April 9, 2010

From the Editor Emeritus / John F. Fink

Eight of the psalms are wisdom poems

John F. Fink(Ninth in a series of columns)

We naturally think of the psalms as hymns of praise, lament, confidence and thanksgiving, all of which I wrote about in earlier columns in this series. But the Psalter is included in the Bible as one of the wisdom books. The others are the Books of Job, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Wisdom, Sirach (Ecclesiasticus) and the Song of Songs.

The Israelites who wrote these books tried to answer the question: What kind of role does God play in everyday life? They observed order in human nature and thought that, if they could understand how this order worked and how to conform their lives to it, they would be successful. Learning how to do that was seen as wisdom.

Eight of the psalms are wisdom poems—Psalms 1, 37, 49, 73, 112, 119, 127 and 128. They are not prayers and wouldn’t have been used in liturgical celebrations as many of the other psalms were. They simply called on the people to listen to them and learn in order to gain wisdom.

Some biblical experts think it is puzzling that the Psalter begins with a wisdom poem, but perhaps that’s why the Psalter is included with the other wisdom books. The most common theory is that Psalm 1 was placed first because it was composed after the Israelites’ exile to Babylon and hence a time when there was no Temple. The Psalter’s compiler may have thought it was important that it be a method of instruction as well as for prayer.

Psalm 1 is a short six verses that begins, “Happy those who do not follow the counsel of the wicked, nor go the way of sinners, nor sit in company with scoffers. Rather, the law of the Lord is their joy.” It says that those who follow God’s law will prosper while “the way of the wicked leads to ruin.”

Psalm 37 says basically the same thing, but does so in 40 verses. Although the wicked seem to prosper, it says, “Wait a little, and the wicked will be no more; look for them and they will not be there.” It tells the listener, “Turn from evil and do good, that you may inhabit the land forever.”

The same theme is repeated in the other wisdom poems. In Psalm 73, for example, the psalmist says that he once envied the wicked “for they suffer no pain; their bodies are healthy and sleek,” until he came to understand that “you set them on a slippery road; you hurl them down to ruin.”

These poems stress that those who fear the Lord will be happy. Psalm 112 says, “Wealth and riches shall be in their homes; their prosperity shall endure forever.” And Psalm 128 says that they “will be happy and prosper.”

All of the wisdom poems promise prosperity to those who are just. There is no mention of a reward in a future life. I will write more about that in a future column.

I skipped over Psalm 119 in this column. I will write about it next week. †

Local site Links: