Wisdom Literature & Psalms

Lecture #11

(by Eleanor Cooley)


Out of this fertile milieu comes the form known as wisdom literature, which from its beginning was international.

Collections of proverbs in both Egypt and Babylon predate Moses, and probably even Abraham.The compilation of these wisdom sayings and sharing of these was an international activity.For example Prov. 2217-24:22 is lifted verbatim from the Egyptian "Instruction of Amen-em-ope" which may be older than 1000 BCE,

Wisdom literature falls into two classes.

First, consists of practical advice to the young on how they may attain the successful and good life.This is illustrated by the above mentioned section of Proverbs.Second consists of the reflective probing into the depth of human anguish about the meaning of life, often in a skeptical mood.This can be illustrated in the biblical books of job and Ecclesiastes.

The three wisdom writings in the Hebrew Bible are Proverbs, Ecclesiastes and job.

there are a number of poems, now included in the Psalter or the prophetic collections, which apparently came from the wisdom literature of Israel.

Outside the Hebrew Bible there are a number of wisdom books included in the Roman Catholic and Orthodox bibles.These are Ben Sira, (dating from the early 2nd cent. BCE), the Wisdom of Solomon (1st cent. BCE).

Although much of the Wisdom literature was produced in the post exilic period when Israel was deeply conscious of being a worshipping community, there are strikingly few references to acts of worship, and what few there are, say little of the centrality of worship.

The personal name of YHWH is not used in Ecclesiastes or, with a couple exceptions, in job.Even when the name is used in Proverbs, there is nothing made of the special relationship between YHWH and Israel.There are no explicit allusions to Israelite history or to outstanding Israelite personalities, except Solomon.The prophets were critical of wisdom at times (see Is 29:14; Jer 8:9) and indication that the movement was strong enough to warrant their attack.In fact, the "Wisdom tradition in Israel pre-dated and outlasted the prophetic movement, and reached its peak only after prophecy had declined.

The �basic message� of wisdom literature is "accept life as you find it."It starts where life is not where it should be.It�s a pragmatic declaration of God has given us this world, take it where it is--it speaks of upper class group who don't want change.

Israel regarded Solomon as the fountainhead of her wisdom, just as the Pentateuch is ascribed to Moses, and the Psalms to David.The idea that YHWH had bestowed wisdom upon Solomon in answer to his "Deuteronomic� prayer (I kings 3:3-14).

����������� It was believed that yHWH bestowed wisdom upon the sage, just as he gave torah to the priest or put his "word" into the mouth of the prophet.The sage turned to the everyday scene, rather than the historical drama of Israel, to gain wisdom.


Solomon�s Songs and Proverbs

The "Song of Songs� contains "the sweetest" of Solomon's songs, about 25 of them.There Is no indication that Solomon composed these but their association with him and their popularity.At wedding festivities established them so-firmly in Israelite life that eventually they were admitted to the rank of sacred scripture, on the ground that the songs present an allegory of the covenant love between YHWH and his people.


S of S 6:13 Shu'lammite-refers back to Ischar, the Goddess of love

Hellenistic notions of a dualism of "body" and "soul" find no support in the Hebrew Scriptures, certainly not in the Song of Songs.


Proverbs (the book)

The history of Israel's wisdom movement is condensed in the book of Proverbs. It is generally agreed that this book in its final form comes after the time of Ezra, when the wisdom schools were flourishing but it represents the final stage of a tradition that goes back to the time of Solomon, who may have composed and/or collected the original nucleus.

there are several separate collections or books within the book of Proverbs, along with some appendixes.

Chapter 1-9 are regarded as the latest with the next 12 chapters (10-22) as the oldest.

all that can really be said is that the Book represents a complex tradition, extending throughout almost the whole of the O. Test. period.



The sage suggests that the good life can be won thru diligence, sobriety and prudence, and that the marks of the good life are success, well-being and a long a fruitful life.In this way, God and success are equated. There is no way to account for failure other than to say it is sin.

This same view found in the Deuteronomic history with its basic theme of rewards and punishments built upon the Mosaic covenant with its curses and blessings.The sages of Israel came out with a similar view.

The convergence of these two points of view, which rested upon divine initiative and human initiative respectively, eventually prompted the identification of Torah with Wisdom in Israel's history of tradition.This, of course, is the basis of most the health/wealth gospel which says if you follow these teachings you will be healthy, wealthy and wise.

The Fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, idea occurs several times in the Hebrew scrip.This concept means that faith is the precondition of understanding.This theme is unique in the wisdom of Israel.

Hosea emphasized that Israel's lack Of "knowledge of God" was the fundamental flaw in her history.Jeremiah also contrasted true wisdom with folly (Jer 9:23-24)


The New covenant, according to both Jeremiah and Ezekiel, would introduce a new time, when Israelites would "know YHWH, from the least to the greatest.Also, the theme of "the fear of the Lord" ,which was central to the wisdom tradition, was deeply ingrained in Israel's


Wisdom Personified

The last section of the book was chap 1-9 and comes from a teacher of the 3rd or 4th Cent. BCE who was probably the final editor of the book.The important thing here is that he personifies wisdom (Sophia) as a prophetess who speaks proclaiming her own worth, rewards and authority and, most important for later Christian theology, her primacy in the creative work of God.

She was "the first born of all creation" a phrase later applied to Jesus in Colossians 1:15-16; and in john 1:1-3, where the Greek term logos, meaning wisdom or word, is made male and used to describe Jesus.Originally though, wisdom was female.

Nevertheless, the search for wisdom divides people into two categories, the wise and the foolish, the righteous and the wicked.The same weakness is here as is in the Deuteronomic idea of good vs. evil.In reality, it doesn't work that way.

This confidence in the human quest and fear of YHWH leading to the long prosperous life was challenged by the book of Ecclesiastes.Unlike Proverbs, it is fundamentally the work of one sage who wrote during the late post-exilic period, perhaps between 250 and 180, probably closer to 180 BCE.

He gave a bold challenge to Judaism and its simplistic Deuteronomic view which offended the sensibilities of the orthodox.As a result, the book was "touched up" to make it palatable.

One disciple added an appendix in 129-11, praised the sage for his genius in weighing, studying and arranging proverbs.But another editor, who wrote 12:12-14 cautioned the reader to take the teaching with a grain of salt.According to this editor, the fundamental tenant of Judaism still stands unscathed in spite of the book's teaching.Had it not been for these pious revisions, and the tradition that Solomon wrote the book, it is doubtful if it would have been accepted in the Hebrew Canon

The Hebrew word for the book is goheleth which is rendered, loosely, the preacher

it is not a proper name but a description of a function the world is not a sermon but rather a rambling lecture on the meaning of life given by a professional wisdom teacher.The thesis of the lecture, announced at the beginning and again at the end, is that all human activity is vanity and a striving after the wind.


Theological Interpretation

He is clearly influenced by Greek culture but he never surrenders the conviction that God is sovereign over human affairs, even with his tragic sense of life.The problem is not as in the Greek, that fate has control of both men and gods, but rather, that God's wisdom is so incredible that, from the human point of view, life has no rhyme or reason.

Since man can't know God's ways, it seems everything happens by chance and seems like the days turn in a circle rather than toward a fulfillment of purpose: "there is nothing new under the sun."7:15ff- according to him, the doctrine of the two ways, wisdom and foolishness, doesn�t' ring true for the righteous are rewarded with suffering and the wicked are chastened with success.Thus, he recommends moderation in both wisdom and folly, for to much of either may lead to disaster.


The Purpose of Religion

In chap 5 he discusses the convention of keeping things in order, pay your vows but don't practice ignorant piety 7:25 sin is foolishness, irrational, not breaking the law.he develops a new idea of sin and sinner.

7:2-29 a woman will trap a man if he's a fool--to be a sinner is to fanaticize--what's wrong with eroticism and love? Answer: it leads to a world of fantasy

Good then, is things that are rational--anything that leads to rationality is good.The basic tenant of his theology is that God is hidden.

Qoeleth writes within the shadow of despair for him God is transcendent, completely other, separated from Man by an infinite gulf (5:2).

No other writer puts more emphasis on the sovereignty of God.The book is a vigorous repudiation of the claim that traditional wisdom can discern the purpose of God.



In Prov. 2 fear of the Lord, knowledge of God, gives wisdom. If you follow the covenant all will go well.Its written into the universe, cause and effect. If I know what religion and the world are about I will understand God.


Rational Universe

In Ecclesiastes 8:16-17, God gives busy work--work of God is work that we do but irrelevant.Must fear God by submitting to what he does to us (suffering)

Our task is enduring what he gives and being busy with work�irrational universe.



For Proverbs, one overcomes violence by the law of the Lord. virtue is coping with that problem by learning aphorisms of the wise and doing them.

For Qoeleth, evil is doing passionate deed--self assertion. Virtue is being aware of how manipulated we are and then one-won't assert oneself. Once you realize your not in control then

your not bound to get or do things.

Human achievement is impossible.--cyclic view of history



The prologue (1:1-2:13)and the epilogue (42:7-17) were additions to make the book more "pious" and were written in prose, as opposed to the poetry of the rest of the book.

Chapter 28 is also inserted and is a hymn to wisdom which has nothing to do with the story.It is basically a folk tale of a righteous man who is tested and takes place in Edom and may have been written by an Edomite but this is irrelevant; it is probably a late post-exilic work.

Ezekiel mentions job together with Daniel as legendary wise and righteous men. (Ezek 14:14, 20).


Theology without giving detail of the story it is about a righteous man who suffers, loses all he has, is made sick.Three friends try to give him council and all fail (they represent the various religious attitudes).Finally, he argues with God and is told by YHWH that he has presumed to know to much.

Job is shown that his religious quest is motivated by a Promethean defiance and YHWH reminds him 'that the first religious obligation of the creature is to acknowledge and glorify the creator.Job is silenced and admits he has no ground for arguing with God

Along with his confession of the sin of self-sufficiency went a new consciousness of relationship with God--not the God of traditional religion, but "the Living God."

The key, to the book of job is his repentance.

In response to the voice from the whirlwind, he moved from his egocentric attitude, in which he sought to justify himself by condemning God, (40:8) to a humble awareness of his place in God's creation.From the very first the fundamental issue is Job's relationship to God.Thus Job moved from a relationship of self sufficiency to one of trust and personal faith.

By repudiating the smug orthodoxy of his friends, he was open to receive the gift that God bestows on those who seek him.The mystery of suffering is left unanswered for the crux of the human problem, according to Israel's faith, is not the fact of suffering but the character of Man's relationship to God.

Job stands over against covenant theology.It is trying to answer the question of why Israel was exiled and dominated and impoverished.Wisdom's answer is if the world were rational, it wouldn't have happened, thus the world is irrational and the question shouldn�t be asked.Many innocent are caught up in a corporate disaster but it isn't a problem because punishment and reward are not valid categories.Experience happens to us and don't need to be explained.We don't have to prophecy future victory to justify problems now.

Job is a response to the prophetic outlook saying religion doesn't explain to us everything that happens. he is separating the secular from the religious realm.There is value to private religion but has no social relevance. What happens to us as a nation doesn't come under religious explanation. History is neither the result of a covenant or of righteousness.Since Job stands against covenant theology then:

  1. National birth was purely a natural, human event.
  2. The existence of the nation is not related to righteousness or unrighteousness.
  3. If there is to be a final Day of Judgment we have no way of knowing about it so must live in a de-mythologized world.

Job stands as a corrective to a late apocalyptic view of history.


The Psalms: Hymnbook of the second Temple.

-          The Psalter is basically a condensed account of the whole drama of Israel's history with God from the time of David down to the' late post-exilic period.

-          The problem is that it is practically impossible to deal with the Psalms in their proper historical `periods or life-situations.

-          Except for psalm 137 which presupposes a situation in the Babylonian exile, the content of particular psalms says very little about the time and circumstances of their composition.

-          Thus we must begin with the fact that they were compiled for use in the 2nd temple which was completed in 515 BCE.

The Jewish tradition is that there are 150 psalms, even though the Greek Orthodox bible contains 151.The history of Israel was fundamentally through all social changes and historical vicissitudes, as a worshiping community.This is why Psalms lies at the heart of the Hebrew



The religion of the Psalms, it is being realized more and more, was "Cultic".--i.e., it is the faith of the community at worship, especially on occasions of festivals even the psalms of lament were collected and appropriated by the worshipping community.

It has to be realized that the idea of individual piety was as�������� to Israel who believe that Israel is related to God only as part of a community.The book of Psalms in its present form is the product of the post-exilic community of Israel.This process of completion took place in several stages extending from the 4th to the 2nd cent. BCE.It is made up of 5 collections or "books" and concluding with a doxology.

Book I ����������� Psalm 1-41

Book II����������� Psalm 42-72

Book��� III������� Psalm 73-89

Book IV���������� Psalm 90-106

Book V����������� Psalm 107-150

The fivefold arrangement seems to be patterned on the five books of the Torah.

73 of the Psalms are attributed to David but there is no way this can be so.However, there is no question that some of them may go back to David and the association of David with the Psalter is similar to the association of Moses with the Pentateuch.In fact it is accepted today that a great number of the psalms that reflect the official, pre-exilic worship of Israel.


Literary Genre

There are six categories of psalms.Vestiges of earlier worship and from other cultures, particularly Canaanite, are found.For example, YHWH as a rider of the clouds is some psalms is clearly taken from some hymns proclaiming Baal as rider of the clouds.

There were many other psalms written including the Psalms of Solomon dating from 150-50 BCE, many found with the Dead Sea material


The Odes of Solomon: which may date from the early Christian era, are songs praising God for his presence.

To conclude this intertestamental time I simply want to recall the influence from Persia (Iran).


Zoroaster was active during the 7th cent BCE with the idea of a dualism between light and dark, Satan (ahiramin) and demons, angels and the concept of resurrection from the dead.

these all came into Judaism after their contact with Persia (except for the Sadducees)

they became very important for later Christian thinking which essentially grew out of the apocalyptic genre.

The canon was decided at the Council of Jamia in 91 C.E, after the church and synagogue had split.


Scholarship of the Psalms: Form Criticism

Gunkel, Mowinckle and Westermann


Hermann Gunkel's contribution to contemporary understanding of the Psalms began with a classification of the Psalms into types. Working through a liturgical framework, Gunkel sorted psalms into eight categories and one group of miscellaneous. Here are Gunkel's categories with a few illustrations for each type.


Hymns are calls to the community to praise God in worship; these are illustrated by Psalms 145-150, but also include Songs of Zion (46) and Enthronement Hymns (96-99).


Community Laments remind the community stand in humility and repentance before God; worshipping laments are expressed in Psalms 44, 74, and 79.


The Royal Psalms celebrate an outstanding moment in the royal life; see Psalms 2, 20,72, 144.


Individual Laments are the prayers of particular worshippers; consider Psalms 5-7.


Individual Thanksgiving Hymns are songs thanking God for protection, deliverance or particular blessings; Psalms 30 and 32 are good examples


The Pilgrim Songs written for the company of pilgrims are their way to Temple in Jerusalem; good examples are 84 and 122.


Community Thanksgiving focus on a national event through which the people have experienced God's aid and blessing; for a good harvest, Psalm 65 and for success against foes, Psalm 124


Songs of Wisdom are the teaching songs that offer proverbial guidance in deciding between the ways of the righteous and the ways of the wicked; these are well illustrated by Psalms 37 and 73.


In "The Message of the Psalms" Walter Brueggemann (Augsburg Old Testament Studies, 1984) continues the study of the Psalms according to their expressive language. By listening carefully to the rhythms, metaphors, descriptive phrases Brueggemann has divided the Psalms into three categories:


Psalms of orientation

Psalms of disorientation

Psalms of new orientation


Psalms of orientation sing of the constants in creation and the dependability of the Creator. One might consider these the songs of foundation for they express how the human soul has learned to trust God. In these psalms the waters are calm, chaos has been subdued, and the world is a safe and secure environment. Emphasis is on the regularities of life as experienced through the reliability of God.'

Examples are: 1, 33, 112, 133, 145.


Psalms of Disorientation cry out in the darkness. These are the songs born in agony, distress, and grief. Often the psalms of disorientation express anger toward God; God is both the cause and the potential cure of disorientation. In seasons of disorientation it is a oddly faithful activity to sing to God.

Examples are: 13, 35, 73, 130, 137.


Psalms of New Orientation make bold statements of faith.Although disorientation has shattered the original (and untested) trust in the reliability of God, now the song is full of the new possibilities which God has created. Out of darkness has come light. Disease has turned into health. The human soul has been lifted up from the pit and set within a spacious land. All is amazing. All is mysterious. All is testimony to the God who creates something new!

Examples are: 23, 30, 96, 103, 1381'4 1'137' 9