Wisdom Psalms: Is There Such a Thing?

Do wisdom psalms exist?  Scholarship has wrestled with this issue ever since Gunkel’s seminal and ground-breaking form-critical analyses.  Given that form-criticism is still the primary method within psalm study, this is a question worthy of consideration.  I here wish, only briefly, to outline the history of scholarship on the topic.

Hermann Gunkel did not see the wisdom saying as being one of the major Gattungen in the Psalter.  They have no distinctive form of their own.  Rather, wisdom had an entirely separate Sitz im Leben originally, outside Israel’s cult.  Wisdom, argues Gunkel, should instead be seen as having “penetrated the lyrical genres and finally completely disintegrated them” (Introduction to the Psalms, 21).  In other words, wisdom psalms represent a degeneration of a once allegedly pure form.

Gunkel’s student, Sigmund Mowinckel, had a stronger aversion to the designation “wisdom psalms.”  For Mowinckel, wisdom psalms are inimical to the cult, and instead occupy space as a type of “learned psalmography” that is entirely non-cultic.  Similar to Gunkel, these types represent a later dissolution of style and mixing of motifs; they are degenerate literature that made their way into the Psalter as a result of the overall redactional role of the wisdom school in the preservation of the Psalter.  His list of non-cultic poems is as follows: Pss 1, 19b, 34, 37, 49, 78, 105, 106, 111, 112, 127.

Contra Gunkel, Roland Murphy has argued that the classification “wisdom psalms” can be said to designate its own particular form based upon certain criteria.  These critiera are: (i) ashre formula; (ii) numerical saying; (iii) “better” saying; (iv) address of teacher to son; (v) acrostic; (vi) simple comparison; (vii) admonition.  Murphy also notes specific things one would expect to crop up in wisdom psalms: the contrast between the rasha and tsaddiq, discussion of the two ways, a preoccupation witht he problem of retribution, practical advice regarding conduct, and fear of YHWH as equated with the observance of Torah.  He cautions against applying these formal characteristics too rigidly, but does advance a list comprised of Pss 1, 32, 34, 37, 49, 112, 128 as authentic wisdom psalms.

J. Kenneth Kuntz (1973) builds upon Murphy’s categories, adding rhetorical questions as another stylistic feature, and pointing out an emphasis also on sapiential vocabulary.  Kuntz’ list includes Pss 1, 32, 34, 37, 49, 112, 127, 128, 133.  He sees wisdom as often coexisting with other forms in the Psalter, primarily thanksgiving.

Leo Perdue’s 1977 dissertation, Wisdom and Cult, argues for three types of wisdom psalms: (i) Psalms written for the cult [19A, 19B, 129]; (ii) not intended for cultic use but reflecting cultic rituals [Pss 32, 34, 73]; (iii) non-cultic psalms written as teaching aids in wisdom schools [Pss 1, 37, 49, 112, 127].

Katharine Dell‘s recent article, “A Cultic Setting for Wisdom Psalms?,” challenges two prior assumptions within scholarship: first, the assumption that wisdom was inimical to the cult, and second, that because wisdom psalms don’t neatly fit a presumed pure ‘form’ or ‘type’ they de facto pose a problem.  She argues, contra Mowinckel, that wisdom psalms were liturgical pieces from the very beginning.  Her list is incredibly inclusive: Pss 1, 14, 19, 25, 32, 33, 34, 36, 37, 39, 49, 51, 53, 62, 63, 78, 90, 92, 94, 104, 105, 106, 111, 112, 119, 127, 128.

In a brief 1988 article, Avi Hurvitz argued for the presence of specific wisdom vocabulary in the Psalter as a method of adjudicating what is and is not a wisdom psalm.  Foundational for Hurvitz is the concept of “linguistic opposition” or synonyms for wisdom words in non-wisdom texts.  He treats two examples: hon and sur + mera, arguing that both serve as hallmarks of the sapiential nature of the psalms in which they occur.

The late Gerald Wilson has argued for the presence of a wisdom frame that encompasses not only Books IV and V (Pss 90, 145) but also the entire Psalter (Pss 1 and 145 both speaking of “two ways,” and ashre appearing in Ps 2:12 and Ps 144:15).

There are those since Gunkel and Mowinckel, though, who argue against the existence of wisdom psalms.  R.N. Whybray (1995) contends that making an absolute distinction between wisdom psalms and other psalms in the Psalter is mistaken.  He questions the criteria put forward by Murphy and Kuntz (see above), namely the ashre formula, noting that this ‘form’ occurs almost exclusively in the Psalter and thus cannot be indicative of wisdom lit.  At bottom for Whybray, the notion of “wisdom psalms” is helpful if it extends the corpus of wisdom literature, but also weakens the distinctiveness of the idea of ‘wisdom’ and draws attention away from the character of the Psalter as a whole.  Whybray has a much more modest list: Pss 34, 37, 49, 78.

My former teacher at Duke, James Crenshaw, also argues that the category wisdom psalms is not only “vague” and “misleading” but also “useless in scholarly research.”  For Crenshaw, the only way one can adjudicate what is and is not a genuine wisdom psalm is to attend to matters of scope, percentage, degree, or some other metric that is ultimately problematic.  He also presses Kuntz (see above), claiming that there is too much equivocation in his attempts to articulate what is and is not a wisdom psalm.  Either an acrostic structure does or does not indicate wisdom.  It cannot be both, says Crenshaw.  Crenshaw instead sees wisdom elements in the psalms but objects tot he claim that some psalms merit the title wisdom psalms.  He is also critical of the idea that sages structured the entire book of Psalms by interspersing wisdom psalms at critical junctures throughout.

What is my view?  First, I should state that while I find form-criticism to be a helpful entry point into the Psalter, I by no means consider it to provide any sort of definitive statement about the psalm, nor do I see it as the only (or most fruitful) entry point into psalm study.  That said, since Gunkel I think we have seen the dissipation of the romantic notion that the various forms of the psalms cohere into a ‘pure’ form.  Instead of having parade examples of a clear thanksgiving or clear lament, the forms of the psalms to me seem often to be of a mixed bag.  On the topic of wisdom psalms specifically, I do agree with Crenshaw that it remains a bit unclear as to what rubric decides what is and is not a wisdom psalm.  Similarly, I do note the presence of wisdom elements in many psalms throughout the Psalter.  So are there wisdom psalms, specifically?  I am happy to admit there are some psalms that seem to attain a certain ‘critical mass’ of wisdom elements and thus could rightly be called wisdom psalms, if one is fond of the form-critical methodology.  Psalm 1, for instance, is a paramount example of what I would call a classic wisdom psalm.  It contains an ashre formula.  It speaks of the two ways and uses the language of rasha and tsaddiq.  Psalm 1 also makes use of similes, and speaks of the Torah as the object of “meditation,” possibly a wisdom word.  I am also convinced that Psalm 1, as an introduction to the entire Psalter, thus orients the reader to receive all that follows as wisdom instruction for the life of faith.  Both Perdue and Kuntz liken Ps 1 to Prov 1:1-7, seeing it as functioning in a a similar, introductory way. 

So do wisdom psalms exist?  Yes, I think it is safe to speak of such a category, inasmuch as it is safe to say a given psalm is a lament or a hymn of praise.  We must recognize these categories are not without their own inherent difficulties.  But they do present an adequate way of thinking and speaking about the psalms, both individually and in relationship to one another.

What do you think?

11 thoughts on “Wisdom Psalms: Is There Such a Thing?

  1. Charles says:

    Nice discussion. Personally, I think some distinction can be made between psalms which can be identified by form (e.g., lament) and psalms which can be categorized by content (e.g. royal). I would place wisdom psalms in the latter. I am also fairly ambivalent as to whether we ought to talk about such psalms categorically as wisdom psalms or psalms with wisdom elements. In the exegetical end I am not sure it makes much difference.

  2. John Anderson says:

    Richard: You are the master of google books. What would we do without them? And no harm on the misremembering. I was actually quite surprised that Mowinckel sees any of the songs I list there as falling under a category of “non-learned Psalmography.” I came across this originally in my work on Pss 105 and 106, the two great historical recitals. Weiser has argued they are part of a covenant renewal festival. Now, you know I’m not all about trying to reproduce hypothetical festivals (I’m non-Mowinckelian like that!), but much of Gunkel and Mowinckel’s conclusions regarding wisdom psalms as existing outside the cult can be summarized in one word: assumption.

    Charles: Thanks. Regarding your final statement, I would say it does make a difference. This is what Crenshaw is pressing. But I would also press Gunkel a bit and ask if we ever truly have a pure form. I’m not so optimistic. I do, however, like your distinction between content and form. I also, however, think the two feed into one another (content dictates form and form dictates content, to a degree), and so to separate the two is problematic. Wisdom is still one of those hairy elements that seems to evade (or be ignored by?) many scholars.

  3. Jill says:

    Regarding “pure forms” and genre, I found the discussions in Roland Boer, editor, Bakhtin and Genre Theory in Biblical Studies (SBL, 2007) and Jeremy Schipper, Parables and Conflict in the Hebrew Bible (Cambridge, 2009) to be informative and similar to your point John. Roland Boer has a blog, maybe he will comment. I learned about the Parables book from Bryan Bibb’s blog but you can’t read it at google books. Maybe Bryan will comment.

  4. Richard says:

    John: Google Books is great! Would you see the wisdom psalms as late (exilic/post-exilic)? If so surely that would rule out an eary cultic setting. I think I’d be more inclined to side with Gerstenberger on this see here.

  5. John Anderson says:


    I don’t know that you can date all the wisdom psalms to a single unequivocal period in history. Perhaps, but I haven’t thought that closely on it. Each psalm (and which psalms one takes to be wisdom psalms, since most lists differ) would have to be analyzed on their own.

  6. Charles says:

    Thanks for the clarification John. It would be interesting to see how different the exegesis would actually be between say Crenshaw and Gunkel.

    I’m not sure I actually think that content really must dictate form, except perhaps at the broadest level. For example a royal psalm may be royal because of content but lament or praise by form. Royal psalm’s don’t really have form other than content or terminology (e.g., “anointed”) which is related to the king. Maybe the issue is a semantic one, that is, what do we mean by form.

  7. Ben says:

    I teach a bible study to a group of men. Mostly discussion, some factual material.

    I am trying to break the psalms down into manageble chunks for 24 sessions from October thru the second week of April.

    I am less interested in the form per-se, such as wisdom, but more into a way of picking a group of psalms that pertain to a particular topic. I found your information on Roland Murphy to be helpful. I find his grouping of psalms rises above the form per-se, but provides a topical grouping. I also agree a lot of the psalms contain more than one grouping inside of it. This is why the topical approach is more timely to me.

    Any suggestions, about books. I have purchased Roland Murphy’s book on the “gift of the Psalsm.”

  8. John Anderson says:

    While it probably isn’t readable to a lay audience, Jim Crenshaw’s 2001 Psalms intro volume is a nice piece because he treats the Psalms by collection (Asaphite, Davidic, Ascents, etc.) rather than by form.

    My friend and former teacher Bill Bellinger has a nice readable volume, ‘Psalms: Reading and Studying the Book of Praises,’ that deals with form but should be readable to such an audience. He does, though, press well beyond issues of form.

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