In the Old Testament, there was a conviction amongst the Israelites that God created the world and everything therein. All Jewish wisdom flowed from this fundamental belief. A particular strand of their religion and culture is outlined in three of the Old Testament canonical books of Proverbs, Job, and Ecclesiastes. While there is diversity in the writings, they contain so much in common, that scholars have come to recognize it as distinct, and is commonly referred to as Wisdom Literature.
While wisdom’s roots, as an approach to life and how one looked at the world go well back into ancient Jewish history, wisdom writing increased in the latter part of the Old Testament. There is a prevailing view that because of the Exile (Babylonian captivity of the Jews, 597 – 538 BCE, and in particular the post-exilic period or the “Second Temple” years (516 BCE – 70 CE), the Israelites had become bewildered and confused in their relationship with God. For the first time they were coming to grips with accepting a God who embraced not just a chosen few on a single parcel of land, but a God of the universe, responsible for all
The wisdom tradition stressed looking at the world in a practical sense, yet always being mindful of God’s creation. The new challenge was to seek more understanding of the natural world through self-examination, through observation of life, drawing on logical conclusions, and to engage in personal reflection rather than solely depending on direct revelations from God.
Proverbs is the oldest of the wisdom books, a compilation of wise sayings, moral and religious teachings. It is wisdom distilled in short, sharp phrases. It not only deals with religious matters but also with good manners and common sense; focusing on advice to young men, warnings against adultery, and the rewards of wisdom.
The book of Job is the story of a good man who suffers total disaster in losing all his children and property, and is afflicted with a repulsive disease. In the midst of unbearable agony and pain he is visited by three friends. The first is Eliphaz, who claims God has spoken to him, saying that if people suffer, they must have done something wrong. He chastises Job for speaking out, and questioning God’s judgment, and says “Happy is the person whom God corrects! Do not resent it when he rebukes you.” Job 5:17.
The second friend is Bildad, who offers similar advice, that calamity is judgment on the sin of an individual. Job rejects the advice of both and says “Honest words are convincing, but you are talking nonsense.” Job 6:25. The third friend to speak is Zophar. He sets out the principles which Job should consider. Job is not impressed. Other speeches follow reiterating similar points, and wanting Job to deny his integrity and admit his faults, but Job refuses to perjure himself. In Job’s final statement, despite his deep sense of hopelessness and despair, he does not give up on God, and states “Let God weigh me on honest scales and he will see how innocent I am.” Job 13:6.
God appears out of a storm and speaks to Job. God asks “Who are you to question my wisdom with your ignorant, empty words?” Job 38:2. And God does not answer Job’s questions, but renders an extensive overview of the grand level of his role and responsibilities. Job is very impressed by the magnitude, awe and wonder, of God’s creation. As he listens to God, Job finds his opinion of himself diminishing and his understanding and appreciation of God, expanding.
God was pleased with Job’s new understanding, and steadfast integrity, but was displeased with the misleading arguments of Job’s three friends. Job’s position was that of an honest search for truth, but his three friends would not allow for truth to be bigger than their understanding of it, so they were guilty in misrepresenting God. At the end, Job prayed for his three friends, and God made Job prosperous and gave him twice as much as he had before. Job died at a very great age. (Job 42:10, 16)
The book of Ecclesiastes has many direct wisdom statements with most dealing with basic issues of life. It gets underway with a bleak outlook on the way we see things in ordinary life. Chapter 1, dwells on life being useless, the emptiness and futility of life—that you spend a lifetime working, labouring, and what do you have to show for it?
Chapter 3, with its “A time for Everything” statements, is premised with “Everything that happens in this world, happens at the time God chooses. There is a time for birth and a time for death; a time for sorrow and a time for joy;” and so on. And on injustice in the world “…I saw under the sun that in the place of justice, wickedness was there, and in the place of righteousness, wickedness was there as well.” (Eccl 3:16)
In conclusion, Wisdom Literature delves into life’s everyday problems and is deeply rooted in human behaviour. Its applicability is ageless, and its relevance is as powerful today as in ancient history. The writings dwell on the power of wisdom in coping and dealing with the inequities of life, the agony of suffering, and the finality of death. It reflects a new creation theology, and it is no accident that the ideas of wisdom literature become linked to the indwelling spirt of God.