Wisdom Literature

Religion as a whole, theology especially, is criticised for being pointless; worse, it has been called only a place for tension, argument, and wars. This may often be true, but wisdom literature in the Bible presents a practical theology which may allow for a more pointed and tension-free Christian philosophy.

Jewish tradition calls the Old Testament the TaNaK, the “T” standing for the Torah, “N”  the Navi’im, and the “K” for the Ketuvim. The Torah is made up of the first 5 books of the Bible with the laws and narratives that we have already looked at. The Ketuvim is made up of the Poetry and Wisdom literature in the Bible. Wisdom literature makes up 12% of the Old Testament. “The wisdom books present a practical theology for living a day-to-day godly life in a complicated world[1].”

The wisdom books present a practical theology for living a day-to-day godly life in a complicated world.

There are four major characteristics that characterize this form of literature. These characteristics include a lack of concern for history, an emphasis on a moral code of conduct, a concern for questions of good & evil, and a glorification of God as the source of all true knowledge. It is interesting to note how the wisdom literature looks when compared to the other literary genres. A large portion of this literature is in poetic form to make the sayings that make up wisdom writings more easily memorable. When we consider the characteristics of this literature we see that, whereas the laws taught to DO, the narratives taught to BELIEVE, poetic literature taught to FEEL; wisdom literature teaches us to THINK.

…. the laws taught to DO, the narratives taught to BELIEVE, and poetic literature taught to FEEL; wisdom literature teaches us to THINK.

When most people think about wisdom literature in the Bible, they think about the book of Proverbs. A proverb is a self-contained unit of wisdom. Every time and culture have proverbs. In our own time, we have sayings like yolo; easy come, easy go; or, you can’t have your cake and eat it too. These saying aren’t meant literally but instead are meant to be catchy and illustrate a subject. The saying “you can’t have your cake and eat it too” isn’t actually about eating cake but instead is about enjoying life and not just preserving it because you cannot do both. We need to use up our lives in order to give them a point. Proverbs are the same as these sayings, just set in a different time and culture.

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“The Writings” include more than the book of Proverbs, however. Some books that are included in “The Writings” include Psalms, Proverbs, Job, Song of Solomon, Lamentations, and Ecclesiastes. In this, there is one basic goal to these writing – to develop character. And there is a basic principle taught in wisdom readings that teaches us to develop this goal: wise, righteous, and hardworking people will be blessed and prosperous; foolish, sinful, and lazy people will have a hard life.

We are, of course, also taught exceptions to this basic principle. In Job, the writer unpacks the problem of pain. On the topic, Job asks the basic question that we all ask: if God is all powerful and He is good, then why is there pain? God answers Job by explaining that we cannot comprehend how God thinks. The question is then turned back around on Job, when God asks him where he was when God created everything? Ultimately the reader learns that sometimes pain exists because of sin, sometimes because parents sins, and occasionally pain is meant as a test. There are many reasons for pain but from our limited wisdom and emotional status, as humans, we may never fully grasp the answer ourselves.

The next exception is also similar in that it asks why good things happen to bad people, and why bad things happen to good people. Ecclesiastes illustrates this second exception. The idea is that we all misunderstand what it is to be blessed or righteous in the first place. As expressed in Ecclesiastes 7, one can be too righteous, whether that’s self-righteous or simply just working too hard. And to be blessed may not be on this physical, earthly level that we all look to, but instead we are blessed in spirit with eternal value.

Finally, we see the last exception in the Song of Solomon. The exception here is seen in how two people can fall madly in love with one another. In these instances, one cannot think simply logically or expect that they will always be wise in their decisions. Romantic love is perhaps the most dangerous type of love because the two are so obsessed one with the other that it becomes easy to idolize that relationship. That being said, we must find a way to be virtuous, even whilst we are captivated by love. On the subject of relying on your mind over your heart, I once heard a friend say that “relying only on your mind, in romance, because your heart has failed you, is like walking only on your hands because you trip when you walk on your feet.”

Relying only on your mind, in romance, because your heart has failed you, is like walking only on your hands because you trip when you walk on your feet.

*more on wisdom of the heart on Tuesday, with guest Shaman Mreme!!!!

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When we look at wisdom, we see a practical view of what it means to live godly. There may be exceptions but when we seek out wisdom, righteousness, and we work hard then a life of fullness and meaning will be ours! These ideas may seem like common sense, but common sense has never been too common! When we listen, however, the voice of wisdom is always crying out to us!

THE POINT IS: Wisdom literature provides a practical theology that calls out to us to change how we think! And, we all need to learn to listen!!!!

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Reference & Reading List:

[1] Duvall, J. Scott, and J. Daniel Hays. Grasping God’s Word: A Hands-on Approach to Reading, Interpreting, and Applying the Bible. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 2001. 423.

[2] Gabel, John B., and Charles B. Wheeler. The Bible as Literature: An Introduction. New York: Oxford UP, 1986. Print.

[3] Matthews, Victor Harold, and James C. Moyer. The Old Testament: Text and Context. Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson, 1997. Print.

[4] Lewis, C. S. The Problem of Pain. New York, NY: HarperOne, 2001. Print.

[5] Lewis, C. S. A Grief Observed. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 2001. Print.


8 thoughts on “Wisdom Literature

  1. I think it is important to realize that people will take expressions of wisdom and transmogrify them into fallacies. YOLO taken properly is ” You only live once, but because of that do not be overly reckless or careless.”. But I doubt those that use it as a rallying cry have any knowledge that it could be used constructively.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I agree with that! It’s an interesting note how it’s actually used, which I try to comment on in the video. But yeah, I think for what it actually means Yolo can be good wisdom but it’s not used wisely. I think we see the same with the Bible, the people shouting the verses the most often understand them the least.

      Thanks for the comment!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Yes! Exactly what I’m trying to get everyone to understand! It’s also important to note the differences between knowledge and wisdom (I may need to make a separate post on that one day). But wisdom is knowledge applied, so yeah common sense is a huge part of that!


      2. I would argue that this world is full of unwise people who adhere to common sense; therefore it might be useful to mind the context of the common sense to see if it is conventional wisdom. Much like the saying people who do not remember history are doomed to repeat it. It is always relevant, but it should apply less to humanity as a whole and more to your own history. Use your history as context first and foremost and do not apply someone else’s unless it comes from the same situation.
        I recently read a post on Facebook that said to “Marry your best friend”. I doubt if that statement could be considered wise, mainly because telling everyone to marry their best friend is terrible blanket advice. Yet the person who posted it most likely considered it conventional wisdom, maybe because it worked out for them or they have seen examples of it. It is not bad advice if applied to the proper situation, but based on the statement itself, it is unlikely that without more information that it could ever achieve the status of conventional wisdom.


      3. While I understand what you’re saying. I try to make a point that sayings like “YOLO” or “marry your best friend” are modern proverbs but that does not actually mean they are truthful or wise. The proverbs in the Bible, I do believe all contain wisdom, and are infallible.

        I also think it’s important to note that what we mean by common sense is when someone applies knowledge that everyone should have – that application is wisdom. So, all common sense is wisdom but not all wisdom is common sense.

        Finally, it does come down to context or enlightenment. Without a level of understanding or enlightenment than any proverb can be proven foolish to those who weild them. Imagine a group of people who all believe that change is scary and chaotic (many people truly feel this way) with that alone for context, if one was to encounter Ghandi’s saying that “you must be the change you wish to see in the world, ” then even this profound proverb of his would seem like foolishness


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