In the study of the Hebrew Scriptures, one sometimes runs across the genre of “wisdom literature.” A distinction is often made between knowledge (facts and information) and wisdom (the ability to use knowledge to live life). Wisdom literature includes Proverbs, the Song of Songs, Esther, Job, Ecclesiastes, and parts of the Psalms.
The Bible tells us that the “fear of the LORD” is the beginning of both wisdom (Psalm 110) and knowledge (Proverbs 1:7). This fear describes having a healthy and accurate idea of who God is, and then responding to Him with wonder, awe, and obedience. (For further treatment, see A Season of Fear.)
A wise person knows who God is and how that knowledge of God helps him live life. In contrast, “The fool says in his heart, ‘There is no God.’” (Psalm 14, 53). The “fool” in ancient Hebrew thinking was not one who was an atheist. Atheism really didn’t exist in a culture where the starting point was, “In the beginning, God…”. The fool in Hebrew culture was one who, despite knowing there was a God, lived life like there wasn’t any God. In a way, fools were “practical atheists.”
When wisdom literature reminds the reader that having a proper concept of God (along with a proper response to Him) is the beginning of really understanding the world and knowing how to live in it, a new definition of wisdom arises. Wisdom is, “living life with God at the core.”
It is interesting that wisdom literature was written during times of great transition for the Jewish people, when they had many questions as to how to live life as everything around them was changing. Examples include when Jewish society became a monarchy, when the Jews started to have settlements based in cities rather than in tribal villages, and when the Jews changed from being a monarchy to being a people in living in exile.
Why does wisdom literature describe such practical living, as is presented in the Proverbs? Why give people filled with questions about their changing and uncertain lives practical advice in areas such as finance, speech, marriage, and child-rearing? Why is Job considered wisdom, when Job has so many questions and so few answers? Why is Esther included, when the name of God is not even mentioned in the book? Why is Ecclesiastes a wisdom book, when the main topic is “meaninglessness.” And why is the Song of Songs, a book about romance and sex given to people struggling with change?
The main question the Jewish people were really asking was, “Where is God in times of change and suffering?” Wisdom literature gives the answer – He is there. Always there. He is in your marriage and family, in your work, and in the daily struggles of life. The message of Job is that He is there when you have unanswerable questions. Esther shouts at us that even if God is not mentioned, He is there, saving His people and working behind the scenes setting up and taking down kingdoms. (Esther, by the way, is a Persian name that sounds like the Hebrew word for “hidden”.) The Song of Songs reminds us that if God is anywhere, He is present in marital love, which shows us what His love for us is like. When everything around us is falling apart, when we have many questions, when we wonder where God is, and how we should live in such times of transition, wisdom literature helps us out. It has a message we all need to remember – He is there even when you cannot see Him. Look for Him. And live like He is there. This is wisdom.