Learning ObjectivesWhen you finish this session, you should be able to:
- Understand the three ways Wisdom literature has been inappropriately used
- Know how to view Ecclesiastes
- Know how the book of Job answers the question: Why do the righteous suffer?
- Understand how to read proverbial wisdom.
Wisdom literature is the least understood by the Christian believer. In this session, we will overview this genre of literature. First, we will observe Wisdom’s character. Then, we will see how wisdom can be used from a pessimistic point of view. Next, we will discuss the age-old question: Why do the righteous suffer? Finally, we will look at some application considerations and summarize them.
Where Are We Going
First Testament Wisdom
The Pessimistic Wisdom of Ecclesiastes
The Wisdom of Job
Some Application Considerations
• Fee and Stuart. How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth. pp. 225-248
First Testament Wisdom
This genre of literature is the most unfamiliar to Jesus followers today. Because we do not understand Wisdom Literature, we often lose the benefits within it that God intended for us. Wisdom can and should be a helpful resource for living as a Jesus follower. The misuse of it usually provides a basis for selfish, materialistic, and shortsighted behavior.
There are three First Testament books that are regarded as Wisdom Literature. They are Ecclesiastes, Proverbs, and Job. There are also a number of Psalms that fall into this category, such as Psalm 37 and Psalm 73.
Wisdom literature is the discipline of applying truth to one’s life in the light of experience. This idea of “applying truth to one’s life,” however, is not the same as the present society’s phrase: my truth! The “applying truth to one’s life” idea makes wisdom personal, not theoretical or abstract. Wisdom is something that exists when a person thinks or acts according to the truth as it has been learned through his or her experience. Wisdom literature focuses on people, and their behavior of applying the truth learned through experience. The wisdom of the First Testament does not touch all of life. It does not address the theological or historical issues which find importance elsewhere in the First Testament. The skill of using wisdom does not guarantee that wisdom will always be properly used. Solomon is a prime example.
The idea of “my truth” is not in touch with biblical wisdom.
Every wisdom saying that one uses is a way of expressing the wisdom learned through experience. These rules were passed on with the hope that the same experiences do not have to be learned a harder than necessary way by those receiving the instructions. God does not buy into the idea that you can’t teach old dogs new tricks or that you can’t put old heads on young bodies.
There are three ways in which First Testament Wisdom has been used inappropriately:
First, the books are only read in part. There is an overall message which the author was inspired to give. Small pieces of wisdom teaching taken out of context can sound profound and practical but are often misapplied, and misapplication leads to bondage, not freedom.
The following bit of unattached wisdom has been used in such a way:
…a time to be born and a time to die,
Here the cynic teacher tells his audience that life is futile, i.e., no matter how good or bad your life has been, your death arrives when its time for you to die. Some Jesus followers have suggested that this verse and others mean that God chooses your life span. The context does not support this meaning.
Second, the terms within Wisdom literature are misunderstood. Take Proverbs 14.7 as an illustration:
Stay away from a fool,
for you will not find knowledge on their lips.
What does this mean? What is a fool? In Proverbs, “fool” usually means infidel. An infidel is one who is an unbeliever that lives life according to selfish, indulgent whims, and who acknowledges no higher authority than himself. To “stay away” is linked with the purpose for you will not find. This bit of wisdom teaches that when one seeks knowledge on how to live life, s/he should not do so from an infidel.
Third, the line of argument in a wisdom discourse is often not followed correctly, and the interpreter ends up living by a standard which is an incorrect standard. In Job 15.20, Eliphas suggests that Job is suffering because he has been evil. Job refutes this notion in his speech that follows. Some, however, have incorrectly taught that this verse means that evil people cannot be happy! In the book of Job, unless you follow the whole argument, you will come to faulty conclusions and may find yourself living by an incorrect standard of behavior and cause others whom you may teach by word or lifestyle to do the same.
The crucible for learning wisdom is the home. More wisdom is taught there than in any other setting. Parents teach children all sorts of wisdom every day, most of the time, without realizing it. Every rule that is issued is a way of expressing the wisdom learned through experience. It is passed on with the hope that the same experiences do not have to be learned a harder than necessary way by those receiving the instructions. Proverbs are the same sort of practical advice but subordinated to God’s wisdom.
Wisdom is mostly written in poetry for the ease of memorizing. Poetry was much more learnable than prose. Wisdom uses all kinds of poetry:
- Synonymous (Proverbs 7.4)
- Antithetical (Proverbs 10.1)
- Acrostic (Proverbs 31.10-31)
- Alliteration (Ecclesiastes 3.1-8)
- Countless similes, metaphors, allegories, riddles, and parables.
See Session #9 for information about the above categories.
The Pessimistic Wisdom Of Ecclesiastes
Ecclesiastes demonstrates what life without God is like. It is life degenerated from orthodoxy. It is the antithesis of what is taught elsewhere in Scripture.
The following passages demonstrate the meaninglessness of life (Ecc. 1.2; 1.14; 2.15; 3.19; 5.16; 8.14; 9.9-10; 12.8). While there are some positive moments (Ecc. 12.1-8), the consistent message is that life has no meaning, because death, the great leveler, make all lives end the same! Enjoy life as much as you can while you are alive (Ecc.8.15), because that is all there is, there is nothing else. Live it up now, when it is over, it’s over (Ecc. 2.16 cp/w Ecc. 9.5).
The last two verses of Ecclesiastes (Ecc. 12.13-14) point the reader away from Ecclesiastes to the rest of Scripture. The book thus serves as a reverse apologetic for pessimistic wisdom and points the reader/hearer to where real life occurs.
The Wisdom In Job
The book of Job is structured as a dialogue between Job and four friends (Bildad, Zophar, Eliphaz, and Elihu). The dialogue of Job with these four individuals has a goal: to establish in the mind of the reader that what happens in life does not always occur because it is fair.
The four so-called comforters of Job represent the viewpoint that God is giving out judgment through the events of life-based on the response man has to him. When life is good, it is a direct result that God is pleased with you; if life is bad, it is only because one has sinned, and God is not pleased. This idea is the basic concept of the Lord-Servant Treaty. The story of Job cuts off the sharp edges of the Lord-Servant Treaty.
Job knew that he had done nothing to deserve the wrath of God. His speeches consistently speak to this issue (Job 3, 6-7, 9 10, 12-14, 16,17, 19, 21, 23-24, 26-31). His friends are horrified when Job keeps telling them that he is not responsible for his conditions (illness, bereavement, impoverishment, and incapacitation).
His friends argue that life is the way it should be, while Job argues that life is unfair and that the world, as it is now, is not the way it ought to be.
God comes into the picture (Job 38-41) and speaks to Job. He corrects Job and puts his situation in perspective.
The whole book of Job is to answer the question for the ancient concerning apparent unfairness of life: Why do the righteous suffer? Today’s answer to that question is the same as it was in Job.
Proverbs are the rules and regulations which will help people live responsible lives. Therein, we have the basic values of life taught. They are learnable guidelines.
Proverbs provide a collection of pithy sayings that are designated to help one live a reasonably successful life.
Wisdom and folly are contrasted in Proverbs. Folly is characterized by such things as violent crime (Proverbs 1.10-19), careless promising or pledging (Proverbs 6.1-5), laziness (Proverbs 6.6-11), malicious dishonesty (6.12-15), and sexual impurity, which are all especially harmful to an upright life (Proverbs 2.16-19). Wisdom would be the opposite of these things.
Proverbs do not state everything about “a truth,” but they point toward the truth. When taken literally instead of as learnable guidelines for the shaping of behavior, they will often lead one away from the intended meaning, i.e., Proverbs 6.27-29.
Proverbs 9.13-18 is an example of a proverb set in a story form. It is not a proverb to suggest that anything that you commit to God will succeed. It rather teaches that lives committed to God and lived according to his will, will succeed according to God’s definition of success.
Proverbs must be taken on their own terms and not exposed to the Western way of literalizing.
Some Application Considerations
Proverbs are not a legal guarantee from God. They state a wise way to approach certain selected practical goals. Nowhere does Proverbs teach automatic success. Both Ecclesiastes and Job should remind us that there is very little that is automatic about the good and bad events of life.
Proverbs should be read as collections. Each Proverb must be balanced with and understood in comparison with other Proverbs as well as the rest of Scripture. They cannot be isolated from each other. An individual proverb, which is misunderstood, may lead one to an attitude or behavior which is far from appropriate. Consider the following example. Proverbs 22.26-27 means that debts should be taken on cautiously because foreclosure is very painful. They should be seen as pointing toward the broader principle rather than expressing something technical.
Proverbs are worded so that one can remember them, not worded so that they express accurateness. No proverb is a complete statement of truth. No proverb is worded so that it can stand up to the unreasonable demand that it applies to every situation on all occasions. Wisdom knows when and where proverbs are useful. Consider Proverbs 26.4-5.
Proverbs often need to be culturally updated to make sense. A lot of the proverbs express their truth according to practices which no longer exist for us. We need to put these proverbs into a modern equivalent.
Proverbs 25.24 reads:
Better to live on a corner of the roof,
than to share a house with a quarrelsome wife.
We could translate this as follows:
It is better to live in a dog house
than in a spacious house with a wife who bitches all the time.
We need to understand that these little pithy sayings are to lead us to wisdom in life, not to undo decisions that we have already made.
- Proverbs are figurative and usually point beyond themselves.
- Proverbs are practical pieces of experienced life.
- Proverbs are worded to be remembered.
- Proverbs reflect ancient culture and may need to be culturally retranslated.
- Proverbs use many kinds of literary devices.
- Proverbs give good advice for a wise approach to certain aspects of life; they are not exhaustive.
- Proverbs used wrongly can often justify materialistic lifestyles, but when used properly, will provide practical advice for our daily lives.
Community Discussion Questions
➡ |CDQ Info|
- What experiences have you had that have formed little wisdom sayings that you pass along to others?
- In what circumstance do you think that the model of pessimistic wisdom is valuable? Why?
- What do you think is Job’s answer to the question: Why do the righteous suffer?
- Such an interesting proverb! Does it only mean wife?
- Such an interesting proverb! Does it only mean wife?
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