm 119 has the features that characterize an individual lament. Sixty verses contain a petition, as in verse 17: ‘Deal bountifully with your servant, that I may live and keep your word.’ Thirty-eight verses contain lament, a sin verse 25: “My soul clings to the dust.’” (89)

Other features of lament include

“an address (vv. 1-3) and confessions of trust (vv. 52, 54, 56, 114). The many protestations of love for God’s law and fidelity to it constitute . . . part of Psalm 119’s affinity to the individual lament genre. . . . Attached to a petition, these declarations of fidelity can serve as motivation for that petition to be answered. . . . Incorporated in a lament, they give that lament greater pathos, and thereby serve as further motivation for God to respond with deliverance.”

“Regarding verse 157, ‘Many are my persecutors and my adversaries, but I do not swerve from your testimonies.’ Soll says that ‘verses of this kind more than any other provide Psalm 119 with its consistent tone.’ Finally, Psalm 119 contains assurances that the petitions will be heard (e.g., vv. 171-72). (89-90)

What does this have to do with ethics? Wenham answers that

“This understanding of the psalm as a lament is important for its ethic. It is not a detached piece of wisdom instruction, like a chapter from the book of Proverbs, that has been taken over in Jewish and Christian worship and turned into a prayer. It is intrinsically a prayer, and this has profound consequences for its ethical stance.  . . . Prayer commits the worshiper to the values and standards that he articulates in his prayer.” (92)

I think Wenham, via Soll, makes a strong case for Psalm 119 as a lament psalm.

But I must say that this book has changed the way I view the Psalms, my prayers and what impact those prayers have on my behavior (ethics). In concluding Wenham writes with some powerful words:

“To pray a psalm is to address both God and fellow worshipers. Thus, either other worshipers will notice the silence of the person who does not pray it aloud, or God will take note of the hypocrisy of the person who prays it aloud but disagress with it. Liturgy does not simply invite assent; it demands it. This is the main reason why the ethic of the Psalter has excercised such influence.” (205)

And, “one must wonder whether neglect of the psalms has not impoverished the church’s witness both to its own members and to the wider world.” (207)

Simply put, this is a brilliant book. It is theological interpretation at its finest and warrants a wide readership. Once I started it I couldn’t stop. Wenham rebukes the casual reader of the psalms and challenges that same reader to not only read, sing or pray the psalms but also to take “personal ownership of the words of the text.” (204) This is what the psalms demand. Anything less is unacceptable.

Psalms as Torah by Gordon Wenham is from Baker Academic. It is a paperback with 256 pages and sells for $22.99.

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About Louis

I am a 1997 graduate of Trinity Evangelical Divinity School.
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