Monday, September 7, 2009

The Ethics Of The Psalms

The ancient poetry of the biblical psalms tells us much about many things from ritual to cultic practice to cries of lament and praise, but its approach to ethics is often left out to a higher focus on even a single, smaller book like Deuteronomy.[1]

When we commence a study of ethics in the psalms we can’t really help starting at the very first psalm which contrasts very cogently the austere consequences for righteousness and wickedness. But that’s just the start.

Psalm 119, which I’ve called a Theological Monster, is in many ways a teaching psalm related directly to the genre of biblical ethics—yet, truth be told, I’ve called it a theological monster for a reason; its width, depth and breadth fits so many genres.

There are a few helpful categories in investigating the subject of ethics in the psalms.

Psalms as Prayers

Most psalms that are framed as prayers speak to the fairness or unfairness of life circumstances and the role God has in them—these are ethical concerns at their heart! These personalised morsels of intense thought speak directly to the moral and ethical heart of human nature and attribution.

The Link to the Decalogue

But a smattering… Psalm 81 paraphrases both the introduction to the Ten Commandments and two important commandments (Ps. 81:9-10). Also, the focus on banning of idolatry, for instance, is marked when we bring Psalm 24:3-4 into view:

“Who may ascend the mountain of the LORD?
Who may stand in his holy place?
Those who have clean hands and a pure heart,
Who do not put their trust in an idol,
Or swear by a false god.” (TNIV)
The other commandments are alluded to throughout the psalms. Adultery is covered off in Psalm 51. Honouring father and mother are portrayed by honouring the heavenly Father. Murder is frequently imaged in the psalms with the enemy never too far aware. References to lying, theft and others too are not too difficult to find.

Virtuous Living – Right Worship i.e. The Lifestyle

Psalm 1, as mentioned previously, sparks a tirade for righteous living over and against the damned wicked; the choice is given, and the chooser (that is you and I) can read and be warned in many psalms that set about to edify us to the issues of life and death around our choices and actions. See also, for instance, Psalms 73 and 112, and poignantly Psalm 37—a personal favourite.

The Judgment of God

God’s role as righteous and holy judge is never too far away in the psalms. He judges ethically, impartially, and without recourse to further correspondence!

Above all that is found in the psalms from the ethical standpoint is a pointing toward the character of God. As each psalmist identifies with God they see justice issues coming down. Praise psalms see God acting in defence of the ethical. Lament psalms bemoan the lack of timely action due to often grave ethical concerns.

Concerning scholarly study, at least, there is far more work to be done in realising a worthwhile contribution in this genre within the context of the main corpus of biblical poetry.[2]

© S. J. Wickham, 2009.
[1] Gordon J. Wenham, “The Ethics of the Psalms,” in Interpreting the Psalms: Issues and Approaches (Leicester, England: Apollos/IVP, 2005), p. 178. The structure and basis of my thought in the article is based upon Wenham’s ideas.
[2] Wenham, Ibid, p. 194. Wenham cites Christopher J. H. Wright’s, Old Testament Ethics of the People of God (Leicester, England: InterVarsity Press, 2004). Wright seems to reference the following psalms most in his study: Pss. 19, 33, 72, 89, 96, 97, 104, 112 and 119. Each of these is referenced at least four times.

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