Uncommon Wisdom: Old Testament Wisdom Books

Introduction

Overall, Old Testament (OT) wisdom books are fairly anthropocentric (man-centered) since they address the issues of everyday living faced by God’s people. That does not mean that they are not also theocentric (God-centered). God instructs His people to live their lives in view of His existence, presence, righteousness, and justice. Studying these books provides an opportunity to exam the potential for formulating a “biblical humanism.” Studying OT wisdom literature challenges us to construct a set of principles for OT ethics (which may be expanded into biblical ethics). Practical examples of personal morality in these books help to illustrate the tensions involved in biblical ethics. The wisdom books of the OT point the reader beyond the chaos of this world and the human arena to a personal God to Whom each person must answer and upon Whom each must depend for spiritual survival. The wisdom books of the OT include Job, Proverbs, and Ecclesiastes. However, these three books do not exhaust the examples of wisdom literature in the OT. Portions of Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Amos, and Psalms also exhibit various wisdom themes and forms that identify material as wisdom literature (cf. Isaiah 19:11–15; 28:23–29; 40:13,14; Jeremiah 8:8,9; 9:12, 23; Ezekiel 16:44; 18:2; Amos 5:8–15; 9:2–6; Psalms 1; 19; 49; 73; 119). The Bible refers to the wisdom of sages among the Israelites (1 Kings 4:31) as well as among a number of their Ancient Near Eastern neighbors:
  • the East (1 Kings 4:30)
  • Babylon (Isaiah 47:10; Daniel 2:12–14)
  • Persia (Esther 1:13)
  • Arabia (Proverbs 30:1; 31:1)
  • Egypt (Genesis 41:8; 1 Kings 4:30; Isaiah 19:11–13)
  • Phoenicia (Ezekiel 28:4–7)
  • Edom (Jeremiah 49:7; Obadiah 8)
 

Wisdom

Biblical “wisdom” (Hebrew: chokmah) includes all of the ethical and social abilities that distinguish the prudent person from the fool or the unrighteous. Biblical “wisdom” involves skill, discretion, education, morality, and faith. It refers primarily to practical activities. Action and thinking are inseparable. The wisdom books of the OT present an approach to life that challenges the reader to reach beyond typical behavior patterns to a lifestyle characterized by discretion. In other words, biblical “wisdom” is the ability to make good or right choices (cf. Ephesians 5:1–21, esp. vv. 15–17). We could diagram it this way:

Right Teaching >> Right Thinking >> Right Choices >> Right Living

 

General Themes of Wisdom

  • Retribution: God rewards good conduct (obedience to His Word) with blessing and evil conduct (disobedience) with punishment. Proverbs 12:21; 13:9; 21:15; Ecclesiastes 8:12, 13
  • Choice of living responsibly or recklessly: These are the two paths—one of obedience (the path of the righteous and godly) and one of disobedience (the path of the unrighteous and ungodly). Proverbs 3:31; 16:16; Job 31; Ecclesiastes 7:18; Psalm 25:12
  • Creation: God created everything. It did not just happen or come about through a process of evolution. Proverbs 8:22–31; 22:2; Ecclesiastes 1:4–7; 12:1; Job 12:7–10; 26:14; 38:22–39:30; 40:15–41:34; Psalm 104
  • Citizenship: God’s people must submit themselves to lawful human authority. Proverbs 14:34; 16:10–15; Ecclesiastes 8:2–13
 

“The Fear of Yahweh” and Wisdom

The concept of “the fear of Yahweh” characterizes Hebrew wisdom and distinguishes it from all other forms of wisdom in the Ancient Near East. The following passages speak of “the fear of Yahweh”: Proverbs 1:7; 9:10; 15:33; Psalm 111:10; Job 28:28; compare Acts 9:31; 2 Corinthians 5:11; 7:1; 1 Peter 2:17; Revelation 14:7. Most believers have a difficult time defining exactly what “the fear of Yahweh” is. Does it mean to be afraid? to have reverential awe? or, to put the flesh to death or crucify self (figuratively speaking)? The more one reads in commentaries, theologies, and devotionals, the more he or she finds that few have a clear concept of what “the fear of Yahweh” involves. If it cannot be defined, then how can one exercise it or claim to “fear Yahweh”? Since “the fear of Yahweh is the beginning of knowledge” (Proverbs 1:7), our knowledge is in dire straits without that fear. There is no wisdom apart from “the fear of Yahweh” (Psalm 111:10; Job 28:28). In addition, Scripture associates blessing with “the fear of Yahweh” (Psalms 112:1; 115:13; 128:1, 4). Without “the fear of Yahweh,” therefore, an individual lacks knowledge, wisdom, and blessing. Praise Yahweh, because He has revealed in His Word exactly what “the fear of Yahweh” is. Take note of the following elements involved in possessing “the fear of Yahweh” and read each biblical text for confirmation:
  • First, one must trust in Yahweh completely (Psalm 115:11).
  • Second, one must experience Yahweh’s forgiveness in reality (Psalm 130:4).
  • Third, one must then sincerely delight in Yahweh’s Word (Psalm 112:1).
  • Fourth, one must go beyond delighting in Yahweh’s Word by actually keeping (obeying) it (Psalm 119:63; Ecclesiastes 12:13).
  • Fifth, one must sincerely and consistently hate evil (Proverbs 8:13).
  • Sixth, one must steadfastly hope in Yahweh’s loyal love (Psalm 147:11).
That is what “the fear of Yahweh” involves. Read those six points again. Is it not clear that only true believers can fear Yahweh? Take a good look at the second point and read the following verses: Acts 2:38; 10:43; 26:18; and Ephesians 1:7. Why should anyone spend another day without believing the Gospel concerning Jesus Christ? Placing faith in Jesus is exactly where “the fear of Yahweh” begins.