Get Smart: Wisdom Psalms

The shoephone was cool.  The wisdom in Psalms is cooler.

The shoephone was cool. The wisdom in Psalms is cooler.

In the New Testament, the apostle Paul wrote:

Speak to each other with psalms, hymns and spiritual songs. Sing and make music in your heart to the Lord. (Ephesians 5:19 NIrV)

We don’t know what hymns or spiritual songs he had in mind, but we do know which psalms: Any one of the 150 psalms of the Old Testament. Usually when we think of the psalms, we think of comfort and encouragement. When a believer is feeling low, nothing comforts or encourages like the Word of God and in particular a verse or two of a psalm. We don’t often think of Psalms as having much to do with wisdom, but the Psalter is actually part of the body of Biblical literature known as “Wisdom Literature,” along with Job, Song of Solomon, Proverbs, and Ecclesiastes. Referring back to that believer who may be feeling low, perhaps he needs a word of wisdom more than a word of comfort or encouragement. From a distressed position, one’s view of life is often skewed; wisdom is desperately needed to see things in the right perspective.

These so-called “wisdom psalms” generally extol God’s virtues and attributes, reminding us of who God is and how He behaves. It’s important to be reminded of God’s ways and ways of thinking because we so often forget that which Job knew so well:

How great God is! We’ll never completely understand him. (Job 36:26a NIrV)

Just so. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t strive to understand as much of God as we can! But we also need to understand that there are parts of God we will never full grasp with our puny, finite minds. Given that “the fear of the Lord” is a vital component of all Wisdom Literature, knowing God involves a certain amount of awe or reverential fear.

The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom. (Psalm 111:10 NIV)

Martin Luther thought very highly of the all the Psalms. In fact, he believed the 150 psalms to be full of the person of Jesus Christ. For example, Jesus Christ is the blessed man of Psalm 1 because He perfectly fulfilled its teachings. Jesus is the man who is planted by the river, whose leaf never wilts. With respect to Mr Luther’s opinion, Psalm 1 is about a righteous man; any righteous man. It is also the first “wisdom psalm.”

Two ways, Psalm 1

The shortest and best commentary on this first Psalm and first wisdom psalm is something our Lord Himself said in Matthew’s Gospel:

Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it. (Matthew 7:13, 14 NIV)

That’s really the message of this psalm. We don’t know who wrote it, but the author presents two groups of people and two ways of living. There is the way of the righteous and the way of the wicked. The righteous man is the blessed man, the one who heeds the laws of God and avoids sin. On the other hand, the wicked man who is not blessed for he deserves nothing from God. That’s an important doctrine put forth in Psalm 1; “the doctrine of rewards.” The righteous prosper and are happy while the wicked are fretful and of have a short life span. Of course, we all know exceptions to this doctrine, but the general principle is valid.

Blessed is the one who obeys the law of the Lord. He doesn’t follow the advice of evil people. (Psalm 1 NIrV)

The New International Readers Version makes the first incredibly simple. Here is a closer look at how it’s parent, the New International Version, expands verse 1 –

Blessed is the one who does not walk in step with the wicked or stand in the way that sinners take or sit in the company of mockers… (NIV)

The verbs in this verse show an obvious progression. The blessed person doesn’t walk, stand, or sit with sinners. The psalmist is not teaching that believers should avoid non-believers like the plague, but rather he is teaching that believers should have nothing in common with them. They shouldn’t “walk” the way sinners do; that is, they shouldn’t live like the sinner lives. They shouldn’t “stand” with sinners; that is, believers shouldn’t be associated in any way with sinners. And the believer shouldn’t “sit” with sinners, or in other words, a believer shouldn’t become sinner. You can see the progression. When a believer lives like a sinner, he soon becomes identified as a sinner, and if he doesn’t change his way, he becomes a sinner.

This is a negative verse for it shows how the blessed – the righteous – do not live. The true believer simply does not have anything to do with the ungodly beyond being concerned about the state of their souls and doing what they can to present the Gospel of salvation to them. The believer should never consider the advice of the ungodly, especially it that advice goes against the teachings of God. Taking the advice of the ungodly leads to becoming like the ungodly. Ungodly advice leads to taking their stand on moral and spiritual issues. Jerry Bridges makes a noteworthy observation on this important issue:

The world is characterized by the subtle and relentless pressure it brings to bear upon us to conform to its values and practices. It creeps up on us little by little. What was once unthinkable becomes thinkable, then doable, and finally acceptable to society at large. Sin becomes acceptable, and so Christians are no than five to ten years behind the world in embracing most sinful practices.

The insidious nature of the world was something the apostle Paul understood all-too well.

Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will. (Romans 12:2 NIV)

Verse 2 is the positive side of verse 1:

Instead, he takes delight in the law of the Lord. He thinks about his law day and night. (Psalm 1:2 NIrV)

The blessed man has discovered the source of lasting happiness: he loves the Word of God and he reads it and thinks about it. The old saying is definitely supported by the teaching of this Psalm:

The Christian is Bible-bred, Bible-led, and Bible-fed.

The results of godliness are described symbolically.

He is like a tree that is planted near a stream of water. It always bears its fruit at the right time. Its leaves don’t dry up. Everything godly people do turns out well. (Psalm 1:3 NIrV)

The imagery is clever. A godly person has been “planted” or as the Anchor Bible says, “transplanted” near to a life-giving source: fresh water. God is the one who did the transplanting and because God is such a big part of the godly person’s life, he is productive and attractive in all that he does. The phrase, “everything godly people do” implies that the godly man will be doing those things that God approves of, and He therefore causes to turn out right.

The remainder of this very brief wisdom psalm is devoted to the state of the ungodly. In contrast to the beautifully healthy tree of the believer, the non-believer is described like this:

They are like straw that the wind blows away. (Psalm 1:4b NIrV)

The non-believer isn’t near a life-giving source and has no roots. The psalmist likely had in mind what happened on the threshing floor, on which the chaff or straw was beaten from the wheat. This threshing floor was usually located on high ground – a hill – so as to catch with wind. Wheat and chaff were thrown into the wind together with shovels. The heavier wheat would fall to the floor while the lighter, useless chaff was carried away on the breeze.

Therefore the wicked will not stand in the judgment, nor sinners in the assembly of the righteous. (Psalm 1:5 NIV)

This is a very significant statement about the future of the ungodly. They will, first of all, be unable to “stand in the judgment.” Actually, there are both future and present aspects to this “judgment.” Eschatologically, at the Day of Judgment the ungodly will be unable to stand before God; there is no way they will survive the judgment of God. But in their present lives, they are unable to withstand the continual judgment of God’s ongoing providential sifting of their character. Richard Sibbes, Anglican theologian, wrote this:

The wicked are but as a book fairly bound which, when it is opened, is full of nothing but tragedies. So when the book of their consciences shall be once opened, there is nothing to be read by lamentations and woes.

In other words, no matter how happy a non-believer appears to be; no matter how “together” their life seems to be, they are empty, dissatisfied, unhappy lost souls in dire need of a relationship with God.

But the psalmist also wrote that the sinner “cannot sit in the assembly of the righteous.” He is referring to the community of faith; the Body of Christ; the Church. Sinners have no place in the pew of any true church. Having said that, it should be pointed out that even the most devoted, consecrated born again believer is still a sinner. The psalmist has in mind the sinner who habitually sins; whose life is marked by persistent sin, not by a desire to wrestle with and overcome temptation.

In behind the scenes of life, God is judging people, and the purpose of His present judgment is the same as that of the final, future judgment: to eradicate once and forever evil and evildoers from His Church (Matthew 13:24 – 30; 36 – 43).

The very last verse of the great wisdom psalm is very clever and may be the best summary of a teaching in the Bible:

For the Lord watches over the way of the righteous, but the way of the wicked leads to destruction. (Psalm 1:6 NIV)

The first phrase, “the Lord watches over the way of the righteous,” summarizes verses 1 – 3. The second phrase, “the way of the wicked leads to destruction,” summarizes verses 4 and 5. The first three words of verse 6, “the lord watches” are important to understand. The psalmst is not saying that God is a passive observer of human activity on earth. The Hebrew, yada, has reference to a concrete (not abstract), careful, sometimes guiding, personal watching over.

Psalm 1 is a great psalm of wisdom that teaches the simplest truth ever: living a God-fearing, righteous life will be rewarded while living apart from God ends badly. The first and last words of this great psalm illustrate the contrast between the godly and ungodly: blessed and destruction.

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