Well, you have persevered to the end of the course. This is the last unit. The writer of Ecclesiastes, one of the wisdom books, has a word that is perhaps applicable both to you, the reader, and to us, the authors: “Of making many books there is no end, and much study wearies the body” (Eccl. 12:12b).
We conclude our study of the various biblical genres with a venture into the Old Testament wisdom books (Proverbs, Job, Ecclesiastes, and Song of Songs). Without a doubt, these books contain some of the most interesting material in the Bible. On the one hand, the wisdom books have some material that is extremely easy to interpret and grasp—verses for which the interpretive river is shallow and easy to cross. Such proverbs as “A gossip betrays a confidence, but a trustworthy person keeps a secret” (Prov. 11:13), or “Hatred stirs up conflict, but love covers over all wrongs” (10:12) seem straightforward and simple to understand.
On the other hand, numerous passages in the wisdom literature raise questions. For example, Proverbs 22:4 seems to promise wealth to those who fear God and are humble: “Humility is the fear of the Lord; its wages are riches and honor and life.” Does this teach that if Christians are poor, either they must not be humble or they don’t fear God? Does it mean that rich Christians are more humble and God-fearing than poor Christians?
Likewise, the book of Job has some puzzling texts. Look at Job 3:1, “After this, Job opened his mouth and cursed the day of his birth.” How do we interpret and apply this verse? Is this to be a model for how we respond to adversity? And the book of Ecclesiastes is really strange, with all manner of unusual verses. Consider the following:
A feast is made for laughter,and wine makes life merry,and money is the answer for everything. (Eccl. 10:19)
Is the author recommending partying, drinking, and the pursuit of money?Furthermore, the Song of Songs seems to be the mushy, intimate words of two young lovers to each other. “How beautiful you are, my darling! Oh, how beautiful! . . . Your teeth are like a flock of sheep just shorn, coming up from the washing. Each has its twin; not one of them is alone” (Song 4:1–2). Apparently this young man’s girl has white teeth and none of them are missing, but how does this relate to us? Is the Bible teaching us about the importance of dental hygiene?
Obviously, there are some interpretive issues for us to tackle in the wisdom books. By now you are well aware of how important context is for the proper interpretation of any passage. Indeed, in the silly examples above you were probably shouting, “Context! Context!” as the solution to our confusion over these examples. You are correct, of course, because placing the wisdom literature into the proper context will be a critical step along the way to grasping what God has for us in these books.
In this unit, therefore, we will first discuss the purpose of the wisdom books, for purpose is a critical aspect of the wisdom genre and its literary context. Next we will look at the big picture—what the major thrust of each book is and how the books relate to each other. Following that, we will discuss the poetic aspects of the literature. Then we will actually take the Interpretive Journey in each of the wisdom books, pointing out the varying widths of the river and suggesting principles that span the river and make the text applicable to us today. Finally, we will wrap up the unit with a concluding summary and the ever-present assignments.