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Biblical Realism as Faith:
The Wisdom and Psalms Traditions

Dennis Bratcher

Most Christians are familiar with the more well-used parts of Scripture, such as the Old Testament prophets, the Gospels, and the writings of Paul. However, most Christians are less familiar with other parts, such as the Psalms and wisdom traditions (the wisdom books usually include, Job, Proverbs, Song of Solomon, and Ecclesiastes; some include Ruth). While many people are vaguely acquainted with parts of the Wisdoms books, such as Job and Proverbs, or read selected psalms as daily devotionals, there is a general lack of understanding of how these books relate to Christian living today and what theology they contain in relation to other parts of the Bible. For example, often Job is characterized as a book about patience, ignoring the fact that on closer reading Job is anything but patient in the book. The book is not really about patience, but focuses on one of the most penetrating questions that people of God can ask: how can we understand the innocent suffering of the righteous?

And of course, The Book of Psalms is filled with questions. There is pain, anger at both others and God, suffering, illness, despair, and sometimes unmitigated rage. These are aspects of human existence that bring forth the deepest and most penetrating questions. Yet, there are also prayers of thanksgiving for deliverance, celebrations of God’s goodness, liturgies of worship, memories of failure and grace, the simple joy of living, doxology, and sometimes reflections about the difficulties of life. The whole gamut of human experience is expressed in various ways in prayer to God.

There is a realism to the Psalms that will not be clouded by the sometimes excessively syrupy way that modern worship treats the psalms. In a context where we think that praise means handclapping, smiles, and a focus on the positive, we perhaps need to be reminded that the title of the book of Psalms, the book that contains all the realism of life from pain to delight, from hurt to joy, from the depths of despair to the heights of hope, all of them are titled in Hebrew tehillim, "praises." That sense of letting all of life praise God, whether in thanksgiving and hymn or in lament and penitence is the realism of biblical faith that we sometimes neglect in our modern religion. And yet, it is an integral part of Scripture, and of biblical theology.

We are used to seeing the Bible in terms of instructions from God thundered from Mount Sinai, the words of God through the prophets, the word of God pronouncing judgment on sin, or the promise of God’s presence and grace in times of national calamity. We are not used to hearing the Bible much in its more human dimension, where the deep questions of human existence burst to the surface and explode to be hurled in the face of God. We too often assume that the entire Bible is either about proper piety, promises of hope, or judgment on sin.

And yet, most of us, in fact most of God’s people throughout biblical times and through the ages, live in the "between" times, in the ordinary times where great events are long in the past or anticipated in the future. While much of the Bible recounts those high or low points of God’s peoples’ journey, most of their actual living was in the "between" times when ordinary day-to-day living had to be done. And in those ordinary times, life still happened. There were all the ups and downs of human existence, both joys and triumphs along with the tragedies and pain that accompany all human existence.

And so there were questions from God’s people. They were the screamed questions of "why?" and "how long?" They were the reflective questions, like "why do the wicked prosper?" They were the more deeply pious questions arising out of the darkness of human experience: "O Lord, why do you cast me off? Why do you hide your face from me?" (Psa 88:14). And they were the questions that could not even be framed as questions but hurled forth as curses, as the psalmist cried out the deepest of his own emotions: "May his memory be cut off from the earth. For he did not remember to show kindness, but pursued the poor and needy and the brokenhearted to their death. He loved to curse; let curses come on him" (Psa 109:16-17).

Some Christians assume that all of life should be positive and in a superficially pious mode suggest that God’s people, that Christians, should never question God. And yet, there are the questions, scattered throughout the wisdom and psalms traditions, plainly and sometimes harshly spoken, yet never condemned by God. That kind of biblical realism should be taken seriously by those who value Scripture as the instructions for God’s people. We dare not let our own notions of what God is about in the world and false notions about how we are to live as God’s people overshadow the truth about our humanity lived under God plainly spoken from the pages of Scripture.

Along with the questions are the practical observations about life, observations that do not rise to the level of prophetic pronouncement, but are nevertheless important for God’s people to know and learn about life and living. They are observations about family relationships, about marriage and commitment, even about sexuality and its joy as a gift from God, about how to get along with others in community, how to avoid conflict and strife, about the dangers of pride and laziness, the folly of ignorance and selfishness, and all manner of advice about how to live life well as God’s people.

These observations about living well as God’s people in God’s world were not proclaimed as the word of God in any authoritative manner. They arose from within the community as they lived and experienced life, and learned what made for peace and well being in God’s world (shalom) and what caused contentions, unhappiness, and strife. As God’s people, they accumulated a wisdom that dealt with the practical aspects of daily living. And they passed on the wisdom of the community to succeeding generations as a truth of God. This is the human dimension of Scripture that, for us, is no less authoritative than the words of God at Sinai, or the words of the prophets, or the writings of Paul. Walter Brueggemann, a world renowned Old Testament scholar, captured this aspect well when he titled a book on the wisdom traditions In Man We Trust: The Neglected Side of Biblical Faith (John Knox, 1972).

And yet, as Brueggemann’s subtitle suggests, we too often neglect this human dimension of Scripture. There are many reasons for that neglect that includes sociological and psychological factors. However, a significant reason within Christianity is the influence of Greek dualism and certain theologies developed in Christianity from those assumptions. As a result, we have not trusted human beings to understand very much about God, let alone allow human wisdom, no matter how God inspired, to become part of God’s word to us. So we wait for the prophetic word, or the authority of the preacher, or official doctrine and law, not realizing that embedded within all of life there is truth about God that we can grasp as God’s people if we are willing to see with the eyes of Faith.

This is not to say that "nature" itself is a source of revelation, although there are some who contend just that. Rather, it is to say that God can reveal himself and his truth in more ways than through fire, lightening, and thunderous words. The psalmic and wisdom traditions believed that God also spoke to his people through the ordinary modes of human existence, in the everyday things that all human beings do. It was a belief grounded in the idea that all of life is sacred because it is created by God and is lived under God in His creation. This is sometimes called "sacral humanism" as opposed to those who can only see humanity in negative terms as "secular humanism" (see Humanism in Scripture and Culture: Recovering a Balance).

With such a commitment to God as Creator, not just of the world but also of humanity and human existence, the people began with a profound reverence for God and the world that God had created and in which humans live. This is what the wisdom traditions called "fear of the Lord" (in Hebrew the word "fear" is the same word that is also translated "reverence"). It is this "fear of the Lord" that is the beginning of authentic knowledge and understanding, wisdom, about human existence (Proverbs 1:7, 9:10). It is this wisdom that understands God, the world that God created, and human existence in that world under God (Job 28:28, see The Character of Wisdom and Patterns for Life: Structure, Genre, and Theology in Psalms). It allows humans to live realistically and faithfully in a world that does not always work according to our expectations and wishes.

By living in God’s world as his people, and with the proper reverence of God, the biblical traditions believed that human beings could receive wisdom from God concerning how to live in the world, as they themselves put forth the effort to seek it and value it (Proverbs 2:6-7). That is the basis for the truth of The Psalms and the wisdom traditions, not just as God’s words thundered from the heavens or as the traditions of men and women apart from God, but as Scripture.

As Scripture, the psalms and wisdom traditions, with all of their earthy, unvarnished reality, provide us with resources to live as God’s people in a world in which hallelujahs are not always authentic and hand-clapping praise is not always honest. That does not mean that biblical confessions bring no hope in the midst of the occasional (or frequent) darkness of human circumstances. They do. But it does mean that Scripture is far more balanced and realistic in dealing with the reality of human experience than we usually recognize. And the Scriptures, in their totality that includes all of the psalms and the wisdom traditions, teach us that such honesty and biblical realism is authentic faith.

-Dennis Bratcher, Copyright © 2013, Dennis Bratcher - All Rights Reserved
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