What is wisdom literature?Question: "What is wisdom literature?"
Answer: Wisdom literature was a category of literature in many cultures in the time of the Old Testament. Wisdom literature deals with the way the world “works.” It can deal with the big philosophical problems and the smaller things that may be addressed with common sense. Modern philosophical writings might be considered to be in the same vein as ancient wisdom literature. Modern philosophers write about such lofty issues as the problem of evil, while others address more mundane matters from a practical standpoint. A modern example of the more practical wisdom might be Benjamin Franklin’s “Poor Richard’s Almanac,” source of the wise saying “Early to bed, early to rise, makes a man healthy, wealthy and wise.” This is not lofty, academic philosophy, but it is philosophy of sorts.
The wisdom literature of ancient Israel was unique in that God was recognized as the fountainhead of all wisdom. “The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom, and knowledge of the Holy One is understanding” (Proverbs 9:10). Through common grace, people can gain a certain amount of wisdom about how to live in the world. There are unbelievers who know how to manage their money well, respond positively to difficult situations, and even respond to tragedy with strength and dignity. However, it is the Lord who created the world, and only He can give true insight into the way the world works, because His wisdom is seen in the light of eternity.
In the Old Testament, there are five books that are classified as wisdom literature:
The book of Job deals with the problem of evil and the justice of God. Job is a faithful man who loses everything. He has friends who tell him that he must be guilty of some great sin and that he should confess it and perhaps God will restore him (Job 11:13–15). In their worldview, this kind of thing only happens to the wicked. Job, however, maintains his innocence but does come quite close to questioning God’s justice because in Job’s world, too, things like this should only happen to the wicked. In the end, God appears to Job and emphasizes the fact that what He is doing is bigger than any simple formula that people may concoct (chapters 38–41). In the end, the book does not answer the question of why the righteous suffer, but it does turn the focus to God who is in control.
There are 150 psalms, all examples of wisdom literature and generally prayers and/or songs of worship. Many of them deal with the difficult problems of life such as “why do the wicked prosper?” and “if God loves me, why is this happening to me?” Psalm 73 is an example of a “philosophical” psalm. The writer looks around at how the wicked are prospering and is tempted to envy them because they seem to have it so good. “My feet had almost slipped; I had nearly lost my foothold. For I envied the arrogant, when I saw the prosperity of the wicked” (Psalm 73:2–3). But then he remembers that their prosperity is only for a limited period of time. He considers what will happen to them in the end: “Those who are far from you will perish; you destroy all who are unfaithful to you. But as for me, it is good to be near God. I have made the Sovereign Lord my refuge; I will tell of all your deeds” (verses 27–28). Indeed, the whole book of Psalms may be seen as addressing the issue of why God has allowed Israel to suffer when it is the “chosen nation.” The answer is that, even as Israel suffers God’s chastisement, He will never abandon them.
Most of the book of Proverbs is made up of short, pithy sayings about how the world works. Some of these bits of wisdom literature address simple, common sense solutions to life’s problems. Proverbs 27:14 is almost comical but true: “If anyone loudly blesses their neighbor early in the morning, it will be taken as a curse.” In other words, let your neighbor sleep if he wants to! This proverb is also very practical: “Don’t visit your neighbors too often, or you will wear out your welcome” (Proverbs 25:17). Another is sad but true: “Better a dry crust with peace and quiet than a house full of feasting, with strife” (Proverbs 17:1).
The truth of many of the proverbs can be readily apprehended without any special spiritual insight, but others will make more sense when viewed from God’s perspective: “For the lips of the adulterous woman drip honey, and her speech is smoother than oil; but in the end she is bitter as gall, sharp as a double-edged sword” (Proverbs 5:3–4). And some will only make sense when viewed from the perspective of eternity: “The Lord works out everything to its proper end—even the wicked for a day of disaster” (Proverbs 16:4).
Ecclesiastes may be one of the most misunderstood books of the Bible. Some things in the book seem to be flatly at odds with everything else in the Bible. For example, Ecclesiastes 3:19–21 says, “Surely the fate of human beings is like that of the animals; the same fate awaits them both: As one dies, so dies the other. All have the same breath; humans have no advantage over animals. Everything is meaningless. All go to the same place; all come from dust, and to dust all return. Who knows if the human spirit rises upward and if the spirit of the animal goes down into the earth?” However, when one understands that the theme of the book of Ecclesiastes is “Life without God,” the book begins to make sense. Ecclesiastes reveals the inner thinking of a person who has lost hope in the God of the Bible. If God is not a good, loving, faithful God, then the above passage is completely logical. The point of Ecclesiastes is that life “under the sun” (a phrase the author uses to describe life on a completely horizontal level) is meaningless. The only sensible conclusion is to stop looking for meaning “under the sun” and to “remember your Creator” (Ecclesiastes 12:1).
Song of Solomon (or Song of Songs)
Song of Solomon is also an example of wisdom literature. The book is a poetic picture of marriage written by or about Solomon and a woman he loves. Scholars disagree on exactly how it should be understood and exactly who is saying what. But the bottom line seems to be that Solomon loves the woman and this book gives some practical ways that he can express his love.
Wisdom literature deals with how to live well. Those who want to maintain harmonious relationships with friends, family, and God; who wish to avoid foolish mistakes in everyday life; or who desire to raise their children in the fear of the Lord will turn to the wisdom literature of the Bible for advice.
Recommended Resource: Proverbs NIV Application Commentary by Paul Koptak
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Questions about Proverbs
What is wisdom literature?