“Get wisdom, get understanding; do not forget my words or turn away from them ” Proverbs 4:5
We come to the third main section of the Bible. We have looked at the Law, the first five books, and at the history, the books from Joshua to Esther; now we come to the books of wisdom, the five books from Job through to the Song of Solomon.
Wisdom writing was common in the world of the time; many cultures had their own collections of stories and sayings. The literature told of divinity and virtue and of the natural world and the realities people faced.
The biblical books of wisdom, often beautifully written, offer a commentary on the human condition; there are responses to the range of human thoughts and emotions. The books offer a divine response to the questions asked by humans. In Proverbs Chapter 8, Wisdom is presented as a person, and from the days of the early Church, Jesus was seen as the embodiment of this Wisdom.
Unlike the Law and the history, where there are events that provide a storyline against which to read the books, the wisdom books follow no sequence. The book of Job dates from between the Sixth and the Fourth Century BC, though the story it tells dates from a distant past. The composition of the Psalms may have covered a period of 950 years—from the time of Moses until the return from exile. The book of Proverbs contains material from centuries starting with the 10th Century BC and covering perhaps 500 years. Ecclesiastes is attributed to Solomon but, through the vocabulary including words from outside of Hebrew, it is suggested the sayings were written down as late as the Fourth-Third Century BC. The Song of Songs or the Song of Solomon may have been written around 900 BC.
The book of Job attempts to answer the questions raised by good people having to endure suffering. The book of Deuteronomy had promised blessing to the faithful, yet there were clearly situations where the faithful had suffered and gone unrewarded. Suffering is part of the world we inhabit and the story of Job is the story of a good and faithful man who undergoes terrible experiences and cries out to God for an explanation. The book of Job does not offer an answer to the problem of suffering, The tale of Job being rewarded at the end of his experiences does not correspond with the experience of many people who suffered and died without there being any discernible meaning or purpose in their suffering, and without them ever receiving any reward. The book asserts that God is sovereign—God responds very strongly to Job’s complaints in Job Chapter 40—but suffering itself remains a mystery. Even in the 21st Century, Job can still be encountered in everyday conversation: people will describe someone who is long-suffering as having ‘the patience of Job’ or, after the friends in the book who offer Job little cheer, will describe someone who offers further discouragement in a bad situation as being a ‘Job’s comforter’. Sometimes, one wonders if they have ever read the book from which the expressions come!
Covering almost a thousand years in its origins, the book of Psalms is truly one which fulfilled the motto of a now defunct newspaper: ’all human life is there’. There is something in the Psalms for every situation, every thought and feeling, every emotion can find expression in the Psalms. We read through and we find a huge range of feelings, from the greatest rejoicing to the deepest despair.
The book is a diverse collection of prayers, songs, and poetry. Some of the psalms, like Psalm 47 are from great public ceremonies, others, like Psalm 6, appear to be much more personal meditations.
The Psalms were an important part of worship in Bible times, many of them having instructions as to how they were to be sung. Psalm 6, while a personal expression of faith, has the note: ‘For the director of music. With stringed instruments. According to sheminith. A psalm of David’ Throughout the history of the church, particularly in the daily services of the monasteries, the Psalms kept their place as part of our praise of God. Psalm 23, The Lord is my shepherd, retains its place as a favourite, even among those who may never have seen a sheep.
The book of Proverbs, a collection of hundreds of short sayings, asks directly what wisdom is about, which choices are wise? Proverbs contrasts wisdom with foolishness. It uses parallelism, something common in Hebrew poetry, where one clause is balanced by another, to emphasise the points to be made. In the opening verses of Proverbs Chapter 1, parallelism is used to show the purpose of the book, ’The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge’, says Chapter 1 Verse 7, ‘but fools despise wisdom and instruction’. Wisdom is described as ‘she’ through the opening chapters of Proverbs, and in the concluding chapter, thus we read in Chapter 1 Verses 20-21, ‘Out in the open wisdom calls aloud, she raises her voice in the public square; on top of the wall she cries out, at the city gate she makes her speech’.
Proverbs 8:22-23 says that wisdom is God’s first creation, ‘The Lord brought me forth as the first of his works, before his deeds of old; I was formed long ages ago, at the very beginning, when the world came to be’. In 1 Kings Chapter 3 Verse 9, Solomon is invited to ask for whatever he wishes and asks the Lord for the gift of wisdom and is blessed for this choice, so in the book of Proverbs we see that there is nothing greater than wisdom to be sought in this world, ’For’, say Chapter 8 Verses 35-36, ’those who find me find life and receive favour from the Lord. But those who fail to find me harm themselves; all who hate me love death’.
The book of Ecclesiastes is one of the most difficult in the Bible. The name of the book means literally the ‘preacher’. The book claims itself to come from Solomon, but would seem from the vocabulary and style to come from a much later writer. The book reflects on the meaning of life and seems at times to be overwhelmingly pessimistic—’Meaningless! Meaningless!”
says the Teacher. Utterly meaningless! Everything is meaningless’, says Chapter 1 Verse 1.
There are lighter passages, verses from Ecclesiastes Chapter 3 became ‘Turn, turn, turn’, a pop song in the 1960s, but Ecclesiastes suggests that even looking for wisdom only brings more misery, Chapter 1 Verse 17 says, ‘Then I applied myself to the understanding of wisdom, and also of madness and folly, but I learned that this, too, is a chasing after the wind. For with much wisdom comes much sorrow; the more knowledge, the more grief’.
What Ecclesiastes does conclude is that even in the pessimism there is room for confidence; no matter how gloomy life may seem, God is still there. Read the final verses of the book, Chapter 12 Verse 13-14 and they advise, Now all has been heard; here is the conclusion of the matter: Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the duty of all mankind. For God will bring every deed into judgment, including every hidden thing, whether it is good or evil’.
The Song of Songs completes the books of wisdom. Dating from 10th-9th Century BC, it is another book that causes difficulties in its own way. The Song of Songs is not a religious book; it is a book about human love and sexuality. Religious writers have seen it as a parable of the love between God and Israel or between Christ and the Church, but within the text there is no suggestion that it be interpreted in a way other than a celebration of human love.
The books of wisdom are unfamiliar territory to most churchgoers. Some, but not all, of the psalms are used at Sunday worship, and there might be the odd dip into favoured passages from other the other books, but there is no systematic reading of these Scriptures.
It is our loss that we do not read them. In an age when people are suspicious of authority and do not like being told things are because they are, the books of wisdom are appropriate for our times. They start with human experience, they start with where we are, and they look for God in our situation; they look at how ordinary people can relate to God.
God in the books of wisdom is not a remote, terrifying deity before whom people must say nothing, he is a God who allows the full range of human expressions, even in the dark times, he is a God who is still there. God in the books of wisdom is a God who relates to individuals.
God in the books of wisdom is a God who accepts human questioning, prayers and even protests; a God with us in all our experiences.