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How to Interpret Wisdom Literature

The three main books in this category are Proverbs, Job and Ecclesiastes. However, wisdom literature also is found in other parts of the Bible, especially in the Psalms and Habakkuk.

What is wisdom literature?

It was written as a result of life's experiences. It was common in many of the countries in the Middle-East other than Israel, where wisdom was discussed and argued from observations of life, but wisdom in the Bible must include a fundamental understanding of God and His ways. The underlying theological truth is the Fear of God.

The wise men were very practical, their wisdom is about how to live life, not how to theorise about it. The authors were seeking to become wise and these books contain the results of their searching.

There are two types of wisdom literature

1. Practical Wisdom

This is particularly found in the Book of Proverbs. A proverb is a short pithy saying giving observations or practical guidelines for successful every-day living, showing the regularities both in nature and in human conduct. Proverbs are observations of life, and not promises of prosperity and health. The setting of the book is of a father giving advice to his son, encouraging him to seek wisdom rather than folly.

According to Proverbs, a wise man lives his life in the fear of the Lord and follows the law of God and prospers, whereas a foolish man lives his own way and suffers for it.

Each proverb does not give the whole truth, as they were written to be memorised. The same subject is covered again and again by different proverbs, each time with a slightly different slant.

2. Speculative Wisdom

In these books, the perplexities of human existence are contemplated at a deeper level, where the popular generalisations of Proverbs fall short of giving adequate answers. More difficult questions are asked about the meaning of life or the problem of suffering. These books essentially ask the deeper questions of life.

The Book of Job is a long argument about suffering. The 'friends' of Job state that he is suffering because he must have sinned. Job says he has not sinned, but he does not know why he is suffering. He does not realised that his faith is being tested (ch 1-2). In the end God condemns the friends' platitudes, and Job comes away with a far greater revelation of the greatness and power of God the Creator. His questions about suffering are not really answered. For us, there are many lessons to learn on how comfort and encourage someone who is suffering.

The Book of Ecclesiastes is the form of a monologue, and is about a man looking for meaning to life. He is almost painfully honest about his situation. He has tried just about everything and nothing satisfies his longing for fulfilment, everything is meaningless. The climax of the book sums up the search for the meaning of life: "Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man" (12:13). The only way to find meaning in life is in the fear of the Lord.