The Wisdom literature of the Old Testament is an eclectic collection of proverbs, moral lessons, riddles, warnings, extended meditations, and philosophical inquiry and debate. It also includes hymns and even love poetry in the Song of Songs. The human authors of the Bible took an interest in more than just religious subjects, as anyone who reads the Bible can attest. The Wisdom literature is a prime example of that broad outlook.
The reason for this length and breadth of interest is that wisdom comes to us in many forms. There is, of course, the wisdom that we learn from God himself through revelation. There is also wisdom to be gained from human experience and reflection. For example, the question “What is it to be just?” or “What does the just man do?” can be answered from a religious perspective or from a more secular bent. The answers may be different, but they are not contradictory.
The Wisdom literature exposes us to both types of reflection, especially in the books of Proverbs and Sirach. Some of the proverbs or sayings could be considered truisms, but they do contain ageless, sage advice, along with a lot of common sense. For example, “Where words are many, sin is not wanting; but those who restrain their lips do well.” (Prv 10:19), or: “Unjust anger can never be justified; anger pulls a person to utter ruin.” (Sir 1:22).
Book of Job
Besides given sound advice, the biblical authors were not afraid to ask hard questions. In fact, they challenged inadequate understandings of wisdom and insufficient answers to questions about the meaning of suffering, diminishment and death. This, for example, is clearly the case in the book of Job. The question behind the book of Job is the enigma of the just man who suffers.
The answers given by Job’s friends, namely, that he is being punished for his sins or that there is some hidden thing he has done to displease God, are proved inadequate again and again as Job verbally spars with his interlocutors. The poetry of this book is powerful; according to some authors, it is by far the most skillful and elevated poetry in the Bible.
The final chapters are quite surprising because God answers Job, in a certain sense, but does not allow Job’s human intelligence to have dominance over the mystery of suffering. The poetry of God’s speech is breathtaking; his descriptions of the crocodile (Leviathan) and the hippopotamus (Behemoth) are fascinating. His descent into the conversation takes the form of a whirlwind, and that is what the poetry feels like.
The book of Qoheleth, or Ecclesiastes, also does not shy away from critiquing canned answers to difficult questions. In this book, the “preacher” informs the readers that he has examined the world and “All things are vanity!” He proclaims in the first chapter: “What has been, that will be; what has been done, that will be done. Nothing is new under the sun!” (Eccl 1:9).
This sounds rather nihilistic. At times the author seems quite despondent, yet he also writes things like this: “Just as you do not know how the life breath enters the human frame in the mother’s womb, So you do not know the work of God, who is working in everything. In the morning sow your seed, and at evening do not let your hand be idle: For you do not know which of the two will be successful, or whether both alike will turn out well” (Eccl 11:5-6). There is a certain humility requisite for the wise man. It is not in our power to know all things, but we do have to decide what to do with the time we have.
Prayer book of ancient Israel
The book of Psalms is sometimes called the prayer book of ancient Israel. It is also the prayer book of Jews and Christians today. The psalms are written in poetry, and, like other books, the poems often have a parallel structure. This means that the verses are written in two or three lines, and the second and third lines are in relation to the first by interacting with its meaning. This can be through synonym, antithesis, the completion of an idea, etc. The lines within the poem can play together in lots of different ways. It can be fun to try and find the parallel meanings as one reads the psalm.
The book of Wisdom, though not included in the Hebrew Bible, also belongs to the Wisdom literature and is an extended meditation on wisdom, law and the just man. At the center of the book is a prayer for wisdom, which expresses the deep longing of each human heart for God, a longing that never goes away.
Sister Anna Marie McGuan, RSM, is director of Christian formation in the Diocese of Knoxville. Read more from the Bible 101 series here.