Six Weeks with the Psalms
Six Weeks with the Psalms
Like last week when we started by defining praise, I guess we should do the same again with wisdom. What’s our perception of wisdom? Being wise, being clever, being knowledgeable? The Hebrew word for wisdom is Hakmah, which means something like ‘living life skilfully’ – it’s about having understanding, about having expertise. Entire books of the Bible are known as wisdom literature: Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs, Job. What these books quite often do is to contrast the life choices of people who reject God (these are the ‘foolish’ people) with those who accept him (they’re the ‘wise’ ones). I put these words in inverted commas because this is how the Old Testament language would put it – we’d probably class them as believers and non-believers.
“The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge; fools despise wisdom and instruction.”
(Proverbs 1:7 ESV)
“The way of a fool is right in his own eyes, but a wise man listens to advice.”
(Proverbs 12:15 ESV)
“Wisdom gives strength to the wise man more than ten rulers who are in a city.”
(Ecclesiastes 7:19 ESV)
I think wisdom psalms are known as that because they are similar in some ways to the wisdom books, they quite often do the same thing, they highlight the choices we can make in being ‘foolish’ or ‘wise’, believers or non-believers. Some of them talk about the attributes of God, about his wisdom and how it’s imparted to us, while others talk about law and how keeping to that, obeying that, gives wisdom, such as in Psalm 19:
‘The law of the the LORD is perfect, reviving the soul;
The testimony of the LORD is sure, making wise the simple.’
This is a psalm that can best be understood by splitting it into sections. I can see probably five sections. The first three verses consist of a declaration of the psalmist’s current position – he believes, he is a man of God, but he admits that he had his doubts. He presents the problem.
Verses 4-12 can best be characterised by the word ‘they’, which appears regularly. ‘They’ are the source of his doubts, the psalmist sees ‘them’ as the problem. He was jealous of the people who seem to cruise through life, not worried about the future (‘they have no pangs until death’), (‘they are not in trouble as others are’). You can see today’s society in this, you can see certain world leaders reflected in the psalmist’s words, ‘They scoff and speak with malice, loftily they threaten oppression,’, ‘They set their mouths against the heavens and their tongue struts though the earth’ (by Twitter?). He sums up these people in verse 12, (‘Behold, these are the wicked, always at ease, they increase in riches.’)
Then there is a switch from ‘they’ to’ I’ in verses 13-17. Their psalmist is saying ‘I was one of the good guys, so how come I was feeling so bad about it all.’ He sees the wicked and ungodly having good lives, but he’s still full of worry and doubt. And then in verse 17 comes his turning point.
He goes to church. Well, not exactly. He went to ‘the sanctuary of God’, which doesn’t have to be church, it’s just a place (any place) where we meet with God. It doesn’t even have to be a physical place. Watching a service online, doing a Bible Study on Zoom? Then he understands.
In verses 18 to 22 the emphasis switches from ‘I’ to ‘You.’ In verse 2 he says ‘my steps had nearly slipped,’ but now he sees that God has set the wicked on ‘slippery places.’ Their position is precarious – ‘destroyed in a moment, swept away utterly by terrors.’
The psalmist has come to a position of wisdom, realising that it’s toward God that he should turn, rather than focusing his problem on how other people live.
‘He was defining God by his problem rather than allowing God to define his problem. If you start with the problem you may conclude that God doesn’t exist or if he does exist, he is not necessarily good or just.’ (https://www.biblicaltraining.org/library/psalm73-and-psalm15/psalms/bruce-waltke)
Verses 23-28 are a mixture of ‘You’ and ‘I’, reflecting that the psalmist is at peace with God. This is the solution to his problem. There are some beautiful lines here: ‘My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever.’ (‘Portion’ reflects Numbers 18:20, ‘I am your portion and your inheritance among the children of Israel.’ The priests couldn’t hold land, but they were taken care of by tithes to God.)
‘He saw the great benefit in drawing near to God, which he doubted before.’ (https://enduringword.com/bible-commentary/psalm-73/)
Looking at the first line, you could think that this is more of a praise psalm than a wisdom psalm. ‘Praise the Lord!’ ‘’Hallelujah!’ But when you read it, it’s not about who God is, what he does and what it means for us (remember the criteria we spoke about last week?), instead it’s about how people should be in their relationship with God.
Psalm 112 is paired with 111. They’ve got exactly the same construction, but 111 is a praise psalm, speaking of God’s greatness and what he does. I think they’re meant to be read together – whether than means they were written by the same person or not isn’t known. It could be that one was written well after the other, just using the same style. But they’re definitely linked. Psalm 111 ends with the idea that the fear of God is the beginning of wisdom, and 112 goes on to explain how coming to that wisdom is possible. 111 explains who God is and 112 says how we should respond to him.
Both are acrostic psalms, with 22 lines (or clauses) in each. We can see 22 lines (don’t count the first one), but remember it wasn’t written this way in Hebrew.
What about the line, ‘Blessed is the man who fears the LORD?’ Fears? “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear. For fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not been perfected in love.” (1 John 4:18). Fear in the OT is different from fear in the NT. Myself, I think it’s about taking him seriously, with respect. The Hebrew meaning of ‘fear’ is ‘awe, reverent respect, honour.’ Some places, like in Deuteronomy, it’s paired up with love – to fear God and to love him is much the same thing there.
‘A Song of Ascents’
Each of the Psalms from 120 to 134 are titled ‘A Song of Ascents.’ Sometimes they’re know as 'A Song of Degrees.’ What does this mean? Sung by worshippers as they went up the road towards Jerusalem to attend religious festivals? Sung as singers climbed the 15 steps within the temple at Jerusalem? Sung low at first, gradually getting higher? No-one can be completely sure.
If you read all of the 15 ‘Ascent’ psalms you’ll notice a pattern. They’re in five groups of three, with each group starting with a psalm of trouble, then a psalm of trust, then a psalm of triumph. I suppose that could also be a reason for the ‘ascent’ theme? Psalm 128 is grouped with 126 and 127. 126 has the psalmist asking ‘Restore our fortunes,’, then 127 talks of living in a city watched over by God, of building strong foundations and 128 – the triumph part – speaks of eating the fruit of your labours, having prosperity ‘all the days of your life.’ But it’s also about gaining God’s blessing, which is what makes it a wisdom psalm.
“Blessed is everyone who fears the LORD,’ there’s that phrase again about fearing the LORD. It’s a regular refrain in wisdom psalms. It’s an encouragement. 'Fear' him, respect him and you will be blessed in your work, in your marriage and your family will be blessed too. That doesn’t mean those who don’t respect him won’t be blessed, but there are aspects of themselves they would have to change first. I think Psalm 128 teaches us that there is a direct relationship between your attitudes and actions and God’s blessing in your life. God’s blessing is available to everyone. You can choose to either welcome God’s blessing in your life or you can chase it away. It all comes down to 'fearing' (loving, honouring, respecting) the Lord and walking in his ways.
Psalm 128 teaches us that how you live your life matters, both for you and for the people in your life. There is a ripple effect in each of our lives that flows outwards. Your attitude and actions have an impact not only on your personal life, but also on your family, on your community and on future generations. Psalm 128 teaches us that the influence of the godly person is great, that God’s blessing flows outward from the individual, to your family, to your church, to the whole people of God.