How did a wisdom Psalm function as a worship song? Psalm 49 is an example of setting a wisdom theme to music, although these themes are not typically part of modern worship. When was the last time you heard a praise and worship song on the futility of wealth or the shortness of this life? This is true for traditional hymns or contemporary worship. There may be good theology in a song, but rarely is there anything akin to wisdom literature in a worship service.
Yet it is not clear how a worshiper would use this song as a part of Temple worship. Older commentaries assume wisdom psalms are late additions to the psalter, Mowinckel (1955) “posited a close relationship between a school of the wise and the Second Temple in Jerusalem in the post-exilic period which led to the production of wisdom psalms.” The main assumption is that wisdom as a genre is post exilic and completely separate from the religious life of Israel. Wisdom is a secular education, not a religious experience.
Our culture has many songs that can be described as educational (from the ABC song to song which set scripture to music, many folk songs have proverbial wisdom in a story format). Most songs we sing in church teach us things, even if we do not think of them as educational. There are quite a few hymns which are decidedly Calvinistic, or hymns which have the theme of the gospel clearly presented. This song is therefore worship, although it is worship that intends to develop wisdom in the heart and mind of the worshiper.
It is possible that the song was used for teaching people about the dangers of wealth. One of the most common themes in the Bible is the dangers of relying on one’s own wealth. The prophets of the Hebrew Bible have a great deal to say about the rich, they gnaw at the bones of the poor (Micah 3:1-3) or steal from the poor by seizing their property (Micah 2:1-2), or impose fines and taxes (Amos 5:11) or cheat them in the marketplace (Micah 6:9-12). This psalm stands in that same tradition, although the psalmist approaches the “problem of wealth” from the perspective of a wisdom teacher. He invites us to ponder a “riddle” about the wealthy in order to teach us something about our own relationship with our wealth
This is a worship theme which would never work in contemporary “praise and worship” music. Most of this music is about the worshiper’s relationship with God, and while some songs are about the Cross, most are about the warm feelings Jesus gives us or how he helps us through our troubles. I cannot imagine a song warning people to avoid accumulating wealth would be very popular on the P&W circuit. Not do I hear very many sermons about doing good things with wealth (usually sermons on money are thinly veiled plagiarisms of Dave Ramsey rather than preaching what the Bible says about wealth!)
Bibliography: Katharine J. Dell, “‘I Will Solve My Riddle to the Music Of The Lyre’ (Psalm XLIX 4): A Cultic Setting For Wisdom Psalms?” VT 54 (2004), 466.
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