The Psalms is a wonderfully diverse compilation of Israel’s praise. It gathers glorious creation hymns and salvation thanksgivings together with a heaping pile of laments. And scattered throughout this sprawling mixtape are bits of what is referred to as wisdom literature.
What are these proverbial sayings doing intermixed with grieving laments and soaring praises? They’re statements, not prayers. In the midst of deeply felt questions that challenge the heart of biblical theology, they feel so cut and dried and formulaic. What gives?
The Hebrew wisdom tradition sought to open up the best way of life. Not only was wisdom a common theme among Israel’s ancient Near East neighbors, but it makes even more sense within the context of Israel’s worship of the Creator.
Unlike neighboring faiths that portrayed creation as the result of battles among the gods, Hebrew faith portrayed it as the result of the one true God’s speech. By declaration alone — not a hint of battle to be found or a drop of sweat to be scented — the Lord speaks from his throne and creation is ordered and filled. As it unfolds, it’s repeatedly affirmed as “good” and then it’s celebrated with a holy day of rest, which ultimately becomes Sabbath.
Where others saw the world as the meaningless result of competing forces, biblical faith has always seen it the the result of the ordered, purposeful, uncontested will of our Lord.
It’s because of this that in Proverbs 8, we find Wisdom personified and not just as a list of formulaic proposals. This is important. Wisdom is alive, not a formula. She is the first-made creature (Prov. 8:22-31) and the best guide into this ordered, purposeful life that God has created. For if this world is good and purposeful, so too should our lives be.
God wants us to live the best kind of life, the kind of life he created us for in the first place, the kind of life Wisdom will lead us into.
The Proverbs also tell us that this best kind of life, this wise life, can be described simply as the “fear of the Lord.” It’s an odd phrase that doesn’t translate well. Just like “butterfly” doesn’t mean “butter that flies,” so “fear of the Lord” doesn’t mean “be afraid of God.”
Biblical scholar Bruce Waltke has written that “fear of the Lord” basically means to consider God in all circumstances. It’s a basic attitude toward existence that always includes God, as opposed to the fool, who in his heart says there is no God.
So, back to worship.
Psalm 1 is our wisdom entryway into this great book of worship and prayer. It rejects the descent into godless folly from walking to standing to sitting in the company of mockers. Instead, it commends the one who carries within himself the words of God, meditating on them like a dog on a bone. This godly life is strong, like a sturdy well-watered, fruit-bearing tree, unlike the dust-in-the-wind godless life.
The worshiping life is the wise life. All of the puzzle pieces are there and Lady Wisdom is there to guide us in putting them together.
The wise life, with its eye toward God, launches the worshiping life. Living always in the Presence is the fuel for the praying life. Offering ourselves in reverence and awe to the One who spoke us into being and whose Word sustains us is the fuel for our gathered worship.