Psalm 111: Where Do We Find Wisdom?

2016 Clown Car Parade by DonkeyHotey, Flickr

2016 Clown Car Parade by DonkeyHotey, Flickr

Who are the wise among us? What constitutes wisdom? Stephen Hawking, a professed atheist, is considered one of the most intelligent people alive today. But is he wise? What about the members of Congress? Is there any wisdom to be found there? Or are they just out for their own good, setting policies that support their self-interest without much regard for the people they represent? If we want to solve all the problems with Obamacare and Social Security, maybe members of Congress should be put on both instead of their premium health care and retirement plans, and we’d finally see some action.

Wisdom, according to Webster is 1. Accumulated philosophies or scientific learning; 2. Good sense, judgment; 3. A wise attitude or course of action. If wisdom is just an accumulation of scientific learning, then Hawking with all of his scientific knowledge would be considered wise. But scientific knowledge doesn’t mean you have good sense or the ability to use that knowledge in practical situations. If wisdom is just good sense, then some would say members of Congress, in acting for their own best interest, were exercising good sense or wisdom.

However there is an aspect of wisdom that goes beyond knowledge and good sense.

Psalm 111 is a simple hymn of praise written in an acrostic style where every line starts with a different letter of the Hebrew alphabet. As such, following this format, the lines can often seem like a string of sayings loosely tied together without a logical flow of thought. There are a series of statements about God’s works:

“Great are the works of the Lord, studied by all who have pleasure in them. Full of honor and majesty is his work, and his righteousness endures forever. He has caused his wonderful works to be remembered.” (2-4a)

“He has shown his people the power of his works, in giving them the heritage of the nations. The works of his hands are faithful and just.” (6-7a)

The psalm ends with a declaration about wisdom: “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom; a good understanding have all those who practice it.” (10a) This concept is found repeatedly in the Old Testament, Proverbs 1:7, 9:10, Ecclesiasticus 1:12 & 14, Job 28:28.

Wisdom is important in Old Testament thought. There are seven Wisdom books: Job, Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs, Wisdom, Ecclesiasticus or Sirach. The Psalms are included in this grouping. The Law, which makes up the first five books of the Old Testament, was important in that it provides structure for the Hebrew community, a set of rules to live by. Wisdom provides instructions for right living to help the people in their life together and to be successful.

Biblical wisdom is not cleverness or knowledge; it’s not common sense, though it may include aspects of each of these. Biblical wisdom is right judgment, the ability to live well with others and counsel others. But first and foremost it is related to God, fear of the Lord, or reverence and awe before our God.

Can one claim to be wise yet deny God, the author of life and source of all wisdom? Biblical wisdom implies a moral code and right living. If one lives by this moral code, treating others with respect and receiving respect in return, they might be said to be wise even if not believing in the source of this moral code. Still fear of the Lord, awe before our God, recognizing our place in this universe, is the beginning of wisdom.

As we look about, especially as we hear from potential presidential candidates, is there any wisdom present? As our country becomes more and more secular, is there any wisdom to be found?

We are currently in the season of Advent, a time of preparation for the celebration of the birth of Christ, the Messiah, God Incarnate, wisdom incarnate. We need look no further than Jesus for an example of wisdom. The Advent readings remind us that there will be a second coming. When Jesus comes, will he find any wisdom?

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