The Character of Wisdom
An Introduction to Old Testament
Wisdom Literature is a term applied to the Old Testament canonical
books of Job,
Proverbs, and Ecclesiastes, and sometimes to the Song of
(Song of Solomon). It also includes the Apocryphal books of
(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
thought 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.
These 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
Here are some very brief characteristics of Old Testament Wisdom
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. In wisdom literature there is 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 spouse, etc.
3. The world view of wisdom 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. Wisdom 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
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
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
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.
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 finds expression through 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
3. Wisdom is grounded in social structures, such as the
family, the "schools" of the wise elders, or the king and the royal
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
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.