This is part fourteen of a sixteen part series, “The Bible Is“.
One of the old stereotypes concerning the Bible is that it is full of useful sayings and good advice. Although it is true that all Scripture “is profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness…”, not all of the biblical writings are equally useful in the same way. So, while pithy sayings and utterances of wisdom can be found throughout the volume, there are four Old Testament books in particular that are specifically called Wisdom Literature: Job, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and Song of Songs.
The book of Job is a story about a patient and righteous man named Job. It’s a morality tale of sorts, depicting a bargain between God and the Devil concerning the steadfast faith of Job, who, God contends, will not blaspheme God even under the worst pressure and disaster. The Devil is granted two opportunities to afflict Job – first by destroying his wealth and family, and second by destroying his health. In the end, although he complains, Job never curses God, and so he is vindicated and his wealth and family restored. There are those who argue over whether this is an historical story or a parable, but such debate misses the point. In either case, it is a wisdom story, focusing not on the events (historic or fictitious) of Job’s suffering but rather on the discourses shared between Job and his friends as they ponder his fate. Of the book’s 42 chapters, only the first two and last one relate the story itself; the vast bulk is a highly structured and stylized round of arguments and counter-arguments as Job’s three friends (and later another young man) argue with him over the theological nature of human suffering. To this day, the book of Job speaks with fresh clarity to the age-old question of “why bad things happen to good people”.
The book of Proverbs is perhaps the epitome of the stereotype of biblical pithy sayings. Its first several chapters are brief discourses on the nature of wisdom, its divine origin and orientation, but more than half of the book is simply a collection of wise sayings attributed to various authors and collectors. When read in the original Hebrew, handy mneumonic links from one proverb to the next can be found everywhere, intended to help the young student in memorizing them. Translated into English, or any other language, however, such repeated words and themes are not always obvious, rendering much of this book a tangled wall of horrifically disorganized single-sentence sayings. The book of Proverbs, nevertheless, is a gold mine of instruction and insight into godly living, when one takes the time to sift through its contents. Compared to Job, Ecclesiastes, and the Song of Songs, Proverbs is a book of prudential wisdom, that is, discreet sayings and pieces of advice that stand on their own. The books of Sirach and Wisdom, to be discussed later in this series, are in the same category. The others are called speculative wisdom, as they address and explore the big questions of life.
The book of Ecclesiastes, or Qoheleth (“the Preacher”), is a curious book that explores the “vanity” or “meaninglessness” of earthly life. Narrated by “the Preacher” in the persona of King Solomon, its key word is hevel, which means “a breath” but is usually translated as “vanity” or “meaningless”. All things in life – joy, wealth, suffering, loss – are hevel to the Preacher as he reflects upon his life and “everything that happens under the sun.” The famous text (and resultant song) “for everything a season…” is found in this book, and, perhaps contrary to how it is popularly considered, is an illustration of the inherent meaninglessness of all these things. There’s a time for war and a time for peace, therefore neither war nor peace is substantial; neither endure! For many Christians, this book can be rather puzzling in its negative attitude towards virtually everything. But its realistic approach to the shortcomings of life and its “final word” at the very end observing that the ultimate good purpose of life is to “fear God” puts all of this in perspective: living life for the sake of life itself is ultimately vain and pointless; only in light of eternity – God himself – is true meaning and life-beyond-a-mere-breath to be found.
The Song of Songs, or the Song of Solomon, or the Canticle of Canticles, is another book that can catch the Bible-reader off guard. For a Bible and a religion that is stereotypically considered “prudish”, this book is an alarmingly vivid collection of love poetry. There are many theories about its authorship, the identity of the lovers it depicts, its value as an allegory for God’s love of his people, whether it’s a sort of dramatic play or just a collection of mostly-unrelated love songs. And so many preachers and readers alike tend to shy away from spending too much time on this book. But, if read and studied, this book offers a very positive vision of spousal love, marriage, a healthy expression of human yearning, and even a few lessons pointing in the direction of preserving sexual activity for the safe confines of marriage. As a book of speculative wisdom, it explores the questions of love and sex with vivid and beautiful imagery. Its cultural references may make the modern reader laugh from time to time (comparing a woman’s legs to a column!?) yet also can provoke us to consider the comparative expressions of beauty that we make in our own cultural context.
Given their place in the Old Testament, their antiquity, and their drastically different writing styles compared to the rest of the Bible, these four books can be an unexpected challenge to read profitably. But when understood for what they are, and approached with the intended big questions in mind, they have much to offer us. In a world where “my opinion, your opinion” can be an endless circular back-and-forth, the biblical wisdom literature brings a larger perspective, enlarging our theories of sociology with much-needed injections of theology.