The five keys for studying the Bible are always in play, no matter what we are studying in Scripture. For review purposes here are the five keys.
- Jesus and the Story of the Bible
- Reality and Commands
- Read according to the literature
- Whole, Parts, Whole
Now we turn our attention to wisdom literature. It is a unique genre of Scripture because there is nothing in our current culture to which we can compare it. The closes thing might be inspirational quotes. “Together Everyone Achieves More.”
Wisdom is a perfection of God. Biblical wisdom, what we find in wisdom literature, is the skill we need to live life as a covenant child of God. Knowledge is not divorced from it, but it is not simply knowledge, there is more to it. I had a professor who defined wisdom as the application of knowledge to life. Wisdom then requires action.
There are three books that are specifically wisdom literature:
One person likened these three books to three different people. Proverbs is the brilliant young teacher, Ecclesiastes in the middle-aged critic, and Job is the weathered old man.
Characteristics of Wisdom Literature
Because of the nature of wisdom literature, it can seem there is no structure or unifying theme. But Scripture teaches us that the fear of the LORD is the unifying theme of wisdom literature (Prov. 9:10; Ecc. 12:13). We know we are living in the fear of the LORD when we submit to God as our covenant Lord.
Wisdom literature is different because much of it is communicated through observation, especially observing what is found in creation. Wisdom is embedded in creation by God, “The Lord by wisdom founded the earth; by understanding he established the heavens; by his knowledge the deeps broke open, and the clouds drop down the dew.” Wisdom literature begins from below but observes within the framework of God’s covenant, the covenant is assumed. In other words, the observer has a biblical worldview, and this is what colors their observation.
God’s word is the engine of observation. Just as a car without an engine will not operate wisdom observations will not be true without the word of God running in the background.
Ferguson helpfully explains that wisdom literature, “provides wise and workable principles that need to be pursued in faith as we express God’s Lordship in the whole of life.”
Because God’s wisdom is embedded into creation wisdom literature covers every area of life.
- Our Appetite: Proverbs 23:1-9
- Ethics: Proverbs 1:3
Before we turn our attention to three passages that will help us understand wisdom literature, we need to say a quick word about Proverbs and Hebrew Poetry.
Proverbs are the literary foundation of wisdom literature. One author defines biblical proverbs as, “short, pithy (concise), statements that express a wise, general truth concerning life from a divine perspective.” Proverbs and therefore all of the wisdom literature gives us general truths that should not be applied in an absolute way. Proverbs 22:6 is an example of this, “Train up a child in the way he should go; even when he is old he will not depart from it.”
Many times, this is communicated as a promise. If parents will do the right thing then their kids will turn out the way, they want. But we know this isn’t always true. Faithful parents have children that never come to faith in Christ and unfaithful parents have children that come to faith.
Job’s friends are a great example of people who used Proverbs in an absolute way. They believed with all their heart Job did something wrong and that is why he was experiencing what he was. Many of their words are proverbs and they come across as callous because of their use of them.
Second, wisdom literature is its own genre but many times it will use Hebrew Poetry to communicate its sayings. Wisdom is often communicated through pictorial and vivid language. When we look at Hebrew Poetry soon, we will say more about this but there are two characteristics of Hebrew poetry that are important for wisdom literature.
- Lines that state the same truth in a similar way. (See Luke 6:27-28)
- Contrasting lines that help communicate one truth (Prob. 15:17)
With this foundation, we can turn our attention to three passages to help us understand wisdom literature.
Remember, observation, interpretation, and application should be used no matter what part of the Bible we are reading.
Introduction to Wisdom (Prov. 1:1-7)
In these opening verses of Proverbs, we learn the purpose of these collected sayings.
In verses 2-6 there are two words that are repeated.
- Instruction is how one learns wisdom. It must be told to us (or observed through a biblical worldview). It is something we must receive (1:2) it comes from outside of us. None of us are wise in and of ourselves.
- Understand is used in 1:2 and 5. This has to do with discretion, which we see in verse 4 as well.
Solomon wrote these saying for the benefit of his son. Solomon writes for four reasons. Can you see them in verses 2-4? We see these reasons in the “to” statements.
- To know wisdom and instruction
- To understand words of insight which is also stated in verse 6.
- To receive instruction in wise dealing.
- To give prudence to the simple knowledge and discretion to the youth.
The wise never stop growing (1:5). The wise hear and increase in learning. Solomon wants his son and by extension us to be wise and he knows we cannot be wise without some help. We need wisdom. James understands this when he says that anyone who lacks wisdom should ask God who gives generously to all without reproach.
While Solomon has his reasons for writing we must never forget what he calls the beginning of knowledge, and this is where we see the unifying theme come in. “The fear of the LORD is the beginning of knowledge; fools despise wisdom and instruction.” The beginning of knowledge is acknowledging God as God. To stand before Him in reverence and awe. Fools will despise wisdom and instruction because it is the fool who says in his heart there is no God (Psa. 14:1).
This is the introduction or the beginning of wisdom. Next, we see in Proverbs the incentives for pursuing wisdom.
Incentives for Pursuing Wisdom (Prov. 3:1-10)
Does it sound crass or crude to you that we need incentives for pursuing wisdom? After all, it would seem we would just know we need to.
As you read through Proverbs 3:1-10 what benefits or incentives do you see for seeking wisdom?
- Length of days (2)
- Peace (2)
- Favor and good success in the sight of God and man (4), this was true of Jesus who is the very wisdom of God (see Luke 2:52)
- God will make your path’s straight (6)
- Healing to your flesh and refreshment to your bones (8)
- Overflowing barns and wine vats (9)
There is one observation we need to make here. The incentives for pursuing wisdom are never divorced from God. In verse 5 we see we need to truth in the LORD, in verse 7 that we need to fear the LORD, and in verse 9 that we need to honor the LORD with our wealth. This is because we can’t ever pursue wisdom apart from God. If we do not fear Him first, we will never acquire wisdom.
Insights From Creation
Much of what we find in wisdom literature starts with observations from creation and then applies them to life. Proverbs 24 gives us two observations from creation, the first using honey.
Honey (Prov. 24:13-14)
The indicator for us here that honey is being used to show us an aspect of wisdom is the word such in verse 14. Wisdom is good for you and it is sweet to your soul as it is to the taste of your mouth. The one who finds wisdom will have a future and their hope will not be cut off.
As honey sustains our outer body wisdom sustains our inner body, our souls.
Food is something we see used often because it is part of the prosperous life which wisdom is concerned with. Ecclesiastes 9:7, “Go, eat your bread with joy, and drink your wine with a merry heart, for God has already approved what you do.”
A Field and a Vineyard (Prov. 24:30-34)
The observer sees a field and a vineyard that are run down. They have not been taken care of. From what he sees he then makes a connection to wisdom, the wisdom of working hard and taking care of what God has given to us.
Look at the words in verse 32.
Laziness leads to poverty and we may not even realize it.
There is another example in Proverbs that teaches us about the need to work hard and the observation begins with creation. Let’s look at Proverbs 6:6-11.
- Consider the ways of the ant and be wise (6:6).
- How can we do this? 7-8 are the explanation. Without a main leader the ant prepares her bread in summer and gathers her food in harvest. Proverbs 30:25 says, “the ants are a people not strong, yet they provide their food in summer.”
- Verses 9-11 are the action we are to take from this observation from creation. Verses 10-11 are the exact same as what we just looked at in Proverbs 24.
We need wisdom and God in His grace has given us wisdom throughout Scripture and then specifically in the wisdom literature.
Wisdom is the skill we need to live a faithful, obedient life as a covenant child of God. God embedded wisdom into His creation and the Bible’s wisdom literature observes this wisdom through a biblical worldview and applies it to our lives.