Wisdom Literature in the Bible
The three main books in the category of wisdom literature are Proverbs, Job, and Ecclesiastes, though wisdom literature is found in other books— such as in Song of Songs, Psalms, and Habakkuk. Wisdom literature is mostly written in poetic form and therefore many figures of speech are used.
This type of literature and instruction was common in the ancient East. Wisdom was always taught primarily in the home, but certain individuals— “wise men”— were sought out for instruction in wise living and thinking. Such wise men were always more practical than theoretical.
Biblical wisdom is unique in that it teaches that the very first step in gaining wisdom is knowing and fearing (not in the sense of being afraid of but more of a revering) God. Biblical wisdom has nothing to do with being smart or clever, it is not a matter of age. Instead it is “a matter of orientation to God, out of which comes the ability to please him. Wisdom is the ability to make godly choices in life which is achieved by applying God’s truth to your life.” James 1:5 says that God will give wisdom to those who ask for it.
Something to try… Since James 1:5 promises that God will help us become more godly in our choices (he will give us wisdom) *if* we ask him, think about where you’d like to grow in making godly choices. Start asking God to help you make godly choices in your marriage, parenting, job, homemaking, finances, schooling, relationships, lifestyle choices, habits, etc.
The main guidelines for reading wisdom literature are:
1) They are meant to be read in context. You must read the whole book to get the overall message that is being communicated. When people read these books in bits and pieces, they will not usually follow the line of argument— which will lead to confusion or misinterpretation. People end up citing as biblical truth what was intended as an incorrect understanding of life.” For example, Job 15:20 says: All their days the wicked suffer torment, the ruthless through all the years stored up for them. “Would you take this to be an inspired teaching that evil people cannot really be happy? Job did not! He energetically refuted it! This verse is part of a speech by Job’s self-appointed “comforter” Eliphaz, who is trying to convince Job that the reason he is suffering so much is that he has been evil. Later in the book God vindicates the words of Job and condemns the words of Eliphaz (Job 42:7-8). But unless you follow the whole discourse of Job, you cannot know this.” You can see how reading one verse out of context will lead you to a very different and wrong conclusion than what was intended.
2) Remember to consider figures of speech and literary styles.
A Closer Look at the Wisdom Books
First we will start with Proverbs.
Proverbs are a unique literary style of writing. Proverbs are short pithy sayings that give observations or practical guidelines for successful every-day living. Proverbs are observations of life, not promises of prosperity and health. The setting of the book is a father giving advice to his son, encouraging him to seek wisdom rather than folly. You can see wisdom and folly contrasted throughout the book. Proverbs were written to be catchy and memorable expressions of truth. They were/are not intended to be taken as exact precise statements. For example, an English proverb says “look before you leap.” This is in inexact but memorable statement. “It does not say where or how to look, what to look for, or how soon to leap after looking. It is not even intended to apply literally to jumping.” It is a brief and memorable way to say something along the lines of “in advance of committing yourself to a course of action, consider your circumstances and options.” The former (brief expression) is the way in which the Hebrew authors wrote the Proverbs. In the original language many of the proverbs have some sort of rhythm, sound repetition or vocabulary qualities that make them easy to learn. (This is a total tangent and although I have no desire to get into controversial subjects on this blog, I will mention that understanding the literary context of Proverbs has reshaped my views on spanking in child discipline. I have moved away from spanking after understanding that Proverbs are not meant to be precise literal commands. I take Proverbs 13:24 “Whoever spares the rod hates their children, but the one who loves their children is careful to discipline them” to mean that if you neglect to discipline your child when needed, you do them a huge disservice, but if want the best for them you should be consistent and intentional about training them. I look for the principle that is being communicated instead of scrupulously dissecting every word (like I might do when reading New Testament Pauline theology). In addition, wisdom literature is meant to be read in context of the entire passage or book in order to get the whole message. So I see discipline to mean instruction, training, walking alongside, correcting when needed, etc. It is multi-faceted according to the picture Proverbs gives us.)
As I mentioned above, wisdom literature uses lots of figurative language, so be aware of the many figures of speech as you read Proverbs and don’t take things literal that are meant to be figurative.
Here are a few tips for reading and understanding Proverbs (this and all above quotes from How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth):
1. Proverbs are often parabolic (they are figurative, alluding to something more).
2. Proverbs are intensely practical, not theoretically theological.
3. Proverbs are worded to be memorable, not technically precise.
4. Proverbs are not designed to support selfish behavior— just the opposite.
5. Proverbs strongly reflecting ancient culture may need sensible “translation” so as not to lose their meaning. For example Proverbs 25:24 talks says “better to live on a corner of the roof than share a house with a quarrelsome wife.” In Bible times, roofs were flat so lodging on a roof was both possible and common.
6. Proverbs are not guarantees from God but poetic guidelines for good living.
7. Proverbs may use exaggeration (hyperbole), euphemism, or any of a variety of literary techniques to make their point.
8. Proverbs give good advice for wise approaches to certain aspects of life, but are not exhaustive in their coverage.
9. Wrongly used, proverbs may justify a crass, materialistic lifestyle. Rightly used, proverbs will provide practical advice for daily living.
Because this post is getting long I will split it in two parts and will talk about other wisdom books in the next post. I’m getting ready to attend a Walk Thru the Bible Instructor Training course in less than two weeks (which I’ve had to prepare and study for), we have family coming into town, and my sister is getting married this month. My goal is to keep posting 1-2 times a week but if I’m not here you’ll know why. Thanks for reading and following along. Peace.