Besides everyday concerns, the wisdom books of the Old Testament tackle big issues, issues that are very much in people’s minds today.
Old Testament wisdom is associated particularly with Solomon who is described as ‘wiser than all men’ and was so famous that national delegations were sent to hear his wisdom (1 Kings 4:29-34). Thousands of proverbs are attributed to him as well as many songs, the best of them being The Song of Solomon (S. of S. 1:1; 1 Kings 4:32).
There are wisdom sayings and poems in many parts of the Old Testament but certain books have identifiable features that set them apart from the rest of Scripture and can be compared and contrasted with similar works in the ancient Near Eastern world. Unlike those of its neighbours, Israel’s wisdom books are set in the context of God’s revelation at Sinai.
This divinely inspired book was probably written during Solomon’s reign and describes a wealthy man from the time of Abraham whose godliness was tested through the loss of everything including his health, through his wife’s temptation and through the accusations of godly friends. These friends had come to sympathise for his curse-like state and to offer simplistic explanations which he rejected. Despite everything, Job did not curse God and when the test was over, he recovered and found himself better off than before. The whole experience brought Job to yearn for God. When, finally, God revealed himself to him, Job showed godly humility, was vindicated and was used to intercede for his friends.
Job, God’s servant, is the most obvious Old Testament type of the Servant of the Lord who was admired by God, yet endured God’s curse, interceded for those who had wrongly accused him and was vindicated by his resurrection. The longing of Job for an intercessor also points us to Jesus (Job 9:33; 16:19f and 19:23-27).
Job is portrayed as a truly wise man, whom God could put on show (Job 1:1, 8; 2:3). The satanic dimension to Job’s sufferings is a reminder of the deep mystery of God and of evil. The Lord is in absolute control and even the devil is ‘God’s devil’ (Luther). For the greater glory of his name, God did not destroy evil when it first became incarnate but he willed ‘to wrestle with it through costly permissions rather than through flat refusals, through weakness than through omnipotent strength, through the cross’ (Kidner). Through the legal victory of the cross, Christ has triumphed over the devil so that no accusations can be levelled against God’s people (Rom. 8:31-34).
The book is about the suffering of God’s people in a fallen world. It prevents us from giving glib answers to life’s problems. Job’s friends present not so much wrong theology as right theology wrongly applied. Neither Job nor his ‘comforters’ are told anything about the unseen world of satanic accusation and attack. It is wisdom to trust God even when we cannot understand what is happening to us. Far from cursing God as Satan supposed would happen, Job continued to seek God in his evil hour and was finally rewarded. As in the Book of Psalms, Job encourages us to pour out our complaints to God and to find satisfaction in God’s presence. God is a rewarder of those who diligently seek him (Heb. 11:6).
Proverbs begins and ends with the basic wisdom principle (Prov. 1:7; 31:30). The fear of God means acknowledging God as God, trusting and revering him (3:5-6). The whole book is enveloped by the godly view expressed in chapters 1-9 and 30-31 and they provide the key by which to interpret chapters 10-29. These proverbial sayings are not like the Ten Commandments. They embody many common-sense truths. However, life is complex and there are many exceptions to general rules. While it is necessary in some cases to answer a fool, on other occasions it is better to keep silent (26:4-5).
In chapters 1-9 women are used to represent both wisdom and folly – madam wisdom and madam folly. The surface meaning and exhortation to be faithful to one’s wife, important in its own right, is used metaphorically to urge us to follow God’s good and wise way and not be led into paths of wickedness. Praising the good wife (31:10-27) is again symbolic of the wisdom piety of chapters 1-9 which is both practical and spiritual.
Modern translations have not helped to reveal the main point of this book – that life for everybody ‘under the sun’ is short-lived and frustrating. The Hebrew word (hevel) traditionally translated ‘vanity’ means ‘breath’, ‘vapour’ and is used many times in the Old Testament for what is transient, elusive and false. Solomon’s pessimism about life in this world is realistic – ‘all is mere breath’. It underlines what we are told in 2 Samuel 14:14; Job 7:7-16; Psalms 39:4-6; 144:3-4; Proverbs 31:30; Isaiah 40:6. This is reinforced by James 4:14: ‘What is your life? It is even a vapour…’ The Preacher’s ‘groan’ is the groan of the believer along with the rest of creation (Rom. 8:22-23). ‘Vapour’ is the name that was given to Adam’s son, ‘Abel’ (hevel), and it emphasises the effects of the Fall where an initially ‘beautiful’ world became full of toil, labour, sorrow, pain and death (Ecc. 3:11; 2:22-23; 12:1-7), all words taken from the early chapters of Genesis.
The Preacher encourages young and old to keep in mind the Creator and the end-time judgement as we use and enjoy what benefits God gives in this sad world (Ecc. 2:24; 3:12-13; 9:9; 12:1-14; 2 Cor. 5:9-10). The believer lives with this tension of belonging to the new creation while still in this old fallen world where the ‘outer man is failing’ (2 Cor. 4:16) and the best of things are fleeting and flimsy.
Song of Solomon
This best of songs celebrates marital love and how it is to be maintained and developed but this love is used, as in Psalm 45 and Proverbs 9:1-6, to express deeper wisdom. Likewise, Paul, as he speaks of the responsibilities within the marriage relationship, immediately draws attention to Christ’s love for his Church (Eph. 5:31-33).
The Wisdom books help God’s people to live in a fallen world, emphasising that the beginning and end of wisdom is the fear of God and that ‘to turn away from evil is understanding’ (Job 1:1; 28:28; Prov. 1:7; 3:7; 31:30; Ecc. 5:1-7; 12:13). They recognise that people have sinful natures that need changing and that human self-will needs curbing. God’s people are encouraged to have an ongoing relationship with God and to look forward to Jesus, God’s wisdom incarnate (Job 28; Prov. 8; 1 Cor. 1:30; Col. 2:2-3).
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