Penitential Wisdom

Introduction
Perhaps the above title jars? In a way I hope that it does, as when we find something odd or ill-fitting it can be the start of learning something new. Of course, it might just be a fleeting move away from, and the, back towards the status quo of our understanding.

This short post arose from simultaneously questioning the very idea that biblical wisdom literature is a genuine genre and some extensive of the penitential psalms. So, where do we begin?

The Puzzle of the Penitential Psalms
The seven penitential psalms—Psalms 6, 32, 38, 51, 102, 130 and 143—are something of a puzzle to us today, when judged by modern genre definitions. Harry Nasuti has explored this collision of old categories with modern genres in his Defining the Sacred Songs, with helpful attention to the details of interpretative practice that span more than two millennia [1]. One insight he has is that the ancient seven psalms are more coherently defined by external factors than their content.

It is evident that the seven psalms are not of one genre in the modern sense. Two of them—Psalms 51 and 130—might be ‘penitential’ in the strictest sense if we consider a single-minded focus on asking for forgiveness from sin. In this manner Psalm 51, as is often recognised, becomes the penitential psalm par excellence [2]. Psalms 6, 38, 102 and 143 are understood today as individual laments, with other influences in some cases. Some might allow that they contain varying degrees of evidence that the psalmist is penitent. Uniquely, Psalm 32 arguably looks back on past penitence. The biggest problem for modern penitential genre is that in these psalms, the psalmist’s enemies often appear on the scene, muddying any singular concern with penitence.

This presence of enemies is just the most obvious challenge. A less stark issue, but a complexity none the less, is the difficulty in distinguishing between the psalmist’s spiritual and physical afflictions. This might be compounded by the potential for anachronism in wanting to differentiate angst from illness, based on modern distinctions. It is further obscured by what seems to be the deliberate attempt by the psalm collectors and editors to make the psalms malleable for later singers, readers, and poets to inhabit.

Luther is one interpreter who sees all afflictions, whether spiritual, health-related or enemies, as a reminder of the need for an attitude of penitence and as an opportunity for being trained in righteousness [3]. Luther’s acute interest in these psalms coheres with his profound fear of God, or anfechtungen, and a connection between Paul’s Epistle to the Romans and the seven penitential psalms.

The connection between Romans and the seven psalms is essentially a reading of these psalms from the perspective of an aspect of Pauline theology. Romans has sometimes been noted as something of a locus maximus for God’s wrath in the Second Testament. Psalms 6, 38 and 102 all refer to God’s wrath explicitly:

Lord, do not rebuke me in your anger
or discipline me in your wrath.
Have mercy on me, Lord, for I am faint;
heal me, Lord, for my bones are in agony.
Psalm 6:1, NIV

Lord, do not rebuke me in your anger
or discipline me in your wrath.
Your arrows have pierced me,
and your hand has come down on me.
Psalm 38:1–2, NIV

For I eat ashes as my food
and mingle my drink with tears
because of your great wrath,
for you have taken me up and thrown me aside.
Psalm 102:9–10, NIV

The other four penitential psalms are all quoted or alluded to in Chapters 3 and 4 of Paul’s Letter to the Romans. A case could be made that Saint Paul created the tradition that gave rise to the crystallisation of these seven psalms as penitential. This tradition that can be traced from Paul through possibly Augustine (mediated by his biographer, Possidius [4]), to Cassiodorus (c.490–c.583) who identified the seven psalms explicitly [5], through connections with penance, Lent, Indulgences, and praying for dead, in the medieval period, then finally jettisoned of much baggage by Luther to arrive at the present day.

Wisdom as Fear of the Lord
When the seven psalms are read through an Pauline/Augustinian lens, or simply from the expectation they are penitential which arises from the traditional designation, then all of the ills of the psalmist are rendered as an opportunity for chastisement. In this way every angst, ailment and experience of opposition can be an opportunity for growing in spiritual maturity. This is not only an intertextual reading but by its very nature it becomes a worldview. This is a specific example of the general problem facing us moderns as we read the Bible as Scripture. How much of a space do we have for providence over scientific cause-and-effect? Do we eclipse the authors of Scripture in unseemly haste with our supposedly sophisticated view of God? This post will not answer such questions, only pose them.

Those writings that are generally termed wisdom literature—Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and Job—are often characterised with a call to fear Yahweh, as seen in an earlier post. Does this fear connect with the stance of the awareness of both our sinfulness and God’s wrath—in other words penitence? Our modern sensibilities cry no, as do the years of softening the ‘fear’ required to call faithfully to the Lord. The very notion jars like our title. Indeed, the title captures this notion. Just because something makes us uncomfortable does not make it right or true of course. But surely the stakes are high enough that it merits further meditation. Maybe, just maybe, our discomfort is a necessary first step in finding comfort in Jesus Christ, who now sits are the right hand of the God of holy love.

Bibliography
1. Harry P. Nasuti, Defining the Sacred Songs: Genre, Tradition, and the Post-Critical Interpretation of the Psalms (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1999).
2. Susan Gillingham, Psalms Through the Centuries: Volume 2—A Reception History Commentary on Psalms 1–72 (Oxford: Blackwell, 2018) p.304.
3. Martin Luther, Luther’s Works Volume 14: Selected Psalms III, Jaroslav Pelikan (ed.) (Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing, 1958).
4. Clare Costley King’oo, Misere Mei: The Penitential Psalms in Late Medieval and Early Modern England (Notre Dame, Indiana: University of Notre Dame Press, 2012) p.4.
5. Cassiodorus, Explanation of the Psalms, Three Volumes, P. G. Walsh (translator), New York: Paulist Press, 1990.

Discipleship in an Age of Corona

One Situation
Many of us will have more time available to read the Bible and to pray in our present situation. I appreciate that this is not true of everyone, of course. We are also likely to need to make more effort to nurture our own souls due to the difficulty in having face-to-face fellowship at the current time. Even more soberingly, we all face an increased probability of someone we know falling seriously ill or dying. There is, in the midst of, a pandemic a mixture of need and opportunity. Seizing on the truth of Paul’s words to the Romans seems sensible: And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose (Rom. 8:28). So, let’s put ourselves in God’s hands by doing something.

Where can we go for solid food? What parts of Scripture are well placed to sustain us? Where can we find comfort? Of course, all Scripture can do these things, but two parts in particular are the basic milk of our faith. Over two thousand years the testimony of Christians from many traditions has been that in times of challenge and when personal spiritual growth is a necessity then the Gospels and the Psalms are of special value.

Two Answers
The gospels bring us close to Jesus in that they tell us of his incarnation, birth, ministry, miracles, death, resurrection, and ascension. How can you get closer to Jesus than this? So why the psalms too? The Psalms have been understood by some as the inner life of Jesus. Jesus would have prayed all of the Psalms countless times in his life. His teaching reflects time-and-again on the Psalms, directly and indirectly. It’s quite likely that he knew them all by heart—not because he was God but because he was a faithful man.

Three Psalms
Psalm 22 above all the psalms connects us with Jesus because of his articulation of the first part of the its first verse from the cross (Matt. 27:46; Mark 15:34). Here’s the whole of the first verse:

My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
Why are you so far from saving me,
so far from my cries of anguish?

The New Testament picks up on other verses that seem to prophecy the crucifixion of the Son of God. For example, all four Gospels refer to verse 18:

They divide my clothes among them
and cast lots for my garment.

As Christians we can testify to living out the final verse of this psalm in the light of Jesus’ death on the cross and vindication in his resurrection:

They will proclaim his righteousness,
declaring to a people yet unborn:
He has done it!

We not only have this, and other psalms of lament, to point to Jesus who took our sin, guilt, and pain to the cross. They also exist to provide words to express our own anguish so that we too can bring pain to God in difficult moments on our pilgrimage with him.

Most days, in God’s mercy, we don’t need such extreme words. Psalm 23 is ideal when things are relatively normal to express our abiding trust in God no matter what there is in store for us. I have found its calm attitude of trust a perfect prayer in all sorts of situations. Why not memorise this psalm in your favourite translation? You really can’t go wrong with this psalm, even in the Valley of the Shadow of Death.

The next psalm, Psalm 24, is one of those psalms that captures the buzz and excitement of gathering together to be God’s people and worship him. Read it, and cherish the day when we gather once again. Not, of course, in the splendour of Jerusalem’s Temple but as the Body of Christ his church. On that day we will let the King of Glory in, just as we let him into our lives daily at this time of scattering.

Milk and Exotic Vegetable Curry
These three psalms are milk. Sometimes we look to the Bible and we look to God and we only want milk. We hope for the quick fix. And then we notice that 90% of the Bible is not milk, its an exotic vegetable curry, with fruit and spices we’ve never tasted before, and if we are honest, we don’t immediately like the taste or the texture.

Sometimes people have distilled the Bible into a shorter story or a list of ideas. Then it’s no longer God-breathed. If we don’t take it as it is, we are slighting the surest most dependable testimony that there is to Jesus. And let’s be clear it’s Jesus that’s the key, not the Bible. But nevertheless, the Bible is the way to know him better. The Bible helps us grown in him. The same Spirit that gave us life, the same Spirit that departed Jesus’ lips on the cross, the same Spirit that raised him to resurrection life, breathed the Scriptures.

The Old Testament strains forward testifying to him in the future. The New Testament looks back on him in the past. We read both to know him, and be nourished by him, in the fullness of his Incarnation, his Life, his death, his resurrection, and his second coming.

The Old Testament isn’t what it used to be. As Christians we can, and in fact, must read it through Christ. This helps us with the difficult psalms. The ones that require chewing and sometimes leaving until tomorrow for a second meal. Let’s turn to a more difficult psalm. This one seems made for the moment in some ways, but it also raises some serious questions.

Psalm 91 reads:

1 You who live in the shelter of the Most High,
who abide in the shadow of the Almighty,

2 will say to the Lord, “My refuge and my fortress;
my God, in whom I trust.”
3 For he will deliver you from the snare of the fowler
and from the deadly pestilence;
4 he will cover you with his pinions,
and under his wings you will find refuge;
his faithfulness is a shield and buckler.
5 You will not fear the terror of the night,
or the arrow that flies by day,
6 or the pestilence that stalks in darkness,
or the destruction that wastes at noonday.

7 A thousand may fall at your side,
ten thousand at your right hand,
but it will not come near you.
8 You will only look with your eyes
and see the punishment of the wicked.

9 Because you have made the Lord your refuge,
the Most High your dwelling place,
10 no evil shall befall you,
no scourge come near your tent.

11 For he will command his angels concerning you
to guard you in all your ways.
12 On their hands they will bear you up,
so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.
13 You will tread on the lion and the adder,
the young lion and the serpent you will trample under foot.

14 Those who love me, I will deliver;
I will protect those who know my name.
15 When they call to me, I will answer them;
I will be with them in trouble,
I will rescue them and honour them.

16 With long life I will satisfy them,
and show them my salvation.

Taken at face value verses 3 to 7 in particular might seem to promise that in God we are immune to plague and pestilence. Unfortunately, we already know this is not true from bitter and tragic experience. So, is this psalm wrong? No, because it is not meant as a blanket promise for protection here and now. This is a Wisdom Psalm not so much promising the humanly best outcome but that we are wise to trust in God. It is also a Royal Psalm; its words once meant something closer to ‘God Save the King’ than being a get out of peril free card. It also speaks of Jesus. Most importantly of all, of course, in Christ we are safe eternally, for as Paul knew from the theology of the Psalms: in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.

Maps and Wisdom

First Testament Problems

One of the challenges posed by the wisdom literature of the First Testament is what we, as Christian disciples and pilgrims, should do with it. Many Christians I have spoken to simply don’t see Proverbs, Job and Ecclesiastes as a priority in their Bible reading and reflection. Their thinking boils down to the question: “Why should I read Wisdom when it is so obviously trumped by the Gospels and the Pauline Epistles?”. Even those Christians I know who have read these three books recently see Job and Ecclesiastes as problems that need to be addressed, rather than life-giving Scripture to be cherished. A disturbing view emerges—once Job has been ‘explained’, there is no need to read all those tedious dialogues once, let alone to return to them at a later point. To be fair much of the First Testament, not just Job and Ecclesiastes, can be challenging. This challenge should however be the start of something and not the end. How could rich Scripture be a quick fix? How can we even know the issues it aims to address? Are we not simply narrowing its potential as a source information rather than being open to its transformative potential?

Full of Wind or Full of the Spirit?

If we see the Wisdom Books as the distillation of wise people’s observations and reflections from across the ancient Near East, curated and edited to become Scripture by generations of the sages of Israel, how could we imagine that its appropriation would be either quick or easy? How could it be as simple as reading a paperback self-help book by a contemporary privileged author who hasn’t seen death first hand or struggled with day-to-day survival? Why would we expect a podcast or sermon to crystallise the Book of Job into a paragraph of propositional truth? Such a view is especially ironic when Job is read carefully—it shows us that distilled overly simplified wisdom is the way to becoming full of wind (ruach) rather than spirit (ruach), see Job 26:4.

A Map or a Compass?

We have seen that the ancient Near Eastern understanding of wisdom is ‘living well’ and that the biblical development of this is ‘living well in fear of the living God’. This can mean that Proverbs, Job and Ecclesiastes are seized upon for quick and precise answers. In short, these resources are incorrectly defined as maps for life. Both the testimony of Scripture and the experience of living the life of faith, reveal that God does not provide a map for our life. Indeed, such a map would be a denial of the very freedom and grace that Jesus Christ came to bestow upon his disciples. Despite the absurdity of God providing a map for our lives, time and again we seek the quick fix. Sometimes we hear those around us who claim to have received such instant guidance. And of course, God can choose to speak into our lives through dreams, circumstance and even in an audible voice. More often than not, however, having equipped us with Scripture, His Spirit and grace, he lets us make choices. We have a compass from him not a map. Our routine day-to-day choices come through walking with him in simple integrity. Less often, we face more complex choices. These are the choices that Proverbs, Job and Ecclesiastes prepare us for. They can only prepare us if we read, reflect and question these books.

The City Gate: Wisdom in Community

Perhaps another reason we struggle with Wisdom Literature is that we make it reading it a solitary exercise; a part of our individualistic devotions. When we remember the societal and corporate experiences and effort that shaped these First Testament books our individualism looks foolish rather than wise. Biblical wisdom is corporate and communal in its richness. Why not find a way in which you can work on First Testament wisdom with some friends, and so discover God’s wisdom together in the twenty-first century? Our church has found that once a month over breakfast works well for us. Where is your equivalent of the city gate (see Proverbs 1:21 and 8:3)?

Advent 2018: Pointing to the Light

Readings

Job 28:1–28; John 1:1–18; Matthew 2:1–2

Introduction

At the start of chapter 2 of Matthew’s gospel we find these words:

In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews?

Wise men from the East come in search of the king of the Jews—there is a little bit more to the story of course. But the short account leaves little information for us to work with, and so understand how this odd situation arose. Pagan wise men seeking a Jewish king raises a number of questions. However our imagination fills in the details, there is something timeless in this story. Since the dawn of history, it has been a natural thing for people to seek wisdom. The Wise Men presumably made it their vocation as did a number of groups in the Ancient Near-East.

And it seems to me that Wise Men from the east might well have been hoping for the king of the Jews to offer wisdom. They are likely to have heard of the earlier king of the Jews, King Solomon, famous for his wisdom. Knowing little of Judean politics, they perhaps expected to be greeted by a wise benevolent royal family. In any case, as seekers after wisdom they join the wider cry of humanity which still finds voice today:

“Where Shall Wisdom be Found?”

Where Shall Wisdom be Found?

The Book of Job lavishly and beautifully asks this question. It compares the quest for wisdom with that of the quest for precious stones and valuable minerals. Mining is an enterprise that most of us know little about. We can, however, all appreciate the difficulty and danger of going deep underground to use tools to extract rock in the hope of revealing something useful or something precious. Such a task has always been dangerous, especially in an age with no support from technology other than basic hand-held metal tools.

Looking for wisdom is by analogy hard work. It takes great effort. It is both an individual endeavour and a collective one. The Book of Job is itself a result of the quest for wisdom. It showcases the wrong way to go about wisdom (Job’s friends) versus the right way (Job). Chapter 28, in the heart of the Book, offers something of a prelude to the Book’s conclusion. Job will find that despite all his questions, invited by terrible suffering, the only wise answer is to fear God. Chapter 28 concludes this too:

And he said to humankind, ‘Truly, the fear of the Lord, that is wisdom; and to depart from evil is understanding.’” (Job 28:28)

It is wise for us to reflect soberly in the waiting time of Advent as to whether we have this fear of the Lord. As we see our lives in the perspective of God’s plan for his creation. As we stand between the First Advent of Christ and his Second, we must wait. Faithful waiting starts with the passivity of reflection. Reflection on the precious wisdom we have from God.

Reflection is not passive but rather generative as we open ourselves to God. It culminates in right action based on right orientation before the living God. If we are to share the gospel—the ultimate wisdom of God—we need to remember both its value and what it cost. We cannot hope to share this good news unless it is already quickened in our heart, mind and soul.

Where is the King?

The little we know of the Wise Men suggests that they were obedient and generous. Perhaps when they set out, they had little idea of the specific danger they would face from Herod. Though such a journey would have been fraught with the obvious dangers of travelling for many months. Their foreign appearance and the riches they carried would have made them likely targets for bandits.

Does our seeking after Jesus put us in danger? Compared to our brothers and sisters in cultures highly hostile to Christianity we are more likely to face mild inconvenience, or passing ridicule, than any real danger. If pagan kings feel the need to see this Jesus how much more should we his disciples fix or eyes on him?

The Wise Men not only made a bold time-consuming journey. The gifts they brought with them were precious costly things. In their earthly wisdom they recognised the preciousness of this new king of the Jews. Maybe they thought they would receive wisdom from their endeavour and in so doing they should offer something in return. Perhaps they were living out the proverb:

How much better to get wisdom than gold! To get understanding is to be chosen rather than silver. (Proverbs 16:16)

Whatever their original motives they gave generously. What did they receive? Did they see their journey as worthwhile? I think they would have. They most likely never heard the end of the story that they were part of. But they could see God at work in dreams, in signs and in, let’s be frank, his mysterious ways. How else can we label God’s plan for a working-class Judean-born to be king of an oppressed and troubled nation.

What we give to God might be less than the Wise Men gave to Jesus’ family. What we receive, however, is so much more.

John Witnesses to the Light

Like precious stones glinting in the darkness of a mine, so God’s wisdom, Jesus, shines in this dark world. As John says in his prelude to his gospel:

In him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it. (John 1:4–5)

John paints a profound picture of the Word become flesh. Part of the revelation that he testifies to is that Jesus is wisdom:

The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world. (John 1:9)

Describing Jesus as logos, also implies he is wisdom. The deep questions asked in the Book of Job and answered in part in wisdom literature, in the Law of Moses and sketched in the Prophets, are answered fully in Jesus Christ.  In the First Testament, God could not be seen because of the barrier of sin that humanity chose to build. The closest Job got to the living God, after asking Him some demanding questions, was a speech from a whirlwind. A speech of revelation that left him firmly put in his place as creature before his creator.

This story reminds me of an idea from the Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. It makes reference to something called the Total Perspective Vortex. In the words of the Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy:

‘When you are put into the Vortex you are given just one momentary glimpse of the entire unimaginable infinity of creation, and somewhere in it a tiny little marker, a microscopic dot on a microscopic dot, which says “You are here.”‘

Douglas Adam’s imagination invents something much like Job’s experience before his maker. Unlike those that enter the vortex, insanity is not the result. Job’s response was to place his hand over his mouth. In Jesus, the Word, we have a fresh revelation. A perspective of a very different sort. As John puts it:

No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known. (John 1:18)

Pointing to the Light

Where is Jesus?

We would do well to ask this question. Yes, we know the answer with our heads. But reflective waiting on God is necessary for the reality to fill our very bones and refresh our souls. Advent is about waiting. Waiting is not about doing nothing. Waiting before God allows us to hear his precious voice. Waiting allows us to be in an age defined by doing. Waiting allows us to orientate ourselves. The season of Advent is a reminder that we live between Jesus’ first advent and his second. Where is Jesus? He is in the heavenly places with his Father. He will visit us again. We need to look to the light before we can point the light effectively.

Where Shall Wisdom be Found?

The people we work with, our friends, our neighbours, our family members are asking the question where can wisdom be found? They rarely state it that precisely of course. But it is the question that goes to the heart of being human. The question that all of us ask about meaning. The Wise Men gave up time, for God. How much more should we give our time to God? One way of offering our time to God, is to make time to listen to the people in our lives—to listen to how they ask the question, Where Shall Wisdom be Found? Jesus, God’s wisdom, is the answer to their question—but we can point them to the light most effectively when we understand where they are looking already.

Pointing to Jesus

The Wise Men point to Jesus; it was God who enabled them to do so. John the Baptist points to Jesus; it was God who sent him to do so. We too can point to Jesus, God has sent each of us to do this. Of course, we do this best when we do it together as church.

Leviathan and Wisdom

Leviathan appears most famously in the Book of Job. As we shall see this sea monster also features in two psalms and the Book of Isaiah. In the Hebrew Bible Leviathan is a sea monster and is of such size that it stretches the word monster to its most monstrous scale. As well as its cataclysmic size and power this monster also carries mythic overtones too. In the Ancient Near-East there are various creation myths in which a god battles with a primordial sea monster to bring an ordered creation out of chaos.  So, in this way mention of Leviathan conjures up the terror and horror afforded by the biggest of sea creatures but further there is an allusion to a level of power than only an awesome warrior god could hope to survive an encounter with.

The sense of being overwhelmed by Leviathan is to the fore in Job chapter 3 where Job curses the day of his birth:

May those who curse days curse that day,

    those who are ready to rouse Leviathan.

Job 3:8 (NIV)

The detailed meaning of this verse is disputed, but that need not delay us on this occasion. This passing reference to Leviathan does not prepare the reader of Job for the massive role that the huge monster plays towards the end of the book. Chapter 41 is wholly devoted to Leviathan. For those familiar with The Gruffalo a similarity of style is seen in verse fifteen onwards, as feature after remarkable feature is portrayed, enabling the fearsome horror that is this creature to be taken in. In just a few verses, however, it is clear that the Gruffalo is nothing compared to the might that is Leviathan. The point for Job who hears this description of Leviathan is that mighty though Leviathan is, God is a whole new level of power and majesty over and above this monster:

‘Can you pull in Leviathan with a fishhook

    or tie down its tongue with a rope?

Can you put a cord through its nose

    or pierce its jaw with a hook?

Will it keep begging you for mercy?

    Will it speak to you with gentle words?

Will it make an agreement with you

    for you to take it as your slave for life?

Can you make a pet of it like a bird

    or put it on a leash for the young women in your house?

Job 41:1–5 (NIV)

 Psalm 74 tells everyone what Job is told; that Yahweh is so mighty that he can turn Leviathan into fish food:

It was you who split open the sea by your power;

    you broke the heads of the monster in the waters.

It was you who crushed the heads of Leviathan

    and gave it as food to the creatures of the desert.

It was you who opened up springs and streams;

    you dried up the ever-flowing rivers.

Psalm 74:13–15 (NIV)

In this psalm we can see that not only God’s might but his role as Creator are celebrated. This centrality of creation is found in the Psalter’s second mention of Leviathan:

How many are your works, Lord!

    In wisdom you made them all;

    the earth is full of your creatures.

There is the sea, vast and spacious,

    teeming with creatures beyond number –

    living things both large and small.

There the ships go to and fro,

and Leviathan, which you formed to frolic there.

Psalm 104:24–26 (NIV)

In Scripture’s only other mention of Leviathan by name (Isaiah 27:1–3) the mighty creature is portrayed in eschatological tones—his demise at the hands of God will be a feature of the Day of the Lord. This defeat of mighty monsters at the second creation is picked-up and developed in the Book of Revelation. The wisdom material of the Old Testament very much centres on how to live wisely now, in a world created by God. But below this ordered surface lies mythopoetic imagery that the world as it currently is will one day change. This change for the better will be the defeat of anything that would harm us, whether in the deep dark wood or the depths of the sea.

Knowledge and Wisdom

Anyone reading the Book of Proverbs in a major English translation will encounter ‘knowledge’, ‘wisdom’ and ‘understanding’. Sometimes in the Book of Proverbs these three words sound like they mean the same things—the parallelism, that is such an important part of wisdom literature, appears to indicate this. So, for example:

The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge, but fools despise wisdom and instruction.

Proverbs 1:7 (NIVUK)

Which indicates that knowledge is both wisdom and instruction. In addition, we can note that Proverbs later argues that:

For the Lord gives wisdom; from his mouth come knowledge and understanding.

Proverbs 2:6 (NIVUK)

Which indicates that wisdom is also knowledge and understanding.

It should be noted that these various terms belong to a wider group of what we might term cognitive processes that cluster as concepts. Other terms include prudence and shrewdness. Wider usage of these words in the Hebrew Bible indicates that these words have distinct meanings within this Hebraic cluster of concepts. In this way we need to ensure that any exploration of wisdom can account for the distinctiveness of these terms and at the same time their close relationship.

We have already seen that wisdom conveys the idea of making wise choices and often has a strong moral dynamic. Knowledge is theological in the sense that it comes from a relationship with the God who founded the world through knowledge, although again we should note the parallel use of wisdom and knowledge in the verses that affirm this most succinctly:

By wisdom the Lord laid the earth’s foundations, by understanding he set the heavens in place;

by his knowledge the watery depths were divided, and the clouds let drop the dew.

Proverbs 3:19–20 (NIVUK)

In the Hebrew Bible knowledge of God is all about right relationship with him. Such a right relationship will be characterised by love and trust. There is a semantic relationship between the relationships between human beings, as creatures, with their Creator and the intimate knowledge between man and woman in marriage. Such a strong relational meaning for knowledge, and hence wisdom, is a strong antidote to some conceptions of knowledge and wisdom centred on sterile abstract thought or a faith founded in dry propositions. It is wise to see knowledge as founded in prayer and worship as well as being the cognitive processes recognised in contemporary thought.

 

Imagination and Wisdom

Imagination is not the first word that springs to mind in connection with biblical Wisdom. Nevertheless the origin of wisdom required imagination and its application requires imagination. If Wisdom is the quest for ‘how to live well’ this is not in the abstract sense but in a manner that makes the best of our context and reality. How could this not require imagination?

As wisdom originated in the Ancient Near East, reflection—imagination—was needed. The proverbs, which were probably the first wisdom literature, required sifting and testing—imagination is required to apply a saying to a new context and analyse its success. Only through the use of imagination could proverbs be tested, sifted and made Scripture. Only through the use of our imaginations can we apply wisdom to our lives.

When it comes to the Book of Job, imagination is also required to allow it to function as intended. The book is the lengthiest sustained piece of wisdom literature by a long way. If we read it with a closed imagination we will mistake it for narrative in the narrowest of senses. Once we ‘relax’ and use our imagination— recognising it as a work of theological imagination—can we free the text to ‘work’ and function as Scripture. Taken as some sort of historical account it begs so many questions that we are distracted from allowing it to function in any useful manner. Once we see and perceive the premise posed in the opening and the rhythm, beauty and design of the poetic dialogues we can feed on the text. We are then open to thinking afresh about our place in God’s creation and his wider relationship with all humanity. Imagination is an openness to change our thinking, how could we become wiser without change?

 

Hebrew and Wisdom

The books of Proverbs, Job and Ecclesiastes are of course part of the Hebrew Bible. This means that biblical wisdom is not in any simple sense a timeless philosophy of how to live well. It is instead a way of living well rooted in both Israelite culture and the Hebrew language. This is the organic particularity of all Hebrew and Christian Scripture. For this reason attention to the Hebrew nature of the wisdom material is necessary in order to appreciate it. This post will examine just a single facet of this Hebrew dynamic, a feature know as parallelism.

Parallelism is the name given to the widespread feature of biblical Hebrew whereby the written material can be seen to contain statements that are closely related. It is especially dominant in those parts of the Hebrew Bible that are identified as poetic.

It was Robert Lowth who famously laid the foundations of the modern understanding of parallelism in biblical Hebrew in the eighteenth century. He coined the term parallelism and identified three distinct forms, know as synonymous parallelism, antithetic parallelism and synthetic parallelism. Although this simple threefold classification has been shown to be a gross oversimplification of the riches of this literary phenomena, these three categories are still helpfully instructive as an introduction to parallelism.

In synonymous parallelism, two statements are made which have the same meaning. The following is an example from the Book of Proverbs:

Wisdom cries out in the street;
in the squares she raises her voice.     Proverbs 1:20 (NRSV)

Antithetic parallelism is very widespread in the Book of Proverbs and can often be recognised by the use of the word ‘but’. The two parts of the proverb have the same meaning but they are stated as opposites, as for example here:

The thoughts of the righteous are just;
the advice of the wicked is treacherous.     Proverbs 12:5 (NRSV)

In synthetic parallelism a second statement in some way advances or develops the first. A good example of this is:

Commit your work to the Lord,
and your plans will be established.     Proverbs 16:3 (NRSV)

Paying attention to these three types of parallelism will soon reveal that it is not always easy to distinguish between synonymous and synthetic parallelism—how much development demarcates the two? Adele Berlin in her monograph titled The Dynamics of Biblical Parallelism has shown that parallelism is a far richer linguistic characteristic than the threefold categorisation indicates. I would strongly recommend this book although it assumes a high level of familiarity with complex linguistics and grammatical terms.

Parallelism goes beyond simply the occurrence of paired statement. It can follow a threefold or even longer set of statements. Its ubiquity invites us to see the common use of the inclusio as an extension of this manner of organising ideas and thoughts. On the larger scale it is echoed in the narratives of the Bible which seem to parallel one other. On a larger scale it can be seen in the rich intertextuality so important to both the first and second testaments of the Christian Bible. In this sense parallelism operates over the same three scales recognised in earlier posts on the Book of Psalms: microstructure (neighbouring lines), mesostructure (use of the inclusio) and macrostructure (intertextuality).

The ubiquitous presence of parallelism becomes a way of thinking and capturing reality, in other words its implications go beyond linguistic convention and the wisdom writings.

 

Further Reading

Adele Berlin, The Dynamics of Biblical Parallelism, revised and expanded edition, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2008.

God and Wisdom, Part 3

In this third, and final, post that reviews Tremper Longman III, The Fear of the Lord is Wisdom: A Theological Introduction to Wisdom in Israel, Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2017 we look at the final three chapters and the extensive end materials.

13. Wisdom and Gender

In this chapter Longman concludes, perhaps unsurprisingly, that the wisdom elements of the Hebrew Bible are patriarchal. This patriarchy is however tempered by the very positive depictions of women wisdom which is a unique contribution of the wisdom elements. He then returns to consider the very specific challenge of the father-son dynamic of Proverbs and Ecclesiastes. Longman argues that the New Testament provides what he terms a redemptive-ethical trajectory which enables readers to re-read the patriarchal elements. For example, he suggests that

Listen, my son, to the teaching of your father (Proverbs 1:8a).

Can be re-read as

Listen, my daughter, to the teaching of your mother.

14. Intertestamental Wisdom from the Apocrypha to the Dead Sea Scrolls

In one of the longer chapters of the book intertestamental literature from the Apochrypha to the Dead Sea Scrolls is surveyed with a view to understanding the development of wisdom from Old to New Testament. The Book of Sirach, it is argued, makes a more explicit connection between wisdom and ethics than the Hebrew Bible does. In this way, however, the focus on practical everyday living is still very much to the fore. The Wisdom of Solomon goes further in this respect as the practical dynamic of wisdom recedes into the background with the ethical element becoming stronger with a clearer relationship to the law. The dead sea scrolls continue the wisdom traditions of practical teaching but a new development linking wisdom with an apocalyptic worldview emerges.

15. New Testament Wisdom

Longman demonstrates that there is a strong continuity in the understating of wisdom between the testaments. For Longman this centres on Jesus, who as ‘the epitome of God’s wisdom, or perhaps better, the very incarnation of God’s wisdom. He is the one on whom the Spirit of the Lord rests. His delight is in the fear of the Lord’ [p.256]. The book of James is foremost in Longman’s treatment as it is the book that most obviously echoes wisdom as central to all aspects of life. The contemporary church has perhaps often missed the opportunity to use this letter to celebrate the ongoing value of the Hebrew Bible’s wisdom material.

End Materials

This book finishes with two appendices which might equally well have been chapters. The first one, titled Wisdom in the Twenty-first Century, considers the challenge that wisdom, as a concept faces, in the contemporary Western world. This appendix makes a compelling case for our need of wisdom. The includes its veracity in helping to navigate modern life, live wisely, lead with wisdom, recognise wisdom’s place in education and its role in spiritual formation. The final section of the chapter looks explicitly at how the wisdom elements of the Bible show what a wise person looks like in terms of fearing God, knowing Scripture, interpreting well, forming good habits, knowing how to suffer and living with ambiguity (mystery).

The second appendix considers the question as to whether wisdom literature is a genre. It almost seems like a spoiler to answer this question, so I won’t.

 

 

God and Wisdom, Part 2

7. Sources of Wisdom: Experience, Observation, Tradition, Correction, and Ultimately Revelation
In this chapter Longman explores the expected role of experience and observation in wisdom. These are the sources that mark out the idea of wisdom, i.e. in this sense it differs from legal material, historical narrative and prophetic texts. Longman argues that despite these distinct points of departure of wisdom thought, they have a theological trajectory crystallised in the centrality of the idea of Fear of the Lord. Longman also explores the false claims to revelation within wisdom material, such as those of Eliphaz and Elihu, and he argues that though such views are found wanting they can also be instructive.

8. Wisdom, Creation, and (Dis)order
Longman explores the connection of wisdom with creation, a relationship which he points out is the subject of some scholarly disagreement. He starts out with a brief survey of various key wisdom texts in Proverbs, Job, Ecclesiastes, Wisdom Psalms and Song of Songs. He suggests that creation is a thread in all five texts, although he also points out that it is not a dominant concern. On this basis he makes that case that ‘the sages’ understand both the fact of creation and the existence of a creator as part of their worldview. Longman concludes this chapter by considering the role of wisdom in a world which is both ordered and yet broken.

9. Israelite Wisdom in its Ancient Near Eastern Setting
Israelite wisdom is more open to similar literature in other Near Eastern nations than is the case for prophecy and law. Longman argues that this openness is, however, not an uncritical one. He argues there ‘is, accordingly, no way that the Israelite sages who produced Proverbs, Job, and Ecclesiastes would think that ancient Near Eastern wisdom teachers were wise in the most important sense of the word’ [p.163]. This is of course unsurprising in light of Longman’s central argument that Fear of the Lord is a necessity as a foundation for wisdom.

10. Wisdom, Covenant, and Law
In this chapter Longman addresses the claim that was highlighted in chapter 9, namely that wisdom is concerned with universal matters and is in some sense distinct from the wider Old Testament. Anyone who has read the book, or even this review, up to this point will know Longman’s likely conclusion—he argues that there are connections between the various Old Testament covenants and the Law.

11. The Consequences of Wise and Foolish Behaviour: The Issue of Retribution Theology
This chapter is an important one in that it addresses some of the terrible category mistakes that have been made regarding the wisdom elements of the Old Testament. He addresses the fact that a proverb is not a promise and the even more insidious claims of those who articulate a so-called prosperity gospel. The way this is approached is helpful—the Books of Job and Ecclesiastes are both recapitulated in terms of their identification of a simple theology of retribution in this life as ‘wrong-minded’. On this basis he helps unfold a more nuanced appreciation of the Book of Proverbs. In this way the three books generally identified as wisdom literature are seen to be of one mind in rejecting the notion of retribution theology.

12. The Social Setting of Wisdom
This chapter is helpfully frank about the limitations of the data available about the social setting of wisdom. The evidence for both the existence of schools and sages in Israelite society is considered. Longman concludes that despite some evidence we cannot be certain of the existence of schools of professional wise people. There is judged to be sufficient evidence to conclude that the wisdom has a variety of social settings and the canon has made use of proverbial instruction from every stratum of society.

The third and final part of this review will follow very soon.