“Praise the Lord! I will give thanks to the Lord with my whole heart, in the company of the upright, in the congregation. Great are the works of the Lord, studied by all who delight in them. Full of splendor and majesty is his work, and his righteousness endures forever. He has caused his wondrous works to be remembered; the Lord is gracious and merciful… The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom; all those who practice it have a good understanding. His praise endures forever!” - Psalm 111:1-4, 10
“Off to make unhappy people believe the world revolves around them,” my daughter, home from college for the summer, often chirps on her way out the door to wait tables. Thankfully the Psalms offer us no such charade, and to keep us from thinking too much of ourselves and too little of God, the psalmist throws eight psalms of praise into his song book. A psalm of praise is line after line of all the best attributes of who God is, and it is written as an acrostic, each line beginning with a letter of the Hebrew alphabet, in successive order of course. The nifty acrostic trick doesn’t pop out in English translation, but it is enough to know that by using all 22 Hebrew letters, the author was sending the signal: This is a full list! This is how comprehensively good our God is, or at least as comprehensively as we are able to say it. The suggestion of singing through such a list was that if this inventory doesn’t make you love our God more, you are as dead as a slab of granite.
No surprise, wisdom is one of God’s attributes being showcased here (v. 10). Wisdom seems to be the incandescence of true knowing that lights up the darkness of confusion and despair. Refusing to escape the horrors of the cross and insisting on breaking out of the thieving tomb were acts of sheer wisdom on the part of God the Son, then.
The trouble with this Psalm is in 2 parts. First, the world is short on wisdom, and getting shorter every day. Secondly, the key to accessing wisdom somehow, is fear?! This is a very common biblical formula - the beginning of wisdom is the fear of God. But fear can’t possibly mean what we fear it means in this case, all the preacherly and interpretive gymnastics to explain what fear is in this sense, all of which still leave too few of us feeling any more reverent, nor any closer to God, nor any wiser for God’s sake! Without dragging you through the technicalities, I will give you the best, sloppy translation I can cobble together. (If it works, use it, and don’t give the true linguists even a single further hearing!) To revere what God reveres is the beginning of wisdom. To love and value what God loves and values is the beginning of wisdom. To be captivated and taken with those things that enthrall God, namely the very attributes and character we have just listed and celebrated in our song, is true wisdom. If that is what the psalmist means, suddenly many more of us can participate in God’s wisdom. Wisdom is being swept away in God’s incomparable character, and the craving to display more of it ourselves.
If our interpretation is close....
...wisdom seems to appear in that moment when we stop caring so much whether we are noticed by the people around us, and we begin to care that the transformative work and presence of God in us is what other people see. It seems to be the shift in our being when we stop caring about whether we will go to heaven because we are much more concerned to look and feel like living, breathing chunks of heaven walking the earth. It seems to be the difference between reserving a corner of our hearts for the Living God and realizing that he means to take up every inch of them so there isn’t a hair’s breadth of room for anything else (v. 2).
Our drastic, and highly unauthorized, re-translation reads, WHAT GOD HIMSELF LOVES/REVERES/STANDS IN AWE OF HIMSELF IS THE BEGINNING OF ALL WISDOM. Or, put another way, TREASURING WHAT GOD TREASURES IS WISE. Wisdom seems to be, in the end, finally finding a far better love and being able to laugh off all lesser seductions.
Faith and Practice:
This should make the practice of wisdom more straightforward. In moments where wisdom is called for ask, “What attribute and character trait of the Living God would transform this situation? Through Christ, alive and active in me by his Spirit, how can I display more of those attributes and that character in this instant to the glory and rejoicing of God?” We would love to hear your thoughts in the comments.
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