Seeking after Wisdom

The Wisdom books, from Job to the Song of Songs (sometimes Song of Solomon), are a varied collection of literature which through, story, poetry and sayings contain teachings about the correct way to live and the correct attitude to the human relationship with God. They derive from a lengthy period of human history, containing some of the oldest writings in the Old Testament and some from much closer to the time of Jesus. Although only five books in the Old Testament three of the books are substantial, not least the Book of Psalms which is the longest book in the Bible.

The book of Job begins with a story about Job and his family which is possibly the most ancient story in the Bible. Job is the innocent victim of a wager between God and Satan (here an angel in heaven and part of God’s retinue rather than the more modern asociation of him with the devil). Great suffering is inflicted on Job as a result of this wager. What follows is lengthy debate between Job and his comforters about the nature of sin, judgement, punishment and human suffering.This is much later than the opening story and is a sophisticated discussion of important issues about the human condition. The book concludes with a long speech as God answers Job’s complaints (arguably, not very satisfactorily) and Job concedes that God does not need to justify his actions and that he acts justly. Job is restored to prosperity.

The Book of Psalms contains 150 poems or hymns. Many of the Psalms are attributed to king David (the Book of Common Prayer calls the whole book the Psalms of David). The psalms are variously songs of praise for God’s work of creation or work in history, laments, Royal psalms or thanksgivings. They vary in length from just a couple of verses (Ps. 117) to several pages (Ps. 119). Many of them have titles or instructions about how they should be sung.

The book of Proverbs is a collection of Wisdom writings (traditionally attributed to king Solomon) and falls into several sections. The first section (Prov. 1-9) invites young men to follow wisdom and includes poems in which wisdom is personnified as a woman. The next section (Prov. 10-24) contains sayings contrasting the wise person with the fool or the righteous person with the wicked. This is followed (Prov. 25-29) by sayings transcribed by the men of Hezekiah, king of Judah, contrasting the just and the wicked and rich and poor. The final two chapters contain sayings of Agur and Lemuel, king of Massa.

The books of Ecclesiastes and the Song of Songs are much shorter. Ecclesiastes contains wisdom sayings and teachings atrributed to an unnamed Preacher. These sayings can appear bleak with their refrain that everything is futile (Eccles. 1.2). Meaning in life is to be found in fearing God and obeying his commandments (Eccles. 12.13). The Song of Songs is a love poem with a converstaion between a young man and his bride. It has traditionally been interpreted as an allegory of the relationship between God and his people although it does not appear to be a religious poem.

The Wisdom books give us much to reflect on about the right relationship and attitudes to have towards God and towards our fellow human beings.

Next – Reading the signs of the times