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Bridgeway Bible Dictionary

Wisdom Literature

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Among the different kinds of writings found in the Bible are those known as the wisdom writings. The best known of these are the books of Proverbs, Job and Ecclesiastes. A number of psalms also belong to this class of literature (e.g. Psalms 10; Psalms 14; Psalms 19; Psalms 37; Psalms 49; Psalms 73; Psalms 112).

Teachers of wisdom

God used many different kinds of people to instruct and guide ancient Israelites in the sort of life he desired for them. He used priests to teach and supervise his law (Deuteronomy 33:10; Malachi 2:7). He used prophets to bring direct messages from himself that would stir the people to change their ways and develop right attitudes (Amos 3:1; Amos 3:7; Amos 4:1-3; Amos 5:14-15). He also used teachers known as ‘the wise’ (Jeremiah 18:18). These were men who received no special revelations from God, but who simply examined the everyday affairs of life and, on the basis of their findings, offered advice to their hearers (Ecclesiastes 12:9-10).

The biblical literature that comes from these wisdom teachers is of two main kinds. The first, represented by the book of Proverbs, gives the principles of right and wrong as they apply to life in general; for example, the righteous will prosper but the wicked will perish (Proverbs 11:5-8). The second, represented by the books of Job and Ecclesiastes, looks at the exceptions; for example, the righteous often have all sorts of troubles, while the wicked enjoy peace and prosperity (Job 12:4; Job 21:7-13; Ecclesiastes 7:15; Ecclesiastes 8:14).

These two kinds of wisdom are not in conflict, but simply show different aspects of life. The same teacher could look at life’s problems from several viewpoints. The book of Proverbs recognizes that the same principle may not apply equally in all cases (Proverbs 26:4-5), while the books of Job and Ecclesiastes recognize that the general principles are still the basis for wise teaching (Job 28:20-28; Ecclesiastes 7:1-13).

The wisdom teachers of the Bible were godly believers who made an honest effort to examine life, with all its inconsistencies, so that they might help people live more meaningful lives. Though they were aware of an afterlife (Job 19:26), their main concern was to deal with problems in the present life.

Wisdom teachers taught in public places where they could reach the common people (Proverbs 1:20-21; Proverbs 8:1-3; Ecclesiastes 12:9-10), and in their own schools where they instructed their disciples (Proverbs 2:1; Proverbs 3:1; Ecclesiastes 12:12). They taught in a variety of ways. At times they taught by giving direct instruction and asking questions (Proverbs 1:2; Proverbs 1:5; Proverbs 5:1; Ecclesiastes 1:3; Ecclesiastes 1:10; Ecclesiastes 2:22; Ecclesiastes 3:9; Ecclesiastes 3:21-22); other times they used proverbs, picture language and riddles (Proverbs 1:6; Proverbs 8:1; Proverbs 10:1). They recounted stories and experiences from real life (Proverbs 24:30-34; Ecclesiastes 4:13-16; Ecclesiastes 9:13-18) and they told parables (2 Samuel 12:1-6). Some of the wisdom teachers became official advisers to the nation’s rulers (2 Samuel 15:12; 2 Samuel 15:34; 2 Samuel 16:23; 2 Samuel 20:18).

Source of true wisdom

Wisdom teachers were active not only in Israel but also in countries throughout the region of the Bible’s story (1 Kings 4:30; Jeremiah 49:7; Jeremiah 50:35; Acts 7:22). Some of Israel’s wisdom sayings had parallels in other countries, and wisdom teachers from various nations visited each other to test each other’s knowledge and increase their own (1 Kings 4:30-34; 1 Kings 10:1). The Israelites readily borrowed wisdom teaching from their neighbours when it displayed sound common sense (Proverbs 30:1; Proverbs 31:1; cf. John 1:9).

At the same time, the Israelite wisdom teachers did not allow their teaching to be corrupted by the idolatry, immorality and self-seeking that were often a feature of the teaching of their neighbours. The characteristic that marked Israelite wisdom as being different from that of all others was the Israelites’ view of God. For them, the fear of God was the basis of true wisdom (Job 28:28; Proverbs 1:7; Ecclesiastes 12:13). The wisdom taught by the wise teachers of Israel came from those who reverenced God’s law and wanted to apply it to the details of everyday living. Their insight came from their knowledge of God.


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Bibliography Information
Fleming, Don. Entry for 'Wisdom Literature'. Bridgeway Bible Dictionary. https://www.studylight.org/dictionaries/bbd/w/wisdom-literature.html. 2004.

Lectionary Calendar
Monday, June 1st, 2020
the Week of Proper 4 / Ordinary 9
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