The Challenge of Reading Biblical Wisdom

We’ve noted several times in our sermons on Colossians that bearing the fruit of the gospel means knowing God’s will “in all spiritual wisdom and understanding” (Col 1.9). We’ve also noted Paul’s allusion to Lady Wisdom in the Christological hymn (Col 1.15-16; cf Pro 8.22-31). Much of Paul’s teaching over the rest of the epistle rests implicitly on wisdom, the quality of sound judgment.

The Bible has several books explicitly devoted to wisdom: Job, some of the Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and the Song of Songs. The rest of the Bible, by and large, invites us to read it through the lens of wisdom, Colossians being but one example. So how do we read and understand biblical wisdom?

Wisdom will give us fits if we expect all of the Bible to read like Law. Law and Wisdom are consistent in their devotion to God and godliness—they are both the product of the same inspiration—but they differ drastically in their form and style. In this, Law and Wisdom are like water and food; both are needed to sustain the body, but they do so in different ways.

In my experience, most people—Christians included—think of the Faith in terms of Law: do this, don’t do that, and here are the consequences for disobedience. Things are ostensibly cut and dry. You either make a graven image, or you don’t. You either steal, or you don’t. You either go to heaven, or you go to hell. It’s reductionistic, to be sure, since the Law itself doesn’t invite our opinion that it is cut and dry; what, for example, does it mean to “honor your father and your mother”?

Wisdom utterly defies this checklist mentality. It invites us to exercise our judgment. It resists tidy, universal categories, famously telling us in one verse to “answer a fool according to his folly,” then telling us in the next verse not to do that. Wisdom tells us that we have to work to find the right answers in life; it’s not laid out neatly for us on a page somewhere. This is not to say that Wisdom preaches subjectivism—far from it. Instead, it tells us what we should know instinctively: it is hard to apply our principles to our lives, but we are expected to do it anyway. Wisdom is hard.

The worst part is that we will disagree over who is right. The entire book of Job is dedicated to that subject. Job, Eliphaz, Bildad, Zophar, and Elihu all basically agree on what is right. They all condemn oppression against the poor, the widow, the orphan, and the foreigner. They all agree that God is the source of wisdom and justice. They differ over at least one fundamental thing, which we’ll get to, but their debate generally isn’t about what is right but about who is right. The wisdom of Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar says that Job is being punished for wrongdoing. The wisdom of Job says that he has done nothing wrong, that he is being treated maliciously and capriciously. The wisdom of God, which concludes the book, says that the whole matter falls outside the realm of human judgment and that we’ll never know the answer!

To say the least, this frustrates some readers.

I said that Job and his friends disagree over one fundamental issue, and it’s a doozy: does the world make moral sense, or is it morally absurd? Are the wicked punished for their wickedness (the position of Job’s friends) or is the world so morally absurd that the wicked actually prosper on account of their wickedness (the position of Job)? God doesn’t resolve this question at the end of the book, nor does the rest of the Wisdom literature. The Proverbs generally agree with Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar: “The wicked are overthrown and are no more, but the house of the righteous will stand” (Pro 12.7). Ecclesiastes generally agrees with Job: “For of the wise as of the fool there is no enduring remembrance, seeing that in the days to come all will have been long forgotten,” and “There is a righteous man who perishes in his righteousness, and there is a wicked man who prolongs his life in his evildoing” (Ecc 2.16; 7.15).

On top of all of that, much of the Wisdom literature strikes us as fractured and disorganized. Pick any chapter of the Proverbs starting with chapter 10, and you will read a dizzying assortment of topics. The rest of the Wisdom literature is only slightly less eclectic. How does one get answers out of it all? You’d have to read the whole thing any time you wanted to understand what it teaches on any given topic.

I suspect this is a conscious choice on God’s part. To learn biblical wisdom about money, you have to read the rest of biblical wisdom as well. Want to know about family life? Get ready to read about speech, work ethic, kingly leadership, and justice as well. There is a divine method to this madness. Research a few topics from the Wisdom literature, and you’ll start to get the sense that all of it is tied together in some broader sense that defies strict logic. It’s exhausting, but, after all, Wisdom is hard.

A Meditation on Psalm 5

Give ear to my words, O Lord;
consider my groaning.
Give attention to the sound of my cry,
my King and my God,
for to you do I pray.
O Lord, in the morning you hear my voice;
in the morning I prepare a sacrifice for you and watch.
For you are not a God who delights in wickedness;
evil may not dwell with you.
The boastful shall not stand before your eyes;
you hate all evildoers.
You destroy those who speak lies;
the Lord abhors the bloodthirsty and deceitful man.
But I, through the abundance of your steadfast love,
will enter your house.
I will bow down toward your holy temple
in the fear of you.
Lead me, O Lord, in your righteousness
because of my enemies;
make your way straight before me.
For there is no truth in their mouth;
their inmost self is destruction;
their throat is an open grave;
they flatter with their tongue.
Make them bear their guilt, O God;
let them fall by their own counsels;
because of the abundance of their transgressions cast them out,
for they have rebelled against you.
But let all who take refuge in you rejoice;
let them ever sing for joy,
and spread your protection over them,
that those who love your name may exult in you.
For you bless the righteous, O Lord;
you cover him with favor as with a shield.

The fifth psalm, like the two before it, plead for God’s intervention. The psalmist is assaulted by wicked men, so he leans on the Lord in prayer and sacrifice. He focuses this psalm on voices: his voice cries out righteously to God; his enemies’ voices lie.

Is there anything that a voice lifted up in prayer cannot accomplish? The Lord turned the rain off and on like a spigot because of Elijah’s prayers. James, the brother of Jesus, cites the power of those prayers when he encourages us to pray: “Is anyone among you suffering? Let him pray. Is anyone cheerful? Let him sing praise. Is anyone among you sick? Let him call for the elders of the church, and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord. And the prayer of faith will save the one who is sick, and the Lord will raise him up. And if he has committed sins, he will be forgiven. Therefore, confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed” (Jas 5.13-16). Let us never be timid in bringing our requests before the Lord.

In contrast, is there nothing that the perversity of the human tongue cannot ruin? The men who assault the psalmist boast and lie and thus heap up the wrath of God against themselves. The psalmist focuses especially on their lying. “Their inmost self is destruction,” he writes. All that comes out of them is disorder and death; “their throat is an open grave.” In the Ancient Near East, an open grave was considered to be one’s access to the dead. The liar is Sheol on legs. To speak with him is to speak with the dead.

The worst thing the psalmist can imagine happening to these wicked men is their own schemes falling back on them. God has a big enough poetic streak to do just that. Remember Haman.

Most of the psalm focuses on God’s blessings for the psalmist rather than on His curses for the enemies. Whereas the Lord “destroy[s] those who speak lies,” He leads His faithful to His house. If the enemies get death and destruction, the psalmist gets life. He finds that life in the Lord’s house, learning the Lord’s ways, offering prayer and sacrifice.

God protects the spiritual life of His faithful. “Let all who take refuge in you rejoice… spread your protection over them… you cover him with favor as with a shield.” Let us all appeal to the Lord’s favor when the Adversary presses us. May he fall by his own counsels! And may God strengthen our faith when we call on Him in prayer.

A Meditation on Psalm 4

Answer me when I call, O God of my righteousness!
You have given me relief when I was in distress.
Be gracious to me and hear my prayer!
O men, how long shall my honor be turned into shame?
How long will you love vain words and seek after lies? Selah
But know that the Lord has set apart the godly for himself;
the Lord hears when I call to him.
Be angry, and do not sin;
ponder in your own hearts on your beds, and be silent. Selah
Offer right sacrifices,
and put your trust in the Lord.
There are many who say, “Who will show us some good?
Lift up the light of your face upon us, O Lord!”
You have put more joy in my heart
than they have when their grain and wine abound.
In peace I will both lie down and sleep;
for you alone, O Lord, make me dwell in safety.

The opening cry of this psalm may seem presumptuous to us. “Answer me when I call” is something I say to my children when they’re ignoring me, and I would never use those words in that way with the Almighty God of heaven. We understand that the psalmist is using the language of the Covenant, but even invoking the Covenant this way makes us uncomfortable. We feel as if we’re trying to put God under obligation to hear us and do as we say. We know that no man puts God under obligation—He does as He wills—so we hesitate to call on the Lord the way the psalmist does here. Our hesitation fundamentally misunderstands the beauty of the Covenant: man has not put God under obligation; God freely obligated Himself when He made His Covenant with man.

In the Old Testament, God advertises His election of Israel early and often. He did so in the Law of Moses: “The Lord your God has chosen you to be a people for his treasured possession, out of all the peoples who are on the face of the earth” (Dtr 7.6). The Lord’s election of Israel continues even into the exile and after it: “My cities shall again overflow with prosperity, and the Lord will again comfort Zion and again choose Jerusalem” (Zech 1.17). The Lord likewise chose the Church through Christ: “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, even as he chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him” (Eph 1.3-4).

Men of faith mirror God’s covenant language when they appeal to His name. Daniel prays, “Open your eyes and see our desolations, and the city that is called by your name. For we do not present our pleas before you because of our righteousness, but because of your great mercy…. Delay not, for your own sake, O my God, because your city and your people are called by your name” (Dan 9.18-19). Daniel isn’t presuming when he tells God to open His eyes and to hustle. He’s declaring his love for and faith in God.

Psalm 4 is steeped in this covenant language. The psalmist does not chide God as a toddler. Quite the opposite! The psalmist is the toddler crying out to his Father. He knows that God will hear him because God has “given me relief when I was in distress” in the past. He knows that God will hear him because “the Lord has set apart the godly for himself.”

Are we faithful enough to call on the God of the Covenant like the psalmist does here? If we doubt that we can call on God like this, we’re not doubting ourselves—we’re doubting the faithfulness of God! I urge you, lean on the God who has called you by His name, because He will surely honor His namesake (Jas 2.7; Rev 3.12).

The psalmist recognizes that the Covenant is a two-way street, so he urges faithfulness to the Covenant: “Offer right sacrifices, and put your trust in the Lord.” Note, by the way, that the psalmist does not say, “Offer right sacrifices so you can put your trust in the Lord.” The Lord is trustworthy even though we are not. Nevertheless, in joining God’s Covenant, we put ourselves under obligation just as the Lord did to Himself. We should honor our God by living faithfully.

The Covenant gives us joy and peace. The psalmist trusts in these blessings. Does your faith in God allow you to enjoy these covenant blessings? If you are struggling in your walk with doubts about yourself and about your relationship with God, spend some time with Psalm 4. The psalm doesn’t ask you to have greater faith in yourself but to have greater faith in the God of the Covenant. Lean on Him. Cry out to Him. Enjoy His blessings.

May the peace of God be with you.

The Prophetic Voice

Since we are delving into the prophets for a couple of months, I think it good to remind ourselves of the prophets’ mission and methods. Understanding the writings of the prophets will also give us a greater appreciation for what Jesus was doing in His ministry and what the apostles were doing in theirs.

“Prophet” is a loaded word in English vernacular. We most commonly use it to mean “a person who tells the future.” This definition reduces prophecy to predictions and fortune-telling. A meteorologist is a “prophet” in this sense. We are not surprised, then, that the Bible means something different by the word “prophet.”

A biblical prophet is a spokesman for God. Consider the introductions to each of the prophets we’ll study this quarter: “In the second year of Darius the king, in the sixth month, on the first day of the month, the word of the Lord came by the hand of Haggai the prophet…” (Hag 1.1a); “In the eighth month, in the second year of Darius, the word of the Lord came to the prophet Zechariah…” (Zech 1.1a); “The oracle of the word of the Lord to Israel by Malachi” (Mal 1.1). Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi begin their writings the same way all the prophets do: by invoking the word of the Lord. The prophet’s mission is to speak God’s words to His people.

In this sense, Moses is Israel’s original prophet. The Law is a prophecy, i.e., the word of the Lord. Therefore Moses says, “The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among you, from your brothers” (Dtr 18.15, emphasis mine). Moses’ last words to Israel are a prophetic warning: “Take to heart all the words by which I am warning you today, that you may command them to your children, that they may be careful to do all the words of this law. For it is no empty word for you, but your very life, and by this word you shall live long in the land that you are going over the Jordan to possess” (Dtr 32.46-47).

It’s useful to think of the prophets as preachers of the Law. The prophets don’t come up with new rules or new standards. Instead, they direct Israel’s attention to the words that God has already spoken through Moses. The creative work of the prophet is to show the people of his time how they have broken faith with God.

The prophet’s mission might include foretelling, but the predictions serve the message and not the other way around. The biblical prophet doesn’t perform parlor tricks or give a ten-day weather forecast. He preaches the Law to Israel then tells what will befall them if they disobey. Even in this point, the prophet’s message depends on the Law, because the Law lays out the blessings for obedience and curses for disobedience (Dtr 28).

The prophets speak truth to power. Haggai addresses Zerubbabel the governor and Joshua the high priest. Malachi addresses the priests. The older prophets addressed the kings of Israel and Judah. The prophets preach from the top down, because the rulers of the people have an enormous impact on the faith of the people. Malachi upbraids the priests for causing the people to stumble: “For the lips of a priest should guard knowledge, and people should seek instruction from his mouth, for he is the messenger of the Lord of hosts. But you have turned aside from the way. You have caused many to stumble by your instruction. You have corrupted the covenant of Levi, says the Lord of hosts, and so I make you despised and abased before all the people, inasmuch as you do not keep my ways but show partiality in your instruction” (Mal 2.7-9).

We might also think of prophecy as reducing the Law to its essential features. They make things simple to make them applicable. Consider again the words of Malachi: “Then I will draw near to you for judgment. I will be a swift witness against the sorcerers, against the adulterers, against those who swear falsely, against those who oppress the hired worker in his wages, the widow and the fatherless, against those who thrust aside the sojourner, and do not fear me, says the Lord of hosts” (Mal 3.5). What does it mean to be faithful to the covenant? Malachi takes a host of laws and boils them down to true religion, sexual purity, civil justice, and social justice.

Prophecy did not cease with the Old Testament. The people we encounter in the New Testament anticipate that God’s Messiah will bring them the word of the Lord. Jesus picks up the mantle of prophet in His ministry, and He passes that mantle on to His apostles and disciples (1 Cor 12.1-11). What exactly that looked like is a matter for another week, so I want to close with some questions for self-examination. The Church exists to deliver the words of God to the world. Have you submitted yourself to God’s word? Can it be said of your message, “Thus saith the Lord,” or is it merely your own devising? Are you willing to speak truth to power on behalf of the powerless? Will you witness against impurity and ritualism in the Church? May God bless us all with pure faith worthy of our calling.

A Meditation on Psalm 3

O Lord, how many are my foes!

Many are rising against me;

many are saying of my soul,

“There is no salvation for him in God.” Selah

But you, O Lord, are a shield about me,

my glory, and the lifter of my head.

I cried aloud to the Lord,

and he answered me from his holy hill. Selah

I lay down and slept;

I woke again, for the Lord sustained me.

I will not be afraid of many thousands of people

who have set themselves against me all around.

Arise, O Lord!

Save me, O my God!

For you strike all my enemies on the cheek;

you break the teeth of the wicked.

Salvation belongs to the Lord;

your blessing be on your people! Selah

The third psalm is the first lament of the psalter. It is telling that it appears so early and immediately after such a strong profession of faith in God’s sovereignty. “Man born of woman is few of days and full of trouble,” and the example of the psalter invites us to cast our troubles on the Father. He is the God who answers cries: the cries of Abel’s blood coming up from the ground (Gen 4), the cries of barren Rachel (Gen 30.22-23) the cries of captive Israel enslaved in Egypt (Exd 2.24), the cries of Jonah in the fish’s gut (Jonah 2), the cries of Daniel confessing the sins of Israel from Babylon (Dan 9.23), the cries of Zechariah and Elizabeth asking for a son (Luke 1.13), the cries of Cornelius the righteous centurion (Acts 10.1-8), and the cries of all the martyrs (Rev 6.9-10; 19.1-2). Cast your cares on Him day to day, for He hears your cries.

I say that the psalm is a lament, but it is hard to categorize. Is it truly a lament? It clearly seems to be up until the first Selah, but there is no more lamentation in the remainder of the psalm. In fact, the lamentation itself comes to rest on the psalmist’s concern for God’s glory: “Many are saying of my soul, ‘There is no salvation for him in God.’” The psalmist fears for his life, but he fears more for what his death will do for the reputation of God. Oh, that we should have such faith!

The psalmist’s enemies may doubt the salvation of God, but the psalmist does not. The remainder of the psalm professes confidence that the Lord can save and that He will save. In fact, the psalmist sees the salvation of God proleptically, as if it has already happened: “I cried out to the Lord, and He answered me from His holy hill.”

The psalmist sprinkles this profession of faith with an imprecation against his enemies: “For you strike all my enemies on the cheek; / you break the teeth of the wicked.” What is most striking about the imprecation is its object. The superscription before the psalm tells us that David composed this psalm as he fled his son, Absalom, so we are to read Absalom into David’s description of God slapping cheeks and breaking teeth.

Absalom’s rebellion comes at the tail end of a series of sordid events. The trouble begins in 2 Sam 13 when Absalom’s half-brother, Amnon, rapes Absalom’s sister, Tamar. Tamar gives ample proof of the misdeed, but David refuses to act against the crown prince. This leads Absalom to put Amnon to death himself and eventually take the throne from his father, whom he sees as a failed judge.

David doesn’t mention his own culpability for Absalom’s betrayal in Psalm 3. Reading the story in 2 Samuel, one is unsure if David is even aware that his passivity drove Absalom to kill Amnon and attempt a coup. How many of us are aware of all our shortcomings and sins? Psalm 3 teaches us to call upon the Lord regardless. We do not have to be perfect to entreat the Lord, only faithful.

It is not a light thing that David asks of the Lord. The Lord indeed saves David from the hand of Absalom, but it is a pyrrhic victory. Twenty thousand men of Israel perish in the battle. Worse, in David’s estimation, is Absalom’s death at the hands of Joab, despite David’s command to spare him. “The king was deeply moved and went up to the chamber over the gate and wept…. So the victory that day was turned into mourning for all the people” (2 Sam 18-19).

David was faithful to ask God to save him, and God was faithful to do so, but sin will out in a man’s life. “You break the teeth of the wicked” is a true but fearful thing to pray, for it turns against us as much as it turns against our enemies. Let us turn our hearts to the Lord, and may the Lord’s blessing be on His people.