WISDOM LITERATURE IN THE SCRIPTURES
Wisdom Literature in the Hebrew sacred scriptures - an Overview
James J. DeFrancis, Ph.D.
What is Wisdom? Wisdom (noun "wisdom", chokhmah) is a term in the
Hebrew Bible (Tanach or Old Testament) that has several meanings.
It is used for the technical skill of an artisan (Exodus 31:6;
35:26; 36:8), the art of administration and government (I Kings
3:12, 28), simple cleverness (2 Samuel 14:2), the practical
skills in coping with life (Proverbs 1:5; 11; 14), and ethical
conductor moral skill (Proverbs 2:9-11). It is identified with
the Torah (Law or instruction), is associated with creation
(Proverbs 8:22-31), and belongs to God (Job 28).i
It refers to skill in living in that if one lives life with moral
skill, then things of lasting value are produced from one's
Wisdom literature is "a family of literary genres common in the
ancient Near East in which instructions for successful living are
given and the perplexing situations of human life are
Wisdom literature comes in two major categories:
Proverbial wisdom consisting of short, pithy sayings which
provide basic rules for personal happiness and welfare. The book
of Proverbs is a classic example of this within Holy Scripture.
Speculative wisdom consisting of monologues (e.g. Ecclesiastes)
or dialogues (e.g. Job). This form of wisdom literature is
practical and empirical rather than theoretical. It examines such
problems as the meaning of life and the relationship between God
and humanity in terms of concrete examples. This is exemplified
in the story of a man named Job.
Wisdom literature has its roots in brief, crisp, and popular
sayings that are common observations concerning life which
provide rules for successful living. There are many examples
found in the Old Testament including I Kings 20:11; Jeremiah
23:28; 31:29. Historians believe the transition from oral sayings
to literary wisdom took place in Egypt at approximately 2500 BC
and in Sumer shortly afterward. Throughout the Near East, a class
of scribes or wise men arose who were highly honored for creating
and/or collecting and refining wise sayings (Ecclesiastes 12:9).
This was usually done under the patronage of the court or the
temple leaders. The sources of these sayings may originally have
been from tribal wisdom, instruction in schools or wise sayings
circulated among the nobility. Two of Israel's kings are credited
with vitally important contributions in this area: Solomon (I
Kings 4:29-34) and Hezekiah (Proverbs 25:1). By the 7th century
BC the wise man had gained sufficient prominence in Judah to
attain a class distinction equal to prophet or priest (Jeremiah
8:8-9; 18:18), although there is some question as to whether he
was yet viewed as a professional or merely as an unusually wise
citizen. When the phenomenon of prophecy began to fade during the
Persian and Greek periods, the wise men rose in stature, as seen
by the important apocryphal works, Ecclesiasticus and Wisdom of
Solomon, and the Mishnaic tractate Pirke Avoth (Sayings of the
Israelite wisdom differs from the wisdom of the world in that it
is rooted in reverence and commitment to God.
These wise men employed several literary devices as aids to
memory. The most frequently utilized device was the use of poetic
parallelism of either a synthetic (See Proverbs 18:10) or
antithetic (See Proverbs 10:1) type. Other devices include
comparisons (which are very common, see Proverbs 17:1), as are
numerical sequences (See Proverbs 30:15ff.). Alliteration and
acrostic patterns (See. Psalm 37; Proverbs 31:10-31) are employed
occasionally. Riddles (Judges 14:12ff.; I Kings 10:1), fables
(Judges 9:7-15; Ezekiel 17:3ff.; 19:1ff.), parables, which are
extensions of the comparisons mentioned above (See II Samuel
12:1-4; Isaiah. 28:4), and allegories (see Isaiah 5:1-7) are
literary devices utilized to convey wisdom by these writers.
These writings have also been classified as poetry and wisdom
songs. Though wisdom literature is an international phenomenon
(as the Old Testament openly recognizes, see I Kings 4:31;
Obadiah 8; Jeremiah 49:7; Genesis 41:8; I Kings 4:30; Isaiah
19:11-15) and not merely limited to Israel, wisdom literature has
Israel's peculiar stamp. It is important to recognize that
Israel's sages confessed that true wisdom stemmed from God (See
Job 28) and the overall impact of Israel's prophets upon her
sages cannot be ignored.v This is the conclusion of Henry Wheeler
Robinson who defines the wisdom movement as "the discipline
whereby was taught the application of prophetic truth to the
individual life in the light of experience." vi
Wisdom literature has characteristic traits:
1. There is an absence of reference to the typical salvation
beliefs as depicted within the patriarchal promises, the Exodus
from Egypt, the covenant at Sinai, etc.
2. The objective of the Hebrew sage is to transmit the lessons
of experience, so that one may learn to cope with life. The
teaching includes goals such as self-control (especially in
speech), honesty, diligence, etc. Following wise counsel brings
life but following the opposite course (folly) brings
3. A characteristic problem is retribution which is manifested
in the way in which the wise/foolish (i.e., virtu ous/wrongdoers)
are treated. Proverbs upholds an optimistic view but Job and
Ecclesiastes also show a pessimistic view.
4. Certain literary forms are cultivated which include discrete
sayings, admonitions, reflections, etc.
Prophets such as Amos, Isaiah and Jeremiah also occasionally used
the forms, techniques and teachings of wisdom literature to
enrich and reinforce their oracles. vii
The wise ones who cultivated this wisdom were called sages. They
were men of letters, scribes, skilled in the affairs of
government, and counselors to rulers. They were instructors of
the people and especially of youth. The wise ones guided the
people during times of crisis by revaluating tradition and
preserving unity, peace and good will. The most illustrious of
the sages, and the originator of wisdom literature in Israel, was
Solomon. Because of his fame in biblical tradition for his wisdom
(1 Kings 4:29-34), Proverbs and Ecclesiastes are attributed to
Although there may be numerous resemblances between the wisdom
literature of pagan nations and the wisdom books of the Bible,
the pagan works are often vague and contain polytheistic
conceptions. The inspired books of the Bible are profoundly
spiritual, human, universal, fundamentally moral, and essentially
religious and monotheistic. The teachers of wisdom were men of
God, and their books were placed beside the Law and the Prophets.
Under the influence of the Law and the Prophets, wisdom
represented virtue and piety while vice and impiety were revealed
to be folly. Humankind was enlightened with the highest form of
wisdom which is identified with the spirit of God through which
the world was created and is preserved.
Within the New Testament, the letter of James as a whole bears
striking resemblance to traditional wisdom literature because of
its encouraging and persuasive nature. Wisdom is a gift to be
asked from God, who will grant it (James 1:5). This is practical
wisdom. While it is "from above," in contrast to the wisdom that
is "earthly," it expresses itself in exemplary conduct; it is
"peaceable, full of mercy and good fruits" (James 3:13-18).
Different Kinds of Wisdom
Israelite wisdom differs from the wisdom of the world in that it
is rooted in reverence and commitment to God. This is manifested
in the following ways:
1. The basic world view of Israelite wisdom is that God is
Creator of His people and the physical world. From this
conviction everything else in wisdom arises.
2. God has imbedded truth in all of creation so that all of
creation reflects the wisdom, nature, and character of its
creator. All of creation is a way to learn about God and His
purposes for the world because of this.
3. The physical world created in Genesis is good and there is
no hint of an evil physical world that emerges later in Greek
4. It is our human responsibility to God to discover the truth
of God in the world as reflected in how the world operates
according to the harmony of its creator and then live within that
harmony of God's order.
5. Being wise is to search for and maintain God's order in the
world in order to live according to His direction. Conversely, 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 well being in God's world.
The Wisdom Literature of the Old Testament
The Hebrew's were practical rather than speculative thinkers.
Since they did not have a philosophy in the strict sense of the
term, there is no philosophical system within the pages of the
Old Testament. The practical spirit of Hebrew religious
wisdom takes the form of a more perfect and profound knowledge of
revealed truths acquired by meditation on God's Word and
expressed in daily conduct. This heavenly wisdom involves
holiness (separation from worldliness and unification to God's
will) according to divine revelation and is generally expressed
in the form of proverbs and parables which originate with the
thought of God and of His divine instruction and leads man to a
moral life and guides him away from sin. The books of the Old
Testament which are classed as Wisdom literature are Job, Psalms,
Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and the Song of Solomon.
The Wisdom literature of the Old Testament is designated by the
following additional titles:
Didactic - teaching doctrinal truths and inculcates a way of life
Moral - dealing with the principles of moral behavior
Poetical - the literary style in which both the ideas and the
form of treatment are poetical
The book of Job is a drama covering the difficult problems
associated with reconciling the sufferings of just men with the
justice and goodness of God. This book doesn't discuss these
questions in abstract terms but is an extensive illustration
through a concrete story about the patient and God-fearing Job.
Job lived in patriarchal times in the land of Uz which is in the
northeastern part of Palestine. He was the head of a large clan
and was rich in lands and cattle. He rapidly lost his children
and possessions, was afflicted with a horrible disease, and
became an outcast from his own people.
His three friends - Eliphaz, Bildad and Zophar - mourned over him
in silence for seven days and engaged Job in an extensive and
judgmental dis cussion relative to the causes of Job's sufferings
(chapters 1-3). They explain that Job's sufferings are the
penalty for his wrong doing because God is a severe and just
judge who punishes the evil and rewards the good (chapters 4-31).
Elihu, one of the characters; affirms the justice and omnipotence
of God and maintains that sufferings purify us from vice and
strengthen us in virtue (chapters 32-37). God Himself, speaking
from a whirlwind, reminds man not to probe too curiously into the
mysterious ways of divine Providence but to submit to the divine
Job begins and ends with implications that sufferings are a
providential test of man to show the honor of man and the glory
The book of Psalms ("praises") is wisdom literature in hymn form.
The word "psalm" is derived from the Greek term psalmos or
psallein, which denotes "a sacred song to be sung to the
accompaniment of a stringed instrument." viii
The Psalms are 150 sacred songs, composed for the greater part by
David or during his reign, and used at the religious services in
The central thoughts of the Psalms are God, the Messiah, and
humankind. The Psalms describe God's attributes: His
magnificence, omnipotence, omniscience, providence, justice,
holiness and mercy. They predict the coming of the Messiah and
describe His future reign, His victories and triumphs, and the
New Jerusalem which will draw all people to it. They describe the
relations of humanity to God, portray the yearnings of humanity's
soul after God, enumerate humanity's complaints when crushed by
powerful enemies, and humanity's despairing appeals when
overwhelmed by afflictions. But God is humanity's Deliverer,
strength, and hope and therefore humanity has no reason to fear.
The Psalms describe the wisdom and blessing of God's Torah
(instruction and law). This is especially true for Psalm 1 and
Psalm 119. The later is an acrostic showing the wisdom of the
entire Hebrew alphabet by starting every 8 verse sequence with
the same letter beginning with aleph and ending with taw.
The book of Proverbs is the primary book of wisdom literature in
the Old Testament. It contains numerous short popular statements
that express a wealth of practical wisdom and experience. It also
contains many parables, figures of speech, comparisons, and short
pithy sayings. It contains a systematic code of ethics and not
merely a compilation of unrelated sayings containing the ethical
wisdom of the Near Eastern sages. The spirit of this book is
divine with the idea of God permeating the entire book.
The introductory part of the book in chapters 1 through 9 is an
organized treatise on the excellence and advantages of wisdom.
The book boldly proclaims that the "fear of the LORD is the
beginning of wisdom" (Proverbs 1:7) and exhorts men to seek after
wisdom as the best preservative against temptation and which is
valued "more precious than all riches" (Proverbs 3:15). ix
The King James Version renders this:
"For the merchandise of it [is] better than the merchandise of
silver, and the gain thereof than fine gold. She [is] more
precious than rubies: and all the things thou canst desire are
not to be compared unto her."
The book of Proverbs couples wisdom with virtue and counsels men
to flee the company of the wicked and to avoid the occasions of
sin. Chapter 8 contains a section emphasizing the Personal Word
of God or the Eternal Word of God, which appears to be a
foreshadowing of the Christ: "The LORD possessed me in the
beginning of His ways, before He made anything from the
beginning. I was set up from eternity, And of old before the
earth was made" (Proverbs 8:22-23).
Chapters 10 through 29 contain approximately 500 sayings and
axioms of Solomon that relate to wisdom and folly, virtue and
vice. The last 2 chap ters (30-31) contain the sayings of Agur,
the son of Jakeh and a poem in praise of a wise and virtuous
Ecclesiastes means "preacher." This book is a collection of
sayings and maxims from the chief person in the assembly of the
wise. The author (traditionally considered to be Solomon) was a
Jew who accepted the great spiritual principles of the Old
Testament and strictly adhered to the Monotheism and religion of
his Israelite forefathers.
Ecclesiastes strives to answer the question of what in this world
can bring permanent happiness to humanity. The conclusion is that
permanent and immutable happiness, which alone can make man
blessed, is not to be found in this world. The author writes:
"Vanity of vanities, and all is vanity." Since man is short-lived
and mortal; things are subject to a constant flux and change.
Good and evil are inseparably intermingled and man is helpless to
change it in this world. Earthly things, such as honor, glory,
riches and sensual pleasures, do not bring lasting happiness.
"Wisdom itself shows the defects in the world, the perversion of
justice, and the vanity of all things". x
A very well known biblical counselor told me in a private
conversation several years ago that the essential message of this
book is that in this world we should be happy if we "have a good
meal." For most Americans in the 21st century that might not
sound like much but in some parts of the world having a good meal
is a rare luxury. There is much wisdom in contentment with the
simple things in life when it is accompanied with acknowledging
the presence of God.
The author does point out what humanity must do to attain
happiness: observe the commandments of God, submit to God's plan,
and avoid inquiring too curiously into the ways of God's wisdom.
He also admonishes his readers to avoid covetousness, sensuality,
folly, ambition, and detraction, and to practice patience and
mortification, to be diligent in good, and remember that death
and judgment are inevitable. The author cautions against excesses
of all kinds, strikes out for moderation and the happy medium in
which virtue and morality consist, and concludes his
investigation with the words: "Let us hear the conclusion of the
whole matter: Fear God, and keep His commandments: for this [is]
the whole [duty] of man" (Ecclesiastes 12:13).
Solomon's Song of Songs
Both Jewish and Christian tradition interprets the Song of
Solomon as an allegory - a description of one thing through the
image of another. In the words and imagery of an earthly love
between a royal bridegroom and his lovely bride the book
represents the union between God and His chosen people, between
Christ and His Church, and between God and the sanctified soul.
The Old Testament frequently describes the love between God and
His creatures in the terms of earthly friendship or love; for
example: "The bridegroom shall rejoice over the bride, and thy
God shall rejoice over thee" (Isaiah 62:5). In the book of
Ezekiel, Jerusalem, depicted by the metaphor of an unfaithful
wife, is upbraided by God with her ingratitude and manifold
disloyalties (chapter 16). This theme is carried forward in the
New Testament and is depicted by the allegory of marriage which
is used frequently to portray the union and love between Christ
and His Church.
(The truth of the matter is that the book of the Song of Songs is
God's instruction book on SEX in marriage - Keith Hunt)
Jim DeFrancisco, Ph.D., has served as President of Miltha
Ministries and Institute of Christian Principles since 1992.
i Achtemier, Paul J., editor, "Wisdom", Harper's Bible
Dictionary, Harper and Row, New York City, 1985, p.1136.
ii NetBible, Proverbs 1:2, footnote 8.
iii Wood, D.R.W., "New Bible Dictionary," Intervarsity
Press,Downers Grove, 1996, p. 1245.
vi Robinson, H. W., "Inspiration and Revelation in the Old
Testament," Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1946 and 1961, p.241.
vii Wood, op. cit.; Terrien, 'Amos and Wisdom', in "Israel's
Prophetic Heritage," ed. B. W. Anderson and W. Harrelson, Harper
and Brothers, New York City, 1962, pp.108-115; Wolff, H. W.,
"Amos, the Prophet: the Man and His Background," E.T., Fortress
Press, Minneapolis, 1973; Whedbee, J. W., "Isaiah and Wisdom,"
Abingdon Press, Nashville, 1971.
viii Britt, Dom Matthew., "A Dictionary of the Psalter," Benziger
Brothers, New York, 1928, p.220.
ix See http://www.cathtruth.com/catholicbible/wisdom.htm
From "Acts" a magazine (July/August 2008) published by the
General Council Churches of God, 7th Day, Meridian, ID
Entered on this Website May, 2009