Must I Tithe 10% of My Net or Gross Income?
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Must I Tithe 10% of My Net or Gross Income?
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What Is Wisdom Literature?

The term wisdom literature often refers to a group of three biblical books: Proverbs, Job, and Ecclesiastes. Wisdom is a genre—a particular form of literature. When we talk about wisdom literature, then, we’re talking about writings that have common characteristics.

But what are those common characteristics? What identifies a text as wisdom literature? On the one hand, the wisdom books present some of the simplest and most practical verses in the Bible. Proverbs teaches readers about things like money (Prov. 10:4), sex (Prov. 5), and communication (Prov. 10:11). Publishers today still pump out books on these topics, which are perennially on display when you enter Barnes & Noble.

On the other hand, Job and Ecclesiastes address more disturbing ideas. Job, a righteous man, endures horrific suffering without any apparent explanation. Ecclesiastes, often seen as one of the most confusing and unsettling books in Scripture, asks whether anything we do or gain even matters. Life is “an unhappy business” (Eccl. 1:13). Death brings everything we do and love to nothing.

What relates these books to one another?

We might, of course, say that they all teach wisdom. They were written to make us wise. But what is wisdom? And how do these books teach it?

What’s Wisdom?

Wisdom is knowledge of the natural law. It’s an ability to recognize the moral order woven into the universe God created. It’s a virtue, therefore, that enables us to know the right thing to do in various situations of life.

This is the subject of the Bible’s wisdom literature. These books illuminate our lives. They reveal God’s ways both in ordinary daily transactions and in the depths of pain and absurdity. God sustains our sinful world, and we can still experience good. But sin sows disorder everywhere. We need wisdom to navigate it.

How Does Proverbs Teach Wisdom?

Proverbs seems simple. In fact, it can be a popular book for people who want to improve their lives. But it’s often not as simple as it appears. Proverbs uses literary language—such as metaphor and narrative—to provoke deeper reflection on the complexities of life.

Proverbs begins by asserting the foundation of wisdom: “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge; fools despise wisdom and instruction” (Prov. 1:7). The fear of the Lord—a humble recognition of God as creator and judge—enables us to be wise.

The rest of the book often contrasts wisdom and folly. These are two different paths or ways of life. Proverbs portrays wisdom and folly as two ladies, each calling people to follow them (Prov. 1:20–33; 9:13–18). Proverbs describes the consequences that result from following the way of wisdom and those that result from the way of folly.

Sometimes, the complexity of Proverbs lies beneath the surface. For example, Proverbs 26:4–5 offers seemingly contradictory advice: “Answer not a fool according to his folly, lest you be like him yourself. Answer a fool according to his folly, lest he be wise in his own eyes.”What’s going on? Should you “answer a fool according to his folly” or not? Did the editors of Scripture just not notice that these statements contradict each other, even though they’re right next to each other? That seems unlikely.

Instead, this seeming contradiction ought to provoke deeper thought. Is there a way they both can be true? Yes. In some cases, one is true. In other cases, the other is true. How do you know the difference? Through wisdom. But these proverbs don’t tell you how to do this with a long essay describing all the different factors to consider. Instead, they jar you with a paradox. Then, they leave you to work out the implications.

How Does Job Teach Wisdom?

You may be familiar with the story of Job, a rich man who lived in the land of Uz. He’s “blameless and upright” and he “feared God” (Job 1:1). His wealth seemed like the fitting reward for his morally excellent life.

But God allowed Satan to take away everything: his wealth, his children, and his physical health. In the rest of the book, Job nears despair and questions God’s justice. His friends make speeches that try to explain the ways of God to Job. They sound, in some ways, like the kind of lessons Proverbs teaches—“Job’s three friends are confident of possessing the right answer: Job suffers, so he must have sinned.”

For Job, though, reality no longer seems so clear-cut. He asks, “From where, then, does wisdom come? And where is the place of understanding? It is hidden from the eyes of all living and concealed from the birds of the air” (Job 28:20–21).

Job wants to make his case to God himself and, in the end, God reveals himself. Yet it’s God who makes his case, with awesome rhetorical force (Job 38–41). Job can do nothing but acknowledge God’s overwhelming power and wisdom (Job 42:1–6).

Job repents (Job 42:6). God commends him and rebukes his friends (Job 42:7–9). God never explains to Job the cause of his suffering. But Job no longer questions God’s ways. He trusts in God’s wisdom and not his own.

How Does Ecclesiastes Teach Wisdom?

The narrator of Ecclesiastes, identified as Qohelet, focuses on a similar question. He asks, “What does man gain by all the toil at which he toils under the sun?” (Eccl. 1:3). The phrase, “under the sun” indicates that the author’s concern is nature—the realm of creational wisdom available to all people.

Proverbs teaches that diligent work leads to reward (Prov. 10:4). But so what? Qohelet asks, “What has a man from all the toil and striving of heart with which he toils beneath the sun? For all his days are full of sorrow, and his work is a vexation” (Eccl. 2:22–23). God has cursed the earth and our work (Gen. 3:17-19). Whatever good may come of toil doesn’t last. Death consumes both the wise and the foolish (Eccl. 3:20; 9:2).

Qohelet says that the principle set out so often in Proverbs—that right actions lead to good consequences—often doesn’t work.

Ecclesiastes describes Qohelet’s quest for wisdom (Eccl. 1:13). He says, “I said in my heart, ‘I have great wisdom, surpassing all who were over Jerusalem before me” (Eccl. 1:16). Yet this is what he found: “I have seen everything that is done under the sun, and behold, all is vanity and a striving after wind” (Eccl. 1:14). All human striving is futile. It’s absurd: “There is nothing new under the sun” (Eccl. 1:9). Life often upends the order that Proverbs leads us to expect (Eccl.3:16, 7:15, 9:11).

But Qohelet doesn’t despair or reject wisdom. Instead, he identifies its limits. He still believes that “there is more gain in wisdom than in folly” (Eccl. 2:13). He believes that, in spite of its futility, work is a gift to be enjoyed (Eccl. 2:24). And he affirms, like Proverbs, the fear of the Lord (Eccl. 12:13).

The Cross and the Wisdom of God

God created a world of goodness and order, but human sin brought evil and disorder into every realm of life. The wisdom literature of the Bible teaches us how to live in this world marked by both good and evil, order and apparent chaos.

Yet wisdom doesn’t save us from death (Eccl. 3:20). Before he created the world, God planned to reveal another form of wisdom: Christ and his cross (1 Cor. 2:2–8). This wisdom ends the curse. It saves us from death and futility. We find it not by pondering life “under the sun” (Eccl. 1:14) but instead by believing the gospel.

What Does the Bible Say?

  • Wisdom in Proverbs: 1:7, 20–33; 5; 9:13–18; 10:4, 11; 26:4–5
  • Wisdom in Job: 1:1; 28:20–21; 38–41;42:1–6
  • Wisdom in Ecclesiastes: 1:3, 9, 13–16; 2:13, 22–24; 3:20; 9:2; 12:13

Recommended Resources

Footnotes

  • David VanDrunen, Bioethics and the Christian Life: A Guide to Making Difficult Decisions (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2009), 91.

  • Zach Keele, The Unfolding Word (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press), 215.

  • Keele, The Unfolding Word, 219.

  • Keele, The Unfolding Word, 220.

  • Keele, The Unfolding Word, 221.

  • VanDrunen, Bioethics and the Christian Life, 91.

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