How to Read the Old Testament Books of Wisdom for All They’re Worth

Which one of these is an actual Proverb?

a) “Cleanliness is next to godliness.”

b) “If you find honey, eat just enough– too much of it, and you will vomit.”

c) “God never gives you more than you can handle.”

If you guessed “b”, you would be right and possibly know your Bible better than some of the Duck Dynasty folks who seem to think “a” is in the Bible (it isn’t…neither really is “c”).

Proverbs belongs to a genre found in the Old Testament known as “wisdom literature.”  It is a valuable often misunderstood and abused category of Scripture.  Scholars Gordon Fee and Douglas Stuart write:

“Hebrew wisdom is a category of literature that is unfamiliar to most modern Christians. Though a significant portion of the Bible is devoted to wisdom writings, Christians sometimes either misunderstand or misapply this material, losing benefits that God intended for them. When properly understood and used, however, wisdom is a helpful resource for Christian living. When misused, it can provide a basis for selfish, materialistic, shortsighted behavior—just the opposite of what God intended.”

For example, proponents of the so-called “prosperity gospel” often rip verses out of context to demonstrate “promises” God has made.  But wisdom literature, especially Proverbs, are best seen as “truisms” that is wise sayings that are generally true especially when a person fears the one true God (Proverbs 1:7).

The Book of Job especially stresses the fear of God as the beginning of wisdom for it gives no real answer to the problem of evil other than to trust God for He is in control (Job 38-42).  The rest of the book is made up of Job interacting with his friends who make seemingly common sense theological statements but is contradicted by God at the end.  Too often I hear sermons and Bible studies that echo Job’s buddies who God explicitly states were wrong!  That alone is a good reason to read the book carefully!

Then there is the book of Ecclesiastes, which I have argued could be subtitled, “life sucks!”  It is unremittingly negative pronouncing the following from chapter 1:

The words of the Teacher, son of David, king in Jerusalem:

2 “Meaningless! Meaningless!”
says the Teacher.
“Utterly meaningless!
Everything is meaningless.”

3 What do people gain from all their labors
at which they toil under the sun?
4 Generations come and generations go,
but the earth remains forever.
5 The sun rises and the sun sets,
and hurries back to where it rises.
6 The wind blows to the south
and turns to the north;
round and round it goes,
ever returning on its course.
7 All streams flow into the sea,
yet the sea is never full.
To the place the streams come from,
there they return again.
8 All things are wearisome,
more than one can say.
The eye never has enough of seeing,
nor the ear its fill of hearing.
9 What has been will be again,
what has been done will be done again;
there is nothing new under the sun.
10 Is there anything of which one can say,
“Look! This is something new”?
It was here already, long ago;
it was here before our time.
11 No one remembers the former generations,
and even those yet to come
will not be remembered
by those who follow them.

Yikes! And it goes on like this for 12 chapters! Was this written by Solomon or the lead singer of The Cure?  Why is this in the Bible?

The kicker is at the end when the inspired author writes,

Now all has been heard;
here is the conclusion of the matter:
Fear God and keep his commandments,
for this is the duty of all mankind.
14 For God will bring every deed into judgment,
including every hidden thing,
whether it is good or evil.

Why twelve chapters of negativity to get to the simple statement that in the end only the fear of God gives life meaning? Because we need to be all but beaten over the head with the worthlessness of chasing anything but the Lord.

Don’t believe me? Ask yourself how many minutes in the day you spend thinking about God and how many you spend thinking about yourself?


We need to be clobbered over the noggin with wisdom literature for it is a powerful reminder that only that which is done for God will last and can grant life meaning.