A Word to the Wise: Wisdom Literature in the Scriptures
Our readings last week and this week introduce the wisdom tradition of scripture, through the Book of Proverbs. Wisdom literature describes those texts whose purpose is primarily instructive. Old Testament examples include Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and Song of Solomon, and Job, as well as certain psalms. New Testament wisdom literature includes the Letter of James as well as sections of the gospels, such as Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7).
More specifically, the wisdom tradition in scripture seeks to convey practical instruction on how to live faithfully. It offers advice more than information--observations about fruitful and effective living. Its basic perspective is that wise living acknowledges the rule of God and orients itself towards God’s will. To live otherwise—heedless of God and ignoring God’s commands---is foolish. “Fools say in their hearts, ‘There is no God.’ . . . The Lord looks down from heaven on humankind to see if there are any who are wise, who seek after God” (Psalm 14:1-2). The opening of Proverbs provides an even more concise statement of this theme: “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge; fools despise wisdom and instruction” (Proverbs 1:7; cf. 9:10).
Whether we have read through Proverbs before or not, we are already familiar with the form and function of this kind of writing. It doesn’t take long to list out some non-biblical examples of proverbs. “A penny saved is a penny earned.” “Early to bed and early to rise makes a man healthy, wealthy, and wise.” “The pen is mightier than the sword.” More broadly we can recognize the secular wisdom literature available to us: bumper stickers and online memes, advice columns like Dear Abby, how-to articles on countless topics, and self-help books for every type of problem. The difference, of course, is that Biblical wisdom always refers us back to the Lord, inviting us to orient our lives to the true and living God. Since God is the source of every blessing in this world, faithful obedience is our best hope for living fruitfully.
Old Testament Readings: Proverbs 16-28
Like most of the OT wisdom literature, Proverbs is written as poetry. The main feature of Hebrew poetry is parallelism, and the two lines of the typical proverb provide the perfect vehicle to express a concise, memorable comparison. The second line may amplify or illustrate the thought in the first line: “A gift opens doors; it gives access to the great” (18:16). Or the second line may contrast with the first: “A cheerful heart is good medicine, but a downcast spirit dries up the bones” (17:22). The figurative language of the Biblical proverbs engages our imagination in every line, demanding our assessment of its statement. With each proverb we ask whether our own experience squares with the wisdom offered. Is the insight obvious, or surprising? Reading the Proverbs takes concentration!
Each verse offers on observation about human living for us to consider. Sometimes the proverb simply declares a truth: “Pride goes before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall” (16:18). More often, a proverb offers a comparison: “A bribe is like a magic stone in the eyes of those who give it; wherever they turn they prosper” (17:8). Often the proverb contrasts two kinds of living, showing the benefit of the commendable way and the bad consequences of the other: “Better the poor walking in integrity than one perverse of speech who is a fool” (19:1).
As you read through Proverbs, you may wish to mark the ones that particularly strike you. And it is helpful to see what themes recur throughout the collection: diligence and laziness; marriage and child-rearing; responsible sexual behavior; integrity in speech and action. The breadth of these examples attests to the practical quality of this instruction: the book of Proverbs conveys that God cares about our human living and blesses our efforts to live faithfully.
New Testament Readings: Romans 15-16; 1 Thessalonians 1-3
The final two chapters of Romans reinforce the practical instruction Paul has offered since chapter 12. Romans 15 opens with an exhortation for the believers to practice grace and hospitality for one another, embodying the welcome that God extends to us in Jesus Christ (Romans 15:1-7). This basic stance—the strong showing consideration for the weak—Paul then extends to the larger concern of Jews’ welcoming Gentiles into the fellowship. The Church is to emulate the mission of its Lord, who “became a servant to the circumcised . . . in order to confirm the promises given to the patriarchs, and in order that the Gentiles might glorify God for his mercy” (15:8-9). In our life together the Church is called to embody the wideness of God’s mercy.
The second half of chapter 15 provides valuable context for the writing of the letter. Paul explains that he currently is headed back to Jerusalem to deliver the relief offering he has been collecting in the missionary churches—a gesture that likely would validate these predominantly-Greek congregations in the eyes of the Jewish Christian leadership in Jerusalem. After fulfilling this task, Paul intends to head back west, stopping in Rome on his way ultimately to Spain. We have no Biblical record that Paul was able to accomplish this goal, but it attests to the vision Paul has “to preach the gospel, not where Christ has already been named, lest [he] build on someone else’s foundation” (15:20). Paul feels the burden to share the good news that Israel’s messiah is the Lord of all people.
Take some time to think through the litany of those whom Paul greets in chapter 16. Some, like Phoebe, Prisca, and Aquila, we know from other places in scripture. Others, like Tryphaena and Tryphosa, we meet only here. But each of these twenty-six named, plus the many others referred to, was important enough for Paul to mention. The breadth and inclusivity of this list suggests a vibrant, experienced gathering in Rome. The final instructions (16:17-20) simultaneously warn and encourage the church in Rome. The closing benediction (16:25-27) provides summarizes concisely Paul’s view of the gospel and its effect in the world.
1 Thessalonians is perhaps the earliest of Paul’s NT letters, which would make it the earliest book in the New Testament. When one compares the timeline Paul provides (1Thess. 2:17-3:5) with the narrative in Acts 17, it seems likely that Paul writes from Corinth after having to leave Thessalonica because of the uproar created by his proclamation. He sends this letter via Timothy to inquire about the Thessalonians’ well-being and to respond to concerns they have about Jesus’ second coming (1Thess 1:10; cf. esp. 4:13-5:11).
Our readings in chapters 1-3 celebrate the faithfulness of the fledgling church (1:2-10) and assert Paul’s authentic desire to serve them spiritually (2:1-16). There is a beautiful intimacy in Paul’s description [“like a nurse tenderly caring for own children” (2:7); “like a father with his children” (2:11)] that continues as he recounts his departure: “for a short time, we were made orphans by being separated from you” (2:17). Paul even declares that at the coming of the Lord Jesus, the church in Thessalonica will be “our hope or joy or crown of boasting” (2:19)—that is, his highest accomplishment in God’s eyes.
Paul apparently has feared that his premature departure from the Thessalonians had hindered their spiritual progress (3:5). He is joyful to have received Timothy’s report—“the good news of [their] faith and love” and the good will they continue to bear toward Paul. Chapter 3 concludes with Paul’s prayer that God “direct our way to you” (3:11), that the church “increase and abound in love for one another and for all” (3:12), and that God “strengthen [their] hearts in holiness” toward the day of the Lord’s return (3:13).
Psalms: 40, 117, 41
Psalm 40 is a psalm of thanksgiving for answered prayer. The speaker describes God’s gracious response to an earlier prayer for help (vv.1-2), which elicits the speaker’s praise: “He put a new song in my mouth, a song of praise to our God” (v.3). The “new song” becomes testimony shared in worship: “I have told the glad news of deliverance in the great congregation” (v.9). Interestingly, this experience of asking for and receiving God’s help emboldens the psalmist to ask again: verses 11-17 constitute a fresh petition to a current need. [Note that verses 13-17 are presented later in the psalter as Psalm 70.]
Psalm 117 is the shortest of the Biblical psalms, but its message is extensive. It calls all peoples, all nations, to join with Israel in praising God. The basis for this praise is the “steadfast love” and faithfulness of the Lord, which “endures forever” (v.2). Consider the boldness of this assertion! God’s faithfulness in covenant with Israel serves as a sign to all peoples; God’s saving acts in the past serve as an eternal witness. The praise that God deserves will not be complete until all human beings recognize God’s worth and join in one voice to praise the Lord. [Note: Paul quotes this psalm in our reading this week (Romans 15:11) to bolster his case for the inclusion of the Gentiles in the gospel.]
Psalm 41 starts with a beatitude (statement of blessing) on those who are considerate of the poor; as they are generous with the helpless, so God is with them in their time of need. The psalm then turns to a prayer for God’s help (vv.4-9), describing the faithless whisperings of the “enemies” who doubt God’s saving power. Verses 11-12 report the happy outcome, that God has “upheld” the speaker because of the “integrity” of his trust. The last verse ascribes eternal praise to this saving God.