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?