Psalm 49: Singing Wisdom

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.

MoneyIt 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[5]):  A Cultic Setting For Wisdom Psalms?” VT 54 (2004), 466.

Book Review: Douglas Sean O’Donnell, The Beginning and End of Wisdom

O’Donnell, Douglas Sean. The Beginning and End of Wisdom: Preaching Christ from the First and Last Chapters of Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and Job. Wheaton: Crossway, 2011. 235 pp. $17.99, pb. Link to Crossway

The plan of this book is to help the reader “build a fire” by helping them to know and enjoy Wisdom literature. More importantly, O’Donnell wants to show the reader “how to build the fire” by giving them some tools for reading Wisdom literature. What makes this book different than most short books of Wisdom Literature is that O’Donnell specifically wants to read this material through the lens of Jesus and the Cross. He wants the reader to “put on Gospel glasses and look at this text” in order to preach Christocentiric sermons on Job, Proverbs, and Ecclesiastes. In order to do this, he provides six sermons based on the beginning and end of the three Wisdom books. After these illustration sermons, he offers a chapter describing his Christological method for reading Wisdom.

What O’Donnell does not do in his sermons is exegesis of the text. By this I mean that there is little reflection on the meaning of words or the context of the ancient world. In his sermon on the opening section of Ecclesiastes, his title is “Why Work?” and the content of the sermon is on the importance of working hard for the at righteousness. He looks at work through “Gospel Glasses” and examines Jesus work doing the will of the father, then draws a line to his audience, urging them also to do the will of the father. I find this style of sermons as more or less thematic, based on some theme in the text, but in the end totally unconnected with the text read at the beginning of the sermon.

In his last chapter, O’Donnell shares several tips for preaching Christ in Wisdom literature. He recommends that the preacher not draw a straight line from the Old Testament to some ethical / moral teaching for his congregation. Rather, a Christocentric preacher will draw the line from the Old Testament, through Christ, and then to an ethical command for his congregation.

How is this to be done? O’Donnell recommends a judicious use of typology. For example, his sermon on Job 42 focuses on the sufferings of Job as a type of the sufferings of Jesus. “What Isaiah foretold, Job illustrated and Jesus embodied.” (125). I think that this style of typology is not particularly helpful if my goal is presenting what Bible actually says. There is nothing at all in Job 42 or in the later use of Job’s story that makes me think that this typological analysis is valid. In fact, I find it scarcely better than allegorizing the text. O’Donnell does not want to allegorize the Old Testament, and claims that this typological study is not allegory. I cannot see the difference. He does state that typology is “not an easy skill,” it takes time, hard work, and spiritual illumination (127).

I find this characterization intimidating since it implies that my resistence to typology is the result of non-illumination, even if it is the result of hard work and time spent in the text. The Holy Spirit may very well illuminate a pastor who takes the time to exegete a text and reflect on historical, cultural, and literary contexts in order to apply the text to his congregation. I think that a sermon on a section of Proverbs, for example, does not have to jump from the text of the Hebrew Bible to Jesus in order to be valuable for a Christian congregation. I certainly do not think that this is necessary for Job or Ecclesiastes. This is where I seriously differ with O’Donnell, I am after the original intention of the author. The application of a text ought to be drawn from that text. By using“gospel glasses” in parts of the Bible which are not expressly Christological, I think the meaning of the text suffers.

I found his appendix on reading Hebrew poetry well written and helpful, although he is standing on the foundation of Robert Alter. He provides a nice introduction to the forms of Hebrew poetry and gives some good advice on dealing with biblical imagery. For example, he urges his readers to not overanalyze imagery, allowing the fluid language of the text to be evocative and moving. I think that this section could be enhanced by taking into consideration the use (and abuse) of metaphors in poetry, but there is still much here that will help a preacher to better approach the poetry of the Hebrew Bible.

This was not the book I expected it to be when I began reading it. Rather than a short introduction to Wisdom Literature, it is book about how to preach Wisdom Literature with a decidedly Christ-centered approach. I think that O’Donnell achieves that goal, I just wonder if that goal is the right one for the pastor who preaches from Wisdom Literature.

Psalm 34 and Wisdom

[The Audio for this week’s sermon was accidentally deleted. Sorry about that!  Here is a PDF copy of the notes.]

When reading scholarly commentaries on the Psalms, there is a tendency to disregard the Psalm Heading as an interpretive grid for the Psalm since it is assumed that the header comes from an editor at a later date.  This is especially true for the psalms which relate the song to an event in the life of David.  Since the header is from much later date (usually post-exilic), in cannot contain historically valid information.  An editor is simply suggesting a context for the Psalm.

What I am proposing in this Sunday series on Psalms is that we take the header seriously and use the historical event as a lens through which we can read the Psalm.  Sometimes this is easy (Ps 51, for example), in other cases the connection to the historical event is thin at best.  Psalm 34, for example, the header to the Psalm says that it was written after David “changed his behavior before Abimelech.”  There are a few problems here.  First, in 1 Samuel 21, the king is named Achish, not Abimelech.  This is not a difficult problem, since the name “Abimelech” means “My father is king” and may very well have been an alternate name for the king of Gath (Dahood, Psalms, 1:205).   Second, in 1 Samuel David does feign madness, but it is not clear that David driven out of Gath by the king.  22:1 says he escaped, but the previous section does not say he was captured or imprisoned.  As I observed last week, the story in 1 Samuel 21:10-22:1 leaves out many details. All we know is that David escaped to Gath, was discovered and had to pretend to be insane, and eventually escaped from there.

Another problem is that Psalm 34 is clearly an example of Wisdom Literature.  It is an acrostic poem which invites the listener to “fear the Lord” in order to live a long and prosperous life.  This is more or less the theme of Wisdom Literature as found in Proverbs (Prov 1:7).

In this period of his life his family joins him for fear of Saul.  In 1 Sam 22:3-4 he petitions the king of Moab to give refuge to his family.  David then gathers people who are outside of normal society.  First, those who are “in distress” (ESV), although this noun (מָצוֹק) might be better translated as “outlaw.”  It is used three times in the Curses section of Deuteronomy to describe the ultimate suffering and distress the nation will face when they break the covenant (28:53, 55, 57).  Second, those who are in debt, the noun (נשא) refers to money-lenders and usury.  These are people who have found themselves in extreme debt because people have preyed upon them economically. Since usury was forbidden in the Law, it may be that these people were victimized by the law-courts, perhaps even the king himself.  Third, those who are “bitter in soul,” a phrase which only appears here in the Hebrew Bible.  This probably has the sense of “discontented,” specifically with King Saul. David builds up a small army of 400 men who have fled King Saul.  This army will continue to grow and will eventually be the core of David’s elite soldiers when he comes king.

In Psalm 34 David describes himself as poor and in grave distress, afraid and in need of rescue (verses 4-7).  The singer of the Psalm identifies himself with the lowest levels of society, perhaps like the men gathered by David in the wilderness.  David’s men need to be told that the Lord is good to those who fear him, but they also need some basic instruction on what it means to “fear the Lord.”  Verses 11-14 invite the listener to fear the Lord by speaking the truth, shunning evil, and seeking peace.  All three of these are Wisdom themes, but they are also the message the men described in 1 Sam 22:3-4 would need to be David’s “mighty men of valor.”

It really does not matter if David wrote this Psalm in order to instruct these men or a later psalmist wrote the Psalm using the story of David in Gath as a model.  Within the world of Psalm 34, David’s instruction to his men is to begin their life of service to the King of Israel by Fearing the Lord.