Lecture 25: Wisdom Psalms
Course: Psalms by Dr. Bruce Waltke
Lecture 25: Wisdom Psalms
So we are now looking at another genre within Psalms, the Wisdom Psalms. We have already looked at Psalm 49 in regards to rhetoric and also the role of liturgy and its role and its symbolism as to how God communicates to his worshipers, this was Psalm 73 and when the Psalmist went into the temple. After considering broadly Wisdom Psalms, we will focus on Psalm 19.
A. The Definition of Wisdom
So what do we mean by Wisdom. The Hebrew word is Hakmah, traditionally translated as wisdom, it means to be skillful. It is used in regards to all kinds of skills. The word denotes masterful understanding, skill and expertise. When I taught the Book of Proverbs, I used this word in regards to technical and artistic skills. It is also used in regards to the arts of magic; the skill of the Egyptian magicians. In addition, it is used of government in Deuteronomy 1 where Moses was to point wise judicial men to govern the nations. It is also used in diplomacy and war. In Wisdom Literature, namely in Job, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes and selected psalms and prophecies; in prophecy, wisdom is referred to the skill of living in the way of eternal life. This entails loving God and loving your neighbor. Since wisdom is a neutral term, it can be used for evil and we saw how subtle and crafty the serpent was. It has to be used as a correlative term in relation to righteousness. When the Scriptures speak of wisdom, they mean as well, righteousness with both terms being used interchangeably. So I liken a correlative term to having two different usages or purposes. If you have wisdom, then you have righteousness and if you have righteousness, then you have wisdom. So these two terms go together.
B. The Form of Wisdom
The Form of wisdom literature is admonition and instruction and it can be positive or also used negatively as a warning. Positive admonition would be the trust you have in the Lord or to fear the Lord and to do good and avoid sin and to confess sin at the proper time and to watch one’s tongue and what you say. This is instruction and teaching. Negatively, it can be a warning in connection with theodicy, which is when evil, seems to be prevailing. It is a negative warning to not be hampered with things of the world. We see the concern of Job and Ecclesiastes, becoming disgruntled by misfortune, provoked by the wealthy godless, marveling over riches, or trusting in them. We saw this kind of wisdom in Psalm 73 and Psalm 49 where it says not to be overwhelmed when you see the prosperity of the wicked. It is a warning not to go there, thereupon gets the refrain because they are headed for eternal death in contract to the death of the righteous who will rule.
We saw this in Psalm 73 when he envied the prosperity of the wicked and he went into the temple of the Lord and he was instructed. What he had to learn from the Psalm is that he wasn’t to define God by his own problem, but rather he was to define his problem by God. So in the first fourteen verses, his temptation is to define God by his problem and he can’t understand this in seeing the prosperity of the wicked and that God was good. So his problem was defining God as not good because he began with his problem. But when he went into the temple of the Lord then he defined his problem to God and there he say God’s victory, God’s holiness and he saw that God would destroy the wicked. So he now could define his problem by God. That is one of the lesson’s we can get out of Psalm 73.
C. Torah Psalms
I put together the Torah psalms as well as the Wisdom psalms because the Torah psalms are indirectly admonishing us to keep the Torah and its instructions. And so Psalm 1 is also a Torah Psalm, but it talks about the rewards of keeping Torah. So the Torah denotes catechetical instruction and so the Psalter may refer to the Mosaic Law or the sayings of the wise. And so by the negative, it may also be an admonition not to envy the wicked. So the Torah Psalms are Psalms 1, 19, and 119. The Psalms that present a totally positive admonition is Psalm 79 and here he is teaching by the narrative of Israel’s history. Psalm 112 is positive admonition, so in Psalm 127, 133 and negative admonition is what we saw earlier in Psalm 37 which I didn’t discuss along with Psalm 49 and 73.
II. The Translation
This is an encouragement to the Torah, the law. We have already discussed that Psalms 1 and 2 are an introduction to the Book of Psalms. Then Psalms 3, 4, 5, 6 and 7 are mostly David’s laments and then you get a praise psalm in Psalm 8. You have Psalms 9, 10, 11, 12, 13 and 14 which describe man in his corruption and his depravity and sees mankind at his worst. Now you get Psalms 15 through 24 which are structured Chiastically. So these Psalms are an entrance liturgy psalms, ‘who may ascend to the hill of the Lord.’ Then we see in Psalm 24, also an entrance liturgy of who may ascend into the hill of the Lord. Psalm 16, which we just looked at is a Song of Trust and it is paired with Psalm 23 which is the famous shepherd psalm, which is also a Song of Trust. Psalm 17 is a prayer for help and it matches Psalm 22 which is also a prayer for help, to be delivered from death. Psalm 18 is a Royal Psalm after he had defeated all his enemies along with Psalm 20 and 21, a royal pair; Psalm 20 is for the king going out into battle and Psalm 21 is for the king coming back from battle. Where the rock hits is Psalm 19, that is the pivot and this is a Torah Psalm. It is edited so that again as Psalm 1 is the Torah Psalm that introduces the Psalter as this pivotal point we get a psalm admonishing by praising Torah in the middle of it. This is the structured charism of those Psalms:
|A||Psalm 15 – An entrance liturgy|
|B||Psalm 16 – A Song of Trust|
|C||Psalm 17 – Prayer of Help|
|D||Psalm 18 – A Royal Psalm|
|X||Psalm 19 – A Praise Psalm: Creation/Torah – The Pivot|
|D'||Psalm 20-21 – A Royal Psalm|
|C'||Psalm 22 – Praise for Help|
|B'||Psalm 23 – A Song of Trust|
|A'||Psalm 24 – An entrance liturgy|
B. Psalm 19
A Psalm of David.
1 The heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky above proclaims his handiwork.
2 Day to day pours out speech, and night to night reveals knowledge.
3 There is no speech, nor are there words, whose [heaven’s] voice is not heard.
4 Their voice goes out through all the earth and their words to the end of the world. In them he has set a tent for the sun,
5 which comes out like a bridegroom leaving his chamber, and, like a strong man, runs its course with joy.
6 Its rising is from the end of the heavens, and its circuit to the end of them, and there is nothing hidden from its heat.
7 The law of the LORD is perfect, reviving the soul; the testimony of the LORD is sure, making wise the simple;
8 the precepts of the LORD are right, rejoicing the heart; the commandment of the LORD is pure, enlightening the eyes;
9 the fear of the LORD is clean, enduring forever; the rules of the LORD are true, and righteous altogether.
10 More to be desired are they than gold, even much fine gold; sweeter also than honey and drippings of the honeycomb.
11 Moreover, by them is your servant warned; in keeping them there is great reward.
12 Who can discern his errors? Declare me innocent from hidden faults.
13 Keep back your servant also from the insolent; let them not have dominion over me! Then I shall be blameless, and innocent of great transgression.
14 Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in your sight, O LORD, my rock and my redeemer.
For the word sky in verse 1, the Old Testament viewed the sky as a dome. Here it is used instead of firmament. They thought of it as being crystal clear with water above it. In verse 7, it praises the Law. When he says that the precepts of the LORD are right in verse 8, the Hebrew word is Yashar which means upright. They are without a blemish and it can be used for being absolutely straight. There is no twisting or bending. So, it is perfectly smooth and straight. This psalm belongs to a wisdom category as well as we see the statement, ‘the fear of the Lord,’ which is equated with the Law of the Lord, the Testimony of the Lord, the Percepts of the Lord, the Commandments of the Lord. And in verse 9b, we see the Rules of the Lord and we have the Fear of the Lord. The Fear of the Lord always entails this objective revelation of God’s holy moral will and it means to submit to that revelation because he fears God who holds life and death in his hands. Conforming to his Law, we know that it is realized today in Christ, Jesus and through the Spirit we are being conformed to that is eternal life. To reject it, is eternal death. It is also like the objective revelation of the Mosaic Torah, teachings, doctrines and obedience to it because you believe God means what he says and says what he means. You hold God in awe as it is a matter of life and death. One of the unique translations in verse 13 in regards to insolent. Traditionally this means presumptuous sins with the root occurring thirteen times. This is a masculine substantival adjective (an adjective used as a noun) that does not have as its antecedent the feminine noun errors. This is used with several types of insolent people; those who challenge God and attack the psalmist and they reject Jeremiah’s prophecy. The Hebrew word is zeydim. It is saying to keep your servant from insolent men. Again, traditionally, it is translated as presumptuous sins. The reason this is, in verse 12, it says declare me innocent from hidden faults. Presumptuous sins are those that one is aware of and keep in contrast to hidden sins. The root of zedim is ze and is always in the plural apart from Proverbs 21:24. The NIV translates it (the singular ze as the proud, an arrogant person, and he is give the name, Mocker who behaves with insolent fury). So, it seems that zedim refers to people who, from their exaggerated and prideful opinion of their self-importance and sufficiency, disregard both I AM, the wise and revealed truth. So as I went through the concordance and the uses of the word, it refers to the proud, arrogant and insolent people. So therefore, we can see that he ask God to keep him from these kinds of people. He is saying that he can’t even enter into their company or have anything to do with them.
A. Heavens displays knowledge (omniscience) of God 1--6
B. Torah displays moral excellence of God 7—10
Janus: Torah: great reward; Petition: Warned 11
C. Prayer to keep Torah 12--13
D. Dedicatory prayer 14
We have a stanza in verses 1-6, the heavens displays God’s knowledge. It is really referring to God’s omniscience as displayed in the creation. Then he praises the Torah which displays God’s moral excellence. So he praising the Law of the Lord because it revives, gives light, makes wise, rejoices the heart, etc. Then he has a twofold prayer in order to keep the Torah in regards to hidden sins and to keep him from insolent men. The Janus (verse 11) between the Torah and the Petition and through the law, he is warned and this leads to the petition for forgiveness and protection. In the keeping of them there is great reward, he’s looking back to verses 7-10 where he has listed the rewards of keeping the Torah. It is not unusual in a Janus to get the ‘b’ verse set referring to what went before and the ‘a’ verse set referring to what comes after that. So a question, why do we have this radical shift from praising creation to praising Torah? How do we understand that relationship? In the commentaries that I’ve read, it has been somewhat helpful noting a movement from stanza to stanza. Michael Fishbane notes the movement of speakers; for example in the first stanza the heavens were speaking. In the second stanza, verses 7-10 the Lord is speaking through the law. Then in the petition section the Psalmist is speaking at the end. This is helpful but it doesn’t explain the logic of it. We know simply that there are three different speakers. Meinhold denotes the changes of the subject with reference to the word. There are words about God, from God and there is a word to God.
B. The Heavens Declare
Crag Broyles and his commentary note the contracting of movement as in the vastness of the skies and then it moves to the Law and then to worshipper. He also sees a contracting movement in the names of God, from El the creator of all to I Am, Israel’s covenant God and then David calls him, my Rock and Redeemer. However, I am still not clear what the logic of the psalm is, despite these interesting observations of movements between the stanzas. You can say that verses 1 and 2 are united by the praise of God for his revelation and creation and praise of God in his law. Immanuel Kant puts natural revelation into two parts: he is amazed by the creation around him and amazed by the conscience within him. So the witness of the heavens and his conscience filled him with awe. He says two things fill the mind with ever new and increasing admiration and awe, the more often and steadily we reflect upon them: the starry heavens above and the moral law with me. I do not seek or conjecture either of them as if they were veiled obscurities or extravagances beyond the horizon of my vision; I see them before me and connect them immediately with the consciousness of my existence, Kant says.
C. Comprehensive Knowledge
Because of my own work in the Bible I see a comprehensive knowledge necessary for certain knowledge in creation and in wisdom literature such as Job and Proverbs. And especially in Psalms, you do not know anything with certainly until you know something comprehensively. My favorite illustration of this was my experience of Westminster Seminary. There, the best building on the campus was the library. It is built overlooking a valley and has the best facilities and the faculty offices are built around the core of the library itself. It is a great library for research. When I taught there between 1986 and 1991, it was a time when students were in career transition. Most of the students came directly out of college and then we were getting older students who had already had a career but they were not finding their careers meaningful. Many were going into ministry. We had one such student who was a geologist who worked for NASA in Huntsville, Alabama. His specialty was measuring radon gas. His wife got a position as a nurse after they had moved to Philadelphia. So one day, he brought his instruments to measure the radon gas in the hospital but instead he decided to measure it in the library. The quantity of radon gas in different environments of course contains a certain level. If you smoke a pack of cigarettes a day then you will inhale 200 picocuries of gas. If you work in an uranium mine, you inhale 400 picocuries of gas. People who work in such a place have to take a year off every third year to detox. But in the library, the measurement was 4000 picocuries! This was one of the highest concentrations of radon gas on earth. These readings were confirmed by NASA. Those who built the library thought they had chosen the best place to build it. Because they didn’t have comprehensive knowledge, they chose the worst place on earth. They had to put pipes down and install a flue from the building and underground with fan to withdraw the air from the building.
D. What is Wisdom
So because God has comprehensive knowledge of the heavens and earth and you can see this just by looking. Because he sees all of this, he has absolute knowledge and therefore his law is in our best interest. So, unless you see things holistically, you can never see them really clearly or absolutely. And this is the logic of wisdom literature; you can see that kind of logic in Job’s great poem of wisdom in Job 28. This is the way the sage thinks. The holistic instruction is part of wisdom literature. Job 28:12 says: but where shall wisdom be found? And where is the place of understanding? Man does not know its worth, and it is not found in the land of the living. The deep says, it is not in me, and the sea says, it is not with me. It cannot be bought for gold, and silver cannot be weighed as its price. It cannot be valued in the gold of Ophir, in precious onyx or sapphire. Gold and glass cannot equal it, nor can it be exchanged for jewels of fine gold. No mention shall be made of coral or of crystal’ the price of wisdom is above pearls. The topaz of Ethiopia cannot equal it, nor can it be valued in pure gold. From where, then, does wisdom come? And where is the place of understanding? It is hidden from the eyes of all living and concealed from the birds of the air. Abaddon and Death say, we have heard a rumor of it with our ears. God understands the way to it, and he knows its place. For he looks to the ends of the earth and sees everything under the heavens; in other words, he has comprehensive knowledge. And he said to man, behold, the fear of the Lord, that is wisdom, and to turn away from evil is understanding.
So only God has true wisdom because only God can see everything and because he has comprehensive knowledge, he can speak absolutely.
E. Agur – Proverbs 30
This is Agur’s source of epistemology, where you have truth. He made five confessions speaking as a prophet as well as a sage. This inspired utterance is being taught to his son. He is having the same trouble of understanding wisdom. It reads: the man declares I am weary, O God; I am weary, O God, and worn out. So we see he began with a confession of his ignorance. He says that he is weary but he can prevail. Surely I am too stupid to be a man. I have not the understanding of a man. I have not learned wisdom, nor have I knowledge of the Holy One. Who has ascended to heaven and come down? Who has gathered the wind in his fists? Who has wrapped up the waters in a garment? Who has established all the ends of the earth? What is his name, and what is his son's name? Surely you know! Every word of God proves true; he is a shield to those who take refuge in him. Do not add to his words, lest he rebuke you and you be found a liar. So, here in his epistemology, he makes his five confessions: first is his ignorance of not having knowledge. Secondly, he confesses his inability to have certain knowledge because he can’t go up to heaven to see the whole. So he is confessing, unless you can see it holistically from heaven you cannot have certain knowledge. And he also confesses that the Lord also has that knowledge. Who has established this? Obviously it is God. The fourth confession, he asks the name of his son. It is the disciple of God and thus is the people of Israel. Israel is called the son of God in Exodus 4.
This is validated in Apocryphal book of Baruch 3:29-36 who raises the same question: Who has gone up into heaven, and taken her [wisdom], and brought her down from the clouds? Who has gone over the sea, and found her, and will buy her for pure gold? No one knows the way to her, or is concerned about the path to her. But the one who knows all things knows her, he found her by his understanding. The one who prepared the earth for all time filled it with four-footed creatures; this is our God; no other can be compared to him. He found the whole way to knowledge, and gave her to his servant Jacob and to Israel, whom he loved. Baruch confesses that it is God who has this knowledge and the people of Israel has been given this knowledge. The fifth confession that he is going to make is in verse 5 saying that every Word of God is flawless and a shield for those who take refuge in him.
Transcribed by BT Ambassador Phil Smith