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Old Testament – Wisdom

Authors J. Scott Duvall and J. Daniel Hays end their excellent book on biblical hermeneutics with a look at the wisdom books of the Old Testament. These books offer verses with a range of interpretive difficulty. On the one hand there is this straightforward statement from Proverbs 11:13, “A gossip betrays a confidence, but a trustworthy person keeps a secret.” On the other there is this rather confusing passage from Ecclesiastes 10:19, “A feast is made for laughter, wine makes life merry, and money is the answer for everything.” What are we to make of this verse? Does this mean that we should pursue partying, drinking, and money?

In order to fully grasp the Old Testament wisdom books Duvall and Hays suggest that we, first, focus on the big picture. “The four books [Proverbs, Job, Ecclesiastes, and Song of Songs] balance each other theologically, and any one of them read out of the context of the others can be easily misunderstood.”[1] They provide a brief summary of each book:

The Basic Approach to Life (Proverbs)[2] Proverbs deals with the “norms of life,”[3] in other words, the things that are usually true in normal circumstances. Since God has set in motion a rationally ordered universe, it follows that certain principles will usually yield good results. For example, “If you work hard, you will prosper; if you don’t, you will be poor.”[4] Raise your children properly and they will not stray from your teaching. Be wise, do not be foolish, and you will be protected from harm. It should be noted that the “norms of life” are usually but not always true in all circumstances. There are exceptions, as revealed in the other wisdom books.

Exception 1: The Suffering of the Righteous (Job)[5] While Proverbs teaches us things we can expect under usual circumstances, the suffering of Job shows us the exception to the notion of being righteous and prospering. “If we take both books together, we conclude that most of life is rational and can be understood. Some events in life, however, are inexplicable to us as mere humans.”[6] When this happens we must rely on our trust in God to bring us through such circumstances. The Book of Job shows us how that is done.

Exception 2: The Failure of the Rational, Ordered Approach to Provide Ultimate Meaning to Life (Ecclesiastes)[7] – The author of Ecclesiastes shows us that wisdom, in and of itself, cannot bring meaning to life. Wisdom can be beneficial to living in a number of ways but, without establishing relationship with God, it can only provide deep cynicism; especially as it notes some particular exceptions to the ordered universe.

Exception 3: The Irrationality of Romantic Love between a Husband and Wife (Song of Songs)[8] – Again, while Proverbs can give us wise advice on whom to marry and how to conduct ourselves in a marriage, it is incomplete in terms of what a love relationship can fully be. In that respect, The Song of Songs shows us that love is more than logically choosing a mate. It is a celebration of the wild passions that can be ignited between two people in marriage. In other words, as Duvall and Hays suggest, while Proverbs gives us rational principles to find a spouse, Song of Songs shows us that us that marriage can be “crazy, madly-in-love, [and] slightly irrational,” and that’s okay.

This was the last entry in our Funsized Bible Study series. For the other posts in this series, click here. We pray each of these has provided you a starting point, as it were, with regard to biblical interpretation and hermeneutics. Since these entries were not intended to replace the book Grasping God’s Word by J. Scott Duvall and J. Daniel Hays we strongly suggest you buy it and delve deeper into each particular point with more detail and practical examples. May you bear much fruit in your studies and may God bless you in your endeavors!

[1] J. Scott Duvall and J. Daniel Hays, Grasping God’s Word, 3rd ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2012), 423.

[2] Ibid, 424.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.