The Wisdom Books of Scripture: Engaging life’s big questionsWritten by Subby Szterszky
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Who is God? Where did we come from? Why are we here? What is the meaning of life? How should we live? Why is there suffering and evil in the world? What is our destiny?
People have grappled with these questions for as long as there have been people. All the world’s religions and philosophies have sought to answer them, and naturally, the Bible has a lot to say about them. In fact, these kinds of questions are a special concern of five books at the centre of the Old Testament – Job, Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes and Song of Songs – known collectively as the Wisdom Books or Wisdom Literature.
The answers these books offer, however, are rarely direct. They don’t deal in the bare facts and simple closure modern readers crave. Instead, they speak through poetry, dialogue, aphorism, memoir and song. Their lyrical style invites the reader to carefully weigh and meditate on what they’re reading.
That can be a big ask, particularly in a culture with an ever-shrinking attention span. But if we approach these books prayerfully, with respect for their context, genre and literary conventions, they offer us wisdom from God to discover over a lifetime – even in shapes that might surprise us.
Wisdom Literature in the Ancient Near East
Wisdom Literature is by no means exclusive to the Scriptures. It was a broad literary genre popular across various cultures of the Ancient Near East (ANE), especially in Egypt, Mesopotamia, Edom and Phoenicia. Similar writings are also attested in the literature of Ancient Greece, India and pre-Islamic Arab cultures.
Like the biblical Wisdom Books, these ANE writings were recorded primarily in the form of poetry. They addressed practical issues about how to live well, made observations about the nature of the world, and grappled with the problem of suffering and the meaning of life. They included lists of proverbs, short clever statements with advice for living virtuous and successful lives. There were also soliloquies and dialogues that engaged questions of sin and suffering and the nature of the gods. Royal figures would reflect on their lives and offer practical advice from a father to a son.
These collections of ANE Wisdom Literature preserved the sayings of the sages, wise men and wise women of earlier times, with the intention of passing them along to succeeding generations. They contain many striking parallels to the Wisdom Books of the Bible, but also one fundamental difference.
Wisdom Literature in the Old Testament
Unlike the Wisdom Literature of the ANE, the biblical Wisdom Books don’t rely ultimately on human wisdom or observation. Instead, they’re grounded in the wisdom of God. Behind all the perplexities and uncertainties of life, these writings recognize the hand of a Sovereign Creator who is all-wise and all-powerful, a God not of chaos but of order.
That said, there are also sharp contrasts between the Wisdom Literature of the Bible and the rest of the Old Testament. These books speak in a much more indirect style than the OT historical narratives that precede them and the prophetic oracles that follow. They share many literary features with the Wisdom Literature of the surrounding ANE cultures – dialogues, personal reflections and collected proverbs, most of it expressed in poetry or song. In terms of content, they make observations about the created order and how to live well, and they reflect on the problem of suffering and the meaning of life. But in all of this, they draw attention to the wisdom and the power of God.
For the most part, the OT Wisdom Books don’t offer easy answers and simple conclusions to the large questions they tackle. As several of the Psalms and Proverbs attest, they deal in dark sayings, riddles and mysteries, words of the wise preserved from ancient times for future generations. They invite readers to think deeply and to trust and worship God, despite life’s challenges and ambiguities.
The book of Job presents something of a paradox. The basic story is familiar, at least in outline form, but the book itself is strangely opaque to contemporary readers. Most of it is made up of a lengthy series of dialogues between Job and his friends as they debate about sin, suffering and the justice of God. The dialogues are in the form of repetitive, stylized poetry, with the speakers going in circles and talking past each other but never arriving at a satisfactory answer to the problem of suffering.
It’s not the sort of material that lends itself easily to sermon outlines and Bible studies. Instead, it forces the reader to engage with the cumulative effect of the dialogues, to enter into the frustration of the characters, and to experience the futility of human wisdom to answer life’s big questions.
The book is built around three structural tentpoles that provide the key to its meaning. It begins with the scene in heaven, in which God allows Satan to afflict Job in various ways. God is shown to be sovereign even over Satan, who can only go as far as the Lord permits. In other words, suffering and evil only exist in the world to the degree that God allows.
In the middle of the book, a hymn to wisdom interrupts the dialogues. Using imagery from nature, it extolls the mysteries and elusiveness of wisdom, how it resides solely with God and is impossible for humans to discover, apart from God revealing it to them.
At the end, God confronts Job with a series of rhetorical questions about the wonders of creation: stars and constellations, the earth and the oceans, seasons and weather patterns, birds and animals. The message is clear – God’s wisdom and power, reflected in his created order, is beyond human comprehension. Neither Job nor the reader are told why God allows suffering, but are called to trust him. As Tim Keller observes, “If you have a God great and transcendent enough to be mad at because he hasn’t stopped evil and suffering in the world, then you have (at the same moment) a God great and transcendent enough to have good reasons for allowing it to continue that you can’t know.”
Unlike Job’s long, lyrical dialogues, the Proverbs are popular with contemporary believers for their short sayings that offer practical advice in bite-sized chunks. Yet there’s a danger of reading them in a way that misses the forest for the trees. It’s an approach that treats the book like a bowl of fortune cookies: a series of unrelated verses that can be plucked from their context, read into one’s circumstances or claimed as a promise.
But the collection of sayings that form the bulk of the book aren’t tossed together randomly. They’re carefully arranged for effect, or according to various themes. Some of them are repeated or subtly modified throughout the collection. Others are placed to illustrate parallel, complementary or contrasting ideas. Back-to-back verses instruct the reader to answer a fool according to his folly, and also not to do so (Proverbs 26:4,5). Both statements are true, and both need to be read in context. Some of the sayings are easy to understand, while others use ancient imagery that can be a challenge to decipher.
The Proverbs operate on two levels: they offer individual facets of practical wisdom, but they’re also meant to be read carefully and meditatively for their cumulative effect. Most of all, they mustn’t be viewed as ironclad promises or guarantees, but rather as general principles for how life works. The other Wisdom Books bear this out – the righteous do suffer, the wicked do prosper, and life can be a perplexing enigma.
Nevertheless, a wise and sovereign God is in control. The book declares this from the outset: “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge; fools despise wisdom and instruction” and “Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not lean on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make straight your paths” (Proverbs 1:7; 3:5,6).
The book of Proverbs isn’t just a set of brief axioms. It begins and ends with sustained meditations on wisdom, in the form of instructions from a royal father (or mother) to their son. Female voices and imagery dominate these sections. The first nine chapters offer a metaphorical contrast between Lady Wisdom and the woman of folly, urging the son to embrace the former and avoid the latter. The final chapter presents the ideal wise woman of noble character. In the patriarchal world of the ANE, this association of wisdom with the feminine is a remarkable testament to God’s high regard for women.
With its existential musings on the meaning of life, or lack of same, Ecclesiastes reflects a surprisingly modern mindset. King Solomon, writing his memoirs as an old man, has done it all. He has explored everything life has to offer. He’s lived wisely and foolishly, thrown himself into work and pleasure, checked off several bucket lists’ worth of experiences.
His conclusion? From a strictly human perspective (life “under the sun”) everything is meaningless, a passing vapour without purpose. Whether good or bad, everyone dies the same way, just like the animals. There’s nothing new or original in the world. Everything that has been, will be again. And long after you’re gone, no one will remember you or anything you ever did. Lather, rinse, repeat.
It’s not the sunniest of books, to be sure. And yet there are shards of light in the existential gloom. For everything there’s a season, and a time for every matter under heaven. Enjoy the simple things, eating and drinking, family and work, as good gifts from God. And remember, God is in heaven, and you’re not. The bottom line: fear God and keep his commands because that’s the whole duty of humanity.
Beyond all this, Solomon also offers the key for grappling with the mystery of existence, and for understanding what drives the hopes, fears and longings of life in an uncertain world: “[God] has made everything beautiful in its time. Also, he has put eternity into man’s heart, yet so that he cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end” (Ecclesiastes 3:11).
Humans are unique in all of creation. We appreciate beauty, reflect on the meaning of life, and yearn for something beyond it that’s out of our reach. In so doing, we demonstrate that we’re not pointless meat puppets but divine image bearers, fashioned by God with value and purpose. As C.S. Lewis argued: “Creatures are not born with desires unless satisfaction for those desires exists. A baby feels hunger: well, there is such a thing as food. A duckling wants to swim: well, there is such a thing as water. Men feel sexual desire: well, there is such a thing as sex. If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world.”
Song of Songs
If there’s one book of the Bible that gives fits to commentators, whether Jewish or Christian, it’s the Song of Songs. The book is notable for never mentioning God, as well as for its zestful language about sexual desire between young King Solomon and his new bride. Older writers tend to reduce it to a symbol for the relationship between God and his people, or between Christ and his church, while glossing over all the suggestive metaphors. One can almost feel the pages of their commentaries blushing.
Such an approach, however, does little justice to the allusive poetic imagery of the Song, with its gardens and fruits and spices, and its longings in the middle of the night. The poetry must be allowed to sing with its own voice, as a ringing endorsement of sexuality as a beautiful gift from God.
At the same time, it’s not a carte blanche for sexual expression without boundaries. The context is limited to the relationship between the bride and the groom. This is underscored three times by the bride’s warning to her unmarried friends: “I adjure you, O daughters of Jerusalem, that you not stir up or awaken love until it pleases” (Song of Songs 2:7; 3:5; 8:4).
To be sure, the Song of Songs can also be read as a metaphor for the love between God and his people, between Christ and his church. But this is not a cool, prosaic, platonic love, the way some people of faith have pictured it. According to the Song, it’s a bond marked by the highest levels of intimacy, passion and delight.
Compared to the other Wisdom Books, Psalms scarcely needs an introduction, even for casual readers of the Bible. It’s one of the most familiar and beloved books in all of Scripture, with very good reason. The beautiful, evocative poetry delights the heart, reflects the entire range of human experience, and inspires wonder and worship toward God. Throughout history, Psalms has been the songbook of praise and worship for both the Jewish and Christian faith communities.
Psalm 23 is arguably the best-known chapter in the entire Bible, and several others are perennial favourites among people of faith. However, not all of the Psalms are as well-known or as well-loved. In many cases, their content, structure and imagery can be confusing or even upsetting to modern tastes and sensibilities. This can lead readers to create their own psalter within the psalter, embracing the Psalms that resonate with them and ignoring the ones that don’t.
The truth is that the Psalms are far more diverse than contemporary audiences typically expect. The book contains examples of nearly every subgenre of ANE Wisdom Literature, plus many more that don’t fit the mould. There are songs of praise and trust in God as well as bitter curses levelled at enemies; expressions of unbridled joy and near despair; contrasts between the way of wisdom and folly and questions about why the righteous suffer; reflections on the beauties of creation and on the brevity of human life; ancient sayings of the wise and words of advice from a king to his son; and meditations on the wisdom and sovereignty of God as well as prophecies about God’s promised Messiah.
The Psalms contain enough delight and challenge to last readers a lifetime, and it could hardly be otherwise. Taken as a whole, they illustrate the truth that God’s ways and thoughts are as high above ours as the heavens are above the earth. All of their poetry, both bright and dark, is designed to call the people of God to wonder at their Lord and to worship him alone. After all, as Tim Keller notes, “If your god never disagrees with you, you might just be worshipping an idealized version of yourself.”
Ancient wisdom for modern people
The five Wisdom Books form an eclectic anthology that sits at the positional and emotional heart of the Old Testament. The collection covers the broadest spectrum of human feeling, from the timeless comfort of “The Lord is my shepherd” to the existential despair of “Meaningless! Meaningless! Everything is meaningless!” Along the way, these books engage all of the biggest questions that people have been grappling with since time immemorial.
But they don’t do it in the direct propositional way modern readers are most comfortable with. Although these books are part of Scripture, they’re also part of the larger Wisdom tradition that was popular across the Ancient Near East. They employ literary conventions and cultural ideas that are often alien to contemporary audiences. Their allusive style and lyrical poetic structure invite the reader to think carefully, to weigh and chew and ponder these sayings of the wise. It’s a genre – or rather a cluster of subgenres – designed to speak to the heart and imagination as much as to the mind.
It’s essential, therefore, not to force these books into modern categories, whether literary, cultural, or even theological. Wisdom Literature is not a PowerPoint presentation. It’s not meant to be picked apart for facts that can be neatly filed away. It speaks in its own voice and builds its cumulative effect over a lifetime of study and meditation.
With prayer and illumination from the Holy Spirit, these books can impart their ancient wisdom to modern readers, addressing their timeless questions and speaking to the longings of their heart in ways they least expect. Not surprisingly, that’s a lot like how God loves to work – the God who inspired these writings in the first place.
Sources and further reading
Timothy Keller, The Reason for God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism, Dutton, 2008.
C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity, HarperOne, 2015.
Tremper Longman, “How universal is Wisdom Literature?” Comment, December 5, 2011.
David Penchansky, “What is Wisdom Literature?” Bible Odyssey, accessed June 28, 2021.
Andy Rau, “Tour of the Bible, part 3: The Wisdom Books,” Bible Gateway, March 23, 2011.
R.B.Y. Scott, “Biblical Wisdom Literature: Proverbs, Job and Ecclesiastes,” My Jewish Learning, accessed June 28, 2021.
“Wisdom series,” Bible Project, accessed June 28, 2021.
“What is Wisdom Literature?” Got Questions, accessed June 28, 2021.
Subby Szterszky is the managing editor of Focus on Faith and Culture, an e-newsletter produced by Focus on the Family Canada.
© 2021 Focus on the Family (Canada) Association. All rights reserved.
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