Guests: and

Leading Question: What is wisdom?

Scripture Focus: Deuteronomy 28, Psalm 128, Psalm 90, Psalm 137 and 138

The Big Idea: It is usually books like Proverbs, Job, and Ecclesiastes that are described as “wisdom literature.” But the Psalms also include collected wisdom and even the way the songs and poems are organized invites us as readers into a journey of discernment.

For Discussion:

William Brown describes the book of Psalms as a hymnbook, a prayer book, and a textbook, and argues that the wisdom psalms reveal “points of dialogical contact between Psalms and the wisdom corpus, snapshots of a larger dialogue over what it means to life with understanding” (Deep Calls to Deep, pp. 342-343). Psalm 1 is one of the poems in the book of Psalms often classified as a wisdom psalm because it asks the reader to carefully study the LORD’s instruction (torah) and the poem does not address God directly. Other wisdom psalms include Psalms 14, 37, 73, 91, 112, 119, and 128.

Psalm 128 provides a succinct example of how a poem in the Psalms, like many other texts in the Hebrew Bible, can be in conversation with other parts of the Bible. This psalm sums up the retributive theology framework that is outlined in Deuteronomy 28—blessings (in the form of fertility in every domain) for obedience, curses (in the form of lack of fertility in every domain) for not obeying. There are many texts in the Bible that accept this framework for making sense of life. And there are many texts in the Bible that do not accept this framework for making sense of life.

Psalm 128

1 Blessed are all who fear the LORD,
  who walk in obedience to him.
2 You will eat the fruit of your labor;
  blessings and prosperity will be yours.
3 Your wife will be like a fruitful vine
  within your house;
your children will be like olive shoots
  around your table.
4 Yes, this will be the blessing
  for the man who fears the LORD.
5 May the LORD bless you from Zion;
  may you see the prosperity of Jerusalem
  all the days of your life.
6 May you live to see your children’s children—
  peace be on Israel.

In her book Inspired: Slaying Giants, Walking on Water, and Loving the Bible Again, the late writer and speaker Rachel Held Evans shared a quote from her college psychology professor: “Wisdom isn’t about sticking to a set of rules or hitting some imaginary bull’s-eye representing ‘God’s will.’ Wisdom is a way of life, a journey of humility and faithfulness we take together, one step at a time.” Part of that journey is learning to discern when it is appropriate or helpful to interpret a situation through the lens of blessings and curses and when it is not.

Discussion question: What do you find supportive or helpful in this process of discernment?

Socrates is said to have asserted: “Wonder is the beginning of wisom.” Psalm 90 mentions numerous aspects of human life that induce wonder, with some of the examples drawing forth wonder in the sense of amazement and curiosity, and some drawing forth wonder in the sense of fear—not the kind of fear that sends us away but the kind that draws us nearer or invites us to pay closer attention.

Discussion question: What wonder-inducing facet of life mentioned in Psalm 90 do you most easily identify with?

William Brown, in his recent study of the Psalms, points out that the Psalms are in dialogue with other parts of the Bible and also in dialogue with themselves (sometimes within one poem, and sometimes between poems). In a chapter titled “Psalms at the Table: Talking Two by Two,” Brown examines pairs of psalms that are placed side by side and thereby invite dialogue. One example is Psalm 137, a vivid lament poem we looked at earlier in the quarter, and Psalm 138, a Psalm of unbridled praise. Brown notes that together these psalms ask, “to sing or not to sing?” Psalm 137, with its heartbreaking depiction of empire brutality and the understandably angry retaliatory impulses of those suffering, is followed by a thanksgiving psalm that “presupposes deliverance from Babylon’s brutality and the temple’s restoration” (Deep Calls to Deep, p. 406). “Far from being twins,” Brown argues, “these two psalms share little in common. Yet they are bound together by their adjacency, forcing a dialogue that is as uncomfortable as it is profound” (p. 400).

Discussion question: What uncomfortable yet profound dialogues do you find in the psalms? And how does your awareness of these enrich your spiritual life or support you on your journey of discernment?

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