Purpose of Wisdom Books

Although the wisdom books are definitely different from the rest of the Old Testament, they do seem to play a special role in God’s revelation to us. In comparing the wisdom books to the rest of the Old Testament, Kidner makes this insightful comment:

In other words, in the Wisdom books the tone of voice and even the speakers have changed. The blunt “Thou shalt” or “shalt not” of the Law, and the urgent “Thus saith the Lord“ of the Prophets, are joined now by the cooler comments of the teacher and the often anguished questions of the learner. Where the bulk of the Old Testament calls us simply to obey and to believe, this part of it (chiefly the books we have mentioned, although wisdom is a thread that runs through every part) summons us to think hard as well as humbly; to keep our eyes open, to use our conscience and our common sense, and not to shirk the most disturbing questions.

It is important that we not misunderstand Kidner’s quote. He is not denying the intellectual component of the rest of the Old Testament, nor is he denying the spiritual dimension of the wisdom literature. He is merely observing that the law, the narratives, and the prophets stress the imperatives of “Believe!” and “Obey!” while the wisdom books stress the imperative “Think!” However, just as believing and obeying result in action, the challenge to think likewise results in action.

While the wisdom books do not stress the standard elements of the salvation story (covenant, promise, redemption, forgiveness), they do nonetheless assume the theological underpinnings of the rest of the Old Testament. Proverbs 1:7 states, “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge.” The wisdom books start with this theological basis and then use the salvation story as a foundation on which to build a practical theology for living a day-to-day godly life in a complicated world.

The imperatives of the wisdom literature—listen, look, think, reflect—combine to focus on the overarching purpose of these books: to develop character in the reader. The wisdom books are not a collection of universal promises. Rather, they are a collection of valuable insights into godly living, which, if taken to heart (and head), will develop godly character, a character that will make wise choices in the rough–and–tumble marketplace of life. Wisdom literature makes the subtle suggestion that godly living involves solid, commonsense choices. Thus, living in a foolish, naïve, or cynical fashion is a reflection of ungodly living.

Wisdom thus has a strong practical tone. The character to be developed is not a hypothetical or idealistic one, but a real down–to–earth, commonsense character. R. B. Y. Scott summarizes by writing that wisdom “has to do with how men [and women] ought to act in the workaday world, with personal character, and with a way of life that can be called good because it has coherence, value, and meaning.” So wisdom can be defined as that combination of knowledge and character that allows one to live in the real world in a right and godly manner.

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