[Note: This blog is part of a series Part one can be found here.]
As I promised in the first part of this series, I wish to begin my examination of the relationship between wisdom and sorrow in the Bible with an obscure person I have spent a good deal of time reflecting on, Heman . Although this is someone I happen to be very familiar with, I am aware that he is not a well-known person in the Bible for most people. What I propose to do, therefore, is first provide both what the Bible says about him and his background and then what he himself wrote–namely Psalm 88–and then to discuss what his life tells us about the relationship between wisdom and sorrow. This is especially important since biblical sorrow is itself something that is often indistinguishable from what can be considered as depression, and because it was a discussion of Heman the Ezrahite that prompted our discussion of this subject.
Unsurprisingly, the Bible does not give a great deal of information about Heman, but what it does give is significant. See, for example, the notation of his family background in 1 Corinthians 6;31-38: ““Now these are the men whom David appointed over the service of song in the house of the Lord, after the ark came to rest. They were ministering with music before the dwelling place of the tabernacle of meeting, until Solomon had built the house of the Lord in Jerusalem, and they served in their office according to their order. And these are the ones who ministered with their sons: Of the sons of the Kohathites were Heman the singer, the son of Joel, the son of Samuel, the son of Elkanah, the son of Jeroham, the son of Eliel, the son of Toah, the son of Zuph, the son of Elkanah, the son of Mahath, the son of Amasai, the son of Elkanah, the son of Joel, the son of Azariah, the son of Zephaniah, the son of Tahath, the son of Assir, the son of Ebiasaph, the son of Korah, the son of Izhar, the son of Kohath, the son of Levi, the son of Israel.”” Here we see that among the most important aspects of Heman’s life to be communicated was his background and where he came from. One of the most important Levitical singers, a leader among the Levites who sang and performed music in the time just before and just after Solomon’s Temple was constructed, Heman was the grandson of Samuel through his corrupt and wicked elder son Joel, and that Samuel and Elkanah and his line was descended from the sons of Korah. Heman, like many believers today, had a long family history that was full of both positive and negative examples of faith, and he certainly had a heavy burden to bear in light of that.
There are only a couple more references to Heman in scripture that give us any personal information. 1 Chronicles 15:16-17 tells us: “Then David spoke to the leaders of the Levites to appoint their brethren to be the singers accompanied by instruments of music, stringed instruments, harps, and cymbals, by raising the voice with resounding joy. So the Levites appointed Heman the son of Joel; and of his brethren, Asaph the son of Berechiah; and of their brethren, the sons of Merari, Ethan the son of Kushaiah.” Again, this is a reminder that Heman was a responsible leader and recognized as such by his fellow Levites involved in the worship service of his time. Likewise, he was also recognized for his wisdom, as in 1 Chronicles 24:4-5: “Of Heman, the sons of Heman: Bukkiah, Mattaniah, Uzziel, Shebuel, Jerimoth, Hananiah, Hanani, Eliathah, Giddalti, Romanti-Ezer, Joshbekashah, Mallothi, Hothir, and Mahazioth. All of these were the sons of Heman, the king’s seer in the words of God, to exalt his horn. For God gave Heman fourteen sons and three daughters.” Here we see that Heman was recognized as a seer and that God gave him a large family to exalt him–as he was a man who clearly needed to be exalted. We also see his wisdom in 1 Kings 4:29-31: “And God gave Solomon wisdom and exceedingly great understanding, and largeness of heart like the sand on the seashore. Thus Solomon’s wisdom excelled the wisdom of all the men of the East and all the wisdom of Egypt. For he was wiser than all men—than Ethan the Ezrahite, and Heman, Chalcol, and Darda, the sons of Mahol; and his fame was in all the surrounding nations.” To be a man against whose wisdom Solomon is compared, as Heman’s was, is no small matter indeed. Solomon is proverbial among wise rulers, despite his flaws and his flagrant disobedience of the law of kings in Deuteronomy 17:14-20, and Heman was said to be a man almost as wise as Solomon, which is high praise indeed from scripture.
Yet Heman, for all his wisdom, was unquestionably a man full of sorrow. We see this most clearly in Psalm 88, which is quoted here in its entirety: “O Lord, God of my salvation, I have cried out day and night before You. Let my prayer come before You; incline Your ear to my cry. For my soul is full of troubles, and my life draws near to the grave. I am counted with those who go down to the pit; I am like a man who has no strength, drift among the dead, like the slain who lie in the grave, whom You remember no more, and who are cut off from Your hand. You have laid me in the lowest pit, in darkness, in the depths. Your wrath lies heavy upon me, and You have afflicted me with all Your waves. Selah. You have put away my acquaintances far from me; You have made me an abomination to them; I am shut up, and I cannot get out; my eye wastes away because of affliction. Lord, I have called daily upon You; I have stretched out my hands to You. Will You work wonders for the dead? Shall the dead arise and praise You? Selah. Shall Your lovingkindness be declared in the grave? Or Your faithfulness in the place of destruction? Shall Your wonders be known in the dark? And Your righteousness in the land of forgetfulness? But to You I have cried out, O Lord, and in the morning my prayer comes before You. Lord, why do You cast off my soul? Why do You hide Your face from me? I have been afflicted and ready to die from my youth; I suffer Your terrors; I am distraught. Your fierce wrath has gone over me; Your terrors have cut me off. They came around me all day long like water; they engulfed me altogether. Loved one and friend You have put far from me, and my acquaintances into darkness.”
Heman does not sugarcoat his anguish. He lays it all out, without any sense of resolution. He finds himself isolated and alone, feeling abandoned by God and by other people, and having endured anguish and suffering since his youth. And yet there is a great deal of wisdom in his anguish. Despite feeling that God has abandoned him, he does not cease calling across to God across the gulf of his suffering and anguish, and we see that God did indeed bless him for his continued faith and loyal service to God and God’s people despite his low emotional state. We also see that this suffering provided a great deal of wisdom, in that Heman is led to ask exactly the right questions concerning the suffering that human life entails. God will work wonders for the dead. The dead will arise and praise Him. God’s lovingkindness will be declared in the grave. God’s faithfulness will be known in the place of destruction. God’s wonders will be known in the dark. God’s righteousness will be known in the land of forgetfulness. What is more, we know about this because Heman’s suffering led him to ask about what God was going to do for the dead.
So, where do we go from here? We have seen that Heman’s family background influenced his suffering, as the fact that he suffered from his youth was likely related to the corruption of his father that led to the establishment of the monarchy. We have also seen that his suffering in turn led him to ask some insightful questions that would reveal some aspects of the plan of God when answered in the affirmative. In this way the sparseness of what the Bible says about Heman serves as an advantage, in that it frees us of the clutter that we have about more familiar biblical personages, by reminding us that this man suffered greatly, served God loyally, and was ultimately blessed. Moreover, his suffering was not in vain, but led to a great deal of insight. And that is insight we can appreciate. Let us turn from this most obscure example of the connection between suffering and wisdom and then turn to Jesus Christ and see what He said about the relationship between wisdom and suffering.
 See, for example: