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Thematic Elements in the Books of Proverbs and Psalms:

A Comparative View

- Chris Stewart

The Wisdom Literature of ancient Israel held great depth, intelligence, and

insight. In the Wisdom Literature two of the major themes to be found were temple

worship and righteous living, as well as how to live life abundantly. These themes are

found profusely throughout the proverbs and psalms written during the pre-exilic period

of Israel and proliferate throughout the entire accepted canon. Incorporated into the

poetic and wisdom texts are Proverbs, Psalms, Ecclesiastes, Job, and the Song of

Solomon. However there are a number of prophetic historical books which are written in

poetic form as well, both before, during, and after the Diaspora; these books are Isaiah,

Daniel, Ezekiel, and Obadiah, to name a few.

Both the Books of Psalms and of Proverbs were written primarily during the

period of the Unified Monarchy. Much of the Book of Psalms was written by DavidA;

while Proverbs was written largely by Solomon (though there are some who dispute

this1).

The Book of Psalms deals largely with Messianic theology. Consisting of several

thematic elements which Merrill (2008) describes thus: Penitential psalms, Imprecatory

psalms, and Messianic psalms2; all three of these themes contributing to and coalescing in

one arterial union leading to the heart of the Covenant - that of the purpose of temple

A John A. Tvedtnes states that Ps. 1-41 are largely Davidic and Ps. 42-89 contain some other Davidic
writings. (John A. Tvedtnes; “Ancient Israelite Psalters;” 30th Annual Sidney B. Sperry Symposium; pg.
241; 2001
worship and its ordinances, or Christ.

The Penitential psalms were psalms of remorse and repentance; written prayers

supplicating God’s forgiveness for wrongdoing and sin. These psalms have their

connection to the temple mainly in the ordinances of the outer court such as the

sacrifices, washings, and purification rituals. Angels, Jesus tells us, rejoice when a sinner

repents (Luke 15:7). When we are baptized, taking His name upon us, we covenant do

those things which He would do if He were here to do them.3 When we take of the

Eucharist we are, according to LDS doxology, witnessing our willingness to take upon us

His name and to remember Him always (Moroni 4-5). All of these denoting repentance,

prayer, and supplication for forgiveness.B All of these denoting our coming in unto Christ

and making our way back into the presence of God who resides in the Holy of Holies - a

common theme throughout the Bible.4

The Imprecatory psalms are hymns of pathos for the wicked; calling upon God to

view the wicked with His all-seeing eye and to remove them from His presence. Merrill

(2008) states thus, “It is important to remember about [the Imprecatory psalms] that the

poet desires God’s punishment not to satisfy his own feelings but because he recognizes

that the wicked have offended the honor of God.” The psalmist, as with the writer of

Proverbs, does not want the wicked to perish but would rather that they come again unto

the Lord to be redeemed (see Ezek. 18; Prov. 15:28-32; Ps. 7). However, the psalmist also

knows that “all unrepentant sinners must be dealt with according to their impiety toward

God.”5 These psalms hearken forward to the Day of Atonement and the High Priestly

B In Mosiah 4, King Benjamin is continuing his discourse to the people about repentance and their
unworthiness before God, as the chapter opens the people have fallen to the ground “for the fear of the
Lord had come upon them.” (vs. 1). In vs. 2 the people “cry aloud with one voice, saying: O have mercy,
and apply the atoning blood of Christ that we may receive forgiveness for our sins […].” The people are
praying aloud and in accordance to what Margaret Barker discusses in The Great High Priest (see ftnt 10).
See Mosiah 2-5 for a great discussion on repentance and our unworthiness before God.
ritual of entering the Holy of Holies, scattering the blood of the sacrifice on the veil, altar,

and elders of the people - cleansing those of the covenant while the wicked are found

naked and destroyed (Matt 22:11-13 (2-14).

Finally, the Messianic psalms are prophecies of the coming Lord and Savior of

Israel. In a common practice of prophetic utterance, the prophecy was not intended to be

a one time deal. In fact one of the tests of a prophetic pronouncement is its continuity

throughout all time6 - for what God speaks once, He will speak again (1 Ne. 10:19).

Theodoret in his supernal work “Discourses” uses Psalms as a justification for believing

in Christ. Showing how that, though David’s throne on earth had been dissolved, yet

through Christ the throne has been established forever.7 The Messianic psalms were in

prophetic declaration concerning the Lord coming out of the Holy of Holies clothed upon

with the “visible creation”8

Kim M. Peterson (2001) states that the “Psalms are praises” and, further, “Hymns

please [the Lord] if they are hymns of the heart. Hymns of the heart are hymns sung

sincerely.” If we do not sing the hymns of praise sincerely we are profiting ourselves

nothing and, as K. Peterson points out, have the song, as with an insincere prayer,

counted unto us for wickedness.9 Margaret Barker (2006), likewise, instructs us

concerning this when she says, “[…] the song of the angels had to be in harmony, and

any defect was punished. They had to sing ‘with one voice, with one speech, with one

knowledge and with one sound.. …As there can be no earlier or later, no lower or higher

for them, when they sang the hymn of sanctification before the king of the kings of

kings.’ […] The song of the angels was the harmony of the creation, and there was only

one theme - Holy Holy Holy. It was sung in response to the praises of Israel […,
emphasis added, ed.]. This is the earliest reference to the cosmic significance of the angel

song [3 Enoch 47, ed.], and evidence that it was known in the first temple. The temple

musicians performed in unison, ‘with the voice of unity’ when their music invoked the

Glory of the LORD to fill the temple (2 Chron. 5:13-14).” The psalms were to be sung in

sincere praise and harmony if they were to fill the ears of the Lord, otherwise a grave

punishment awaited.10

The Book of Proverbs is a collection of loosely jointed wisdom theology intended

to teach the reader concerning God’s works and words. Proverbs discussed the path to

Wisdom, what wisdom is, the differences between a fool and the wise. Proverbs taught

about marriage and child-rearing; about obedience and anger. Indeed, Merrill (2008)

states Proverbs “discusses the whole range of morals and ethics, providing wise insight

into human behavior.”11

In conclusion we can see that the wisdom literature of the United Monarchy was

one great depth, intelligence, and wisdom. Though the times may have been uncultured

by today’s standards, yet the people were a people of faith and sensitivity inasmuch as

they hearkened unto the counsels of God (2 Nephi 9:29). We can also conclude that the

children of Israel held wisdom, at least during the pre-exilic era, in high regard - even

over, one can argue that of keeping the Law. For they knew that the Law availed them

nothing save they abided by the precepts the Law pointed them towards (John 6). In all

wisdom literature, Psalms and Proverbs specifically, the intent is to bring the

listener/reader/singer to a greater sense of his own nothingness and God’s great power

and magnificence; of His mercy and justice and man’s own impiety. They also are

intended to teach the consequences of unrighteous living vs. righteous. As Jesus taught,
they teach us how to have life “and that more abundantly (John 10:10).”
1 John Thompson MA Egyptology; personal conversation. Mr. Thompson states that a large majority of the Proverbs were
taken from Egyptian Wisdom and brought into the Holy Land during the Exodus. There the Israelites compiled the ideas
into their own set of proverbs which accorded them fealty to their God and religion.

2 Eugene Merrill; “An Historical Survey of the Old Testament;” pg. 220-221; 2008

3 See Jennifer Clark Lane’s “Hebrew Concepts of Adoption and Redemption;” C. Michael Stewart’s “Gratitude Determines
Latitude;” and Module Six Essay “The Book of Love”

4 See my discussion on unity and sin in the Fall of Adam, Module 2 Discussion Forum and Essay (The Lineage of Sin and
Death in Genesis)

5 Eugene H. Merrill; “An Historical Survey of the Old Testament;” pgs. 220-221; 2008

6 K. Douglass Bassett; personal conversation

7 Theodoret; “Discourses”; pg. 170; 2004; compiled in “Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Second Series, Hendrickson
Publishers, Vol. 3”

8 Margaret Barker; “Temple Theology;” pg. 30; 2004

9 Kim M. Peterson; “Psalms of the Heart, Prayers unto God: 30th Annual Sidney B. Sperry Symposium;” pg. 250, 251; 2001

10 Margaret Barker; “The Great High Priest: Temple Roots of Christian Liturgy;” pg. 118; 2006; emphasis the authors
unless otherwise noted

11 Merrill; “An Historical Survey;” pg. 222; 2008