In talking about “Wisdom Literature,” I’m referring to Proverbs, Job, Ecclesiastes, and the Song of Solomon. These books focus less on giving us direct commands and instead give us wise sayings to live by. Wisdom Literature pushes us to reflect, and in doing so it forms our character.
Each of these four books plays a different role in the overall body of Wisdom Literature. Proverbs, for example, gives us the norm for biblical wisdom. These sayings hold true in general. Now, as soon as I say that, you might notice that I’m hedging a bit. The sayings are true in general. Consider, for example, the following two proverbs:
“Answer not a fool according to his folly,
lest you be like him yourself.
Answer a fool according to his folly,
lest he be wise in his own eyes.” (Proverbs 26:4–5)
So which is it? The truth is, both are wise statements that we should allow to form our character. Taking a cue from verse 4, if we engage a fool in his argument, we’re just playing his game and showing ourselves to be fools. But when we consider verse 5, it’s also true that if we let a fool continue making his argument, his view will prevail and he won’t see the stupidity of it. Therefore we ought to engage the fool in argument so he (and everyone else) can see how foolish he is.
These proverbs set the norm. They tell us how life works, and how to live wisely. There are exceptions to many of these proverbs, but they give us the normal point of view on how the world works.
The other books of Wisdom Literature fill in this perspective. Job, for example, provides us with an exception to proverbial wisdom. Though Proverbs tells us that the righteous prosper (Prov. 3:33), Job gives us an example of a righteous man who does not prosper, precisely because he is a righteous man! Job’s friends use proverbial wisdom in “counseling” him, but they use it foolishly.
Ecclesiastes relays one man’s (“the Preacher”) pursuit of meaning in life. He lays his observations of life, considered apart from God’s presence (this is what the phrase “under the sun” is getting at), alongside traditional proverbial wisdom. He finds life perplexing and meaningless all along the way, until he finally reaches a godly conclusion.
Song of Solomon gives us a collection of love songs that simply delight in the goodness of marital love.
Together these books give us wisdom. Here are some tips for navigating this biblical genre:
1. Feel the imagery presented.
When you’re told that it’s better to live in the corner of a housetop than with a quarrelsome wife (Prov. 21:9), you should imagine both scenarios. What would it be like to live in the corner of a housetop? What would it be like to live with a quarrelsome wife (I sincerely hope you have to use your imagination)? Wisdom Literature makes use of vivid imagery for a reason.
2. Consider the wisdom offered and the benefits of being shaped by it.
Don’t move through the Wisdom Literature too quickly. Let the wisdom offered sink in. Appreciate it. See the depth of each statement. As you read through Proverbs 5, consider how profoundly wise the warning against the “forbidden woman” truly is. Imagine what your life would look life if your character was formed by these wise sayings. It’s one thing to scamper through a list of brilliant sayings. It’s another to weigh and ponder the depth of their wisdom, and to let that wisdom become a part of you.
3. With Proverbs, look for life direction rather than blank check promises.
As I said above, Proverbs offers us the norm. But there are exceptions. Consider, for example, Proverbs 10:3:
“The LORD does not let the righteous go hungry,
but he thwarts the craving of the wicked.”
This is a wise saying to live by. It should shape our character. And it’s often true to life. But do Christians experience crippling hunger? All the time, yes. Do the wicked receive what they “crave”? Very often.
As you read proverbs like this one, let the wisdom of the saying set the direction for your life. You should read this and be motivated to pursue righteousness. But you can’t hold this promise over God’s head like some kind of blank check promise. Paul was content to go without (Phil. 4:11–13). Christians do indeed die of starvation. God isn’t promising you unwavering material prosperity in exchange for good behavior. He spoke these words in the form of Wisdom Literature to shape your character, not to give you grounds for complaint.
4. With Ecclesiastes, walk with “the Preacher” on his journey.
As you read this enigmatic book, follow the “Preacher” as he searches for meaning in life. Experience his journey and resonate with his frequent observation that “all is vanity.” See the futility of life apart from God and feel the weight of the many exceptions he finds to proverbial wisdom (e.g. Eccl. 7:15). And then see the brilliance of his conclusion to this fascinating book (12:13–14).
5. With Job, accompany this righteous man in his unjust suffering.
As you read through this sad story, feel the bitterness of the unpredictability of life. Feel the foolishness of offering wisdom in a foolish way, as Job’s friends do for chapter upon chapter. Finally, come to the realizations that God offers to Job at the end of the book.
6. For Song of Solomon, delight in the romantic side of love.
As you read through this beautiful book, don’t try to spiritualize it, as Christian scholars have done for much of church history. Nothing in this book indicates that these songs are to be taken as allegories of Christ and the church. They give every indication of being love songs written between lovers. So read them that way. And appreciate the value and beauty of romantic love.