Speech-Act in the Psalms
“Speech-act theory [SAT] insists that language does not exist idly to make certain sounds, but is always language in action, and usually communicative action” (Briggs). SAT can be taught well or poorly and the difference is how clearly the teacher brings to bear the “so what” of why it matters in the first place.
If you’re going to explain the “so what” of SAT, and you want to avoid abstractions, the psalms are a great place to do it. By praying or sing the psalms we are not merely reciting idle sounds with our tongues. We are performing. This is especially true because language is part of our covenant relationship, as we will see shortly.
I appreciate how Gordon Wenham explains the “so what” in his forthcoming book, The Psalter Reclaimed: Praying and Praising with the Psalms (Crossway, Feb. 2013). Here’s a spattering of quotes. Perhaps it will spark more interest in the book or in SAT and its implications for our devotions, our local churches, and all forms of corporate speech.
Promises change a situation by imposing obligations on the speaker and creating expectations in the listener. A promise is an example of a speech act. Wedding vows are speech acts too. The key words in a marriage ceremony are spoken publicly and before God. “I A take you B to be my wedded wife/husband, to have and to hold from this day forward, for better for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and health, to love and to cherish, till death us do part.”
One trusts that brides and grooms pronounce these words after careful thought beforehand and with complete sincerity on the big day. The words themselves transform their status: the two become man and wife. Thus the words are performative.
To say, “I give thanks to Thee, O Lord, with my whole heart” is not merely informing God about one’s feelings, but also performing an act of thanksgiving in itself.
To sum up, singing or praying the psalms is a performative, typically a commissive, act: saying these solemn words to God alters one’s relationship in a way that mere listening does not. This is not a new insight. St. Paul saw confession of faith as altering one’s status before God: “If you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For with the heart one believes and is justified, and with the mouth one confesses and is saved” (Rom. 10:9–10).
Paul’s argument may be applied to the Psalms. Throughout the Psalter one is confessing that the Lord is God, and as the Psalms often insist, this is supposed to be a confession that comes from a pure and sincere heart. And it is certainly salvation that the Psalmist seeks: time and again he pleads to God to save him, to deliver him, to hear his prayer, and so on. Whether or not this always occurs is not my purpose to discuss now. I simply want to draw out some of the similarities between taking an oath, making a vow, confessing faith, and praying the psalms. I think these parallels may help us to see how powerful the commitment is that the psalms demand of their user. In singing the psalms, one is actively committing oneself to following the God-approved life.