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The Character of Wisdom
An Introduction to Old Testament Wisdom Literature

Dennis Bratcher

Wisdom Literature is a term applied to the Old Testament canonical books of Job, Proverbs, and Ecclesiastes, and sometimes to the Song of Songs (Song of Solomon).  It also includes the Apocryphal books of Sirach (The Wisdom of Jesus ben Sira or Ecclesiasticus) and the Wisdom of Solomon.  These books all share characteristics and points of view that are somewhat different than other biblical books, and those differences should be kept in mind when reading and studying them. Wisdom perspectives are also evident in other places in Scripture, such as the Psalms (see Wisdom Psalms and Types of Psalms), the teachings of Jesus, and the Epistle of James.  

Wisdom is really an approach to life, a way of looking at the world and, for Israelites, a way of living out in very deliberate, rational ways their commitment to God.  While Wisdom's roots go back to the early days of Israelite history, it began to flower in the latter part of the Old Testament period, and flourished in the Intertestamental period and the era of the New Testament (400 BC to AD 100).

The wisdom perspectives did not replace the other two major strands of though in Ancient Israel, that of prophets and priests.  It was simply a different focus that was complementary with the other perspectives.  While it is easy for us to assume in reading the historical accounts of Samuel of Kings, or the prophetic writings of Amos or Jeremiah, that Israel lived in constant crisis.  Yet, if we stop and think about the time span of the major upheavals in Israel's history, there were many periods of several generations at a time where there was no crisis.  During those times there was not great prophetic voice booming "thus says the Lord."  There was just the daily routine of life that preoccupied most of the ordinary people of the land with the mundane questions of how to get along in life.  

They were simple questions of living:  how to discipline an unruly child, how to teach children what they need to know to survive as an adult, the dangers to the community of gossip and slander, the need for hard work and providing the necessities of life, why wicked people seem to prosper, the arrogance of sudden wealth.  These are all life questions that most of us face today in the course of living.  To realize that ancient Israelites faced these same questions, and grappled with them rationally from the perspective of experience and community wisdom, may say more to us today as modern Christians than we are used to hearing.  Perhaps listening carefully to the Wisdom traditions as Scripture may help us bring an "earthy" balance to our tendency to be preoccupied with the metaphysical and the supernatural as a way to live life daily.

Here are some very brief characteristics of Old Testament Wisdom perspectives.

Wisdom is concerned with everyday life, how to live well.

1.  Wisdom is concerned with the issues facing humanity in general, the typical and recurring aspects of life that face human beings on a daily basis. Much of the rest of Scripture is concerned with those unique events in history in which God reveals himself.

2.  Little interest in history, politics, God who acts, miracles, sin, forgiveness guilt; these things are not discounted, only that the concern is focused on daily living on what might be called the mundane aspects of life, such as raising children, providing economic security, finding the appropriate wife, etc.

3.  The world view is not mythical or cyclical, but it is concerned with stability and order, the status quo, especially in the social arena; the goal is to live in harmonious relationship with God, others, and the world.

4.  The perspectives of wisdom are not unique to Israelites, although in Israelite wisdom commitment to God is simply assumed (cf. Prov. 1:7).

5.  The focus is on interpersonal relationships, as well as reflective questions about the meaning of life and how to live it.

Wisdom does not appeal to revealed truth.

1.  It does not address the human condition from the divine perspective, but rather from the perspective of human needs and concerns, and in terms of what human beings can and should do to address those concerns.

2.  Wisdom attempts to give expression to the way things are; it is descriptive and not prescriptive, describing and defining the world and the existing social order as a means to live within both in productive ways.

3.  Wisdom thinking grapples with understanding the world, especially the physical and social environment in which they must live; as such, it is both reflective, rational, and concerned with knowledge.

4.  It is concerned with learning enough to be able to choose the proper course of action for well being in life, often expressed metaphorically as the "two ways" or the "two paths" (cf. Psa. 1).

Wisdom's claim to authority lies in tradition and observation

1.  There is no "thus says the Lord" grounding of authority in wisdom thinking; rather the truth of life is already there in God's creation awaiting discovery.

2.  Tradition represents the wisdom of experience, both in individuals and in the collective experiences of the community; preference is usually given to age and established and proven ways of doing things.

3.  Wisdom is grounded in social structures, such as the family, the "schools" of the wise elders, or the king and the royal court.

4.  Wisdom perspectives do not demand radical change, for example in dealing with social problems.

Israelite Wisdom is rooted in reverence and commitment to God

1.  The basic world view of Israelite wisdom is that God is Creator, both of his people and the physical world; everything else in wisdom arises from this conviction.

2.  As Creator, God has imbedded truth in all of creation; another way to say this is that all of creation reflects the wisdom, nature, and character of its creator, and therefore all of creation is a way to learn about God and his purposes for the world; creation is truly a "cosmos."

3.  Wisdom takes seriously the confession in Genesis that the created world is good; there is no hint of an evil physical world that would emerge later in Greek thinking.

4.  Human responsibility to God involves finding the truth of God in the world as reflected in how the world operates according to the harmony of its creator, and then living within that harmony of God's order.

5.  Being wise is to search for and maintain the order of God in the world in order to live well as God has created humanity to live; a "fool" is one who does not recognize God as creator and therefore does not seek to live according to the harmony of God's creation.

6.  The "way of wisdom" is an ethical system in which humanity is responsible for searching, finding, and doing the things necessary to secure their well being in God's world.

-Dennis Bratcher, Copyright © 2013, Dennis Bratcher, All Rights Reserved
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