Wisdom Psalms

April, 2017
This class will examine the three types of psalms that make up the "Wisdom" category of psalms.
37 min

Review: We have seen that the Old Testament, true to the writing form of the times, was mostly written as poetry and divided into two main categories: Gnomic (wisdom) and Lyric (expressive). The lyric poetry included a variety of styles: Lamentations was the poetry of mourning; mashals were lessons and parables; blessings and curses were lyrical verses outlining the rewards and punishments on those who obeyed or disobeyed God. The most familiar poetry was that of the psalms which were lyrical verses that expressed different emotions and thoughts of the authors as well as their prayers offered to God.

Various psalms were written throughout the Old Testament period by a number of writers. They were originally collected together according to themes, special words or occasions. Eventually, many of these were assembled into one major book with 150 selected psalms that were used by the Jews in their worship at both the temple and synagogue. This collection is what we refer to as the book of Psalms. It contains the psalms from writers as early as Moses (1400 BC), to writings dated after the return of the Jews from captivity in Babylon (400 BC). Most were written by David (70) and his contemporaries (Sons of Korah, Ethan, etc.).

Previously we examined the characteristics of the psalms. These were the literary devices that made them unique as poetry. They included things like assonance (similar sounding words with different meanings to highlight or contrast ideas), acrostics (psalms ordered with the use of the Hebrew alphabet), and parallelism (where ideas in one line of the psalm were either repeated, augmented or contrasted in another line for the purpose of highlighting them).

Beginning in this chapter we will look at the different subjects that the Psalms addressed and review several psalms from each group.

Major Categories

  1. Wisdom
  2. Nature
  3. Words of God
  4. Penitential
  5. Worshiping
  6. Suffering
  7. Assurance
  8. Praise
  9. Royal

Wisdom Psalms

The first type we will examine are the wisdom psalms. These are didactic and practical in nature. They are usually short summaries of experience common to wisdom. Wisdom psalms deal with the sovereignty of God and the character of the righteous, and how the pursuit of this righteousness leads to questions regarding deeper moral and spiritual issues.

The wisdom psalms themselves can be divided into three sub-categories:

1. Experience or Proverbial Psalms

These are "mashals" (Maskil), short pithy sayings of experience.

1Hear this, all peoples;
Give ear, all inhabitants of the world,
2Both low and high,
Rich and poor together.
3My mouth will speak wisdom,
And the meditation of my heart will be understanding.
4I will incline my ear to a proverb;
I will express my riddle on the harp.
- Psalms 49:1-4

This psalm demonstrates the characteristic style of the wisdom writer in addressing the people.

1Listen, O my people, to my instruction;
Incline your ears to the words of my mouth.
2I will open my mouth in a parable;
I will utter dark sayings of old,
3Which we have heard and known,
And our fathers have told us.
4We will not conceal them from their children,
But tell to the generation to come the praises of the Lord,
And His strength and His wondrous works that He has done.
- Psalms 78:1-4

Note the similar beginning of this wisdom psalm. The remaining verses show how the people disregarded the wisdom offered and were punished for it.

1Behold, how good and how pleasant it is
For brothers to dwell together in unity!
2It is like the precious oil upon the head,
Coming down upon the beard, Even Aaron's beard,
Coming down upon the edge of his robes.
3It is like the dew of Hermon
Coming down upon the mountains of Zion;
For there the Lord commanded the blessing—life forever.
- Psalm 133

In this psalm we are offered an observation on the joys of fraternal harmony given by one who is wise. Aside from the subject it addresses, this psalm also serves an example of the wisdom expressed by one who is wise.

2. Character Psalms

These are similar to "wisdom" psalms but written in a different style (usually longer). They often strive to answer the question, "How should a good man live before God?"

Psalm 1

Called the "Threshold Psalm" because it begins the book of Psalms. It has been compared to the Sermon on the Mount. Psalm 1 is a wisdom psalm and it is a "character type" of wisdom psalm where the author contrasts two different ways of life in answering the question, "How does a man become godly and what will be his fate?"

How blessed is the man who does not walk in the counsel of the wicked,
Nor stand in the path of sinners,
Nor sit in the seat of scoffers!
- Psalms 1:1

This section states the importance of knowing what to avoid in building up the character of the godly man. The godly man avoids the ideas, activities and company of sinners (rebellion and disobedient). Note the synonymous parallelism where each stich in the first line repeats the same basic idea, which is to avoid sinners.

But his delight is in the law of the Lord,
And in His law he meditates day and night.
- Psalms 1:2

The godly man's food or nourishment is the Law (Word) of God. He fills himself with God's word. This is how and why an ordinary man becomes a godly man. Note the synonymous parallelism again where the same complete idea is repeated with different words in the two stichs of the same line.

He will be like a tree firmly planted by streams of water,
Which yields its fruit in its season
And its leaf does not wither;
And in whatever he does, he prospers.
- Psalms 1:3

The results of delighting and thinking on God's law:

  • Access to a reservoir of nourishment for growth that is abundant and never ending.
  • Productive because it is planted in a good place.
  • Continually renewed.
  • Blessed in all he does.

The man who is nourished by the Word is godly and produces spiritual fruit. Note the synthetic parallelism where each stich completes and amplifies the preceding line.

4The wicked are not so,
But they are like chaff which the wind drives away.
5Therefore the wicked will not stand in the judgment,
Nor sinners in the assembly of the righteous.
- Psalms 1:4-5

The wretchedness and destiny of the wicked are now considered. In verse 4 he states that the wicked will not be able to stand the least adversity because they are rootless and faithless. In verse 5 we are told that they will not be able to stand the judgment and take their place with the godly.

For the Lord knows the way of the righteous,
But the way of the wicked will perish.
- Psalms 1:6

The final summation: God knows His own, He will punish the wicked and bless the godly. Note the antithetic parallelism in this verse where the second stich's idea is contrasted to the idea put forth in the first stich.

Psalms 15

Another wisdom psalm in the "character" type where this time the question is, "Who is the worthy worshipper?"

O Lord, who may abide in Your tent?
Who may dwell on Your holy hill?
- Psalms 15:1

The question posed is, "Who is the acceptable one in worship to God, and who is worthy to come before Him?" The tent and holy hill are the temple in Jerusalem or symbolically the presence of God. Verse 1 is an example of synonymous parallelism where the idea in the second verse is the same as the first but expressed in different words.

Verses 2-5 answer this question in positive and negative ways.

He who walks with integrity, and works righteousness,
And speaks truth in his heart.
- Psalms 15:2

Positive way: The one who walks with integrity (rule of life, man of principle). The one whose works are righteous: actions done according to God's will. A person whose heart is true and who speaks that truth, not a hypocrite.

He does not slander with his tongue,
Nor does evil to his neighbor,
Nor takes up a reproach against his friend;
- Psalms 15:3

Negative way: One who does not slander others. This person's speech is prudent and exercises control of his tongue. He does no evil to a neighbor in that he does not seek to bring others down. He is careful not to distress his friends with careless talk about things they have done and since regretted.

In whose eyes a reprobate is despised,
But who honors those who fear the Lord;
He swears to his own hurt and does not change;
- Psalms 15:4

Positive way: He hates the unrighteous and gives no honor to evil men. However, he gives favor to those who honor God. This person stands by his word even when doing so causes inconvenience or financial loss.

He does not put out his money at interest,
Nor does he take a bribe against the innocent.
- Psalms 15:5a-5b

Negative way: He does not practice usury which is the taking advantage of the poor by charging them ruiness interest for financial loans (it was against the Law to lend to a fellow Israelite and charge them interest). The righteous man will not thwart the process of justice or be induced to accept a bribe in order to injure the innocent.

He who does these things will never be shaken.
- Psalms 15:5c

Summary statement: A person with such qualities will never be moved, and will be worthy of being and remaining in the presence of God. Note the contrasting and balancing of positive and negative ideas on the same theme in this character type of wisdom psalm.

3. Ethical Psalms

A third type of wisdom psalm is the "ethical" psalm. These deal with the deeper problems of religion and ethics.

Psalm 49

This psalm asks the question, "If God is sovereign over all, why does He allow the wicked to prosper and escape penalties, while godly souls are denied success and happiness?" In the original complete psalm there are instructions to the choir for singing, and the author is one of the sons of Korah.

1Hear this, all peoples;
Give ear, all inhabitants of the world,
2Both low and high, Rich and poor together.
3My mouth will speak wisdom,
And the meditation of my heart will be understanding.
4I will incline my ear to a proverb;
I will express my riddle on the harp.
- Psalms 49:1-4

Note the typical opening for a wisdom psalm.

5Why should I fear in days of adversity,
When the iniquity of my foes surrounds me,
6Even those who trust in their wealth
And boast in the abundance of their riches?
- Psalms 49:5-6

The problem: Should a poor man be afraid when the rich man is against him? What about justice for the poor and the oppressed?

7No man can by any means redeem his brother
Or give to God a ransom for him—
8For the redemption of his soul is costly,
And he should cease trying forever—
9That he should live on eternally,
That he should not undergo decay.
10For he sees that even wise men die;
The stupid and the senseless alike perish
And leave their wealth to others.
11Their inner thought is that their houses are forever
And their dwelling places to all generations;
They have called their lands after their own names.
12But man in his pomp will not endure;
He is like the beasts that perish.
- Psalms 49:7-12

Part one of the answer is contained in verses 7-9: Wealth cannot bribe God when death comes. Verses 10-11: The author explains that everyone dies and the grave is the answer to those who sought to perpetuate themselves by giving their names to great estates. Verse 12: He claims that death is the great equalizer because all men and beasts die alike. This is a partial answer, but not very comforting.

13This is the way of those who are foolish,
And of those after them who approve their words. Selah.
14As sheep they are appointed for Sheol;
Death shall be their shepherd;
And the upright shall rule over them in the morning,
And their form shall be for Sheol to consume
So that they have no habitation.
15But God will redeem my soul from the power of Sheol,
For He will receive me. Selah.
- Psalms 49:13-15

Part two of the answer is given in verses 13-14: The real answer to the original question lies in what happens beyond the grave. The foolish (rich oppressors) will be led by death (shepherd) into Sheol, the place of suffering for the dead. Their wealth will no longer have power to save them in this place. Their money will not buy them out. In verse 15 the writer says that God will save the poor (righteous) man by providing a ransom to bring him out (God will pay the righteous man's way out of Sheol in order to be with Him).

16Do not be afraid when a man becomes rich,
When the glory of his house is increased;
17For when he dies he will carry nothing away;
His glory will not descend after him.
18Though while he lives he congratulates himself—
And though men praise you when you do well for yourself—
19He shall go to the generation of his fathers;
They will never see the light.
20Man in his pomp, yet without understanding,
Is like the beasts that perish.
- Psalms 49:16-20

The lessons are contained in verses 16-20: First, the knowledge of Sheol removes the luster of the rich man's wealth here. The darkness there is greater than the glory of one's wealth here. Secondly, a man who lives without considering the eternal salvation of his own soul (understanding) even though he is rich, famous or powerful, is no better than an animal because in the end they both perish (die without hope after the grave).

These are a sampling of the three types of wisdom Psalms: experience, character, ethical.