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Grasping the Wisdom Books

In this section we will discuss each wisdom book, noting the unique features of each and the impact such features have on interpretation. We will relate these features to the Interpretative Journey, providing you with broad principles for studying and applying the wisdom books. The wisdom books are fascinating and fun. We think you will enjoy your study.

Proverbs

The book of Proverbs is perhaps the easiest of the wisdom books to understand because it speaks to such common, everyday aspects of life: work, friendship, marriage, speech, money, and integrity. The proverbs also make sense to us because we are familiar with the literary form. In America we have dozens of old proverbs, and we use them in much the same way as the ancient Hebrews used their collection. Do you remember the following proverbs?

Look before you leap.
The early bird gets the worm.
You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink.
One bad apple spoils the entire barrel.
If you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen.
All that glitters is not gold.
Don’t count your chickens before they’re hatched.

How many other American proverbs can you think of? There are dozens. Proverbs are common in many other cultures as well. Usually they are short, pithy statements that teach practical wisdom about life. The proverbs in the Bible are similar. Usually they consist of two lines of parallel poetry (as discussed above). They are brief and phrased to be “catchy” for easy memorization.

The practical nature of these proverbs makes them applicable to almost anyone. Indeed, the ancient Hebrews borrowed many of their individual proverbs from the wisdom literature of their neighbors. Nevertheless, the book of Proverbs subordinates all of this borrowed wisdom to faith in God. Ross writes,

Finally, many specific emphases in Proverbs find parallels in the wisdom literature of the ancient Near East. But even though the collections share some of the same interests, the biblical material is unique in its prerequisite of a personal faith in a personal God. To the Hebrews the success of wisdom did not simply require a compliance with wise instructions, but trust in, reverence for, and submission to the Lord (Prov. 1:7; 3:5–6; 9:10) who created everything and governs both the world of nature and human history (3:19–20; 16:24; 21:1). Any ancient wisdom used by the Hebrews had to harmonize with this religious worldview, and any ancient wisdom used in this collection took on greater significance when subordinated to the true faith.[3]

Perhaps the most critical thing to remember when interpreting and applying the book of Proverbs is that the individual proverbs reflect general nuggets of wisdom and not universal truths. To interpret the proverbs as absolute promises from God is to misunderstand the intent of the author. Proverbs gives guidance for life, addressing situations that are normally true.

For example, consider Proverbs 10:4:

Lazy hands make for poverty,
but diligent hands bring wealth.

This proverb is generally true. If you work hard, you will most likely prosper; but if you are lazy, you will most likely not prosper. This lesson was true especially in ancient Israel, where most people were involved in farming. To succeed in farming required a tremendous amount of hard work, and laziness was a disaster. The same is good advice for any person today in his or her job: Don’t be lazy! Be a hard worker! However, in today’s economy there is hardly a direct correlation between how hard one works and how much money one makes. Farmers, factory workers, construction workers, and loggers work every bit as hard as lawyers, doctors, and stockbrokers, but their “blue-collar” income is but a fraction of that enjoyed by “white-collar” workers. In our current world of e-commerce and stock trading, millionaires can be made overnight, and while hard work often plays a role, it is not always the major ingredient. We have to be careful not to interpret Proverbs 10:4 as a universal promise that applies to every work situation at all times.

Likewise, think about the wisdom in Proverbs 3:9–10:

9Honor the Lord with your wealth,
with the firstfruits of all your crops;
10then your barns will be filled to overflowing,
and your vats will brim over with new wine.

This proverb tells people (farmers) that if they honor God and tithe out of their produce, they will prosper and always have a good harvest. Certainly, this proverb reflects good, practical wisdom. It teaches us that tithing should be part of a lifestyle based on wisdom. However, is this a promise? Is it a universal, automatic cause and effect? Danny was working in Ethiopia as a missionary in the mid-1980s when a terrible drought and famine hit that country. In the region of Wolayta there were over nine hundred churches with thousands of strong, faithful believers who had honored God with their harvest each year. Yet for several years there was not enough rain to grow crops, and these Christians were hit with a devastating famine instead of “barns filled to overflowing.” They found the wisdom in Job to be more directly applicable to them than verses such as this from Proverbs.

Step 1: Grasp the text in their town. What did the text mean to the biblical audience?

Thus, as we move into Step 1, it is important to remember that these proverbs are never universal promises. They were (and are today) guidelines and sound advice for character formation and decision making. The book of Proverbs deals with the norms of life, not the exceptions.

As part of Step 1 we need to explore the literary context. First, as mentioned above, note the overall connection of Proverbs with the rest of wisdom literature and keep in mind that occasionally there are exceptions to many of the individual proverbs. Next, it is helpful to note the structure of the book itself. Proverbs 1–9 introduces the book with fatherly exhortations to youth. It is perhaps significant to note that younger people are the primary audience of this introductory section of Proverbs. Indeed, Daniel Estes suggests that the primary role of the entire book of Proverbs may have been to educate youth.[4]

This orientation will affect how we view other proverbs outside this section as well. For example, Proverbs 25:24 states:

Better to live on a corner of the roof
than to share a house with a quarrelsome wife.

The lesson of this proverb is not directed to men who have quarrelsome wives, supposedly telling them that living on the roof would be better than living in the house with a grouchy wife. Rather, the proverb is directed at young men who have not married yet, and it gives wisdom about what kind of woman to avoid in marriage.

Proverbs 1–9 is comprised of longer poetic units than just the two-line parallelism of ordinary proverbs. So while this section is part of the book of Proverbs, it does not really contain any of the small, individual two-line units we call proverbs. Rather, it contains reflections on life, usually followed by examples and admonitions. For example, all of Proverbs 5 must be taken together, for it comprises a complete unit—one that warns its readers of the dangerous consequences of sexual immorality. Thus, while reading in this section, you must note the larger literary unit (usually about a chapter long) as part of our context.

Proverbs 10–29 contains the literary form that we traditionally call proverb—usually two short lines of poetry expressing one general truth of wisdom. Note that most of these proverbs are somewhat random in their placement. There is no apparent order throughout most of this section. Therefore, the larger unit (chapter, paragraph, etc.) does not play a role in literary context for this section. These proverbs each stand by themselves against the context of the entire book and the rest of the wisdom books; they do not relate to the verses immediately preceding and following. Because the literary context is so limited in these verses, the historical-cultural context takes on an important role.

The next section, Proverbs 30:1–31:9 (the sayings of Agur and King Lemuel’s mother), has slightly longer units of text, stretching to several verses. It is followed by the unique closing to the book, Proverbs 31:10–31. This final section is an acrostic, with each verse beginning with the next successive letter of the Hebrew alphabet (remember our discussion of acrostics in ch. 20). These verses, describing the wife of true, wise character, must also be taken as a unit.

Step 2: Measure the width of the river to cross. What are the differences between the biblical audience and us?

We move now to Step 2 of the Interpretive Journey. As mentioned above, each proverb usually presents a generalized principle to start with. It addresses practical aspects of everyday life. Therefore the river before us in Proverbs is usually quite narrow and shallow. We have to note the agrarian context of those proverbs that deal with work and occasional references to the king, but most proverbs speak to situations that have not changed much throughout human history.

Step 3: Cross the principlizing bridge. What is the theological principle in this text?

Because the river is narrow, moving to Step 3 is not difficult. Usually the proverb is already worded as a fairly general principle. However, remember our warnings about misinterpreting the proverbs as constant, universal promises. We must keep the exceptions from the other wisdom books in mind, and we must remind ourselves that the principles from Proverbs are guidelines to develop character and to help with life’s choices. The principles are normally true, but not universally so.

Step 4: Consult the biblical map. How does our theological principle fit with the rest of the Bible? Does the New Testament teaching modify or qualify this principle, and if so, how?

Many of the themes in Proverbs are likewise reflected in the New Testament (humility, concern for the poor, warnings about gossip and foolish speech, truth, hard work, selflessness and concern for others, living righteously rather than wickedly, etc.), and the principles from the verses in Proverbs relating to these themes generally translate over through the New Testament teaching without change.

Note, however, that the theme of wealth as a blessing from God does undergo some changes in the New Testament. Proverbs exhorts the wealthy to support the poor, and the New Testament echoes this same attitude. However, the Old Testament in general, and Proverbs in particular, presents material wealth as a blessing from God and a reward for righteous living. It is a blessing that happens now in this world. In the New Testament, however, the wealth blessing becomes an eschatological blessing, one that is enjoyed in the world to come. “Store up for yourselves treasures in heaven,” Jesus exhorts in Matthew 6:20.

Blomberg notes that “the [Old Testament] covenant model that assumes material reward for piety never reappears in Jesus’ teaching and is explicitly contradicted throughout.”[5] Likewise, Paul in his letters promises a multitude of blessings for those who faithfully serve the Lord, but nowhere does he promise material wealth as a blessing. In fact, the New Testament warns us that following Jesus may very well result in a loss of material wealth. So we cannot take the notion from Proverbs that faithfulness to God will result in material wealth and apply this directly to New Testament believers as some type of “health and wealth” theology.

Step 5: Grasp the text in our town. How should individual Christians live out this modified theological principle?

Remember that one of the goals of wisdom is to develop character. So while we are concerned with doing what the book of Proverbs advises, we want to be sure we catch the larger picture of being what the text tells us to be. As our character changes, so will our behavior.

For example, numerous individual proverbs tell us to speak gently, using our speech as a means of healing relationships and not as a means of hurting people (Prov. 12:18, 25; 15:4). Proverbs 15:1, for example, reads:

A gentle answer turns away wrath,
but a harsh word stirs up anger.

The river is narrow here and the principle for us is the same as it was for the ancient readers. We should speak gently and not harshly, especially in heated situations. The New Testament reconfirms the importance of gentleness and of controlling our speech (Eph. 4:2; James 1:19–26). For application, each of us should examine our own speech habits and our reaction to heated situations. Is gentleness of speech a characteristic of your life? What would your friends say? Your parents? Your husband/wife or children? Grasping the text means that we must make a conscious effort to change our character for the better in this regard.

Job

The story of Job is one of the better known stories in the Bible. People throughout the centuries have been able to relate to this book because it deals honestly with tragic suffering. Practically everyone in the world, including God’s children, is touched at some point in life by inexplicable tragedy. Indeed, during the time that we worked on this book the students and faculty of the university where we teach have been shaken by two terrible, fatal boating accidents and one tragic airline crash. We have buried several wonderful, dynamic young Christians who loved the Lord dearly and served him wholeheartedly. The haunting question that continues to lurk in the minds of those of us who have been slapped in the face by such a harsh reality is, “How do we make sense out of what has happened?” It is for these situations that Job was written.

As mentioned above, the book of Job is a strong counterbalance to the book of Proverbs. In Proverbs the world is rational and ordered. If we serve God faithfully, work hard, and treat others correctly, we will have a blessed and prosperous life. Job’s experience, however, contrasts sharply with Proverbs. He does all of the good things that Proverbs commands, but instead of receiving blessing, he enters a nightmarish world of dead children, economic ruin, endless physical suffering, and harsh criticism from close friends. Most of the time we live in the world that Proverbs describes; inevitably we also spend some of our lives hurting and questioning in the world of Job.

Although the story of Job is well-known, actually grasping the book is not all that easy. The principles to be learned from this book do not lie out on the surface as in Proverbs. Job is much more subtle. Keep in mind also that the book is forty-two chapters long, so there is a lot of material to deal with.

Of utmost importance for our interpretation and application is the literary context. The book of Proverbs is comprised largely of short, unrelated proverbial statements. The book of Job, by contrast, is a story. The book has movement, time sequence, and plot. As we seek to understand various passages in it, it is critical to place those smaller passages into the context of the complete story. Major misinterpretations will emerge if we pull verses from Job out of context and try to interpret them as we do the independent verses in Proverbs. While the book is fairly long, the story is not overly complicated and can be outlined as follows:

1:1–2:10: Job is afflicted. The first two chapters are in prose (narrative). Because of a challenge from Satan (and unknown to Job), God allows Satan to remove all of the earthly blessings in Job’s life. Job loses his children and his material wealth.Furthermore, Job is stricken with painful sores. Job’s wife criticizes him, but he maintains a stoic faith, stating, “Shall we accept good from God and not trouble?”

2:11–37:24: Job and his friends search unsuccessfully for a rational answer. These chapters comprise the bulk of the book, but they are the least well-known. Note also that the author switches to poetry for this unit instead of narrative. In this section Job and his friends grope for an explanation of his terrible tragedy. Working off of the theology reflected in Proverbs, they try to explain Job’s situation. In 2:11–31:40 Job interacts with three friends, all of whom are “wise” individuals, seeking to apply wisdom to life’s events. They observe that Job’s afflictions seem divine in origin. Since God is moral and just, it is obvious that Job is being punished by God for some great sin. They accuse Job of this and tell him to repent.

Job, however, knows he has not committed any great sin. He is puzzled by God’s actions and irritated by his friends’ accusations. Job turns bitter and accuses God of injustice in the way he runs the universe. He demands his day in court, wanting to stand before God and present the case for his innocence. In 32:1–37:24 another, younger acquaintance (Elihu) spouts off his wisdom as well, indignant that Job would question God’s justice. Elihu argues that God “repays everyone for what they have done; he brings on them what their conduct deserves” (34:11).

38:1–42:6: God answers Job’s accusations. In the previous chapters Job demanded an audience with God to question him about what has happened and how he runs the universe. In this section God appears and Job gets his audience before the divine Judge, but he soon discovers that God is the one who asks all the questions. “Just what do you know about running the universe, Job?” God asks with a tinge of sarcasm. God does not answer Job’s earlier accusations but rather stresses his limitless divine knowledge and power in contrast to Job’s narrow, human limitations. Job realizes his bigmouthed mistake and repents. This section is also poetic.

42:7–17: Job’s friends are rebuked and Job is restored. The literary style returns to narrative, thus balancing with the opening section. God rebukes Job’s three critical friends and Job is vindicated before them. Note, however, that God ignores the young Elihu (32:1–37:24) altogether, dismissing him without comment. Job is then restored, but God never explains to him the background reason for the entire ordeal.

Now that we have introduced the book and presented an overview of the literary context, let’s look at Job in light of the Interpretive Journey.

Step 1: Grasp the text in their town. What did the text mean to the biblical audience?

Be sure to place the passage you are studying into the proper literary context, noting the role that your particular passage plays within the overall story. It is critical to remember that the central lessons of the book are not evident until the last two sections (38:1–42:17), where God himself pronounces the lessons of the book. Those lessons are in stark contrast to the ramblings of Job and his friends in the middle of the book. Most passages from the middle of the book reflect the misguided search of Job and his friends. Don’t interpret this misguided search as guidelines for us! Also keep in mind that the prevailing theology of the time appears similar to that of Proverbs, so this book would have been quite shocking to the initial audience. Nonetheless, numerous lessons emerge from the story.

First of all, there are several lessons to be learned from the misguided friends of Job. They try to explain the tragedy through the misapplication of traditional wisdom. Thus, they make two central assumptions: (1) Through wisdom they have access to all the information they need to analyze the problem; and (2) through wisdom, and based on this information, they can correctly understand the problem. Both assumptions are wrong! Thus, the limitations of wisdom are underscored. Working off of wrong assumptions, the friends make numerous mistakes. Kidner writes, “They overestimate their grasp of truth, misapply the truth they know, and close their minds to any facts that contradict what they assume.”[6]

After some initial sympathy, Job’s friends place themselves above Job and his sufferings. They do not seek to comfort; rather, they seek to explain. Comforting and explaining are quite different. The basic theology of the friends is not bad, but their application of it is incorrect. As Kidner notes, the rebuke of the friends by God does not dismiss the basic theology of Proverbs as much as it “attacks the arrogance of pontificating about the application of these truths, and of thereby misrepresenting God and misjudging one’s fellow men.”[7] The friends are thus negative characters and not models of behavior for the audience. Much of what they say is true, but they say it at the wrong time and apply it to the wrong situation.

It may also be important to note that God chides Job quite gently in Job 38–41. Then in Job 42:7 God tells the three friends that they “have not spoken the truth about me, as my servant Job has” (italics added). God does not seem to be overly upset with Job’s wondering, questioning, and challenging. He does, however, seem aggravated at the three friends for misreading Job’s suffering as a punishment for sin and for trying to explain rather than comfort.

Step 2: Measure the width of the river to cross. What are the differences between the biblical audience and us?

In this step, we realize that the differences between the ancient audience and us are not great. True, we are under different covenants, but the covenants play a negligible role in Job. We still have the same desire to want a simple and rational explanation for all of the terrible things that happen, and we tend to misapply the theology of Proverbs in much the same way as Job’s friends did. We cannot assume that all of our tragedy is due to satanic involvement, and thus we differ from Job. However, Job did not know the origin of his troubles either, and in our shared ignorance of cosmic cause and effect we are similar to Job.

Step 3: Cross the principlizing bridge. What is the theological principle in this text?

Because the river is narrow and shallow, we can easily cross over it with much the same principles as those listed above in Step 1. The principles would be:

  1. God is sovereign and we are not.
  2. God knows all and we know little.
  3. God is always just, but he does not disclose his explanations to us.
  4. God expects us to trust in his character and his sovereignty when unexplained tragedy strikes.

Step 4: Consult the biblical map. How does our theological principle fit with the rest of the Bible? Does the New Testament teaching modify or qualify this principle, and if so, how?

As mentioned above in the discussion of Proverbs, the New Testament does not repeat the Old Testament picture of peace and prosperity as a result of righteous living. Indeed, the New Testament predicts in numerous places that those who live in obedience to Christ will suffer persecution. Jesus warns his disciples, “You will be hated by everyone. . . . When you are persecuted in one place, flee to another. . . . Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul” (Matt. 10:22, 23, 28).

Likewise, consider the “reward” Paul received in this world for his faithful service: “Five times I received from the Jews the forty lashes minus one. Three times I was beaten with rods, once I was pelted with stones, three times I was shipwrecked” (2 Cor. 11:24–25). Paul also spent several years in prison, and tradition tells us he ultimately was executed by the Romans. So, unlike the Old Testament, the New Testament presents suffering as a normal feature of the godly life, not as an aberration. James cites Job himself (along with the prophets) as an example of patient suffering (James 5:11).

Furthermore, the New Testament suggests that the righteous believer glorifies God by enduring unjust hardship. Paul reminds us that we conquer suffering and hardship through our experience of the love of Christ (Rom. 8:35–39).

However, we want to be careful that we do not repeat the mistake of Job’s friends and misuse biblical truth, perhaps adding to a friend’s grief instead of comforting them. Recall Romans 8:28, “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.” It would be terribly insensitive for us to tell a couple who has just lost their four-year-old child to a drunk driver that all things work together for good and then piously to cite this verse. It is true that much of Romans 8:28 resonates with the theology of Job (the universe is bigger than our private ash-heap, with purposes that we cannot imagine). Eventually people who are struck with senseless tragedy may come to grasp this aspect of God’s sovereignty. But hitting people with this in the midst of their grief as if this solution should somehow answer their questions and ease their pain reflects the same self-righteous, heartless pontificating of Job’s friends. Comforting is different from explaining. When your friends suffer inexplicable tragedy, your role is to suffer and weep with them.

Step 5: Grasp the text in our town. How should individual Christians today live out this theological principle?

When the slats are kicked out from under our lives and senseless, heartrending tragedy crashes into our private world, the book of Job provides us with a place of refuge and a word of comfort. It tells us that it is not wrong to cry out in anger and frustration to God (Psalms told us this as well, remember?). It tells us that there probably is no answer in the human realm to the ”Why?“ question. Our focus in our grief should not be on the “why” but rather on God and his character. Acknowledging that we do not understand tragedy, we should strive to trust in God’s ability to run the universe, reaffirming that in the world to come such suffering will not occur.

As mentioned above, another area of application is that of comforting others who are grieving because of tragedy. We should hurt and suffer with them. We should acknowledge along with Job that our understanding of the universe is limited. Thus, we should avoid the glib explanations that seek to rationalize and justify a tragedy. Our role as friends is not to explain or to try to make sense of tragic events. Our role is to share in the grief and to remind our friends by our actions that we, along with their Savior, love them deeply and feel their pain.

Ecclesiastes

“Of all the books of the Bible,” William Brown writes insightfully, “Ecclesiastes is perhaps the least straightforward (although Job may come a close second).”[8] Ecclesiastes is similar to Job in that the literary context of the entire book must be considered in analyzing any of its smaller parts. Ecclesiastes must be interpreted as a whole. The book is not a collection of guidelines for living, as Proverbs is. Rather, the book is an intellectual search for meaning in life. Most of the search is futile; the true meaning is not discovered until the end of the book. Therefore, the interpretation of any of the intermediate parts of the book must be understood in light of the entire search and the ultimate answer found at the end.

The autobiographical character in Ecclesiastes who embarks on this search is called “the Teacher” (NIV) or “the Preacher” (NASB). Using the tools of wisdom (serious, rational, logical reflection), he attempts to analyze life itself and grasp the meaning of his existence. The book presents observations on life, followed by comments and conclusions. Ecclesiastes is filled with satire and sarcasm. Up until the end the tone is cynical in nature, even bordering on bitter.

One of the key words in this book is the word “meaningless” (NIV). Behind this English translation is the Hebrew word hebel—a word that occurs thirty-eight times (five times in the Hebrew of 1:2 alone!). The word is normally used to describe breath, mist, or vapor—things that look as if they have substance but in reality do not. Ecclesiastes 1:2 sets the cynical tone of the book. The Teacher discovers that if one attempts to understand life from a strictly rational approach, the meaning of life becomes like the mist, an illusion of a reality that does not exist.

After the brief opening summary of futility, the Teacher begins his quest for meaning. Wright summarizes the first six chapters by writing:

Can purpose of life be found in nature, money, self-indulgence, property, position, intelligence, philosophy, and religious observances? Obviously, some of these pursuits are better than others, but all encounter some crowning frustration that invalidates them as solutions to the problem of living. The world does not contain the key to itself.[9]

The Teacher then explores the nature and limitations of wisdom itself (chs. 7–11). He concludes in 8:17, “No one can comprehend what goes on under the sun. Despite all their efforts to search it out, no one can discover its meaning. Even if the wise claim they know, they cannot really comprehend it.” Yet the Teacher suggests that life should be enjoyed, even if it cannot be understood. The Teacher next bemoans the fact that the common fate of death overtakes all, both the righteous and the wicked. He does not dismiss wisdom as worthless; it is still better to be wise than to be foolish. But wisdom is limited and futile as a means for ultimate understanding. Finally, in chapter 12, the Teacher comes to his conclusion: “Fear God and keep his commandments,” implying that obedience to God is better than continuously striving after understanding.

Step 1: Grasp the text in their town. What did the text mean to the biblical audience?

What did this strange book mean to the original audience? Three main conclusions emerge from the Teacher’s search:

  1. Apart from God, life is meaningless. Wisdom is not bad, but it does not provide meaning in life.
  2. Wisdom does not explain the contradictions of life; it only points them out. Therefore people should simply trust God (the same meaning as Job).
  3. Life, therefore, is not a puzzle to be completely understood, but a gift to be enjoyed (similar to Song of Songs).

Most of the proverbs the Teacher quotes, the reflections he shares, the observations he makes, or the experiences he discusses point to one of these three conclusions.

Step 2: Measure the width of the river to cross. What are the differences between the biblical audience and us?

The tendency to search for meaning through sheer intellectual avenues is also common in our day and time, so the river is not wide on this issue. The human need to find meaning in life and our futile attempt to find meaning through wealth, entertainment, work, philosophy, and so on, is also fairly universal, so the river is shallow at that point as well.

One significant difference does exist, however. The Teacher seems to have a limited understanding of death, with almost no concept of an afterlife. We Christians, by contrast, live with a confident assurance of resurrection. Likewise, the Teacher is concerned with meaning in relation to this life only. As New Testament believers we know that meaning for people is tied to the kingdom of Christ and that a significant dimension of this is spiritual, not physical. Also, keep in mind that we are under a different covenant. The conclusion of the Teacher to “fear God and keep his commandments” will have slightly different nuances to us who know Jesus Christ and are therefore under the new covenant.

Step 3: Cross the principlizing bridge. What is the theological principle in this text?

Because the river is narrow, most theological principles that can be developed from various texts in Ecclesiastes will be similar to those listed in Step 1.

Step 4: Consult the biblical map. How does our theological principle fit with the rest of the Bible? Does the New Testament teaching modify or qualify this principle, and if so, how?

The New Testament stresses that relationship with God under the new covenant must center on the life, death, and resurrection of his Son, Jesus Christ. Thus, all life outside of Jesus Christ is futile and meaningless. Therefore, the first conclusion from Step 1 above should be modified to read, “Apart from a relationship with Jesus Christ, life is meaningless. Rational, logical thought is not bad, but it does not provide meaning in life.”

Likewise, as discussed in Step 2, in contrast to the cloudy understanding of the Teacher reflected in his search, the New Testament presents a clear picture of a glorious, victorious afterlife, when all wrongs will be corrected and all suffering will pass away. Therefore, it is imperative that we see the cynicism and bitterness of the Teacher as a result of the fruitless part of his search and not as part of the final principles we come away with. There is nothing bitter or cynical about the gospel!

As you may have noticed, the book of James addresses many of the issues brought out in the Old Testament wisdom literature. Without doubt, James draws much of his thought from the Old Testament wisdom books, including Ecclesiastes. James sounds much like the Teacher of Ecclesiastes as he blasts those misguided people who acquire wealth as a means of guaranteeing the future (James 5:1–6).

Step 5: Grasp the text is our town. How should individual Christians live out this modified principle?

As we have mentioned frequently, application will vary somewhat with the situation of each believer who seeks to apply the passage. However, most of us need to be constantly reminded that “apart from a relationship with Jesus Christ, life is meaningless.” The world around us (movies, TV, literature) offers us the illusion (hebel) that meaning can be found in education, work, wealth, or pleasure. The Teacher points out, however, that a close, rational scrutiny of the situation reveals that such a search is meaningless, a chasing after the wind. Only a relationship with our Creator gives us meaning. We as believers would do well to focus our lives on this aspect of life in our quest for meaning.

Song of Songs

The Song of Songs is perhaps one of the most shocking books in the Bible because it speaks openly and joyfully of human sexuality. It could be called an R-rated book because of sexually explicit passages. It is in essence a collection of love poems between a young man and a young woman (called the Shulamite).

Unlike Proverbs, the Song of Songs is organized into three logical, sequential units: the Courtship (1:2–3:5), the Wedding (3:6–5:1), and the following Life of Love (5:2–8:14).[10] In some sections the man and woman are describing their love for each other; in other sections they are describing how beautiful or handsome their mate is. The woman, who does most of the talking, also describes the dreams she has of her husband while he is away and shares how much she misses him. The book is highly emotional and is full of figurative imagery as the man and woman use a wide range of colorful analogies to describe their wonderful mates and the wild and crazy love they have for each other.

The church has struggled through the years with how to interpret and apply such an unusual book. Starting from the third century AD and continuing on throughout much of church history, the prevailing approach to Song of Songs has been to explain it as an allegory. (Do you remember? We discussed allegory back in ch. 11, “Levels of Meaning.”) Keep in mind that after the apostolic period and prior to the Reformation (sixteenth century), most biblical interpretation was done by unmarried priests and monks. We suspect they had difficulty in relating to the literal aspects of this book. Also, the early church frequently used the allegorical method to interpret other Old Testament texts. Because they desired to find Christ in every text, they abandoned literal meanings and literary context and spiritualized practically all Old Testament passages.

As a result, the man and woman in Song of Songs became symbolic of Christ and the church (cf. Eph. 5:23–33), and the book was transformed from a wisdom book about love and marriage into a theological tract on the love of Christ for his bride, the church. This certainly made the book easier to preach on Sunday mornings. Echoes of such allegorical interpretation are still around, especially in our songs. Indeed many Christians today sing the familiar lines, “He leads me up to his banqueting table; his banner over me is love” (cf. Song 2:4), and they interpret “he/his” allegorically as Christ, an understanding that differs significantly from the context of Song of Songs 2.

However, the allegorical method of interpreting Song of Songs breaks down when we read the text closely and pay attention to context. Scholars today are virtually unanimous in rejecting the allegorical interpretation. Christians today also recognize that sexuality in marriage is a big part of life, and if the wisdom literature is to address the major issues of life, we should not be surprised (or shocked) to see a frank discussion of the joys associated with marital intimacy. Undoubtedly sexuality in marriage was also an issue when the book was composed.

Step 1: Grasp the text in their town. What did the text mean to the biblical audience?

Thus, as we approach Step 1, we are reminded of Roland Murphy’s conclusion that “ancient Israel perceived the wonders of human sexuality, fulfilled in marital love, to be a divine blessing.”[11] Kinlaw concurs:

The Bible does not see marriage as an inferior state, a concession to human weakness. Nor does it see the normal physical love within that relationship as necessarily impure. Marriage was instituted before the Fall by God with the command that the first couple become one flesh. Therefore physical love within that conjugal union is good, is God’s will, and should be a delight to both partners.

The prospect of children is not necessary to justify sexual love in marriage. Significantly, the Song of Solomon makes no reference to procreation. It must be remembered that the book was written in a world where a high premium was placed on offspring and a woman’s worth was often measured in terms of the number of her children. Sex was often seen with reference to procreation; yet there is not a trace of that here. The Song is a song in praise of love for love’s sake and for love’s sake alone. This relationship needs no justification beyond itself.[12]

We do not know for certain the settings in which the book was used by ancient Israel, but we suspect it was read (or sung) at weddings. Just as the psalmist praised God for the wonders of nature, so the Song of Songs praises God for the wonders of marital intimacy.

Of course, it is also important to note that the lyrics of the Song of Songs are addressed to the man or the woman in the story and not to God. If we assume this to be part of wisdom and part of the teachings about character and living rightly, we conclude that the book also provided a model for how a husband and his wife were to feel toward one another and how they were to express their feelings. As mentioned above, the wisdom of Proverbs presented a model to ancient Israel of a quiet, thoughtful, somewhat reserved wise person who acted dignified in the public world. This image changes in the Song of Songs. The wise, righteous person is now seen as madly in love with his or her spouse, spouting out line after line of mushy compliments and praises about the lover’s sexuality.

Step 2: Measure the width of the river to cross. What are the differences between the biblical audience and us?

Although the authorship of the book is attributed to Solomon, the book itself does not seem to describe any specific historical relationship in his life. We suspect it was written as a description of an idealized relationship, one to which any young couple in Israel could relate. With the exception of the mention of Solomon’s wedding carriage in 3:7–10, there is little in the book reflecting the unique status of Solomon that would create a wide area of the interpretive river for us to cross. The joy and irrationality of a couple madly in love has not really changed much.

We do, however, encounter trouble in appreciating the imagery that is used. We suspect that our wives would not be too flattered if we told them their hair looked like a flock of goats descending from Mount Gilead (4:1) or their noses resembled the tower of Lebanon looking toward Damascus (7:4)! Compliments to the opposite sex are extremely culture specific. We may smile at the idioms and figures of speech used in Song of Songs, but keep in mind that the ancient readers would likewise laugh at translations of our compliments, “She’s a babe!” or “He’s a hunk!” So the figurative language does create a wide spot in the river of differences to cross. We would not suggest transposing the compliments from Song of Songs literally into the intimate moments of your marriage. A little moderns updating of the language is needed!

Also, most readers will be struck by how corny or mushy the sentimental language in this book can be. However, we are not convinced that this is a big difference if the passages are placed in the right context. A Christian couple today, if they are as madly and crazily in love as the one in the Song, will also say some overly sweet and dopey things to each other when they are alone. Most loving couples we know would die of embarrassment if their private words to each other were published for the entire church to read. The private, mushy, sentimental stuff one whispers to his or her spouse in the dark is inherently corny to all outsiders, yet delightful and wonderful to the spouse. The dignified, wise person modeled for us in Proverbs does not say intimate, mushy things about his or her spouse in public. However, Song of Songs tells us that that wise person had better shift gears when he or she gets home, set the straitlaced wisdom of Proverbs aside, and become a sappy romantic.

Step 3: Crossing the principlizing bridge. What is the theological principle in this text?

As mentioned above, any theological principles must be built on similarities between their situation and ours. One of the main theological principles that emerges from many passages in Song of Songs is that the person seeking to live a wise, godly life should be madly in love with her husband or his wife and should express this love in strong, emotional (sappy and mushy?) terms.

Step 4: Consult the biblical map. How does our theological principle fit with the rest of the Bible? Does the New Testament teaching modify or qualify this principle, and if so, how?

The New Testament does not really modify the principle from Step 3. In Ephesians 5:21–33 Paul’s advice to husbands and wives (love, submission) corresponds well with the main principle in Step 3.

Step 5: Grasp the text is our town. How should individual Christians live out this modified principle?

As mentioned earlier in the book, applications will vary with the situation of various believers. However, note that the celebration of sexuality in Song of Songs is apparently directed to married couples or those approaching marriage. It is especially appropriate for those who are newly married. We suggest that newly married couples read Song of Songs to each other on their honeymoon. Yes, it’s corny, but also fun and appropriate.

We do not think that this book has much application for those who are not married. However, married couples can apply it by verbally expressing their love to their spouses with lots of romantic, sentimental compliments, dopey as they may be to outsiders. We grasp the text as this wisdom book shapes our character, that is, as we become a little bit wild and crazy in our love affair with our marriage partner. We balance our way of life with both Proverbs and Song of Songs. In public we follow the pattern of the quiet, thoughtful, frugal, hardworking, wise person. But when alone with our wives/husbands, we follow the wild and crazy pattern of the two lovers in Song of Songs. This too is wisdom.


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