The Wisdom Books
While Solomon’s unfaithfulness ultimately brought disaster for Israel, he DID still leave behind a legacy that was and is positive in other aspects. Namely, the fact that he, at least early on, obtained wisdom from God instead of taking it on his own terms. In this way he succeeded where Adam and Eve failed, and brought Israel into a season that recalled the garden of Eden ideal.
This week, we get to focus on this positive portion of Solomon’s legacy, which is preserved in part by several books that were either written by, or inspired by Solomon. We know that Solomon did himself produce a lot of literature that was just an outpouring of God’s wisdom. Remember that passage in chapter 4:
1 Kings 4:32–34 (CSB):
32 Solomon spoke 3,000 proverbs, and his songs numbered 1,005. 33 He spoke about trees, from the cedar in Lebanon to the hyssop growing out of the wall. He also spoke about animals, birds, reptiles, and fish. 34 Emissaries of all peoples, sent by every king on earth who had heard of his wisdom, came to listen to Solomon’s wisdom.
Many of those proverbs are compiled into the book of Proverbs, which starts off by explicitly saying “These are the proverbs of Solomon son of David, king of Israel:” And that book is just packed so full of short, wise sayings about all different areas of life. It has just 31 chapters, but you can easily spend an hour or more just meditating on each chapter because there is so much in there.
I think one of the cool things about Proverbs is that you can find a lot of short verses that are just nuggets to remember and share! You don’t need a back story on the verses, they stand alone.
But there are other books related to Solomon too! The “Song of Songs” (or “The Song of Solomon” in some translations) starts off, like Proverbs, explicitly connecting itself to Solomon in verse 1: “The Song of Songs, which is Solomon’s.”
This book is the opposite of Proverbs n that way. You have to read, and re-read the whole story, but there are not a lot of verses you quote.
And finally, Ecclesiastes, which does not actually name Solomon, but certainly reflects his life and legacy, and is written from the perspective of Solomon, or at least a Solomon-like figure. Someone who has experienced what Solomon has experienced. Its authorship is debated, but that it at least has a connection to Solomon and his story is not.
This is like the most fun book ever to MIS-quote (like 7:27)! But there are some very famous passages that are often quoted. For instance:
Ecclesiastes 4:9-12 (CSB):
Two are better than one because they have a good reward for their efforts. 10 For if either falls, his companion can lift him up; but pity the one who falls without another to lift him up. 11 Also, if two lie down together, they can keep warm; but how can one person alone keep warm? 12 And if someone overpowers one person, two can resist him. A cord of three strands is not easily broken.
But there is actually one other book that belongs in the category of “Wisdom Literature,” and that’s the book of Job. That one isn’t as closely associated with Solomon, BUT, because it does deal with wisdom, and since Solomon is like THE symbol of wisdom, there are still a lot of “hyperlinks” and connections within Job to Solomon, albeit the connection is more subtle than with the others.
THIS book is a paradox for sure! It is not a Jewish person, we have conversations between angels and God and MOST of the text is BAD advice from “friends”, so to quote them is not good practice. Perhaps the most popular quote from Job might be this one:
Job 1:21 (CSB):
Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked I will leave this life. The LORD gives, and the LORD takes away. Blessed be the name of the LORD.
So, we just listed 4 whole books! How on earth are we going to cover all of them in one week? Well, we’re not! We want to give you a big picture overview of the different perspectives of each book and how they relate to each other, but there’s no way we can actually summarize the entire contents of them all. However, that brings up a point that I think is worth mentioning, and that’s the fact that you really need to spend time reading these books on your own. Of course, this is true of the whole Bible! Remember how Psalms starts off, right in verse 1:
Psalm 1:1–3 (CSB):
1 How happy is the one who does not walk in the advice of the wicked or stand in the pathway with sinners or sit in the company of mockers! 2 Instead, his delight is in Yahweh’s instruction, and he meditates on it day and night. 3 He is like a tree planted beside flowing streams that bears its fruit in its season and whose leaf does not wither. Whatever he does prospers.
“Yahweh’s Instruction” is referring to scripture! This amazing gift that we have of access to the Bible is easy to take for granted! But we should take advantage of it! Its role in our lives, and its power to transform lives, is nerfed if you only listen to us talk about it for an hour each week. It was always meant to be something we meditate on day and night. Again, this is true of the whole bible, but I think especially relevant when it comes to the wisdom literature. It tends to force you to slow down a bit. While some of the narrative can be moved through pretty easily, wisdom literature is characterized more similarly to poetry; while not all of it is poetic, it’s meant to be pondered and reflected on in a similar way.
So, all of that said, we want to take a step back and give just a quick introduction to each book. To begin with, we’ll look at those first 3: Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and Song of Songs. Since we know how much everybody likes videos, and since the guys at The Bible Project are insanely good at this kind of thing, we thought we’d show you their take on what they refer to as “The Books of Solomon.”
BIBLE PROJECT VIDEO: The Books of Solomon
So, when you’re reading the books of Solomon on your own, it’s super helpful to keep this big picture perspective in mind. Seeing the connections they have to each other, as well as to the overall narrative of scripture, will help you in comprehending and applying their individual parts.
I love how, in this particular video, they really highlight how Wisdom gets personified as this female character, “Lady Wisdom” and embracing her is like the key to life itself. Last week I brought this up briefly, and we saw women painted in more of a negative role.
But when Eve (who’s name literally means “life”) was first created, she was described as an “Ezer” for Adam (which means “human”). That word gets translated “helper” but really means more like a “savior” or “rescuer” and is most often used in reference to God himself or as something he is providing to people who have no ability to provide it for themselves.
However, Eve was also the one who led Adam astray! So from the very beginning of the Bible we have this theme of women and men and their pursuit of each other resulting in either the best or the worst consequences: literally life itself or death itself. And we saw that play out with Solomon and the queen of Sheba versus Solomon and all his princess wives, which Mike brought up last week.
Overall, Song of Songs is less about wisdom than the other books, as a genre it’s really poetry, but it paints a beautiful picture of, in some ways, an ideal romance! And the beautiful ideal for when men and women come together, is that their love for each other becomes a representation and a reflection of God’s love for us, his pursuit of us, and the wonderful results of embracing him and his wisdom.
Now, that video didn’t mention Job, but I think this book is worth mentioning at least briefly. (And TBP does have a phenomenal 3 video series that goes into Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and Job). If you’ve ever read Job you know that it can be a bit of a rough read that may leave you with more questions than answers! It’s the story of this guy who is described as righteous and blameless, who God then allows to be tortured by “The Opposer” and he basically loses everything including his family! He then has to wrestle with why God allowed all of this to happen to him, and he never loses faith in God, but he does wrestle with the anger and frustration and confusion of his situation. His friends come to comfort him, but really just add insult to injury by saying that because God is just, Job must have done something terrible to deserver everything that happened to him. But Job knows, and we know as the reader, that Job really is innocent!
At the end, God does come and talk to Job, but rather than explaining why anything happened, he basically presents Job with the wonders of the universe and says that the universe is so vastly complex that Job can neither comprehend nor claim some right to know the reasons and methods by which the God of the universe runs the universe.
God also gets very angry at Job’s friends, who then have to make sacrifices and ask for Job to pray for them, and while Job is praying for them they are forgiven, and his own health and prosperity is restored to him. So the whole story is actually a prophetic image of another suffering servant to come, the Messiah!
But it also is like a real-world playing out of the principles taught in Proverbs and Ecclesiastes. It shows the tension between approaching the world like God set it up with a formulaic pattern and if you just follow the right rules, then you will be happy health and wise…versus a totally random and chaotic world where no matter what you do, your life still can end up in death and despair.
So just to quickly summarize each of the 4 books as concisely as possible, we have:
While each of these books talk about wisdom from different perspectives, there are some common threads throughout all of them, and the one that stands out to us as the biggest most important thread tying them all together is this concept of “Fearing the Lord.” In fact, Proverbs comes out and says it right in the opening paragraph of the book:
Proverbs 1:1–7 (CSB):
1 The proverbs of Solomon son of David, king of Israel: 2 For learning wisdom and discipline; for understanding insightful sayings; 3 for receiving prudent instruction in righteousness, justice, and integrity; 4 for teaching shrewdness to the inexperienced, knowledge and discretion to a young man— 5 let a wise person listen and increase learning, and let a discerning person obtain guidance— 6 for understanding a proverb or a parable, the words of the wise, and their riddles. 7 The fear of the LORD is the beginning of knowledge; fools despise wisdom and discipline.
Now, of course this is one of those loaded topics that we could spend a really long time on! This is a subject we could dive really deep into, and don’t have time to cover EVERYTHING (as usual) but wanted to at least take a few minutes to reflect on this phrase. If it’s the key to wisdom, then it’s consequently also the key to life! So, let’s talk about it for a bit.
If you take time to study the phrases “the fear of God” and “the fear of the Lord” you will most times find that it is not connected with being afraid of punishment – though that is what most people interpret the phrase to mean.
Back to Proverbs 1, notice the word “knowledge” in verse 7. We’ve talked about that word and what it meant to Jewish readers/listeners. It’s a direct hyperlink back to the garden in Genesis, and the tree of the knowledge of good and bad.
The very first command from God with a consequence had to do with knowledge. Why did God want Adam to NOT eat from that tree? The consequence was “you will surely die”, but what was the reason God gave that command? Because God wanted man to listen to him, trust him and obey him.
The fear of the lord involves all 3:
God wants us to listen to him, trust what he says and then be willing to obey, even if it does not make sense at the time, even if we are not satisfied with what he is asking. THAT is the Fear of the Lord.
Going back to our passage in Proverbs, we read that the fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge. Basically, Solomon is saying that the path to knowledge starts with listening to, trusting and obeying God.
But as we look at these books they show a different outcome to the fear of the Lord:
We should be careful when we read them and study them not to take them as magic formulas for success or the blessing of God. It is very easy to catch the micro message and miss the macro message. For instance, when we read the conclusion of Ecclesiastes:
Ecclesiastes 12:13–14 (CSB)
13 When all has been heard, the conclusion of the matter is this: fear God and keep his commands, because this is for all humanity. 14 For God will bring every act to judgment, including every hidden thing, whether good or evil.
So, I fear God to avoid punishment, right? That is the micro lesson. Fear of God simply for the benefit of lack of punishment is NOT the complete message.
These are not books just of smart sayings and commands to keep us from getting zapped by God – they are meant to help us understand and TRUST God.
Listen the summary of Job:
Job 42:2–6 (CSB)
2 I know that you can do anything and no plan of yours can be thwarted.
3 You asked, “Who is this who conceals my counsel with ignorance?”
Surely I spoke about things I did not understand, things too wondrous for me to know.
4 You said, “Listen now, and I will speak. When I question you, you will inform me.”
5 I had heard reports about you, but now my eyes have seen you.
6 Therefore, I reject my words and am sorry for them; I am dust and ashes.
The goal of ALL wisdom literature, and the entire Bible for that matter, it to help us see God. They are his words and they have been given to us to help us know him, trust him and obey him.
So, we’ve covered a lot of ground and a variety of topics. We have more resources available if you would like to dive deeper into how to read and understand wisdom literature, or the fear of God, or both! In the meantime, our challenge to you would be to read at least the 3 primary wisdom books: Proverbs, Ecclesiastes and Job, on your own, with the big picture in mind. These are some of the most practical and easily applicable books, as well as some of the most confounding at times! But that’s what makes wisdom literature such rich meditation literature, ripe for a lifetime of contemplation and appreciation.
PONDER THIS: how do YOU see God in light of the everyday ups and downs?
In other words, IF the goal of the books is to teach us to fear God, and they all show different ways in which God works, how do we respond to the working of God? To we tend to lean towards one book’s perspective of the collective whole? And have we learned in ALL circumstances to listen to, trust and obey God?