December 3, 2020

The Perils of Wisdom

Here is the conclusion to the lesson I taught Sunday to the adult class at church. We looked at the Wisdom Psalms, those psalms that are didactic, admonishing believers to walk in God’s ways.

There is, of course, a variety of wisdom literature in the Hebrew Bible, including entire books, such as Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and Job. The themes of wisdom are pervasive throughout the Bible, and are instrumental in the final shaping of the Book of Psalms.

The specific text we examined was Psalm 37:


Solomon, Chagall

Depart from evil, and do good;
so you shall abide for ever.
For the Lord loves justice;
he will not forsake his faithful ones.

The righteous shall be kept safe for ever,
but the children of the wicked shall be cut off.
The righteous shall inherit the land,
and live in it for ever.

The mouths of the righteous utter wisdom,
and their tongues speak justice.
The law of their God is in their hearts;
their steps do not slip.

– Psalm 37:27-31, NRSV

Here is what I said to both encourage the use of these psalms and warn about ways “the righteous” sometimes abuse them:

Wisdom psalms reflect a kind of “bottom-line” teaching about the nature of life. Because God is the Creator, there is a cosmic order, a moral “way,” and a providential oversight that is fundamental to life. Therefore, these have been called psalms of orientation: they orient us to the basic facts of life in a created universe and how we ought to speak and live as moral beings.

But we must be careful with wisdom teaching. It tends to be black/white, right/wrong, good/bad, life/death, blessing/curse, do this/don’t do that. If we are truly wise, however, we know that life does not always come to us with such clear definition and direction. Thus, for example, Job’s friends were unable to bring comfort to their suffering companion because their perspective was too limited. It didn’t allow for mysteries or ambiguities, or factor in that God’s ways might be past understanding. Too heavy an emphasis on wisdom teaching can lead people to practice a narrow, moralistic, and fundamentalist kind of religion. As delightful, right, and helpful as much of it is, it ultimately reflects God’s law and not the Gospel. Its chief value is that it gives us a foundation upon which to build our faith.

Above all, wisdom cannot explain Jesus, who became King by means of a cross (1Cor. 1:18-25).

I wonder what you think about this type of Scripture and the way it is taught in the Church today.


  1. Marcus Johnson says

    I have heard Proverbs used in the way you mentioned, as black/white wisdom teaching. If I get you right, CM, wisdom teaching is more of a compass than a map–orienting us into the right direction, but not designed to address the swamps and the mountains and the cliffs and the rivers that lie in our path (yes, I did just re-watch Lincoln). With all due respect to the folks who love them some life verses, there is just too much in the human experience that cannot be addressed or handled by a passage that can fit on a refrigerator magnet.

  2. I think one of the problems is that many churches do not recognize that wisdom literature was (and in some places still is) a genre of literature. It’s highly didactic, but what is also interesting is that there are books, passages etc. in both the Bible itself (and in the wider context of ancient NE lit) that are *not* at all reflective of simplistic moralism.

    But if you start out with the idea of the Bible as an instruction manual, then…

  3. What I really like about this Psalm is the line, “For the Lord loves justice; he will not forsake his faithful ones.” It reminds another scripture, from Hebrews 6:10: “For God is not unjust so as to forget your work…”

    Too often I think we view God’s justice in terms of “correcting wrongs,” that He’s up there ready to pounce upon injustice. But these clearly point out that He is “just” the other way, too, and that the good we do won’t be forgotten! And while I won’t say any of our good works will save us, I can take some comfort in the fact God will remember those good things that I do. I believe that this balance in God’s justice fits with the idea that we can’t view everything as black and white, good/bad, blessing/curse.

    And if it was so cut-and-dried…well, as is said at the end of the article, what can you say about the wisdom of the Cross? It’s utter foolishness! 😉

  4. Well, the way to teach these Wisdom Psalms, or psalms of orientation, is to read and pray them alongside the psalms of disorientation and re-orientation that are also included in the Psalter.

    The Episcopal Book of Common Prayer has a scheme for reading/praying the psalms daily in one month cycles, so that the entire Psalter is completed in a month, as part of the appointed Daily Office readings listed in the back of the book.

    Reading/praying them this way helps to contextualize the psalms so that the temptation to abuse them as described in the post is minimized; more importantly, approaching the Psalter this way opens up an enormously valuable devotional dimension of the psalms.

  5. The Proverbs were never intended to be a black-and-white, how-to manual. Otherwise, we wouldn’t have this Proverb:
    “It is the glory of God to conceal things, but the glory of kings is to search things out.” (Proverbs 25:2 ESV)
    Which reminds me of:
    “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” (Hebrews 11:1 ESV)

  6. Like this approach a lot. When I was in school I had to memorize the verse in Psalms that said, “i was young, and now I’m old, and I have never seen the righteous forsaken or begging bread (or something like that).” Even as a kid, I thought to myself, “NEVER??!” I have even heard this text as a proof text for tithing, and a test that if you see a person who is needy, you know they aren’t tithing because this verse says if they were obedient, they wouldn’t be needy. That makes as much sense as calling Ben Franklin a liar because somebody who got up before the sun everyday of his life to go to work got cancer. You know, “Early to bed, early to rise, makes a man healthy….”