Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Job
“Wisdom hath builded her house, she hath hewn out her seven pillars” (Proverbs 9:1).
by Jerry Monette
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What were the three books of wisdom — Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and Job — trying to teach, and how did they go about teaching it? The wisdom literature is different from other Old Testament books in that it addresses the individual, not the nation. These
books say little about institutional religion or the nation as a covenant people. They primarily focus on daily, successful, moral living.
The wise men not only tried to teach how one can have a good life following the guidelines of godly wisdom in various life situations they also addressed the age-old question: Why do bad things happen to good people? These books were written not only for spiritual Israel but for natural Israel as well. So when looking for the lessons in these books, we ask: “Is this
for natural Israel? Is it for spiritual Israel? Or can it be applied to both?”
The promises to natural and spiritual Israel are not the same. Quite often they are the opposite of each other. Natural Israel was promised natural blessings. On the other hand, we of spiritual Israel are asked to sacrifice earthly blessings in order to receive a spiritual reward.
For a thousand years, these books of wisdom spoke exclusively and literally to natural Israel. As wise teachers they impart
lessons about life, giving advice when things are going well and
when things are not going well. In the person of Job, these lessons were lived and experienced. All three books of wisdom,
though different from each other, together give a balanced view of human experience and living a life pleasing to God. Here we
look at the general lessons, not whether it should be applied to
natural Israel or spiritual Israel.
The first of the three books of wisdom we consider is Proverbs. It’s has a perspective on life that is mostly black and white. It says if you do the right things in life’s situations, you will be rewarded. If you do not, you will suffer the consequences for your bad choices.
Proverbs says there is a cause-and-effect relationship to everything in our lives, almost like a law of the universe. This invisible force or principle is wisdom. In Hebrew, it is called hochma. It is an attribute of God, specifically one that He used to create the universe. Proverbs 3:19 says, “The LORD by wisdom hath founded the earth.” Psalms 104:24, “O LORD, how manifold are thy works! in wisdom hast thou made them all: the earth is full of thy riches.”
The concept that God’s wisdom was used to create the universe may have come from Genesis 1:1-2, which reads, “In the beginning, God created the heaven and the earth. And the
earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters.”
The condition of the earth as being formless and void refers to the earth as not yet ready for human life. God’s Spirit hovering over the waters describes the work of God in the initial stages of creation, making the earth good, a fit place for human habitation. God did His work of creation by means of His Spirit. Proverbs is saying that God’s wisdom in creation expresses the Spirit of God.
Proverbs teaches that wisdom is woven into the very fabric of the world, and how things work in it. It is available to every Israelite for the asking. It is similar to the work of the Spirit of God in our lives. So according to Proverbs, whenever people make good, wise, and just decisions, they are being guided by hochma. Anyone making a bad decision is working against hochma.
Proverbs portrays this concept of wisdom as a woman. It calls her Wisdom.
“Happy is the man that findeth wisdom, and the man that getteth understanding. For the merchandise of it is better than the merchandise of silver, and the gain thereof than fine gold. She is more precious than rubies: and all the things thou canst desire are not to be compared unto her. Length of days is in her right hand; and in her left hand riches and honour. Her ways are ways of pleasantness, and all her paths are peace. She is a tree of life to them that lay hold upon her: and happy is every one
that retaineth her. The LORD by wisdom hath founded the earth; by understanding hath he established the heavens” (Proverbs 3:13-18).
The picture drawn here is that Lady Wisdom roams the earth calling out and making herself available to anyone willing to listen and learn from her. If you will but access and use wisdom, you will create a good life for yourself. But how does one go about doing this? Because wisdom is an attribute of God, one has to start with a respect for God’s definition of good and evil. The only path to true wisdom is learning those boundary lines and not crossing them. How does one do this? Through the study of God’s word, which includes the study of the wisdom literature, and through experience.
There are hundreds of proverbs and sayings in the book of Proverbs about all aspects of life. If wisdom is applied and its wise counsel followed, it will put us on a path toward success in
life. Make wise decisions based on godly principles, and things will usually work out well.
Proverbs is a beautiful book. But one might say it is simplistic, because life does not always work that way. Good and wise people do suffer, and foolish people are sometimes rewarded.
How does wisdom explain this?
This is considered in the next book of wisdom, Ecclesiastes. Written by the “Preacher,” it essentially says, “Caution, Mr. Optimist. If you think using wisdom guarantees success in
life, think again. Because life here under the sun is vanity. Vanity of vanities, all is vanity.”
This is a phrase used by the Preacher about 40 times in this book. The English word “vanity” comes from the Hebrew word hebel. It is Strong’s number 1892, defined as emptiness,
transitory, or unsatisfactory. However, the Gesenius Hebrew Lexicon of the Old Testament describes it as a vapor, a mist, or darkness that cannot be seen through.
If the Preacher thought life was empty, he would not waste time trying to understand it. He means that life is sometimes not understandable because life is sometimes like being in the fog. One cannot see clearly in the midst of it. Ecclesiastes is a counterbalance to Proverbs; it says you do not always get what you deserve presently, and you cannot control life’s outcomes. Sometimes life under the sun will be like hebel, or vanity. It is going to be rather foggy as to why things work out the way they do.
So if God keeps hidden why things happen as they do, how does Ecclesiastes explain it? The Preacher says it is unknowable using human wisdom. “When I applied mine heart to know wisdom, and to see the business that is done upon the earth: (for also there is that neither day nor night seeth sleep with his eyes:) Then I beheld all the work of God, that a man cannot find out the work that is done under the sun: because though a man labour to seek it out, yet he shall not find it; yea further; though
a wise man think to know it, yet shall he not be able to find it” (Ecclesiastes 8:16-17). In other words, to even the best of human reasoning, the random, unpredictable, and unexplainable nature of life is often explainable only by chance.
Ecclesiastes 9:11-12: “I returned, and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favour to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all. For man also knoweth not his time: as the fishes that
are taken in an evil net, and as the birds that are caught in the snare; so are the sons of men snared in an evil time, when it falleth suddenly upon them.”
The birds and fish were just doing normal bird and fish things when they got caught in the net, when they ran into trouble. So with us. We can do everything right but still be caught in a net of trouble. Time and chance happen to all.
Ecclesiastes 12:13 concludes, “Let us hear the conclusion of the whole matter: Fear God, and keep his commandments: for this is the whole duty of man.” We follow God’s commandments not because we are rewarded, but because we wholeheartedly believe it is the right thing to do. Live according to godly principle, and do not worry about the results. Leave that to God.
“Go thy way, eat thy bread with joy, and drink thy wine with a merry heart; for God now accepteth thy works. Let thy garments be always white; and let thy head lack no ointment. Live joyfully with the wife whom thou lovest all the days of the life of thy vanity, which he hath given thee under the sun, all the days of thy vanity: for that is thy portion in this life, and in thy labour which thou takest under the sun. Whatsoever thy hand findeth to do, do it with thy might; for there is no work, nor device, nor
knowledge, nor wisdom, in the grave, whither thou goest” (Ecclesiastes 9:7-10).
What is Preacher’s message here? Is it to eat, drink, be merry, and do whatever makes us happy presently, regardless, right or wrong, moral or immoral, pleasing to God or not? Is
that the Preacher’s counsel here? No, it is not.
What he advises is this: since we cannot see so clearly as to be able to control every aspect of your life, we should stop fretting about things we cannot control. Loosen our grip. Learn to hold in an open hand those things in life that we have no control over, because in this life we really have full control over only one thing, and that is our attitude towards the present moment.
So choose to enjoy the sun on your face or a good meal and conversation with people you care about. Choose to enjoy every moment of the love and companionship of your wife or your husband. Choose to appreciate and enjoy all these good gifts of God.
But remember that you also control your attitude towards the moment when bad things come your way. Good and bad happen to us all. They are a part of this life. They, too, are
a gift from God.
This is the surprising wisdom from the book of Ecclesiastes. Though life can lead into some dark places where it is hard to see the meaning, do not lose hope. Trust that God will one
day clear the fog and reveal His hidden meaning and purpose. Through life’s journey, fear God and keep His commandments. Do what is right, just, and pleasing to God. Do not worry about the outcome. That is not always ours to control. Choose to enjoy the life God has granted us, because it is God’s gift, and it is
beautiful. That is the book of Ecclesiastes.
There is one more voice that makes up the Bible’s wisdom literature, and that is the book of Job. This book brings us the final perspective on our journey into wisdom. Job begins with a story about a meeting in the heavens. God is there with a number of angelic beings called sons of God, who have been summoned to present themselves before God.
God opens the meeting by asking one of those present, “Whence comest thou?” (Job 1:7). Or, what have you been up to? The one referred to in Hebrew as “the Satan,” responds. The word used is actually a title which means “the one who is opposed.” The Satan, or opposer, was a kind of spy roaming the earth and reporting to God on the evil he found. He has
a dim view of mankind and is convinced that every man has his price or his breaking point.
God asks Satan if he has given any thought to Job. He is the one man that will prove you wrong. There is none like him in the earth. There is no price that could sway him to become unrighteous. He is “a perfect and an upright man” (Job 1:18).
Satan proposes that the reason Job is good is that God rewards him for it. “If you take away the great things you have given Job, he will curse you to your face.” God agrees to an experiment to test Job, and allows Satan to inflict suffering on him. Job loses almost everyone and everything that he cares about, and is understandably devastated. Job proves what a remarkable person he is because he still praises God, at least in the first two
chapters. Then, in Chapter 3, Job vents about how truly poor he feels inside. He unleashes an elaborate curse about the day
he was born, lamenting that it would have been better that he died in birth rather than live and come to this devastating end.
After this, some of Job’s friends offer their help. They say that Job must have done something really bad to deserve this. So it goes for the next 34 chapters as the friends and Job argue back and forth. By the end of this dialog between Job and his friends, Job has had enough speculating. He asks that God come and explain Himself.
God comes in the form of a great storm cloud. But God does not give Job the direct answer he seeks about his suffering. God never tells Job about the conversation with Satan or testing his character and loyalty. Instead, He takes Job on a virtual tour of the universe. He shows him how incredibly awesome the world
is. He shows Job how much detail is in the world, things we see every day but have no idea how they work.
Then he asks Job, “Do you understand all this? Do you understand any of this? Do you think you could run all this, even for a single day?” Then to conclude his virtual tour of the universe, God shows Job two wondrous beasts, the Behemoth and the Leviathan, and he tells him how great they are. These are dangerous beasts who would kill you at the drop of a hat.
But God says in effect, these are not evil beasts; they are also part of His good creation.
And that is it. That is God’s entire defense for why Job was allowed to suffer even though he did not do anything to deserve it. So what is the book of Job teaching us about wisdom?
From the Job’s point of view, it looks as though God is not
fair, just, and loving, because He allows the innocent to suffer when He has the power to prevent it. In this Job speaks for all of humanity at some point in their life. But God’s perspective is infinitely bigger than Job’s. He is concerned with and interacts with the whole complex universe when He makes His decisions, including the good of mankind. This is what God calls His wisdom.
Thus asking God to defend Himself is absurd. Without the holy Spirit, mankind cannot understand the complexity about suffering, the permission of evil in God’s plan, or the good
to follow in the kingdom. This leaves Job humbled. He never learned why he suffered. Yet he was still able to carry on, living his life in peace and in the fear of God.
But that is not where the book ends. After all this, God gives to Job double everything he had lost. Was this a reward? Was God saying, “Congratulations, Job. You passed this tremendous test?” No! The whole book just made the point that Job losing everything was not a punishment; so getting it back was not a reward.
So why was his family and wealth restored? Apparently, God, in His wisdom, gave Job a gift. We are not told why. But we do know that Job understood that no matter what comes, good or bad, he can trust God’s wisdom. That is the lesson and the wisdom of the book of Job. Humble yourself in the sight of God, and trust Him even where you cannot trace Him.
That is the wisdom literature. Each book offers a unique perspective on life. We should hear all of them together as we learn how to live with wisdom and the fear of God. The books
of wisdom spoke to natural Israel, guiding them in a life pleasing to God. To them the promises of following God’s wisdom were earthly. To us they are spiritual, but they may apply to our earthly experiences also. When all three books
are taken together, they provide a balanced approach to living a godly life in accordance with His wisdom.