Wisdom: Then and now

These are my notes on Chapter 12 (of 13) of “How to Read the Bible For All Its Worth” (2nd edition) by Gordon Fee and Douglas Stuart. This is a book on common-sense guidelines on interpreting and applying the Bible.

Ecclesiastes, Proverbs and Job make up the wisdom books, to which Song of Songs can be added.

The nature of wisdom

Biblical wisdom can be defined as the ability to make godly choices in life.

Abuse of wisdom literature

This normally happens in one of 3 ways:

  1. Reading the books only in part, failing to see the inspired author’s overall message.
  2. Misunderstanding wisdom terms and categories as well as wisdom styles and literary modes. For example, ‘fool’ in Proverbs refers not to one who is intellectually deficient, but to an unbeliever who acknowledges no higher authority than him/herself.
  3. Failing to follow the line of argument in a wisdom discourse. For example, trying to live by Job 15:20 without taking into account that it was spoken by Eliphaz, who was later rebuked by God.

Who is wise?

Wisdom in the Bible isn’t theoretical or abstract. The wisdom literature of other ancient cultures has as its aim the making of the best choices in order to achieve the best life. Biblical wisdom added to this the central idea that the only good choices are godly choices. Thus, “the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.”

Wisdom, as the Bible defines it, is a matter of orientation to God out of which comes the ability to please Him.

Wisdom expressed through poetry

Poetry helps the student learn and memorise. Among the techniques used are: synonymous parallelism (e.g. Proverbs 7:4), antithetical parallelism (e.g. Proverbs 10:1), acrostics (Proverbs 31:10-31), alliteration (Ecclesiastes 3:1-8), numerical sequences (Proverbs 30:15-31), similes and metaphors (Job 32:19, Song 4:1-6).

The limits of wisdom

Solomon’s great wisdom helped him gain wealth and power, but it couldn’t keep him from turning away from the Lord in later years. Only when wisdom is subordinated to obedience to God does it achieve its proper ends in the sense the OT intends.

Ecclesiastes: Cynical wisdom

This is a baffling wisdom monologue which doesn’t seem to contain much that is positive and encouraging towards a life of faithfulness to God. Its consistent message is that the reality and finality of death means that life has no ultimate value.

Why is it in the Bible at all? The answer is that it is there as a foil (a contrast) to what the rest of the Bible teaches. The view of life it presents ought to leave you unsatisfied. When God becomes irrelevant to our daily lives, Ecclesiastes is the result.

Wisdom in Job

Job also contains incorrect advice as a foil for God’s truth. Job’s comforters, unlike the Teacher in Ecclesiastes, believe that God is involved in daily affairs to the point of meting out judgement through events in this life. They also say that what happens to you in life is a direct result of whether or not you have pleased God. Jesus’ disciples applied this logic (John 9:1-3) as do many Christians today.

The reader of Job learns what is the world’s wisdom, seemingly logical but actually wrong, and what constitutes God’s wisdom and grows in confidence in God’s sovereignty and righteousness.

Wisdom in Proverbs

Proverbs contains a collection of pithy sayings that focus on practical attitudes. Specifically religious language is present in Proverbs (cf. 1:7; 3:5-12; 15:3, 8-9, 11; 16:1-9; 22:9, 23; 24:18, 21, etc.) but it doesn’t predominate.

Uses and abuses of Proverbs

A proverb is a brief, particular expression of truth. The briefer a statement is, the less likely it is to be totally precise and universally applicable. Proverbs don’t state everything about a truth, but they point towards it. Taken literally, they’re often technically inexact. For example, some people commit adultery and get away with it, contrary to Proverbs 6:27-29, and so on.

Some hermeneutical guidelines

Proverbs aren’t legal guarantees from God

The blessings, rewards and opportunities mentioned in Proverbs are likely to follow if one chooses the wise courses of action outlined in the poetical, figurative language of the book. The proverb isn’t a categorical, always applicable, ironclad promise.

Proverbs must be read as a collection

The more in isolation one reads a proverb, the less clear its interpretation may be. Each proverb must be understood in comparison with others and with the rest of scripture.

Proverbs are worded to be memorable, not to be theologically accurate

No proverb is a complete statement of truth.  The more briefly and parabolically a principle is stated, the more common sense and good judgement are needed to interpret it correctly. Case in point: the acrostic poem about the virtuous woman in Proverbs 31:10-31.

Some proverbs need to be “translated” to be appreciated

E.g. Proverbs 25:24. You need to see the transcultural issue expressed in the culturally-specific language. In this case, the proverb is intended to advise that people be careful in their selection of a mate.

For convenience, here are some summary rules that will help you make proper use of proverbs:

  1. Proverbs are often parabolic, i.e. figurative, pointing beyond themselves.
  2. Proverbs are intensely practical, not theoretically theological.
  3. Proverbs are worded to be memorable, not technically precise.
  4. Proverbs are not designed to support selfish behaviour—just the opposite!
  5. Proverbs strongly reflecting ancient culture may need sensible “translation” so as not to lose their meaning.
  6. Proverbs are not guarantees from God, but poetic guidelines for good behaviour.
  7. Proverbs may use highly specific language, exaggeration, or any variety of literary techniques to make their point.
  8. Proverbs give good advice for wise approaches to certain aspects of life, but are not exhaustive in their coverage.
  9. Wrongly used, proverbs might justify a crass, materialistic lifestyle. Rightly used, proverbs will provide practical advice for daily living.

Wisdom in the Song of Songs

The Song of Songs is a lengthy love song. But how does a love song fit within the category of wisdom? The ability to make godly decisions in the matters of whom to love and how to love is important to every believer.

Human skills and desires can be used for both good and evil, and so it is with love and sex. If the right choices are made, sex and romance can be employed for God’s glory in accordance with His original design. That’s what Song of Songs is about.

Interpretation of Song of Songs has suffered from totality transfer and allegorisation. Totality transfer is the tendency to think that all the possible meanings of a word come with it whenever it is used. In the case of Song of Songs, the totality transfer was made from other biblical love songs. Isaiah 5:1-7 and Hosea 2:2-15 are examples of poetic love songs that tell the story of God’s love for His people Israel. Early interpreters concluded that Song of Songs must be the same sort of thing: an allegory of God’s love for Israel or Christ’s love for the church.

However, Song of Songs is about human love. It doesn’t contain clues pointing to Israel’s history, neither is it laden with national symbolism as the prophetical allegories are. It doesn’t read like anything in the prophets.

Here are some considerations that will help you use the Song more profitably:

First, for the ancient readers of Song of Songs, monogamous, heterosexual marriage was the proper context for sexual activity according to God’s revelation. The Song’s attitude is the very antithesis of unfaithfulness, either before or after marriage.

Second, the closest parallels to the Song of Songs are found in the love poetry of the Ancient Near East. These were probably sung at weddings and had a strong moral overtone and focused on harnessing love in the right context.

Third, read the Song as suggesting godly choices rather than describing them in a technical manner.

Fourth, be aware that the Song focuses on very different values from those of our modern culture. Today, the focus is on techniques and not about virtuous romance that leads to lifelong marriage. Our culture encourages people to fulfil themselves, whereas the Song is concerned with how one person can respond faithfully to the attractiveness of and fulfil the needs of another.

Bonus links

First, two posts on Proverbs 22:6: Is Proverbs 22:6 a Guarantee? and The Problem With Misinterpreting Wisdom Literature.

I benefitted greatly from this scholarly article on how Song of Songs (1) is a song (2) about human love (3) found in the Bible (4) written to give us wisdom. For balance, here’s a counterpoint.

Finally, Why Would God Permit Solomon to Fall So?