How to Read Wisdom Literature

    June 07, 2020 | Books of the Bible | Proverbs by Steve McKinion

    In the Bible, the books typically classified as “Wisdom Literature” include Job, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and James. Wisdom can take on different meanings, for example, by having exceptional skills physically or mentally to having the proper worldview to conducting one’s life fittingly and appropriately. Biblical wisdom contrasts with worldly wisdom by revealing to believers how they can orient their lives to God’s will in every aspect of life.

    In addition to the Wisdom books in the Bible, other major sections of the Bible fit into the Wisdom genre. Psalms such as 32, 33, 36, 37, 119, 125, 128, and several others are wisdom literature. The story of Joseph in Genesis is wisdom, as are the first six chapters of Daniel.

    Biblical wisdom has two significant characteristics. First, the text appeals to practical experience to instruct the believer in godly living. The author can demonstrate right living by appealing to a figure who, when faced with the choice of wisdom or foolishness, chooses God’s way over the world’s way. In Proverbs, for example, the author appeals to common sense by pointing out that the hard worker achieves its purpose. This encourages the believer to work diligently in the world. This is not a promise that hard work will always result in prosperity, but a message that conformity to God’s will in the world includes persistence and hard work. We could probably point out exceptions to this rule, but the purpose of the statement is not to make a truth claim about hard work but to instruct the believer on right living. We know this, for example, because the entire book of Ecclesiastes points out the uselessness of pursuing the things of the world like wealth, worldly wisdom, and pleasure. The purpose of life is to “worship God and keep His commands” (Ecclesiastes 12:13)

    A second characteristic of Wisdom Literature is an unwavering appeal to dependence on the God of the Bible. Here the Wisdom Literature of the Bible contrasts human wisdom (which it determines to be foolishness) with Divine Wisdom. Human beings can be ingenious creatures, making significant discoveries and solving many problems. But human wisdom is limited to the human mind. God’s wisdom, on the other hand, knows no limits. Wisdom Literature calls on the reader to trust wholly and entirely in the word of God. When reading these texts, the author is warning the reader against trusting himself or herself. Instead, he or she should heed “every word that proceeds from the mouth of God” (Matthew 4:4). Biblical wisdom is a divine gift that is not rooted in creation or the mind of created humans. The reader asks, “What areas of my life are not conformed to God’s wisdom?”

    Reading Wisdom Literature as a Christian requires us to recognize that the text can take the form of a “wise saying” or a traditional “proverb,” but the purpose is still to call the believer to godliness and the true worship of God, not to make pronouncements about the world and its ways. By using a memorable statement, the text informs both understanding and behavior. Even more, the text calls the reader to conform his or her life to that wisdom. An example is, “Wealth makes many friends, but the poor is separated from his friend” (Proverbs 19:4). Everyone knows that rich people have a lot of friends (or Instagram followers). This is common sense, as people hope to get in on some of the wealth. But in the Bible this takes on a different meaning: Don’t trust in wealth because your phony friends will leave you when the money is gone. The point of the text is not to communicate something about human behavior, but to call the believer to locate their loyalty in God rather than wealth or people. These are generalized statements, so do not read too much into them.

    Wisdom Literature comprises a large portion of the Bible. As Christian readers, we should look for the message about God’s work in Jesus Christ and the transformation of our life because of it. Because we look to conform our lives to the will and ways of God, we should read these texts as God’s revelation of what God's will and His ways look like. We learn to practice biblical wisdom, in opposition to worldly wisdom, by listening to these texts.