Psalm 119 Law and the Fear of the LORD

PSALM 119: AN EXAMINATION OF LAW AND FEAR

Introduction

Scripture has a two pronged function: the first is to serve as an introduction to those who exist outside the boundaries of faith into the possibilities of right relationship with God and secondly, to act didactically with believers, maturing them through exposure to the life transforming posits which exist in the Scriptural tomes.  The nature of change in conduct is what the genre called wisdom literature is all about.  Wisdom is one of the main characteristics that Scripture challenges those who read its contents to acquire.  This aspect of wisdom’s tutelage places great value on the body of material that has been dubbed the wisdom literature of Holy Writ.  These examples of wisdom are primarily restricted to Job, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and Canticles, although portions of Psalms are included in the genre as well as numerous segments of Scripture in both the Old and New Testaments.

It is wisdom’s ability to influence behavior and conduct that forces the follower of Christ to treat it seriously.  Regardless of personal position in the faith, be it a polished expositor of divine truth, or a newly converted believer, it is an act of wisdom to study the genre of knowledge as it was meant to be applied to life, challenging the observer to adjust into an obedient servant of the Lord, as character can only be influenced through a conscientious and deliberate desire to be different.  The Scriptural concern with the transformation of personal demeanor and it’s impact on community and culture is a particularly germane topic today, in light of the moral lapses that exist at a individual level in many lives and in the philosophical abandonment of the traditional moorings that have acted as the stabilizing pillars in western civilization throughout the years it has been influenced by Christianity.

Postmodernities’ thrust to readdress these traditional stances couples well with the ultimate objective of Postmodernism’s philosophical point of being which advances the loosening of normative morality.  This has created a bevy of cultural difficulties that include a diminished view of life, acceptance of alternative sexual expressions, problematic approaches to traditional marital longevity, fiscal irresponsibility, abuse of pleasure inducing substances, and a questioning of truth, along with its practical expression in life.  The above aforementioned shifts in practices and mindsets can be seen as an external expression of a deeper difficulty that operates below the surface of this cultural swing that could be identified as being Post-Christian as much as Postmodern.

This swirling vortex of subtle influences is creating a climate for the rise of wisdom’s influence once again, as godly living offers a counter point to the destructive tendencies that the growing moral vacuum is creating through the absence of the stabilizing force that correct behavior produces.  The foundation of wisdom literature in Scripture focuses the neophyte on the practical application of the mundane matters of life.  Interpersonal skills, financial propriety and the disciplined life are just a few examples of wisdom’s focus.

The Nature of Psalm 119

Psalm 119 is almost universally acknowledged as a sterling example of Old Testament wisdom literature.  Certain salient points of interest create this commonality among wisdom expressions in the ancient world.  Patrick Miller points out that: “The pursuit of enemies who hound the psalmist trying to do him or her in is a familiar theme of lament psalms (119:86),[1]” which is also a significant feature of the normal psalmic literature.  Allen comments that Psalm 119: “Belongs to that branch of wisdom literature concerned with the Torah, which is also represented in the Psalter by Psalms’ 1 and 19B…especially those of the complaint.”[2]

Psalm 119 contained the trait of an elaborate contrast between the psalmists’ claim of righteous activity as opposed to the condition of his enemies (25a, 143a, 51 a, 85).  His fidelity toward the Lord, in spite of his condition, marks this as an excellent piece of literature that advances wisdoms’ poignancy.[3]  The challenge for divine interaction highlights the typical expressive cry that is found in psalmic literature.[4] This can be seen in the admonition to be a blessed man as opposed to a foolish person contained in Psalm 1, or in the initial sense of abandonment expressed in Psalm 19, only to be balanced in the later portion of this Psalm with an unflinching, dependant trust in Torah’s redemptive power.  Trusting in Torah is the true point of the triad of Psalms’ 1, 19, and 119.  Being found in the blessings of YHWH is also the starting point of Psalm 119, which directly correlates with Psalm 19, as the author states that: “Blessed are they whose ways are blameless, who walk according to the law of the LORD (NIV).”

Another characteristic that Allen asserts as a commonality between typical wisdom literature and Psalm 119 is the acrostic phenomena, albeit Psalm 119 is the ‘Most developed instance in the Old Testament.  The closest parallel is Lamentations 3, which contained 22 strophes of three lines… whereas Psalm 119 contains 22 strophes of eight lines each.[5]”  The unknown author of the 119th Psalm expresses an consummate mastery of this form of poetic projection in the ancient examples of wisdom as an acrostic thus far, as Psalm 119 contains 8 lines per strophe, which in turn follow an acrostic development, utilizing the Hebrew alphabet as the guiding influence in each line.

Psalm 119 contains additional characteristics between the focal point of Torah and Psalm 19, as the two contain five common terms that relate to Torah as synonymous expressions, with Psalm 119 adding an additional three terms.  The composite statements include: Torah, which speaks of the overall revelation of God as it is Inscripturated, although it can be applied to as little as a single citation, the Pentateuch, or the Commandments; word, which can carry the connotation of the act of communicating YHWH’s dictates contained in Scripture; rulings/judgments, which contains the truth that the judicious acts of God; covenant/testimony, which contains the germinating truth that obedience carries reward, while disobedience carries the alternative; commands, implies the totality of the complete revelation of God; statutes, that which is engraved or mandated as law; laws, that which attests or speaks of the faithfulness of God; and charges/sayings, which carries the same significant meaning as the designation ‘word’; these usages range in employment from as little as 19 times and as many as 25 times[6].  It is possible that Psalm 119 owes at least a partial redactional allegiance to the 19th Psalm, with Psalm 1 owing its point of origin to Psalm 19 and 119.[7]  Torah and its synonym usage in Psalm 119 all carry the weighty implication of walking out the aspect of faith, or the way that wisdom leads the follower of truth into.[8]

Psalm 119 & The Fear of the Lord

At times it is difficult to ascertain the importance of the wisdom portions of Scripture, due to the historic tendency to subordinate the practical guidance wisdom offers in light of Pentateuch’s’ revelation, covenantal history and prophetic proclamation.  At times it appears as if the community of faith has been content to view the wisdom inclusions as an out-of-favor stepchild, as opposed to being divinely inspired Scripture.  It should be noted that in the non-canonical writings, wisdom takes a position of enhanced importance, as behavior and apocryphal belief systems seem to have taken the frontal position during the Intertestamental period of Judaic development.  The post-exilic emphasis upon monotheistic obedience grants a cursory understanding of the importance of wisdom enacted, even if there were limited expressions, particularly in the Qumran Community’s literary contributions and within the early Christian writings.

It is also worth noting that the Judaic expressions of wisdom are not unique concerning their form, function and subject concern.  However, the Israelite wisdom literature is distinct in its connection to an external dynamic of obedience to YHWH.  Proverbs fulcrum: “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom (Proverbs 1:7),” is clearly observed in the psalmist’s cry as he connects his slavish devotion to Torah and YHWH by requesting that the Lord: “Establish your word to your servant, who is devoted to fearing you (Ps. 119:38).”

Considering fear as a motivational force is an extremely complex subject, as it touches upon the basest of primordial emotional responsiveness.  As an emotive force, fear can operate in a constrictive mode, forcing those who operate under fear’s jurisdiction into a place of negativity as a state of being.  Neighboring responses include anger, anxiety, and phobic conditions, predicated upon various external and internal stimuli.  Operative compulsions can be seen as motivational stimulators, with anger moving the influenced individual toward the perceived threat, whereas fear motivates in an oppositional forum, typically causing the respondent to retreat away from the point of opposition.

When emotional responsiveness is brought into the analysis of fear, the corresponding attitude of anxiety can be seen or interpreted as an ethereal apprehension that serves as a non-rational guide for reflexive activities.  In abnormal expressions, anxiety could be viewed as a compilation of multiple emotional responses:  all of an unconstructive variety.  Under normative conditions, fear is a healthy emotional response, as it is anticipatory by nature, warning the respondent of immanent danger, either real or perceived.  A phobic response to perceived dangers typically implies a fear factor that is irrational in nature.

The human psyche allows for a broad range of data to be accessed when fear is analyzed.  This can be interpreted as a benign sense of a lack of comfort with an individual or a situational occurrence, or it can manifest under conditions of great duress where the physiological or psychological well being of the individual are in a place of true peril.  This is important in understanding fear, as encounters with fear can cause individuals to act irrationally due to the constricted substance of the things that act in a bothersome fashion, subverting the ability to perceive and react in a normative manner.  Fight or flight feelings are reasonable conditions when fear is assayed.

As a learned behavior pattern, it appears that fear is transmitted by example from significant modeling during early childhood with specific events or personalities becoming the objects of avoidance.  Fear is a natural occurrence in the animal that leads to life preservative measures being enforced for survival.  Bonding occurs between closely associated mammals due to the protective nature of fear, although an excessive amount of fear as a stimulant can be a disruptive factor in social behaviors.  In humans, fear has been used as a corrective means for behavioral manipulation.  Stories abound in the oral genre and in literary works that use fear as a common means of corrective enforcement concerning compliance to social norms, familial responsibility and personal development.  The oft used phrase: “Wait until your father gets home” exemplifies this aspect of fear as a response initiator.

Faith & Fear

Understanding these dynamics leads the theologian to ask: ‘where does fear fit within the context of faith?’   Is fear a proper emotive practice, or is fear an aspect of behavioral modification that needs to be nullified within the community of adherents who profess to be loosened from the consequences of sins touch?  Probative inquiries can produce a mixed understanding of fear’s position within the boundaries of faith due to the Scriptures approach to the subject.  Isaiah admonishes the believer to: “Fear not, for I am with thee (Isaiah 41:10).”  The beloved apostle equally asserts that: “Perfect love drives out all fear (I John 4:18).”  These two passages taken from the KJV seem to indicate that fear is to be kept at abeyance.

The other side of the issue however, states that: “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom (Prov. 1:7).”  These two positions create a seeming conflict in assessing the position of fear in-so-far as Christianity is concerned.  Drawing an apposite conclusion must be based on a proper understanding of fear within Scripture as a human response and within the context of the theological position concerning fear as a motivating relational factor between God and the penitent.

Realizing that the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom is the basic precept of the sapiential tradition of Scripture (Ps 119: 38, Ps 111:10, Prov. 9:10).  Literature of a Christian variety is resplendent with allusions to the wisdom that is ascertained through fearing Yahweh.  Christian is found to be in deep dialogue with Hope in Bunyan’s classic, Pilgrim’s Progress as the discuss the “good use of fear” as a qualifying agent that is the necessary ingredient for all who would be “Right at their beginning to go on pilgrimage;” as Hope declares.  Christian retorts: “…if it be right; for so says the Word.  The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.”[9] The metaphorical conversation illustrates the high value that fear plays as the gateway to faith.

Calvin adds to the philosophical query, as he distinguishes between the servile “fear of unbelief and reverence mingled with honor and fear.[10]”  By separating the two configurations fear assumes, Calvin categorically adds value to one while detracting worth from the other.  Although this doesn’t entirely eliminate a human compulsory version of fear as being completely devoid of any benefit, Calvin elevates the fear of the Lord conceptually for all subsequent Pilgrims throughout the Reformation era.  The footprints of Calvin are heard echoing throughout Bunyan’s Pilgrimage.

The Hokmah literature is one of the three most important aspects of Scriptural topics where biblical literature is concerned.  Whether wisdom is the focal subject, the topical theme, the illustrative motif or the entire genre, Sophia rules as an ideal in Scripture.  The broad application of wisdom to the cultic life of the Hebrews and as a guiding principle lends value to the topic.  This isn’t a carte blanche acknowledgment of a simple inclusive revelation, as wisdom as a genre lends itself to a somewhat credible understanding of external influences concerning Sophia into the Hebraic view of wisdom.  Hellenistic ideals permeated the region during the days of wisdoms advancement, thus invariably influencing the Jewish thought process.

Kittle’s TDNT points out that:

“From its first beginnings Greek philosophy discussed the forms of fear.  Representatives of predominantly individual and rational trends sharply rejected the fear (phobos) group as an expression of a genuine attitude of fear or respect, while schools which took the irrational into account used the emotional vocabulary of fear for the fear necessarily demanded of man.”[11]

This split digression parallels, albeit vaguely, the biblical development of fear and faith.  As a logical assertion, it seems reasonable to assume that cursory influences may have existed.

This theory of mutual influence has been witnessed in other areas of biblical advancement as well.  Victor Matthews challenges the modern exegete to grapple with allusions concerning cultural overlaps in literary achievements among the ancient cultures.  Matthews states: “the huge gap in time and experience between our time and theirs makes studying ancient cultures difficult…  Reading documents produced by scribes 4,000 or more years ago are tough going at best.[12]” The authors then present a notion that views a cultural blending rather than cultural isolation when the biblical authors influences are viewed.  Examining translations of Babylonian, Samarian and Egyptian texts can be fascinating for both similarities and differences in style and content.  Examples of this can be seen in the Enuma Elish stories and the creation stories of Genesis due to the commonality of genre.[13]  Matthews’ points out that: “Other biblical and non-biblical traditions are parallel because they deal with the same topic.  The annals of Mesha and the annals of Joram in the books of Samuel-Kings (2 Kings 3:1-27), for example, deal with a war between Israel and Moab that took place around 830 BCE.”[14] Observing these and other parallels can provide fascinating insights into the process of cross pollination of thought.

Returning to kittle, the Greeks’ primary view of Phobos and God can be encapsulated in the understanding that: “All talk about ‘fear of God’ is invented to scare men.”[15]   Greek thought rejects fear as an able asset in advancing humanities quest for communing with deity as an inferior stepping stone.  Fear and faith were seen as opposite spectrums, with fear leading mankind into the realm of docile servitude and a state which violated hubris.  The resultant physiological consequences were viewed as being detrimental to soundness according to Aristotle.  His depiction of fear included a loss of body heat, cramping, trembling and pain.[16] The Stoic rejection of Phobos can be seen as the logical conclusion of the Greek antipathy toward fears’ positive influential valve.  This can be summed up in the Greek’s view that man could be Free: “From emotional fear of God… (As) the truly pious are freed by their relationship to God as a…non-emotional reverence (Which is) positively espoused… (Additionally) fear of tyrants is also nonsensical for the only evil man has to fear is that (which) he does to himself.”[17]

Communicating the Value of the Old Testament

This problem in communicating the values of religious ideology has led to various places of encampment among those who deliberate the divine.  At times, the debate over religious metaphors and expressions has been contentious; at times the points of communication have been lucid; while other aspects of the conversation have been tediously muddled.  This self-contained dimension of difficulty has become painfully evident in the theological constructs revolving around a comprehensive theology of the Old Testament.  Part of this difficulty can be attributed to the varied forms of literary advancement that are found within the pages of Holy Writ’s oldest form of revelation.

Historical narratives from a prophetic view readily clash with a more formalized hierarchical structure.  Poetic imagery sets itself against actual events, occasionally distorting the view, particularly when rules of literalism are applied.  On other occasions the poetically inspired language can even be seen as existing within a historical type of symbiotic relationship, thus easing the apparent difficulties.  Songs set themselves against imprecatory dialogue, such as that which is found in the 119th Psalm.

Throughout all of this, a divine expression lurks among the shadows, waiting to burst forth as a brilliant means of grace impartation, when given the proper opportunity.  F.F. Bruce advances the difficult place that the Old Testament theological continuum holds in tension, as he points out the fact that: “It is difficult to find one single principle around which a coherent and comprehensive Old Testament theology, doing justice to all the chief forms of Old Testament literature and teaching, can be constructed.[18]” This inability to create a concise theology has created a theological conundrum for the theologians who attempt to explain the biblical message in a consistent format due to the varied themes addressed among the Scriptures and their inability to be viewed with any measure of solidarity as systematic constructs.

Although man tends to live life in a mixed format that is often a confusing admixture of experiences that seem to be hap-hazardously constructed without much rhyme or reason, the human approach to knowledge typically comes in a more systematized forum.  The elusive nature of biblical revelation, as opposed to a formal system for comprehensive analysis is painfully pointed out in the Book of Proverbs, according to Wayne Sterling, in a series of lectures for Liberty University that revolve around the Poetry of the Old Testament.  According to Sterling, the Book of Proverbs primary plan consists of a loose collection of sayings attributed to a number of authors, with King Solomon as the primary architect of the dictums.  Sterling does attest to a minor unity of the book in regard to subject matter, which also applies to the other examples of the wisdom genre, but even then the material must be viewed in an exculpatory fashion, often artificially arranged along topical lines.[19]  Even then, the majority of the Proverbs serve as self-standing pericoptic views into the life of faith and community as it related to the developing Jewish faith and practices in the sociological setting, connecting them to the varied messages of the Psalms.

The goal of the Hebraic words of wisdom had a distinct point to them.  They were meant to help those who heed their lessons in the attainment of the only wisdom that mattered; functional religious understanding that was rooted in God’s truth and practically implemented by the seeker of wisdom’s tutelage.  The sage expounds a knowledge that supercedes theoretical deliberations.  This is a form of understanding that is grounded in the experiential revelation of the Lord.  The recipient of this divinely imparted revelation has a responsibility concerning that which the divine unfolds.  Those who embrace the knowledge of the Most High God are accountable for appropriating revelations power, making it their own as they lay hold of God’s goodness.  But this revelatory understanding isn’t meant to simply rest within the life of the initiate.  Wisdom is a gift that is meant to be propagated when it is truly acquiesced to as a guiding message that influences the life of the acolyte.  Thus, Psalm 119’s thrust to initiate change and expansion.

The Difficulties of Communicating Biblical Truth

The boundaries of the Wisdom genre are complex, as they provide tools for correct living on a very practical plane, while conversely entertaining multifaceted theological ideas that are made up of a philosophical nature, while entertaining apocryphal tendencies, which primarily revolved around the personification of wisdom in its latter developmental period.  Theory and practicality blend in a subtle mix that truly exemplify the complex issues that make up the theological compendium of an Old Testament theology. Ideas emerge through simple statements in a cavalier fashion that are later found to bear tremendous weight in the community of faith’s life.

To be fair, it needs to be pointed out that the New Testament carries this same problem of an imprecise theological system of thought that makes it extremely difficult to clearly articulate a concise schematic process of thought when attempts are made to systematize the New Testament’s revelation into a cohesive expression.[20]  Attempts to create a systematically interrelated New Testament theology generally are structured within a Pauline framework, which has proved to be a detrimental element to the other writers of the New Testament’s revelation at times.  Paul the Apostle’s prolific contributions to the biblical record stand as an impressive addition to the dialogue regardless of their ability to hamper an understanding of the Spirit inspired views of the other writers. Bruce adds to this points as he asserts that: “Even Paulinism, if that means a systematization of the various documents in the Corpus Paulinum, has to often involve the emphasizing of certain elements in that teaching to the disadvantage of others and a failure to do justice to the many sided versatility of the apostle.”[21]

This tension that exists within the theological task of systematically creating a comprehensive chain of thought within the confines of Holy Writ creates an almost insurmountable problem due to the tenuous nature of some of the writings that can appear to be contradictory when viewed through a formalized approach to interpretation.  The Struggles of law and grace, freewill and divine sovereignty, holiness and sin are all conceptual ideas that are not easily resolved within systematized approaches to Scripture, as advocates tend to negate that which stands in opposition to their school of thought rather than attempting to integrate those distinctions.  This is the underlying difficulty that is hard to resolve in most formal approaches to Scriptural understandings that fail to hold the irresolvable ideas in tension rather than simply ignoring their existence or arguing away their importance.

Holistic Complexities

The problem can be compounded very easily when theologies attempt to view both the New and Old Testaments as a complete unit.  Disparity’s can manifest within the record of the Law, the Prophets and the Writings.  Loose quotations and allusions to passages of Scripture run rampant among the authors of the New Covenant.  This vagary can create problems in authenticating the methodologies of the communicators of God’s Word.  The human agent behind the Book of Hebrews exemplifies this focal difficulty in interpretive quotes concerning the Old Testament allusions where the author states that: “As He says in another place… (Hebrews 5:6).”  The allusion is to a vague position in the ancient text without fully identifying the reference which proves difficult to understand, and impossible to utilize, in the modern terms of hermeneutical principles that serve as guide posts to the modern exponent of Scripture.

This supposed difficulty of vague allusions to quotations without referral tags being placed as to the specific point of origin can also be seen in the Passion narrative and select statements made by the Christ leading up to His mission’s fulfillment.  Jesus’ predictions concerning His future sufferings connect to the Scriptural concept of the kingdom of God, although these concepts were seen as phases of a greater revelation of God’s power manifested among men. The evangelists’ portray Jesus as the exemplification of kingdom power, authority and glory, albeit with significant limitations.  Those who viewed the messianic messenger’s travails saw the kingdom as a present reality within their Messiah, although there appears to be a recognition that the present configuration of kingdom manifestation was limited due to the humiliation factor of the cross, as the Scriptures declare that Jesus: 8 “…Made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death– even death on a cross! (Phil. 2:7).”  The later glory would see all limitations removed as the humiliation resolved itself through resurrection splendor and ascension exaltation following the resolution of the tension that seems to exist between the ages of the already enacted and the not yet accomplished dynamics of the prophetic revelation.

Jesus statements concerning His Passion’s purpose to the Jewish authorities are the focal point of concern as they relate to the “It is written” clause.  Mark records that: “The Son of Man goes as it is written of Him… (Mark 14:21)” during the Last Supper discourse.  When the arrest takes place in Gethsemane, Jesus states: “But the Scriptures must be fulfilled (Mark 14:49b).”  These statements, among others, point to a question that must be asked: where is it written?  Bruce points out, concerning the apparent discrepancy, that: “There seems to be no convincing argument for excluding this insistence from His authentic sayings.  But if that is so, we may well ask, as he asked His disciples, ‘How is it written of the Son of Man that He should suffer many things and be treated with contempt?’”[22]

The answer to this question seems to be found in echoes rather than direct quotations, as the prophetic voice of the Prophet’s showcases this difficulty.  Daniel’s record does not emphatically refer to the sufferings overtly, although Daniel does imply their veracity in an oblique manner.  The issue cannot be resolved within the; “Atoning efficacy of the ‘suffering of the righteous’ in the Maccabean martyrologies (II Maccabbee’s 7:37 IV Macc. 6:28, 17:22),”[23] either, as these are not canonically inspired Scriptures, nor are they be to treated as equal to the Gospel record’s of the words of Jesus.  The non-canonical writings are beneficial in their own right, as they serve as additional windows into the Hebraic mindset of their particular eras, but the writings have never been given a universal seal of approval by Judaism or much of Christianity, thereby rendering their voice as less than significant in the strictures of the divine conversation.

Logically resolving this dilemma appears to be confined in Qumran community’s identification of Yahweh’s Servant with Daniel’s: “One like a Son of Man.”[24] Using this as the point of resolution creates a tedious approach to the answer however, as the arguments against the non-canonical writings could easily emerge in this discussion.  This doesn’t deter Bruce nevertheless, as this focus on the Essene perspective becomes his word of reconciliation as Bruce points out that: “It is not so much a matter of direct quotation or of verbal echoes of the Servant Songs (of Isaiah, the fourth specifically) among the words of Jesus; it is more the fact that His conception of His life mission, crowned by suffering and death, is anticipated more clearly in those passages than any others in the Old Testament.[25]

This is pointed out, not to disparage Scripture, but rather to highlight the nature of Scripture’s interaction within itself.  At times it is a complex matter when interpreting Holy Writ and likewise attempting to collate the teachings of God’s Word systematically.  Some resolution may be found to this difficulty when the nature of Scripture is examined.  Although Scripture contains theological constructs interspersed throughout its pages, there is a greater configuration that surfaces throughout the record.  This could be identified as the ‘Principle of Personification,’ if a term needs to be coined that highlights this aspect of the construct. C. Hassell Bullock addresses this personification principle and the ancient forms of wisdom literature that emanated from the Hebraic structure as he refers to the Book of Ecclesiaisticus or The Wisdom of Jesus, the son of Sirach’s advancement of the theme of wisdom being understood as a personality made manifest eternally.  Bullock asserts that: “By the time of Ben Sirach… the personification of wisdom in Proverbs 1-9 was moving toward a hypostatization, that is, wisdom having an existence distinct from, though dependant upon, God and possessing consciousness and personality.[26]”  This understanding of the personification of wisdom can be expanded in an understanding of the person of Scripture, as opposed to the wisdom of Scripture, however.  Cohesiveness is contained in the person of Holy Writ over a systematic theology.  It must always be understood that the living God stands behind that which was recorded as being authentic.  This same God permeates the pages of the revelation granting these Words a real measure of life.

Wisdom’s Place

The wisdom writings of the Poetic Books exemplify this process of living inspiration as the Psalms and Proverbs elevates the concept of wisdom far beyond the staid technicalities of cerebral mechanizations, although in an incomplete place of understanding the deeper meaning of the personality of the Scriptural record.  Solomon grants wisdom personality and character, presenting wisdom as a feminine companion who was with God at creations starting point (Proverbs 1:20, et. al).  As such, wisdom played a central role within the religious experiences of the ancient Israelis.  The person who desired to know God had a three pronged mission in life.  First, they were to know wisdom in a practical, experiential manner that superceded the mere acquisition of information.  Second, they were to implement wisdom’s expertise, as life would be folly, foolishness and vain, without meaning or measure, if wisdom’s measured responses to life were held in abstention.  Finally, wisdom had to carry an implementation element for it to be effective.  Wisdom, when properly applied, became a gift that was meant to be shared with others, benefiting their lives and making them better individuals through the collective experience.

Wisdom is also seen as having a compatriot with whom she often traveled.  This traveling companion has been identified as the fear of the Lord.  Solomon gives sound advice to those who wish to be wise when he declares: “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom (Proverbs 1:7).”  This acknowledged wanderer along the pathway of the Lord had undergone a transformation of sorts throughout the years during which wisdom was acknowledged as a pivotal form of communicating human needs and divine desires.  John Goldingay in Theological Diversity and the Authority of the Old Testament addresses the topic of the morphing nature of wisdom as he asserts that:

“Further grounds for the conviction that the wisdom writings are of rather secondary significance can be found in the nature of the development which the wisdom tradition undergoes J.L. Crenshaw describes it as “first secular, then religious, then theological, then anomalistic. Old wisdom…had a purely this world concern with finding the right way to live life this life, it was baptized into Yahwism by being set into the context of the fear of Yahweh.  Then in Proverbs1-9 wisdom is not merely a useful aid to living a successful human life before God, but the very companion of God himself at creation (Proverbs 8:22-31).”[27]

The view that relegates wisdom to purely secular influences and would perceive the Hebraic expressions of wisdom to exist only within a surrounding civilizations’ sphere of influence may be interesting, but it carries a weight of doubt within its tenants.

Although Goldingay’s summation concerning Wisdom Literature’s secondary position is disputable, his analysis of the progressive change of attitude and approach to wisdom is generally correct.  The Hebraic vantage point underwent a significant transformation over the years in their comprehension of Wisdom’s place within their social arena and among their religious lifestyle.  This progressive revelation concerning wisdom seems to be confined to the same stipulations as most of the Old Testament motifs were.  The beginning point of the divine unfolding of Gods interaction with humanity tends to be radically different than the closing argument, as His mind and will are progressively made known to mankind through a proper understanding of religious propriety based upon the fear of the Lord.

This germinating concept is the ‘Fear of the Lord.’ Holy Writs underlying truth that revolves around God’s desire for the nations to fear Him and experience a never ending relationship with Him, which is the unknown Psalmists’ point in the 119th Psalm.  Kaiser addresses this point as he stipulates his understanding of what it means to fear God. Using Exodus 20:20 as a primary building block, which states: “Fear not, but rather fear the Lord,” Kaiser shows that true fear isn’t found in dread, terror or a frightened countenance.  Rather, true fear, in a godly sense, is expressed as putting: “Your whole trust and faith in the Lord.”[28] Kaiser further amplifies this powerful expression of the fear factor in The Old Testament in Contemporary Preaching when he asserts that:

“The fear of the Lord is a stance…an attitude of heart.  It…places an individual in a proper relationship with God.  It speaks of His fellowship… ‘The fear of the Lord’ is probably the only word in the Old Testament for religion…Also, there is not a word for theology.  What we do find in its place, is probably the Old Testament word for the knowledge of God.”[29]

Fleshing out a pre-incarnational view of faith must encompass the biblical view of the fear of the Lord. Sterling adds to this conversation as he points out that the: “Basic ideas of the expression ‘fear of Yahweh’ include an understanding of the Old Testament equivalent of the Salvation experience.[30]  Abraham proved his salvific existence as he overcame the test of faith by utterly rejecting sin, showcasing his complete reliance on God and his faith in YHWH as the supplier of all his needs.  Job also expressed the Patriarchal view as Scripture attests to his character.  Job was a complete man of faith who departed from evil’s snares.  In a similar fashion to Joseph, he feared Yahweh and repudiated moral evil in the Book which bears his name and chronicles his life, even if it is only half-conscious.

Generally however, the Old Testament material does not take the form of a series of discussions or presentations of such a world view or theology, as: “this is not the expressed message of the writer’s work.[31] Thus:

“Deuteronomy emphasizes both the general attitudes of trust, fear, and commitment and…recourse solely to the shrine which Yahweh chooses.  The Psalms are much more concerned with the life of prayer and praise lived by the believer and the believing community.  The pre-exilic prophets…stress justice and faithfulness father than temple worship…and they can be portrayed as rejecting the latter altogether…the post-exilic successors take…a different attitude to the temple.  Meanwhile the wisdom writers, while not ignoring morals or even worship, show more interest in the living of everyday life in a successful and satisfying way, an interest markedly different from the prophets who urge their hearers to trust Yahweh rather than in worldly wisdom.[32]

Goldingay then utilizes Von Rad’s approach to the problem of diversity as he discusses the historical view of the past for significance, the prophetic view to the future for meaning and wisdom’s empirical, existential vantage point as a means of buttressing the other two primary modes of revelatory importance.

Kaiser points out that: “To fear the Word of the Lord was to believe in Him and to motivate action as the basis of what He had said.  Salvation was coming to the Gentiles because they responded obediently to the Word of God.[33]” Thus, the national importance centered upon a willingness to serve as ambassadors as opposed to selected personnel who enjoy a place of privilege.  Israel was elected to make known the mysteries of God to the world.  Found within the personal struggle of faith, Job is seen as a witness to the fear of the Lord as he agrees with the other writers of wisdom by explicitly stating that: “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom (Job 1:1; 2:3; 28:28).”

David also advances the notion of the fear of the Lord as he connects reverential respect to the God of the Covenant, Yahweh, to the Covenantal manuscripts known as Scripture in Psalm 119 and 19.  David espouses the magnificent revelation that God has granted all to witness when the inquisitive heart looks at nature.  Building upon a case for natural revelation, David then proceeds to Torah as a natural step up from nature’s expressive voice.  David, in musing about man’s position in creation and before God, declares that the fear of the Lord is clean, or has an eternal dynamic to it.  Even creation, as immense and complex as it is, must bow before the Lord in mute worship.  The king then produces a string of synonyms for the Torah which includes testimony, judgments, commandments, and the rather esoteric depiction of Torah as the fear of YHWH. Sterling points out the sheer importance of this revelatory nuance as he divulges that: “To reverence Torah is to reverence YHWH; to reverence YHWH is to reverence Torah.”[34]

The truth is clear: if a reverential respect exists for the Lord, that which He has inspired in the divine text will serve as an ongoing guide within the life of those who serve Him.  This aspect of faith enacted is underscored by Job’s approach to God’s dealings with him as an individual.  Throughout the various posture’s of his advisors, Job became angry with them and conversely with the God to whom they appeared to represent.  This led to his appeal to an audience with God Himself.  Although Job had indicated that he would, in essence, let God hear his full lament, when the strategic moment arrived, Job acted in silence.  This was a bowing of sorts, to the God that he feared, not as a retributive agent, but rather as the one that Job truly loved to serve in fear and trembling.  His silence stands as a testimony to his heart felt respect for YHWH that continues to inspire true God fearing people to this day.  The message of Psalm 119 is essentially the same.

Moses, David and his son Solomon, as well as the other writers of the Book of Psalms and Proverbs issue at least twelve factors that make up the meaning of the fear of the Lord according to Sterling.  These ideas include such ideals as trusting in YHWH with all of the heart.  This isn’t a challenge to circumvent knowledge as it relates to natural human understanding. Rather, it is a challenge to place human intellect in a subservient role to the fear of God and the wisdom that YHWH imparts. As Scripture admonishes that the believer is to:

“Trust in the LORD with all your heart,

And lean not on your own understanding;

In all your ways acknowledge Him,

And He shall direct your paths, and:

Your word I have hidden in my heart,

That I might not sin against You!”

(Proverbs 3:5, 6; Psalms 119:11).

The factor of a healthy fear of God also should embrace a departure from sin as an ongoing lifestyle using YHWH as the bench mark for the conduct that the believer is to aspire toward.  Again, the life of Jesus illustrates the truth of Proverbs 3:7 and Psalm 119: 34, which attests that:

“Do not be wise in your own eyes;

Fear the LORD and depart from evil.

Give me understanding, and I shall keep Your law;

Indeed, I shall observe it with my whole heart.”

Scripture speaks to this positive side of sins repudiation and proper guidance in action when Jesus states that: “I only do what I see my Father doing (John 4:24).” This principle connects well with the Gethsemane experience, as Jesus refuses to reject the cup of suffering He was offered by YHWH.  It is interesting to note that the Gethsemane encounter completes the cycle of temptation that began in the wilderness struggle.  Angels were to keep Jesus as the servant of YHWH from harm, yet the servant completely submitted Himself to the debasing ministry of reconciliation, which included becoming a curse for mankind’s redemption.  Jesus, who is the perfect Lamb of God, acted in accordance to the revelation of Torah’s truest impact: a fear of the Father that produces acts of intimate kindness among those who were created in God’s image, but wear the manacles of sin.

Fears’ Benefits

Walking in wisdom’s mandates and procuring a healthy fear of the Lord is to also create a data base of knowledge about God that comes in combination format.  Information is to be connected by experience, if true fear is to be enacted.  When the fear of the Lord is understood, meaningful knowledge is found.  A religious motto could be developed around this theme that could, in essence, state: “Understand Fear; Find knowledge.” Proverbs 9:10 and 15:33 connect well to Psalm 119:66, to show the believer that as fear is the beginning of wisdom, knowledge and understanding, as they state:

“Teach me good judgment and knowledge,

For I believe Your commandments.

“The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom,

And the knowledge of the Holy One is understanding.

A merry heart makes a cheerful countenance,

But by sorrow of the heart the spirit is broken.”

 

These components of truth are only garnished through fears ongoing tutelage.  Paul attests to this aspect of character and conduct when he stipulates how the impact of the incarnation is to affect the believer in Philippians 2:12, as the Apostle tells his beloved friends to: “Continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, not only when in my presence, but now much more in my absence.”  Paul utilized the Old view of wisdom’s ally, fear, to instruct this body of believers in Philippi to aggressively live out Torah’s revelation.

When proper relational qualities are correctly implanted, great benefit flows from studying God’s Word, specifically Psalm 119, an emerging activity begins to surface, with the express intent of allowing it Scripture to shape an individual’s external conduct, particularly within the faith matrix, although correct activity allows the unsaved world a sterling opportunity to see God through His people’s life expressions.  Transformational instruction is just as relevant to the New Testament believer as it was to their Jewish ancestors even though: “The New Testament does not contain a collection of wisdom books… unlike the Hebrew Bible,” according to Bernard Scott, in The Sage in Israel and the Ancient Near East.[35]  The lack of a distinct category of writings known as Wisdom works does not presuppose the addition of wisdom examples or motif’s within the New Testament, however.  The Gospels exude wisdom’s traditional venues through parabolic dialogue, satirical inclusions, eschatological inferences and apocalyptic shadows.  A highlight of this genres’ influence may be found in the Sermon on the Mount, with the various methodologies and parallel inclusions, with the Beatitudes standing out as the prima facie exemplar.

The epistolary portion of the New Testament also includes various examples of wisdom, while James, Jude and the Revelation skirt dangerously close to becoming formally identified as examples of New Covenantal wisdom expressions.  Approaching the study of God’s Torah for practical application is the point of the 119th Psalm, which walks in tandem with the New Testament revelation.  A further connection can be made to the incarnational factors of the Messianic portents of Jesus as the Logos, or wisdom, of God (of John 1).  According to Allen in Word Biblical Themes: “Psalm 119 gives…a characteristic twist (to the theme of imprecational requests) when repeatedly in its setting of distress it makes the Torah, which represents God, the focus of hope.  ‘I put my hope in your word’.”[36]  In an impressive point of union, Allen correctly asserts that: “The Psalm is a precursor of the finest flowering of both Judaism and the Christian faith.”[37]  The wisdom of Psalm 119 stands as an example of all that is good in the New Testament, allowing the truth of God’s Word to influence behavioral mannerisms in an ongoing format.  This is the value of the 119th Psalm.

[1] Miller, Patrick (Interpreting the Psalms, Fortress Press, Philadelphia, 1976)

[2] Allen, Leslie (Word Biblical Commentary, Vol. 21, Waco TX, 1983) p. 139

[3] ____ Allen, p. 140

[4] ____ Miller, pp. 24, 25

[5] ____, Allen, p. 139

[6]  BibleWorks, Version 5.0, 2002, LLC, ISBE Dictionary, Torah (“Law”) ; Synonyms of Torah , Mitswah (“Command), `Edhah (“Witness,” “Testimony”), MishpaTim (“Judgments”), Chuqqim (“Statutes”),  Piqqudhim (“Precepts)

[7] ____ Allen, p. 139

[8] Sterling, Wayne, OBST 610 (Liberty University, EDP, 1978 taken from unpublished class notes)

[9] Bunyan, John, Pilgrim’s Progress Fleming Revell, Old Tapan NJ) pp. 134-135

[10] Calvin, John Calvin, John, Institutes, Internet Book, http://www.reformed.org/books/institutes (accessed 1/14/2005),  pp 26-27

[11] Kittle, Gerhard & Gerhard Friedrich, (Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, , Abridged, Kittle, Gerhard & Gerhard Friedrich Eds., Eerdmans, Grand Rapids MI, 1985) pp. 1272, 3

[12] Matthews, Victor and Don Benjamin ( Old Testament Parallels’, Paulist Press, New York, 1991, 97) p. xi

[13] ____ Matthews, pp. 9-19

[14] ____ Matthews, pp. 150-190

[15] ____ Kittle’s, p. 173

[16] Aristotle, Analogy, Problems, Great Books of the Western World, Institutes (Encyclopaedia Britannica Inc., Robert Hutchins Gen. Ed., Chicago ILL, Vol. 3, ch. 2, 1952) pp 947-48, 195

[17] _____ Aristotle, p. 196

[18] Bruce, F.F., New Testament Developments of Old Testament Themes (Eerdmans Press, Grand Rapids

MI, 1968) p. 15

[19] Sterling, Wayne OBST 620 Worktext: The Poetry of the Old Testament (LUDLP, Lynchburg VA, 2004) 96

 [20]___ ibid., Bruce, p. 15

[21] ___ ibid., Bruce, p. 15

[22]___ ibid. Bruce, p. 29

[23]___ ibid. Bruce, p. 29

[24]___ ibid. Bruce, p. 29

[25]___ ibid. Bruce, p. 30

[26] Bullock, C. Hassell An Introduction to the Old Testament Poetic Books, (Moody Press, Chicago ILL, 1979, 1988) p. 51

[27] Goldingay, John, Theological Diversity and the Authority of the Old Testament, (Eerdmans, Grand Rapids MI, 1987, 1995, p. 207 , C.f. James Crenshaw, Studies in Ancient Israelite Wisdom, NY: Ktav, 1976)

[28]Kaiser, Walter, Jr. , Mission in the Old Testament: Israel as a Light to the Nations, (Baker Books, Grand Rapids MI, 2000) p. 33

[29] Kaiser, Walter, Jr. The Old Testament in Contemporary Preaching, (Baker Books, Grand Rapids MI, 1973) p. 120

[30]___ ibid, Sterling, p. 99

[31]___ ibid. Sterling, p.99

[32] ____ Goldingay, p. 4

[33] ____ Kaiser, Walter, Mission, p. 22

[34] ____ Sterling, OBST 620

[35] Gammie, John, Leo Perdue, Eds. The Sage in Israel and the Ancient Near East (Eisenbauns, Winona Lake, 1990) p. 399

[36] Allen, Leslie, Word Biblical Themes: Psalms (Word Books, Waco TX, 1987) p. 106

[37] _____ Allen, Word Biblical Commentary: Psalms, p. 145

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