Introduction to Old Testament Wisdom Literature
Debate exists over which books of the Old Testament are devoted to wisdom and whether sections of other books might also focus on wisdom concepts. In order to answer this question, the biblical concept of wisdom must be defined, along with the basic forms and topics that are commonly associated with it. Examining these questions will give some focus to the important ideas associated with wisdom and the way they are expressed.
The Meaning of “Wisdom”
The main term for “wisdom” in the Old Testament is the noun ḥokmâ (there is also a verb and an adjective from the root ḥkm). These terms are used in a broad sense to refer to human wisdom (Isa 10:13; 47:10), but the true source of wisdom is God (Prov 1:7; Isa 33:5–6). Wisdom is manifested in creation because God created the world with it (Jer 10:12; 51:15). Wisdom is also associated with the law that God revealed. Israel is to keep the statutes and rules of the law “because this is your wisdom” (Deut 4:6). To live a life of wisdom we must start with God and be willing to submit our lives to God. The Old Testament expresses this idea with “the fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge” (Prov 1:7; Isa 33:5–6). God’s wisdom helps us apply the principles in the law to the practical realities of daily life. Thus, it is not a surprise to see a relationship between Proverbs and the law of God (Deut 6:4–9; Prov 6:20–22). A closer look at wisdom will clarify the ideas and expressions that are associated with wisdom and will help identify literature that is devoted to wisdom.
The term “wisdom” (ḥokmâ), as it is used in the OT, has a variety of nuances but it generally refers to a gift that is given by God and a skill that is learned or developed. These two ideas are not necessarily opposed to each other. The skill needed to build and furnish the tabernacle is called wisdom. This includes the craftsmanship to devise artistic designs, to make Aaron’s garments, to work with gold, silver, and bronze, to cut stones and carve wood (Exod 28:3; 31:3–5; see also 35:25–26, 31, 35; 36:1–2). These skills are said to come from the Spirit of God. They are also skills that would need to be developed through training and experience. Solomon specifically asked God for wisdom to be able to govern the nation of Israel and to administer justice (1Kgs 3:7–14; 4:29). In the book of Proverbs, wisdom refers to the “skill” to navigate the difficulties of life. It helps us to avoid the pitfalls of life in order to achieve the right goals in life. Everyone agrees that the book of Proverbs is a wisdom book, so analyzing how it sets forth wisdom will help to identify other Old Testament Scriptures devoted to wisdom.
Wisdom in Proverbs
The preamble to the book of Proverbs (1:1–7) lays the foundation of wisdom in the fear of the LORD, but it also sets forth the aim of the book, which is to impart wisdom and knowledge. Although Proverbs is beneficial for the wise, one of the purposes of the book is to give prudence to the simple and knowledge and discretion to youth (1:4). The word “simple” refers to someone who has not developed discernment to be able to make good decisions because they are open to a variety of influences. It refers to a period of life that people experience as they move from youth to adulthood. The goal of Proverbs, particularly chapters 1–9 as parental teaching, is to help a young person be devoted to a life of wisdom in order to avoid a life of folly. Although the son is specifically addressed (1:8; 2:1; 3:1; 4:1; 5:1; 6:1), daughters were included because mothers also had a key role in imparting wisdom to their children (1:8). Proverbs 1–9 sets forth two ways of life, the way of wisdom/righteousness and the way of folly/wickedness. It ends with an exhortation to choose the way of wisdom by contrasting wisdom and foolishness in the personification of Woman Wisdom and Woman Folly.
Several words in the preamble show the goal of wisdom and give an indication of how wisdom is to be imparted. The word “prudence” and “discretion” refer to the ability to plan in order to reach appropriate goals. Planning requires knowledge in order to succeed. A young person needs to have the right goals in life so he or she can appropriately plan to reach those goals. The better one understands the way the world works the better decisions a person will make in seeking the path of wisdom. Part of the purpose of Proverbs 1–9 is to set forth the benefits of wisdom, which include health (4:22), prosperity (3:16), security (3:23), well-being (4:18), contentment (3:24), long life (3:2; 4:10), and good relationships with God (2:6–8) and people (3:27). There are also pitfalls to avoid in life, highlighted by the word “instruction” (mûsār). This word refers to a chastening lesson that shapes character. Positively, it encourages correct behavior (15:5; 19:20), and negatively, it reproves wrong behavior (13:24; 22:15; 23:13). This fits the goal of Proverbs 1–9 to help a person avoid dangers that can destroy life or hinder a person from becoming successful in life (from God’s perspective). Some of the pitfalls to avoid include peer pressure to join the wicked to make easy money (1:8–19), crooked devious men (2:12–14; 3:31–32; 4:14–18; 6:12–18), the adulterous woman (5:1–23; 6:20–35; 7:1–27), putting up security (6:1–5), and laziness (6:6–11). Although wisdom is rooted in the fear of the LORD, it must be pursued, learned, and applied to life situations.
The book of Proverbs focuses on a variety of topics associated with wisdom. The two ways of wisdom and folly are at the heart of Proverbs 1–9. These chapters are composed of longer sayings called “instructions” and are followed by chapter 10 where the individual proverbial sayings begin. The two ways laid out in chapters 1–9 are reinforced in chapters 10–15, which is composed of antithetical sayings that set forth a contrast between wisdom and folly. These chapters support the doctrine of the two ways. Another emphasis in Proverbs is the relationship between a person’s actions and the consequences of those actions (the deed-consequence relationship). It is a misreading of Proverbs to argue that there is a mechanical relationship between our deeds and the consequences that follow. Just because we live a righteous life does not mean that we will be wealthy or live a long life. The individual proverbial sayings give a slice of life. They are not universal statements that apply to every situation. The “better-than sayings,” such as Proverbs 16:8, 19, show that wealth is not an absolute good that can be used as a measure to judge a person’s relationship with God. Wealth is a relative good because there are some things in life that are better than wealth. There are many examples in Scripture where the wicked prosper and the righteous suffer. A mechanical view of the deed-consequence relationship can lead to the health and wealth gospel. Creation is also an important teaching in Proverbs. Wisdom has a special role in creation because God created the world by wisdom (3:19), and personified wisdom was present at creation (8:22–26). Wisdom is embedded in creation (8:27–29) and can be discovered as one studies it (24:30–34). Certain literary forms are also associated with wisdom, such as proverbial sayings (10:1), acrostic poems (31:10–31), riddles (1:6), numerical sayings (30:15–31), the word “blessed” (3:13; 8:32, 34; 16:20), and better-than sayings (16:8, 19).
Wisdom in Job
A consensus exists that Job employs wisdom themes. Job begins with two chapters of prose that set forth Job as a blameless man who feared God and lived an upright life. Satan, however, questions Job’s motives by telling God that Job only worships him because he has blessed him. If he takes away those blessings Job will curse him. God allows Satan to test Job by destroying his children, his wealth, and his health. Job’s first response is to worship God (1:20–22). The first two chapters end with three friends coming to mourn with him by sitting with him in silence for seven days. In chapter 3 the divine perspective is gone, and the poetic speeches begin with Job cursing the day he was born and lamenting that he did not die at birth to avoid his suffering. Job’s curse is a parody of a curse because he cannot change his birthday. The friends offer a series of speeches that try to convince him that he is suffering because he has sinned (Job 4–25). They operate with a mechanical view of the deed-consequence relationship and do not have the category of an innocent sufferer. They even suggest sins that Job should confess to alleviate his suffering (Job 22). The debate deteriorates without the argument being advanced. Job ends the debate with strong assertions of his innocence (Job 31). Wisdom, as portrayed in Job, cannot probe into the mysteries of the reasons for suffering (Job 28). When God responds to Job he does not tell him why he is suffering but confronts him about calling into question divine justice in order to absolve himself (40:8). For this Job had to repent. Job is then vindicated by God before his friends (42:7–9) and is restored (42:10–17). The book of Job teaches the mystery of God’s sovereignty. Suffering is not necessarily the result of sin, and how one responds to suffering is more important than the reasons for suffering. The arbiter (9:33) and redeemer (19:25) that Job desired foreshadows Jesus Christ, the innocent sufferer par excellence, who is the only mediator that can bring us to God (1Tim 2:5–6).
Wisdom in Ecclesiastes
Like Job, Ecclesiastes also wrestles with the proper understanding of the deed-consequence relationship and emphasizes the fear of God. The author of Ecclesiastes, called Qohelet (usually translated as the Teacher or Preacher), wrestles with the meaning of life. He specifically asks at the beginning of the book whether there is any profit to labor (1:3), and he answers that question by concluding that there is no profit to labor (2:10–11); however, a portion of our labor’s results should be enjoyed. Labor is unprofitable because life does not work out the way one would hope or expect. Qohelet focuses on the negative consequences of life that results from a breakdown of the deed-consequence relationship. Wisdom has relative value over foolishness, but it does not produce what one desires because the wise die just like the fool (2:12–18). Labor fails to satisfy because hard work easily leads to frustration over the fact that you work only to pass on the results of your labor to someone who might be a fool. Qohelet’s observations of life lead him to conclude that the righteous do not receive the blessings of life they are promised; rather, the wicked prosper and the righteous suffer (3:16; 7:15; 9:1–6). Thus, it does not matter if you are righteous or wicked because the same fate awaits both. In Qohelet’s quest for meaning “under the sun” (1:14; 2:11; 3:16; 9:6), he acknowledges the gifts of God (usually called the calls to enjoyment), but he does not appeal to God to solve the problems with which he is wrestling (see 3:19–21 and 9:1–6). His constant conclusion is that life is full of futility (the word hebel, usually translated vanity [ESV] or meaninglessness [NIV]). This is an accurate description of a world that suffers under the curse of sin (Rom 8:18–25) and of a life lived apart from God. The proper response to the frustration of living in such a world is to fear God and keep his commandments (12:13–14). The fear of God leads to a trust in God even when life seems futile. From a New Testament perspective, we have even more reason to respond in faith because Christ has taken upon himself the curse of sin. Life is not futile because our labor for the Lord is not in vain (1Cor 15:58).
Wisdom in the Psalms
Based on the definition of wisdom that focuses on content and form, some psalms may be appropriately designated as wisdom psalms. Psalm 1 sets forth the doctrine of the two ways and uses the word “blessed” to refer to the one who delights in the law of the Lord. The author of Psalm 73 wrestles with the prosperity of the wicked in ways that are similar to Ecclesiastes (73:2, 13–16), but a renewed vision of God puts his struggles in proper perspective (73:17). There are also acrostic psalms (111, 112, 119), and psalms that focus on creation (19:1–6), the law (19:7–11; 119), and the blessings of family (127, 128).
Wisdom in the New Testament
Jesus is the fullest expression of wisdom both in his humanity and his deity (Col 2:3). In his humanity he grew in wisdom and in favor with God (Prov 3:4; Luke 2:4). His teaching expresses both the form and content of wisdom. He taught in parables (Matt 13) and proverbs (Matt 6:34; 11:17) and used the word “blessed” in the beatitudes (Matt 5:3–11). The topics in the beatitudes also overlap with the topics in Proverbs, including the two ways (Matt 7:13–14), God’s wisdom in nature (Matt 6:25–34), sexual purity (Matt 5:27–32), and guarding one’s speech (Matt 5:33-37). His teaching on the kingdom of God brings urgency to people’s decisions but does not take away the need for planning and responsible actions (Luke 12:35–48). Jesus is the fullest expression of God’s wisdom, both in his role as the one who has supremacy over creation (Col 1:15–19) and in his work as the one who accomplishes salvation through the cross (1Cor 1:18–2:5). The teaching of Christ, the person of Christ, and the work of Christ all exhibit God’s wisdom in fullness and glory.
Craig G. Bartholomew and Ryan P. O’Dowd, Old Testament Wisdom Literature (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2011).
Richard P. Belcher, Jr., Finding Favour in the Sight of God: A Theology of Wisdom Literature (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2018).