How to Read: Wisdom Literature

wisdom

This is part of a series of posts based on the book How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth. To see the previous posts in this series, click below:
Are You Reading the Bible Wrong?
How to Read: New Testament Letters
How to Read: Old Testament Narrative

How to Read: The Gospels
How to Read: Parables
How to Read: Jewish Law
How to Read: Prophetic Books
How to Read: Psalms


For wisdom is far more valuable than rubies. Nothing you desire can compare with it. – Proverbs 8:11

Studying and meditating upon Scripture will impart wisdom upon the reader. As you study the different genres throughout the Bible, you will begin to transform into the image of Christ. Rather than making foolish decisions, the Spirit of God will lead you into all truth and wisdom.

There is a special genre in the Bible and its specific role is to impart wisdom. This is known as Wisdom literature. It is a special type of writing which was prominent in ancient cultures. There are three books in the Old Testament that are traditionally classified as wisdom literature:

  • Proverbs
  • Job
  • Ecclesiastes
  • Song of Songs (a form of lyric wisdom)

There are also many other parts of books which include wisdom literature as part of the overall whole. Unfortunately, as the book states, many people misread wisdom literature and use it to “provide a basis for selfish, materialistic, shortsighted behavior.” I want to share a few interpretive keys in order to help you properly read and develop wisdom through these books.

1. Understand the Beginning of Wisdom.

Often time we take it for granted that the people who wrote the wisdom literature come with the presupposition that God is active in the world. Much of the wisdom literature does not directly mention God in every part of the book. As you study the wisdom literature, you need to remember that the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom (see Proverbs 1:7). This fear of the Lord is what separates Biblical wisdom literature from other literature written in the same style.

In order to truly grow in wisdom and appreciate the beauty of truth in Proverbs, Jobs, Ecclesiastes, and Song of Songs, you NEED to begin from the perspective that God is real, alive, and active. You need to have a healthy fear of the power and glory of the King of kings. If you separate wisdom literature from this basis, you will use it to justify selfish desires and plans.

2. Proverbs are NOT Legal Guarantees from God.

Much of the wisdom literature is written in the forms of proverbs (especially the book of Proverbs). Proverbs are accurately defined as, “figures of speech” “parables” or “specially contrived saying”. They are NOT defined as special promises from God.

Proverbs often state what is likely to follow if you take a particular course of action. Since they are short statements, they are not intended to be a systematic understanding of why everything in the world happens. For example, it is a general rule that:

“Anyone trusting in his riches will fall,
but the righteous will flourish
like foliage.” – Prov. 11:28

If we make some simple observation of the world around us, we understand that this is not a concrete rule. At times it seems as if those who trust in riches are abundantly blessed. They enjoy their wealth for their entire lives. On the other hand, there are many righteous people who trust in God but seem to be trapped in poverty. This is not due to Proverbs being incorrect or the righteous people having hidden sin in their lives as that is not the purpose of Proverbs. As a general rule, those who practice righteousness will prosper and those who trust in wealth will fall – this is not always true and cannot be used as a guarantee from God that people who believe in him will prosper (which is why the so-called prosperity Gospel is heretical).

3. Read Wisdom Literature in its Entirety.

Wisdom literature is often written in such a way that it is hard to follow logically. Although this is certainly true, we need to understand that the books are meant to be read as a whole. If you begin to separate sections out of the books and use them to justify a certain belief system, you will end up with false doctrine.

For example, let’s look at one of the most troubling books – Ecclesiastes. Ecclesiastes is full of pessimistic phrases such as those found in Ecclesiastes 3:19-22 –

For the fate of people and the fate of animals is the same. As one dies, so dies the other; they all have the same breath. People have no advantage over animals since everything is futile. All are going to the same place; all come from dust, and all return to dust. Who knows if the spirit of people rises upward and the spirit of animals goes downward to the earth? I have seen that there is nothing better than for a person to enjoy his activities because that is his reward. For who can enable him to see what will happen after he dies?

That does not seem very Biblical does it? If you look at Ecclesiastes as a whole, you will understand its the pursuit of wisdom “under the sun”. It is from the perspective of someone who seeks to know purpose apart from finding it in who God is. The conclusion in Ecclesiastes 12:12-14 is thoroughly biblical. Yet, in order to get there, you need to read the WHOLE book and understand the purpose of the original author!


What do you find most rewarding about the wisdom literature? Let me know by leaving a comment!

 

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