Earlier this year, we began a tour of the different sections of the Bible, starting with the books of Moses. Today, we’re continuing our tour with the next section of the Bible: the Wisdom Books.
The wisdom books (which number five in the Protestant canon, seven if you include Apocryphal books) represent a major shift in style from the historical books that precede them. They fall into the category of Ancient Near East wisdom literature, a genre of writing that focuses on existential questions about God, humanity, Creation, and the nature of evil and suffering. Wisdom literature could take the form of short, memorable insights (as in the book of Proverbs) or a dialogue (as in the book of Job, where Job, Job’s friends, and God engage in a conversation that teaches and enlightens the reader). Wisdom literature was produced in several different cultures in the Ancient Near East, but by far the best-known are those that found their way into the Bible canon: Job, Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and Song of Songs.
Here are the wisdom books of the Protestant Bible:
- Job: One of the most famous characters in the Bible, Job is the archetype of the “suffering saint”—a God-fearing man who experiences terrible trials and sufferings, and calls out to God for an explanation. The book does not offer an easy or simplistic answer to the problem of suffering, but finds solace in God’s sovereignty. Famous passage: God’s strongly-worded answer to Job in chapter 40.
- Psalms: An oft-quoted collection of prayers, songs, and poetry, many of them written by King David. The psalms cover almost the entirety of human emotion, including praise, doubt, repentance, and joy. Almost everyone who’s read the Psalms can point to at least one or two that stood out as “favorites,” but Psalm 23 (“The Lord is my shepherd…”) is one of the most recognizable.
- Proverbs: What does a wisely-lived life look like? Through hundreds of short pieces of insight, the book of Proverbs distinguishes wisdom from foolishness. Like the other wisdom books, Proverbs employs several interesting rhetorical techniques, most notably parallelism, in which two phrases are matched or contrasted: “The fear of the LORD is the beginning of knowledge / but fools despise wisdom and instruction.”
- Ecclesiastes: is a challenging book that can seem out-of-place in the Bible—it’s an extended reflection on the meaning of life that sometimes feels fatalistic and cynical, as exemplified in its famous opening stanzas: “‘Meaningless! Meaningless!’ says the Teacher. ‘Utterly meaningless! Everything is meaningless.'” Nevertheless, its message is ultimately the positive one that living in obedience to God provides a grounding for human life.
- Song of Songs: Another unique book, Song of Songs is a poetic dialogue about love, celebrating marriage and the gift of sexuality. Many Christians also find in it an allegorical message about the love of Christ for His church.
The wisdom books contain some of the most beautifully-written sections of the entire Bible, although they can be a challenge to read straight-through in the way one might approach the clear narratives of the Bible’s historical books. While many books of the Old Testament give us a historian’s view of God’s people and their experiences, the wisdom books provide us with a more pastoral glimpse at the state of their hearts. We see that despite the gap of time that separates us from ancient Israel, the Israelites grappled with the same faith issues that we do today: they asked tough questions about sin and suffering; they experienced joy and confidence in God’s love; they looked for God in life’s pleasures and trials alike; they sometimes entertained doubts and they looked to God for help both physical and spiritual.
Beyond that, the wisdom books show us that God values and responds to these myriad questions and prayers. We can take comfort that no experience in our lives, whether wonderful or terrible, can place us outside the love and understanding of a gracious God.