Resources » Asbury Bible Commentary » Part II: The Old Testament » PSALMS » Commentary » VII. Didactic Songs (the ḥokmâh) (Pss 1, 15, 34, 37, 49, 73, 78, 91, 111, 112, 119, 127, 128; cf. 19)

VII. Didactic Songs (the ḥokmâh) (Pss 1, 15, 34, 37, 49, 73, 78, 91, 111, 112, 119, 127, 128; cf. 19)

Teaching purpose, distinctive language, and the “Piety of the Two Ways” mark the Didactic Songs. Their faith may be the most influential in the Psalter.

The teaching purpose is explicit in Pss 34 and 78 (vv. 1-7). After opening invitations to worship and participation in the way of the Lord (34:1-10), Ps 34 invites the listeners/readers to come to instruction, raising the topic question and presenting instruction based on it (vv. 11-22). In Pss 15 and 49 no explicit invitation appears, but again the instructional question enters (15:1; 49:5-6), followed by the crafted answer (15:2-5; 49:7-20). The instructional intent may perhaps also account for the fact that five of the Psalter's eight acrostic poems appear in this group of songs (34, 37, 111, 112, 119; cf. “Acrostic,” in the Introduction, II.C). It is Ps 91's apparently clear instructional mode that places it in this group. Its lack of “wisdom-Torah” language raises a question about its inclusion here.

Words and expressions normally associated with “wisdom teaching” in the OT, here joined with the language of Torah (“law”) in the sense of “instruction,” punctuate these songs. The lines in these songs are “instructional sayings” (lit. “wisdoms,” 49:3), involving “insight sayings,” “proverbs,” and “riddles” (49:3-4), the standard language of wisdom teachers and writers (cf. Pr 1:5-6). The Didactic Songs understand “Torah” as instruction, parallel to wisdom (37:30-31) and linked with proverb and riddle in the task of teaching (78:2, where NIV translates tôrâh as “teaching”). They include hallmark sayings of wisdom instruction, such as “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom” (111:10; cf. the key passage of Proverbs [1:7] and Job 28:28).

Most distinctive of these poems is their instruction in “The Piety of the Two Ways.” The Didactic Songs expound the totally separate paths known from wisdom literature as the ways of “the wise” and “the foolish,” from covenant literature as those of “the obedient” and “the disobedient.” Nothing could be clearer in this teaching than that there are fundamentally two groups of persons in Israel (perhaps on earth). These two groups are distinguished by their totally different characters and their consequently divergent lives and destinies.

General descriptions distinguish these groups. On the one hand stand the righteous (1:6), the blameless (15:2), the upright (37:37), the wise (49:10), the saints (34:9), the pure in heart (73:1). Those who fear the Lord probably names these godly ones most comprehensively (34:7, 9; 112:1). These general designations are elaborated with other descriptions. These are “people of the Law” par excellence. They not only live the Law, they live in it (1:1-2). These are often, though not always, the afflicted (34:2; 37:11), the brokenhearted (34:18), the poor (34:6; 37:14), the needy (37:14). They are the meek (same Hebrew word as “the afflicted,” 37:11), persons who trust Yahweh, look to him and and seek refuge and hope in him (34:3, 8, 10, 22: 37:9, 11). These character traits and general dispositions of life find expression in specific acts, with particular interest taken in the use of the tongue, of money, and of influence (cf., e.g., 15:2-5; 34:13; 37:21). Most telling, these persons actually reflect Yahweh's own character here and now. They, like him, are gracious and compassionate (cf. 111:4; 112:4). They are not only considered righteous by Yahweh, they are righteous. Such persons alone may truly worship (the question of Ps 15).

On the other hand stand the wicked (1:4-6; 37:13-14). These are sinners (1:5), mockers (1:1), vile persons (15:4), wrongdoers (37:1), schemers (37:7), deceivers (49:5), and abusers of power and wealth (37:16-17, 32-33). These are the enemies of the Lord (37:20). Pss 34 and 37 delineate as clearly as any psalms the persons of the two ways, as the references above show.

Two contrasting destinies (present and future) parallel these two populations, according to the Didactic Songs. These contrasting destinies express the blessing and the cursing of the Lord (37:22), causally, not accidentally, linked to the moral character of the persons involved (e.g., “therefore” and “for” [1:5-6]). Yahweh loves (37:28), upholds (37:17), protects and delivers (34:4, 6-7), saves (34:18), redeems (34:22), vindicates (37:6; 112:3, 8-9), and delights in the way of (37:23) the godly. He blesses them with prosperity (1:3; 112:3), long life (34:11-12), plenty (37:19), fertility (112:2, 3; 128:3, 6), and an enduring inheritance of the Promised Land (37:9-11, 22, 29, 34). Not so the wicked! (1:4). Their cursed life differs directly from this blessed walk. Images tell it best—the contrast between a perennially fruitful tree growing by a canal and worthless chaff blown away by the wind (Ps 1; cf. 37:1-2, 20, 35-36; 73:18).

But life does not always appear to vindicate such a clear picture of blessing and cursing (cf. II.B above). The Didactic Songs address this problem also, and well they might, for the contrast between faith and experience here, i.e., between what these dear people believed and what they actually encountered in life, posed a major problem for the faithful (73:1-16). To begin, say these songs, one must view the promised destinies as life processes. Not every person or circumstance will vindicate this faith (37:5-9, 35-36). More profoundly, the simple appearance of the “blessings” in one's life does not actually constitute the blessing of Yahweh. Equating the two is self-delusion (49:18-20). If one is wealthy, for example, but lacks true understanding (including reverence for Yahweh and his covenant and an appreciation for the source of life's goods) one is not blessed at all but rather no better than the beasts that perish (49:20). Furthermore, neither wealth nor poverty but only the Lord can redeem one from the power of death itself (49:7-9, 15). It is obvious that all die, the wealthy wicked as well as the godly poor, and that they take nothing with them from this life (49:10ff.). But the fact of death is not the problem; the problem is the power of death to dominate. From this terrible trap only Yahweh can deliver (49:12-15)—whether by a “taking” like Enoch's before death (cf. Ge 5:24) or resurrection after death (Isa 26:19; Da 12:2) is not clear here.

Elsewhere the OT makes significant advance on the idea. Job and Ecclesiastes mount the most formidable attack on the overly simple, overly direct connection between moral character and life circumstance engendered by the standard wisdom and historic covenant faith. In spite of the fact that in the end Job's fortunes are reversed, the book's broadside at the standard view is never retracted. Job's friends hold the “orthodox” view (as does Job when the book opens, else he would not have his spiritual problem), at times reasoning clearly from it, at other times exaggerating it, drawing half-truths. Job 21 is the tour de force that simply demolishes any attempt to say life itself vindicates the claim that the righteous experience immediate, concrete blessing now and the wicked the opposite. Ecclesiastes, the journal of a candid believer, quotes standard wisdom repeatedly to refute or qualify it, precisely at the point of debate here (e.g., Ecc 2:12-14; 8:10-14). Finally, the Preacher asserts that one cannot know the disposition of God toward one—love or hate—based on circumstances (9:1-6). These words of God contribute to the OT's consideration of the difficulty by forcefully calling the theological frame of reference itself into question without forging through to a full answer. Job's major contribution appears to be the mystery of God, for no one in the book except the heavenly court ever knew what really lay behind Job's disasters. God's reasons were completely his own, and he refrained from revealing them to any of the earthly parties.

Beyond these major approaches to the issue, other OT passages make significant contribution. The Joseph narratives place these matters beyond simple connections of blessing-cursing to the larger, sovereign purposes of God. “You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done,” said Joseph to his brothers (Ge 50:20). Jeremiah narrates the truth of unvindicated servants of Yahweh who suffer for no sin of their own, with no apparent redress by God. Habakkuk is led to affirm joy, not simply trust, in God his Savior, even if the covenant blessings (figs, wine, oil, field crops, fertility) do not materialize (3:16-19). Isa 53 raises the reality that God's servant not only suffers because of the sins of others (not his own), but does so redemptively!

Against this backdrop the NT's teaching is astounding. These teachings and especially the death of Jesus the Messiah himself constituted the major source of NT insight here. Jesus vindicated the OT's minority report by severing the clear, direct connection between sin and illness (Jn 9:1-3) and essentially “internalizing” and “eternalizing” the blessings and curses (Mt 5:1-12). Moreover, his call set suffering and death clearly before the prospective disciple as no result of the disciple's own sin but the inevitable consequence of following the Son of Man who himself has a cross (Mk 8:31-9:2). The apostles caught this remarkable reversal and continually appealed to Jesus' life as the pattern for the believer's response to suffering (e.g., 1Pe 2:13-25). Nowhere is this issue put more persuasively and movingly than in the climax to Paul's discussion of life in Christ by the Spirit (Ro 8). There, on the basis of the demonstrated love of God for us in the death of Jesus, believers encounter the old covenant's curses—famine, nakedness, persecution, sword, and more—victorious and unseparated from the love of God in Christ (Ro 8:31-38; cf. esp. Dt 28 curses with Ro 8:35).

Ps 73 may give the most adequate answer to these problems in the end. Though the poet really does not solve the problem of the underlying theological structures (either wisdom or covenant) that link so clearly personal character with life circumstances, in worship he lodges himself solely with God (73:16-17). God alone is enough and—the stark truth that still stands—in the end all one really has (73:23-26). Simply to be near God is good (73:28). This heads one toward the revolutionary breakthrough possible only in light of the cross (Ro 8:31-39).

This radical view of all of human existence under God is apparently the piety shaping the whole Psalter. In spite of the utterly clear lines drawn, “Torah piety” offered no simple “goods-for-services-rendered” religion. Torah piety is a life of delight in Yahweh himself and utter abandonment to his covenant ways and his care (37:1-6)! The Psalter opens by setting before the reader these radical alternatives in which life and destiny hinge upon life in the Torah (Ps 1; cf. introduction, V.B). Book 3 opens and closes with profound examinations of deep problems in the theological structures involved (Pss 73, 89). The concluding Books 4 and 5 elaborate an answer in the universal kingship of Yahweh while undergirding the more chastened view of life in the Torah.

Ps 119 seems to be the pillar around which this latter section of the Psalter informally hangs (Mays, 6-7). By size, elaborate acrostic, extensive vocabulary, and mixture of song types from the entire book of Psalms, it unites the whole corpus in a celebration of Torah faith captured in the opening lines:

Blessed are they whose ways are blameless,

who walk according to the law of the Lord.

Blessed are they who keep his statutes

and seek him with all their heart. 119:1-2

Then follow 174 verses of meditating on his law, in loving prayer rejecting all rival counsel and ways and places, and confirming faith in Yahweh (cf. 1:1-2). While the Gospel of Jesus rejects all distortions of this devotion that set obedience to the law in itself as of any consequence to salvation, the spirit of this piety surely finds echo in the Christian's all-consuming quest “to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, to attain to the resurrection from the dead” (Php 3:10).


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