This is part of our series on genre in the Bible. You need to understand the different genres in the Bible if you want to hear what God has to say to us today. This post looks at Wisdom Literature and how to read wisdom books in the Bible.
People in Bible times were no different from us. Some were philosophical, others wrote poetry, but there were also plenty who said, “Don’t get fancy. Just tell me what I ought to do in this situation.” Well, there’s lots in the Bible for them too.
The Book of Proverbs
Solomon, famous for his wisdom, collected a whole lot of proverbs and wrote his own, too. You can read them in the book of Proverbs. There’s a long introduction about wisdom, but starting at chapter 10 you can read his proverbs. Some of them are like riddles and you have to figure them out. He prefaces them all with the words: “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.” Fear, not as in the fear of an enemy, but fear meaning respect.
Wise people in the Bible aren’t those who have a high IQ. They are people who are tuned in to God. Fools are people who pay no attention to him.
Wise people in the Bible aren’t those who have a high IQ. They are people who are tuned in to God.
Proverbs are short and memorable. Some of them are colourful. I particularly like the one that says “Go to the ant, you sluggard. Consider its ways and be wise!” (Proverbs 6:6). Read on to verse 11 for some more vivid writing.
These parts of the Bible are different from all the rest in that they make no appeal to the character of God. They are drawn from human experience, not from the historical traditions that underlie so much of the Old Testament. On the other hand, they have a lot in common with similar writings from Egypt and the rest of the Ancient Near East. They are a guide to a fulfilled life.
Perhaps it’s not surprising, then, that sometimes they contradict one another. Look at Proverbs 26:4-5. What will you do with the advice here?
Do not answer a fool according to his folly,
or you yourself will be just like him.
Answer a fool according to his folly,
or he will be wise in his own eyes.
A word of caution
We have to be careful how we read the book of Proverbs. Proverbs 13:24 says “Whoever spares the rod hates their children.” This has been used to support the use of corporal punishment in schools. But is this what the proverb really means?
There are some verses that may make us wonder. We read “Train up a child in the way he should go, and when he is old, he will not depart from it,” (Proverbs 22:6 KJV). Most of us know godly parents who have wayward children. I know someone who used this verse to prove to himself that there was nothing authoritative about the Scriptures. (A bit of an over-reaction, don’t you think?) But wisdom literature was never meant to be read this way. It summarizes what is generally observed to be true and doesn’t offer any guarantees about individual cases.
Other Books of Wisdom
Wisdom in the Bible is not just in the book of Proverbs. The books of Job and Ecclesiastes also fall into this category. So do some of the Psalms.
Job is a 42-chapter story about a man who learned wisdom through losing everything he had. His “friends” offered him a truckload of traditional advice. We read in detail about all the so-called comfort they provided. It isn’t until we get to chapter 38 that he finds any resolution to his pain, when finally God speaks to Job directly, challenging him in a long series of questions to consider the splendour of creation. There are no answers to Job’s questions, but with the appearance of God he is satisfied. You have to read to the very end to get the point. Job may well be the oldest book in the Bible, written before Genesis. Its message is timeless. Without God we cannot make sense of life. “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.” (Psalm 111:10; Proverbs 1:7).
Its message is timeless. Without God we cannot make sense of life.
Ecclesiastes is similar. The “Teacher” tries everything in life in his search for meaning and finds everything futile. In the last chapter he reaches the same conclusion as Job:
Now all has been heard;
here is the conclusion of the matter:
Fear God and keep his commandments,
for this is the duty of all mankind
We may find all this unsatisfactory. It’s a minimalist view. The writers of these books were working with all they had, which all points forward to Jesus,
The writers of these books were working with all they had, which all points forward to Jesus,
“who is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. For in him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things have been created through him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together. And he is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning and the firstborn from among the dead, so that in everything he might have the supremacy. For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross.
Once you were alienated from God and were enemies in your minds because of your evil behavior. But now he has reconciled you by Christ’s physical body through death to present you holy in his sight, without blemish and free from accusation—if you continue in your faith, established and firm, and do not move from the hope held out in the gospel. This is the gospel that you heard and that has been proclaimed to every creature under heaven, and of which I, Paul, have become a servant.” Colossians 1:15-23.
Or, as Paul wrote to the Corinthians:
” For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not know him, God was pleased through the foolishness of what was preached to save those who believe. Jews demand signs and Greeks look for wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.” 1 Corinthians 1:21-24.
Now there’s something to think about.