PC: The Psalms and the Wisdom Literature

Following on the heels of the previous post that introduces the idea that reading more Bible helps you interpret better, here’s an exploration of how reading the wisdom literature in the Bible can help you pray the psalms better.


Wisdom literature is an ancient genre, older than the biblical writings. We possess Egyptian and Babylonian wisdom texts from the third millennium BC—some two thousand years before King Solomon and his scribes. Originating in early scribal circles at royal courts, wisdom literature offers advice on how to live life best including how to survive the complexities of court intrigue. Often a mix of ethical instruction and sound moral philosophy, its authors traced its source back to two related sources. The first was, of course, the wisdom of the gods, but the second was the order and patterns perceived in the natural world: revelation of the gods’ divine ordering of things. To be a successful sage, then, was to observe the natural world and to draw from it lessons for how the gods intended humans to behave. Wise living and righteous living went hand in hand. When wisdom arrived in Israel—initially brought by the scribes Solomon attracted to himself—it came from these international sources; the section entitled “Sayings of the wise” in Proverbs 22:17-24:22 appear to be a Hebrew translation of the Egyptian “Instructions of Amenemope” written during the times of the Ramsesside pharaohs (roughly 1300-1075 BC). In the early Solomon collections, Proverbs 10-22:16, we see the same themes appearing as in the Egyptian and Babylonian sources. As it matured, the wisdom tradition adapted to the Israelite religious environment and took on some new themes relating to God of Israel.

Stylistically, it’s worth noting how the proverbs were written. The early maxims appear in a very familiar format—a two-line thought where the second line either restates the first, states the contrary of the first, or continues the thought of the first.

Restating (Proverbs 19:8) Contrary (Proverbs 15:1) Continuation (Proverbs 16:4)
“To get wisdom is to love oneself;
To keep understanding is to prosper.”
“A soft answer turns away wrath,
But a harsh word stirs up anger.”
“The Lord has made everything for its purpose,
Even the wicked for the day of trouble.”

If this looks familiar, it should! This is the exact same kind of poetic structure and parallelism that appears in the psalms.

The two-line form means that there is no room for gray area in the contrary statements: “A wise child makes a glad father, but the foolish despise their mothers” (Prov 15:20); “Folly is a joy to one who has no sense, but a person of understanding walks straight ahead” (Prov 15:21); “The righteous are delivered from trouble, and the wicked get into it instead” (Prov 11:8); With their mouth the godless destroy their neighbors, but by knowledge the righteous are delivered” (Prov 11:9). The result is that wisdom literature features a lot of rhetorical binaries: the righteous/the wicked; the righteous/the godless; the wise/the foolish. The terse structure gives no opportunity for nuance. There are no “wise but misguided” or “people making hard choices” or “basically good people who made a few dumb mistakes” in these two-line maxims: you’re either wise or foolish, righteous or wicked. The psalms are going to share this characteristic—remember it, it’s going to be important later on.

Another feature of these maxims is a clear but simple moral code: do what is righteous and things will go well for you; do what is wicked and you will face the consequences: “The righteousness of the blameless keeps their ways straight,/but the wicked fall by their own wickedness./The righteousness of the upright saves them,/but the treacherous are taken captive by their schemes” (Prov 11:5-6). “The perverse get what their ways deserve,/and the good, what their deeds deserve” (Prov 14:14). In one sense, this is common sense borne out of observation of human nature playing itself out in societies with a healthy belief in retribution. If you kill or defraud someone, his family is going to come looking for you and things won’t end well for you! This retributive justice doesn’t necessarily come from a divine source—it’s just the natural course of things playing themselves out. However, the principle is also expressed theologically: “The eyes of the Lord are in every place,/ keeping watch on the evil and the good” (Prov 15:3). “The Lord is far from the wicked,/ but he hears the prayers of the righteous” (Prov 15:29).

From these brief couplets it is not hard to extract a pair of simple principles: 1) the righteous will receive a reward for how they act; 2) God rewards the good. The fusion of these two gets expressed in a number of proverbs: “Misfortune pursues sinners;/ but prosperity rewards the righteous” (Prov 13:21). “The righteous have enough to satisfy their appetite,/ but the belly of the wicked is empty” (Prov 13:25). “In the house of the righteous there is much treasure,/ but trouble befalls the income of the wicked” (Prov 15:6). “The reward for humility and fear of the Lord/ is riches and honor and life” (Prov 22:4). On one hand this makes a lot of sense: keep your nose clean, work hard, and you will earn the rewards of your labors. Act like an idiot, be lazy, cheat and defraud people, and you’ll get what’s coming both in retribution and from shirking honest labor. On the other hand, this can set up a theologically treacherous premise based on simplistic logic: if you are righteous, God will reward you with wealth; if you are wealthy you must therefore be righteous. Or, if you do good, good things will happen to you; if bad things happen to you, you must have done something wrong.

It’s worth noting that there’s push-back against this notion in Proverbs itself, recognizing that wealth isn’t always the fruit of righteousness and holds its own dangers: “Better is a little with righteousness/ than large income with injustice” (Prov 16:8). “Riches do not profit in the day of wrath,/ but righteousness delivers from death” (Prov 11:4). “Those who trust in their riches will wither,/ but the righteous will flourish like green leaves” (Prov 11:28). “The rich and poor have this in common:/ the Lord is the maker of them all” (Prov 22:2)  “Better to be poor and walk in integrity / than to be crooked in one’s ways even though rich” (Prov 28:6).  These maxims qualify and question an easy equation between righteousness and wealth.

This notion presented by the maxims that God rewards the righteous with riches and ease and punishes the wicked with poverty and problems has been labeled “wisdom orthodoxy” by modern scholarship. Not all wisdom literature is packaged in these two-line maxims, though. There are also hymnic structures present in the wisdom literature. The opening chapters of Proverbs (Proverbs 1-9) are in poetic hymn form. While the two-line thought structures still show up in some of the hymnody, the longer format allows for more nuanced theological thought. That’s what leads to a direct challenge to this wisdom orthodoxy.

The book of Job is a wisdom book that tackles the simplistic wisdom orthodoxy, challenging it by constructing a hypothetical situation. A folk-tale like frame introduces us to Job, the prototypical righteous man. He is rich, he is righteous, he does all the right things and has all of the material benefits that wisdom orthodoxy promises. He is a cartoon figure of “the good guy.” But then, through no fault of his own, everything is taken away from him: his wealth, his family, and his heath. His three remaining friends come to console him. After sitting in silence together for seven days and seven nights, the cartoony introduction comes to an abrupt end as Job breaks out in a stylistically and theologically complex wisdom hymn describing his woe and proclaiming his innocence. His friends respond by insisting that he had to have done something wrong for so much ill to befall him. They go back and forth until finally God steps in with some poetic splendor of his own. God reveals that the problem is their paradigm; both Job and his friends are stuck in the same narrow, wrong-headed framework. Returning to the wisdom theme of observing the principles of creation, God directs Job to observe the presence of chaos within the creation, both in the natural world as well as in human affairs. If chaos is created into the fabric of things, no easy or trite formulations—like a simplistic wisdom orthodoxy—will ever be able to account for the complexities of real life. A final return to the cartoonish frame almost blunts the power of the poetry by having God restore all of Job’s riches.

Along with Job, Ecclesiastes likewise challenges wisdom orthodoxy by casting doubt on its easy equations. More skeptical and pessimistic in outlook, Ecclesiastes warns against any attempts to correlate actions too neatly with results. At the end of the day it advocates an appreciation of the simple joys of life accompanied by virtue—not because of any divine benefits thereof, but because virtue is the better path. Taken together, Job and Ecclesiastes represent a stance of “wisdom in revolt” that offers a canonical alternative to wisdom orthodoxy potentially extracted from Proverbs.There’s further development to the wisdom tradition that is important for its connection with the Psalms.

The Apocrypha—those books related to the Old Testament known to the early church in Greek and not Hebrew—contains two later wisdom texts, the Wisdom of Solomon and The Wisdom of Jesus Ben Sirach (also referred to as Sirach or Ecclesiasticus). If you remember, the earliest wisdom literature identified the initial source of wisdom as the gods or God and its secondary source as the observation of creation. These later books, composed by Jewish believers around 180 BC (Sirach) and between 100 BC and AD 50 (Wisdom of Solomon), identify that initial source of divine wisdom with the Old Testament generally and the Torah specifically. If you want to know what “righteousness” ought to look like, study the Torah and its legal and ethical demands. Study the prophets and the histories, and see how the wise leaders of the past acted in accordance with God’s will.

Reading through the wisdom literature will help you pray the psalms better for several reasons. First, there is a deep relationship between the wisdom hymns and the psalms. Indeed, some psalms are best understood as free-floating wisdom hymns. Consider the start of Psalm 49:

Hear this, all you peoples;
give ear, all inhabitants of the world,
both low and high,
rich and poor together.
My mouth shall speak wisdom;
the meditation of my heart shall be understanding.
I will incline my ear to a proverb;
I will solve my riddle to the music of the harp.

Why should I fear in times of trouble,
when the iniquity of my persecutors surrounds me,
those who trust in their wealth
And boast of the abundance of their riches?
Truly, no ransom avails for one’s life,
there is no price one can give to God for it. (Psalm 49:1-7)

This is clearly rooted in the wisdom tradition. It uses the technical terminology of wisdom found in such writings: “wisdom,” “meditation,” “understanding,” “proverb,” and “riddle”. It also addresses familiar themes, the rich and the poor, the righteous and the wicked, putting one’s trust in God rather than wealth. Another wisdom psalm starts like this:

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.
He will make your vindication shine like the light,
and the justice of your cause like the noonday. (Psalm 37:1-6)

Do you notice the difference between them just from the few verses of each that I have cited here? The second, Psalm 37, appears to represents a wisdom orthodoxy perspective in line with the general stance of Proverbs. As you continue through the psalm you will find this initial suspicion confirmed by verses like these:

Our steps are made firm by the LORD,
when he delights in our way;
though we stumble, we shall not fall headlong,
for the LORD holds us by the hand.

I have been young, and now am old,
yet I have not seen the righteous forsaken
or their children begging bread.
They are ever giving liberally and lending,
and their children become a blessing. (Psalm 37:23-26).

I live in urban Baltimore. Every morning when I drive my daughter to school we pass through at least four intersections where I know there will be homeless people on each corner, walking the lines of traffic, begging bread. I could assume that they are “the wicked,” that their condition is their fault because of laziness, addiction, or unrighteous life choices. While those assumptions might hold true in some cases, another alternative is to see this psalm borrowing the simplistic aphorisms of wisdom orthodoxy. Wisdom orthodoxy is not wrong to state that the way of righteousness—living life in accordance with wisdom, virtue, and God’s will—is a better path than competing alternatives. But we can also recognize that the promises of divine assistance for the righteous are part of a rhetorical strategy designed to make this way look more attractive rather than a value-judgment upon the poor and afflicted.

Psalm 37 is rightly read against the context not only of the wisdom orthodoxy of Proverbs, but also the wisdom in revolt tradition of Job, Ecclesiastes—and its canonical cousin Psalm 49. The riddle that Psalm 49 promises to address in verse 4 is precisely the question of wealth. Echoing themes from Ecclesiastes, it observes the fleeting nature of riches and all human possessions:

When we look at the wise, they die;
fool and dolt perish together
and leave their wealth to others.
Their graves are their homes forever,
their dwelling places to all generations,
though they named lands their own.
Mortals cannot abide in their pomp;
they are like the animals that perish. (Psalm 49:10-12)

The fact of mortality renders wealth existentially irrelevant. Fidelity to God, on the contrary, is of enduring value.

Reading the breadth of the wisdom literature helps us pray the psalms better because it helps us recognize some important things about language and rhetoric.  First, binary language in the psalms—good/bad, righteous/wicked, rich/poor—is the rhetorical heritage of the wisdom literature. It is inherently simplistic and reductive. We need to acknowledge that just because binaries are required by a scheme of two-line parallels does not mean that either our thinking or theology need to be similarly simplistic. Second, assertions based in wisdom orthodoxy (“The righteous shall be kept safe forever,/ but the children of the wicked shall be cut off” Psalm 37:28b) should be read for what they are: hyperbole intended to encourage us to lives of godly virtue. They are not, however, the only biblical perspective. The wisdom in revolt tradition both in and outside the Psalter is a biblical witness that stands against this problematic notion that seeks to intertwine faithfulness and wealth.

One Reply to “PC: The Psalms and the Wisdom Literature”

  1. Very interesting. I love the idea of “wisdom in revolt”! It’s actually really fascinating to see how much this happens in the Old Testament in particular – that ideas are in tension with one another. It seems to be everywhere; it happens in the prophets, too.

    Also interesting the references to more ancient wisdom literature from elsewhere. This is why Scripture is so fascinating, to me – so much going on, and so much history there….

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