The Big Picture
Each of the four wisdom books (Proverbs, Job, Ecclesiastes, and Song of Songs) is different in its contribution to our education in wise living. It is important to see the different roles of each, but we must also be able to see how they integrate to form the broad literary context of wisdom. The four books balance each other theologically, and any one of them read out of the context of the others can be easily misunderstood. Basically, Proverbs presents the rational, ordered norms of life, while the other three books present the exceptions and limitations to the rational, ordered approach to life. This basic summary is further clarified below.
The Basic Approach to Life (Proverbs)
Proverbs presents the rational, ordered norms of life. The many proverbs in the book are not universals (i.e., things that are always true), but rather norms of life (i.e., things that are normally true). God has set in place an ordered, rational world, and it all makes sense. If you work hard, you will prosper; if you don’t, you will be poor. Wise, righteous, hardworking people can expect a blessed, prosperous life while foolish, sinful, lazy people can expect a hard life.
Exception 1: The Suffering of the Righteous (Job)
The book of Job demonstrates that there are often events in life that humans cannot grasp or understand through the wisdom approach delineated in Proverbs. Sometimes tragedy strikes those who are wise, righteous, and hardworking, and God does not disclose the reasons behind such tragedy. Proverbs teaches us that life is rational and that the wise person can understand it. Job qualifies this with some real-world experience. If we take both books together, we conclude that most of life is rational and can be understood. Some events in life, however, are inexplicable to us as mere humans. Our wisdom approach of Proverbs fails us in these situations, and we are forced to rely on faith in the Creator. This is what we learn from Job.
Exception 2: The Failure of the Rational, Ordered Approach to Provide Ultimate Meaning to Life (Ecclesiastes)
The book of Ecclesiastes is an intellectual search for meaning in life. While the author acknowledges that being wise is better than being stupid, he concludes that wisdom does not by itself provide meaning to life. Also, while Job told the story of one exception to the norms of Proverbs, the cynical analysis in Ecclesiastes chronicles numerous exceptions to the thesis of an ordered, rational universe. The ultimate conclusion in Ecclesiastes, not disclosed until the final verses, is that the only way to find meaning in life is to be in relationship with God. Logic and rational thought (wisdom) can help you on a day-to-day basis, but ultimate meaning in life requires relationship with God.
Exception 3: The Irrationality of Romantic Love between a Husband and Wife (Song of Songs)
Proverbs gives good, practical, wise advice about marriage. It advises men not to marry women who are quarrelsome or ill-tempered (21:9, 19), and it depicts clearly for women the fate of lazy fools and drunkards, thus implicitly warning against marrying such men. Throughout Proverbs the picture of a good, wise man of character is presented, and in the final section (31:10–31) the picture of a good, wise, and noble wife is presented. All this advice is good and rational.
However, it is difficult to build a great love relationship in marriage with only logic and rational thought. The Song of Songs celebrates the wild, irrational, mushy, and corny aspects of true love. This book suggests to us that in the marketplace husbands and wives may need to be the quiet, discerning, hardworking people of Proverbs, but that once the lights go out in the privacy of their home, they need to be the crazy, madly-in-love, slightly irrational couple in Song of Songs.