Train up a child in the way he should go: and when he is old, he will not depart from it. -Proverbs 22:6
To everything there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven. – Ecclesiastes 3
Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation?
Tell me, if you understand. – God to Job 38:4
Don’t talk with your mouth full. – Your mother
The tradition of turning to sages for wisdom has its roots in the ancient Near East. In the Old Testament we encounter these wise sayings in the biblical wisdom literature – Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and Job. In Christianity it finds expression in the Mystics and the Desert Fathers and Mothers – those who separated themselves from society to draw closer to God and whose wise counsel was often sought.
The psalmist also sang of wisdom. We see it immediately in Psalm 1 where we are advised to meditate on the law of the Lord (vs 1). If we would seek wisdom, we must fear the Lord, we are told in Psalm 111, for such is “the beginning of wisdom” (10).
But, this law, this fear of the Lord, is not a legalism for which we will be snatched up and thrown into jail if we disobey; rather it connotes a reverence for God, an honoring of God’s ways, a commitment to God’s wise direction for our own good. The prudent course of action, we are assured, will result in our well-being:
That person will be like a tree planted by streams of water,
which yields its fruit in season
and whose leaf does not wither—
whatever they do prospers (psalm 1:3).
Israel’s sages insisted that wisdom does not come from observing human actions or rational reflection, as was taught by the traditional wisdom schools. For the Hebrews, wisdom came from faith in God. We find this in the history psalms, which we discussed last week, in which younger generations are reminded of God’s saving ways in the past as guidelines for the future.
The traditional mark of the wisdom psalms is a contrasting of the actions of the righteous with those of the wicked, assuring the righteous that they will “be kept safe forever” while “the children of the wicked shall be cut off” (Psalm 37:28).
Psalm 112 makes the grand promise that ‘those who fear the Lord, who greatly delight in his commandments” will live in houses filled with wealth and riches (vss 1-3). And when the wicked see it they will be angry; they will gnash their teeth and melt away; and their desires will come to nothing (vs 10).
But we know from experience it doesn’t always turn out that way. Few among us have houses filled with wealth and riches, and most of us see the wicked frequently prospering undeservedly.
Even the psalmist admits that the “prosperity gospel” doesn’t always hold.
I envied the arrogant
when I saw the prosperity of the wicked.
For they have no pain;
their bodies are sound and sleek.
They are not in trouble as others are;
they are not plagued like other people.
Therefore pride is their necklace;
violence covers them like a garment.
Their eyes swell out with fatness;
their hearts overflow with follies.
They scoff and speak with malice;
loftily they threaten oppression.
They set their mouths against heaven,
and their tongues range over the earth (psalm 73:2-9)
Forlornly, the psalmist sees that the wicked appear to be free of care, always amassing wealth (vs 12). But when the psalmist puts himself in God’s presence, he finds clarity and determines to concentrate on what is right about God instead of what is wrong with people.
Thinking about the whole thing, says the psalmist, makes him weary (vs 16).
But when I thought how to understand this,
it seemed to me a wearisome task,
until I went into the sanctuary of God;
then I perceived their end (16-17).
When my soul was embittered,
when I was pricked in heart,
I was stupid and ignorant;
I was like a brute beast toward you.
Nevertheless I am continually with you;
you hold my right hand.
You guide me with your counsel,
and afterward you will receive me with honor (73:21-24).
In another of the classic wisdom psalms, while we are assured that eventually the wicked will perish and the righteous will be vindicated, we are encouraged to be faithful to God with some practical applications. Psalm 37 cautions us to cease from fretting about injustice and let God take care of vengeance.
Do not fret because of the wicked;
do not be envious of wrongdoers,
for they will soon fade like the grass,
and wither like the green herb.
Trust in the Lord, and do good;
so you will live in the land, and enjoy security.
Take delight in the Lord,
and he will give you the desires of your heart.
Commit your way to the Lord;
trust in him, and he will act.
Be still before the Lord, and wait patiently for him;
do not fret over those who prosper in their way,
over those who carry out evil devices.
Refrain from anger, and forsake wrath.
Do not fret—it leads only to evil (vs 2-8).
The wisdom that is offered by the psalms depends upon the mercy of God, and also upon man’s understanding that man is not God. The psalms remind us that the foolhardy forget this and trust themselves for their prosperity. But all of man’s achievements mean nothing next to God’s vigilance for those who put themselves into his care. The fool says, “there is no God” (Psalm 10:4), while the righteous long to be near to God and make Him their refuge (Psalm 73:28).
It’s easy for us twenty-first century sophisticated Westerners to scoff at the psalmist’s naïveté in declaring that all the foolish will perish and all the wise will prosper. When we read in Psalm 37
I was young and now I am old,
yet I have never seen the righteous forsaken
or their children begging bread (vs 25)
We are inclined to say, “Really? Have you seen the long lines at the food bank today? Do you know how many people are losing their jobs?”
And if we can do something about that, we should. But merely raging against the injustice of it all is not productive.
We must remember that as with much of the wisdom literature the psalms are poems and songs meant for meditation and contemplation. They are not instruction booklets for putting together the perfect life. They are songs to a great and glorious God who chose a people to love and guide and nurture. Of course, they are replete with hyperbole and uncensored allegiance.
The take-away for the Israelites, and still for us today, is that those who remain faithful to God – even as God remains faithful to His people – will find more peace and joy than those who seek the fleeting satisfaction of worldly goods based on their own craftiness.
Centuries later Jesus brought the same message to the descendants of the psalmists, and we learned to sing as little children, “Oh the wise man built his house upon a rock . . .”
Everyone then who hears these words of mine and acts on them will be like a wise man who built his house on rock. The rain fell, the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on rock.
And everyone who hears these words of mine and does not act on them will be like a foolish man who built his house on sand. The rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell—and great was its fall!” (Matt 7:24-27).
For practice and study this week:
Read the wisdom psalms contemplatively this week, being grateful for the many ways God has blessed you. Consider how you can be a blessing to others.
Look again at the advice offered in Psalm 37, above. Determine how you might apply those suggestions to you life.
For an introduction to the psalms with previous posts and a bibliography, click here.
Marjorie George serves the Episcopal Diocese of West Texas as a consultant in Adult Christian Formation. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org. Or leave a comment below.