HOW TO READ AND TEACH THE WISDOM LITERATURE OF SCRIPTURE
The wisdom genre of the Bible may best be seen in the books of Proverbs, Job, and Ecclesiastes. Each of these teach a perspective on how to live life, and particularly in relationship to God. The beauty of these three books is that they complement one another and allow for the multi-faceted perspectives we need on wisdom.
The Book of Proverbs contain many short, pithy statements that provide skills for living life in a way that will help one prosper before God and others. They tend to be general truths, told in black-and-white categories, to help instruct us about a wise way to live. One important thing about the genre of a proverb is that these are not meant to be promises. Many parents have wrestled with the proverb to “train up a child in the way he should go, and when he is old he will not depart from it” (Proverbs 22:6). They may interpret this as a promise or formula and think that if they do the “right things” as parents that their children are guaranteed to follow the Lord. Or, they feel guilty about their failures when they have a wayward adult child. But Proverbs are not meant to be promises, but rather general truths. Godly parents who raise their children in the Lord will be much more likely to have children who grow up to follow Christ than those who don’t. One easy way to see the truth that Proverbs are not meant to be ironclad promises or laws is to consider Proverbs 26:4-5:
Answer not a fool according to his folly,
lest you be like him yourself.
5 Answer a fool according to his folly,
lest he be wise in his own eyes.
So which is it? Should we answer a fool according to his folly or not? The wise person will have the discernment to know which proverb appropriately applies to the situation. The proverbs are so great to teach because they give concrete instructions about living life in a wise way. Just like raising children, the elementary part of moral formation is to know black-and-white categories that give you truths to live by. As we age, however, we also learn that wisdom can require greater nuance.
The Book of Job, I believe, provides an important complement to Proverbs. In this book we learn that the righteous do suffer, and at times not because they have done anything wrong. Job’s friends are convinced that his calamities must be the result of some secret sin, but the reader knows differently. Sometimes God’s ways and workings are beyond our knowledge and understanding. Sometimes the righteous suffer. Though Job had doubts and questioned God, he still trusted in Him. Notice what we find toward the end of the story. “After the Lord had finished speaking to Job, He said to Eliphaz the Temanite: ‘I am angry with you and your two friends, for you have not spoken the truth about Me, as My servant Job has.’” In the end, Job is commended and his friends are rebuked. Biblical wisdom understands that life cannot be reduced to the popular notion of karma – that good deeds are always rewarded, and bad ones come back to get you in a tangible way. The wise understand that God is bigger than these things and cannot be limited to our temporal notions of rewards and punishments. Job can be a great book to teach, especially because it can affirm those in your group or class who might be suffering for no fault of their own. There are those in our churches who feel God is displeased with them and therefore has brought this trial or difficulty as proof of His displeasure. The Book of Job prevents us from seeing life in these simplistic ways, or God in these same simplistic categories.
The Book of Ecclesiastes has a variety of interpretations, but teaching Ecclesiastes can be helpful in seeing what life is like “under the sun” – meaning, living a life from a secular perspective without reference to God. Teaching through this book can be fun and challenging because it helps convey to our people the way life really is “under the sun” and gives voice to a certain skepticism or cynicism. There is important wisdom that is gained from this vantage point, but should ultimately be seen in light of the book’s conclusion to fear God and keep His commands (see Ecclesiastes 12:12-14).