For much of this, see Gordon Fee and Douglas Stuart’s book, How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth.
Maybe some of the most well-known passages of the Old Testament are found in the book of Proverbs. These sayings are the collected wisdom of Solomon (and a few others). Yet, in general, most people don’t know about the genre of “wisdom literature” and what it means. We need to start with the nature of wisdom.
The Nature of Wisdom
For the Old Testament reader, and for the Christian, wisdom can be seen as the ability to make godly choices. If this smacks of virtual ethics, so be it. Aristotle was probably right about a lot of things. Yet, in reading the wisdom literature of the Old Testament, people may misinterpret and misapply that which should help them be wise. Basically, the overall context of the giving and receiving of wisdom needs to be understood. To understand a proverb, you need to read Proverbs and much of the Old Testament along with it. To understand the wisdom in Job (a wisdom literature book), the overall story of Job needs to be understood. Without looking for this context, one could abuse an individual proverb or a line of dialog in Job.
So, then, who is wise? Most ancient cultures have genres of wisdom literature, devoted to the aiding of living a good and purposeful life. Hebrew literature, the Old Testament is not different in this regard, although it founds wisdom not in being clever or quicker than anyone else, but on “the fear of the Lord.” That is, wisdom begins in remembering who God is and who we are in relation to God. From remembering this, we can pursue wisdom (the ability to make godly and good choices).
But who can teach wisdom? Those who have pursued it. These “wise men” or women, but generally, in the cultures of the ancient Middle East, they were men, conveyed to their charges the wise that they had learned. There are notable exceptions. They often took the role of the parent, speaking to “my child” or “children.” There is a generational imparting of wisdom.
Wisdom concerns all areas of life. At home, wisdom (e.g., don’t play in the street; or file your taxes on time) is taught by parents to children to help them make good choices and godly choices. Wisdom at work is knowing how to interact with colleagues and prioritize tasks and objectives — all in a godly way. Because of its morphic nature, wisdom is often expressed through poetry, making it more memorable (e.g., cleanliness is next to godliness). However, wisdom has limits. It can be used in pursuit of an improper cause, an evil cause. And it doesn’t necessarily cover all areas of life (you won’t find a proverb about shorting certain stocks or not). In order to achieve wisdom as it is described in the Old Testament, wise actions and words must be subordinated to the pursuit of God and godly choices. The fear of the Lord is not merely the beginning of wisdom; it is its end as well.
Wisdom in Proverbs
Proverbs is a collections of maxims and saying used to impart practical wisdom. Individual proverbs themselves are brief and particular expressions of a truth; they themselves do not state everything about a particular truth but rather are signs, pointing towards a truth. If proverbs are taken in isolation, the results could be comical or disastrous, and not at all in keeping with what the proverb intended to convey. It must be remembered that proverbs also tend to be figurative.
It is good to offer some hermeneutical guidelines for interpreting Proverbs. These should be pretty straightforward, but hopefully they serve as good reminders. First of all, proverbs should not be read as “legal guarantees” from God. Proverbs do not operate as a contract — it is not guaranteed that if I do (A), as the proverb suggest, I will definitely receive (B) from God. They are approaches to life, not secret formulas. Additionally, Proverbs needs to be read a collection. Picking and choosing out proverbs without a feel for the overall context and type of wisdom that is trying to be conveyed can be problematic. Make sure in considering one proverb, the scope of Proverbs is also being considered. Thirdly, remember that these expresses were intended to be rememberable and not necessarily theoretically accurate or precise. The English-language proverb, “A stitch in time saves nine” is rememberable but not necessarily accurate. The same is true for Proverbs. And finally, certain proverbs are so steeped in the particular cultures in which they were written that they may need to be “translated” into a modern analog to be appreciated. Practical wisdom changes based on the cultural praxis around it!
Fee and Stuart lay out some nice guidelines that should be kept in mind:
- Proverbs are often parabolic (i.e., figurative, pointing beyond themselves).
- Proverbs are intensely practical, not theoretically theological.
- Proverbs are worded to be memorable, not technically precise.
- Proverbs are not designed to support selfish behavior — just the opposite!
- Proverbs strongly reflecting ancient culture may need sensible “translation” so as not to lose their meaning.
- Proverbs are not guarantees from God but poetic guidelines for good behavior.
- Proverbs may use highly specific language, exaggeration, or any of a variety of literary techniques to make their point.
- Proverbs give good advice for wise approaches to certain aspects of life but not exhaustive in their coverage.
- Wrongly used, proverbs may justify a crass, materialistic lifestyle. Rightly used, proverbs will provide practical advice for daily living.
Wisdom Elsewhere in the OT
To close, I should note that there are other books in the Old Testament that contain or fall within the genre of wisdom literature, and these are different from Proverbs.
- Job. The book of Job contains speculative wisdom contained with a narrative that seeks to understand why bad things happen to good people. Without the overarching context of the story, it would be easy to lift out “wisdom” improperly. Wisdom to be found in Job comes from the whole story being understood.
- Ecclesiastes. This can be a particularly difficult book to interpret and to understand the wisdom of — is it a book of cynical wisdom, a foil to what true wisdom is? Or is it a kind of wisdom that God is seeking to impart to us? In reading Eccleseiastes, one must pay careful attention to whom is speaking and from what perspective.
- Song of Songs. This book is closer to love poetry of the ancient Middle East and other love poems in the Old Testament than it is to Proverbs, yet it is a part of the wisdom genre, because it suggests and advices concerning human relationships. It is a book of wisdom about romance, affection, and finding relational fulfillment.