WISDOM: THEN AND NOW (Part 13)
The Nature of Wisdom:Three Old Testament books are commonly know as wisdom books. Ecclesiastes, Proverbs, and Job. Also a number of Psalms can be included into this category. Finally, there is the Song of Songs, also commonly called the Song of Solomon. All of these books contain a great deal of material considered to be wisdom. Wisdom, as it applies to Christians is, the ability to make godly choices in life.
Abuse of Wisdom Literature: Traditionally the Wisdom books have been misused in three different ways. (1) People often read these books in parts. They fail to see that there is an overall message according to the inspired author’s intentions. (2) People often misunderstand wisdom terms and categories as well as wisdom styles and literary modes. Thus they misdefine the terms used in the Bible in wisdom contexts. (3) People often fail to follow the line of argument in a wisdom discourse. Accordingly, they try to live by what was intended to be understood as incorrect.
Who Is Wise? Wisdom is not something theoretical and abstract—it is something that exist only when a person thinks and acts according to the truth, as he or she makes many choices that life demands. The wise person is highly practical not just theoretical. Wisdom literature sought to evaluate how best to make life’s choices, while remaining grounded in the only good choices or godly choices. The very first step in biblical wisdom is knowing God, not abstractly or theoretically, but in the concrete sense of committing your life to him. Wisdom literature then, tends to focus on people and their ability to make godly choices and whether or not they are learning how to apply God’s truth to the experiences they have.
The Limits of Wisdom: It is important to remember that not all wisdom in the ancient world was godly or orthodox. Moreover, wisdom does not cover all of life. Intensely practical, it tends not to touch upon the theological or historical issues so important elsewhere in the Bible. Remember that only when wisdom as a skill, is subordinate to obedience to God, does it achieve its proper ends in the sense of the Old Testament means.
Ecclesiastes: Cynical Wisdom This book is a wisdom monologue that is often puzzling to those who read it carefully. Its consistent message throughout (until the last verses) is that the reality of life and finality of death mean that life has no ultimate value. If we are all going to die anyway who cares if you’re good or not?
Everything about the book, everything but the final two verses, represents a brilliant, artful argument for the way one would look at life—if God did not play a direct, intervening role in life and if there were no life after death. The true aim of the book, however, is to show that such a view of life would leave you cold. When one relegates God to a position way out there away from us, irrelevant to our lives, then Ecclesiastes is the result. The book thus serves as a reverse apologetic for cynical wisdom; it drives its readers to look further because the answers that the author of this book gives are so discouraging.
Wisdom In Job: The book of Job contains all sorts of wrong advice and incorrect conclusions as they come from the lips of Job’s well-meaning “comforters.” This book takes the form of a highly structured conversation or dialogue.
Job’s comforters represent the viewpoint that God is not simply involved but is constantly meting out his judgment through the events of Job’s life. They express the commentary that what happens to you in life, good or ill, is a direct result of whether you have pleased God or not. Their message is that when life goes well for a person, that is a sign that he or she has chosen to do what is good, but when things go bad, it is obvious that that person has sinned against God.
The reader of the book of Job learns what is simply the world’s wisdom, seemingly logical but actually wrong, and what constitutes God’s wisdom and what builds confidence in God’s sovereignty and righteousness. Thus the dialogue and the story line combine to make the Old Testament’s paramount exemplar of speculative wisdom.
Wisdom In Proverbs: The book of Proverbs is the primary locus of prudential wisdom—that is, rules and regulations people can use to help themselves make responsible, successful choices in life. Proverbial wisdom focuses mostly on practical attitudes.
An important thing to remember about Proverbs is that in Hebrew they are called meshallim (figure of speech, parable, or specially contrived saying). A proverb is a brief, particular expression of truth. The briefer the statement the less likely it is to be totally precise and universally applicable. They must be understood reasonably and taken on their own terms. They do not state everything about a truth but point toward it. They tend to use figurative language and express things suggestively rather than in detail. Proverbs can also be like parables in that they express their truth in a symbolic way.
Proverbs are not a categorical, always applicable, ironclad promises, but a more general truth; it teaches that lives according to God and lived according to his will succeed according to God’s definition of success. When the Proverbs, then, are taken on their own terms, and understood as a special category of suggestive truth that they are, they become important and useful adjuncts for living.
Some Hermenuetical Guidelines: Proverbs state a wise way to approach certain selected practical goals but do so in terms that cannot be treated like a divine warranty of success. The particular blessings, rewards, and opportunities mentioned in Proverbs are likely to follow if one will choose the wise courses of actions outlined in the poetical, figurative language of the book.
If you approach Proverbs from a literalistic, extreme interpretation, you will miss the point of the proverb. A proverb frames the truth, in specific, narrow terms that are intended to point toward the broader principle rather than to express something technically.
Each inspired proverb must be balanced with others and understood in comparison with the rest of Scripture. Moreover, you must guard against letting their practical concern with material things and this world make you forget the balancing value of other Scriptures that warn against materialism and worldliness.
No proverb is a complete statement of truth. No proverb is so perfectly worded that it can stand up to the unreasonable demand that it apply to every situation at every time. The more briefly and parabolically a principle is stated, the more common sense is needed to interpret it properly. Proverbs tries to impart knowledge that can be retained rather than philosophy that can impress a critic.
Many proverbs express their truths according to practices and institutions that no longer exist, although they were common to Old Testament Israelites. Unless you think of these proverbs in terms of their modern equivalents their meaning may seem irrelevant or be lost to you altogether. Following is a list of some rules that will help you make proper use of proverbs and be true to their divinely inspired intent.
1. Proverbs are often parabolic, i.e., figurative, pointing beyond themselves.
2. Proverbs are intensely practical, not theoretically theological
3. Proverbs are worded to be memorable, not technically precise.
4. Proverbs are not designed to support selfish behavior—just the opposite.
5. Proverbs strongly reflecting ancient culture may need sensible translation so as to not lose their meaning.
6. Proverbs are not guarantees from God, but poetic guidelines for good behavior.
7. Proverbs may use highly specific language, exaggeration, or any a variety of literary techniques to make their point.
8. Proverbs give good advice for wise approaches to certain aspects of life, but are not exhaustive in their coverage.
9. Wrongly used, Proverbs might justify a crass, materialistic lifestyle. Rightly used, they will provide practical advice for daily living.
Wisdom in the Song of Songs: The Song of Songs is a lengthy love song. It is an extended ballad of human romance, written in a style of the Near Ancient Eastern lyric poetry. The focus of this book is to provide its readers with the answers of whom to love and how to love. These are the two issues that the Song is mainly concerned with.
The Song has had a long tradition of odd translation, based on a combination of two common kinds of hermeneutical mistakes: totality transfer and allegorizing. Totality transfer is the tendency to think that all the possible features and meanings of a word or concept come with it whenever it is used. Allegorizing is interpreting writing as a figurative form that leads to abstract ideas about what the text is saying.
Here are some of the considerations that will help you use the Song in the way Scripture intends:
1. Try to appreciate the overall ethical context of the Song of Songs. Monogamous, heterosexual marriage was the proper context for sexual activity, according to God’s revelation in the Old Testament, and God-fearing Israelites would regard the Song in that light. The attitude of the Song is the very antithesis of unfaithfulness, either before or after marriage. Marriage consummates and continues love between a man and a woman. That is what the Song points towards.
2. Be aware of the genre of the Song. Its closet parallels are indeed love poetry of the Old Testament and elsewhere in ancient Near East, the context of which was not just love of any kind, but attraction in marriage. There is a solid moral overtone and a focusing of love into the right context.
3. Read the Song as suggesting godly choices rather than describing them in a technical manner. They are true as suggestions and generalizations rather than precise statements of universal fact.
4. Be aware that the Song focuses on very different values from those of modern culture. Our culture encourages people to fulfill themselves, whatever their sexual tastes, whereas the Song is concerned with how one person can respond faithfully to the attractiveness of and fulfill the needs of another. In the Song, romance is something that should continue throughout and actually characterize marriage.
(This post is a summary and partial abridgement of Fee And Stuart’s book “How To Read The Bible For All It’s Worth.” It is based solely on Fee And Stuart’s work and any help that this content gives should be credited to God’s grace through their effort. In other words, give God glory, thank Fee and Stuart and buy the book.)