Hermeneutics - Lesson 25

Proverbs and the Wisdom Literature

The lesson delves into the study of Proverbs and wisdom literature, emphasizing the distinct nature of this genre and its rules for interpretation. Dr. Miles highlights that wisdom literature is often misused due to a misunderstanding of its purpose, which is not merely about practical knowledge but about living wisely with God's guidance. The lesson emphasizes the importance of the fear of the Lord as central to wisdom. It touches upon the Book of Ecclesiastes, which explores the quest for meaning and the futility of seeking it apart from God. It concludes with the Book of Job, which grapples with the problem of evil, emphasizing the theological concept of theodicy.

Todd Miles
Lesson 25
Watching Now
Proverbs and the Wisdom Literature

A. Introduction

B. Characteristics of Wisdom Literature

1. Practical

2. Dependence on God

3. Creation theology

C. Misuse of wisdom literature

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Hermeneutics is the science and art of the interpretation of the Bible. It's a science because it is an orderly process based on rules you can apply. It is an art because of the nuances in communication and translation.



Dr. Todd Miles


Proverbs and the Wisdom Literature

Lesson Transcript


Let's turn now to the Proverbs and the wisdom literature, which again, is its own kind of literature, with its own rules for interpretation. And. Before we begin, I just want to ask, how often is the wisdom literature preached when the wisdom literature is preached? I suspect it's often frequently misused to support what seems like an albeit secular lifestyle. To the reason, though, I think, is that we don't really understand what the wisdom literature is. We've often like simply to the point of misdefining it simply defined it to the point of misdefining it as the practical use of knowledge. And since the Proverbs are so practical, it's easy to misuse them as like an earth centered life style. If that's all there is to the wisdom literature, then frankly, preaching Aesop's fables would be just as beneficial. But of course, the wisdom literature is is much more biased. Central to the proverb and the wisdom literature is the concept of the wise man, and he's not. So that is he's not wise because he escapes the world or has mastered the secular worldly system. But he is one who has learned to live in the world with God's guidance and help. And because this is our Father's world, because God is the Creator, the wisdom literature does have answers and has the answers that people are yearning for. One popular regional pastor told me that that when he preached through the wisdom literature, his church grew by 80%. And I have noticed lately that a lot of churches are doing a series through Ecclesiastes, thinking about what is the meaning of life, and tapping into that sense of hopelessness and meaninglessness that so many people have today. Well, what are the characteristics of the wisdom literature? I'm borrowing a lot of this from from Grant Osborne. First off, there's a practical orientation to the wisdom literature. The Proverbs and the wisdom writings say they help the young man take his proper place in society. They are, especially if you think about the Book of Proverbs, a collection of sayings that center upon a wide range of things like proper etiquette or self-control, family relationships, material wealth. Job asks the question Why do the righteous suffer? Why do the evil prosper? That question is asked in many of the Psalms. So there's a very practical answer giving orientation to the wisdom literature. Second, though, the wisdom literature is characterized by a dependance upon God, and it's not always explicitly articulated, but that is the foundation of all of it. There are many variables and paradoxes that we face in life and and that forces the wise person wise from a biblical standpoint to recognize his or her limitations and depend upon God as the true source of wisdom. So central to wisdom is the concept of the fear of the Lord. And fear of the Lord is not a phobia. It's not a terror. But it is a a respect and a reverence tinged with a bit of what we might call fear. There is a respect that borders that could easily cross into a a fear of the Lord in the terms of being afraid. But that's that's the central concept. And we see that over and over again. The beginning of fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, we're told, in many books in the Bible. The wisdom literature is characterized by an indirect authority. I mentioned that, but the Bible doesn't always explicitly say that this is our father's world. The wisdom literature that is doesn't always explicitly say it, but there is an indirect authority that is assumed, it's presupposed, it's not always explicitly enunciated. That's why I think a lot of times people fall into the trap of forgetting as we read the wisdom literature, that that this is our father's world and he's sovereign over it, and he's the one who's made the rules of morality just as he made the rules of the physical universe. We forget about it. We think that this is the path to secular success in the world. Creation theology is also a significant characteristic. This there's the argument that the God created the world in the way that he saw fit. And humans shouldn't question the divinely appointed order. In creation theology, there's a principle of retribution that governs sinners because this is our father's world and he'll judge it. He made the world in such a way where even though maybe for a while the wicked prosper or the righteous suffer. Ultimately, that's not what's going to happen. There is a strong argument in creation theology that defends the concept of divine justice. Now, how can the wisdom literature be misused? How is it often misused? Well. People tend to take things out of context. I could have said that about any of the literature that we've looked at here. How is the biblical narrative misused? Well, it's taken out of context. How are epistles misuse taken out of context? How is prophecy misuse taken out of context? So it's no surprise that we can take wisdom, literature out of context. But what we tend to do oftentimes is, is that we forget the lessons of speech theory. We forget that God does things in the text and he does different things in different texts, and he uses different literary genres to do different things. The purpose of wisdom literature is not say, to make promises, but we oftentimes will read the wisdom literature as though it is a promise, but it's not necessarily a promise. These are axioms about the way that the world is supposed to work and generally does work. But there are always exceptions. Oftentimes, Christians fail to define properly wisdom terms like the fool. We talk about a fool as though that's he's a moron or a stupid person. But that's not a fool. It's not necessarily a stupid person like intellectually deficient in the way that we might think of. Of a stupid person. No, a fool in the Bible is an unbeliever. It's someone who ignores God and follows the self. And that kind of fool can actually be a very intelligent person from a human perspective. Sometimes when we read the wisdom literature, we don't note the line or argument in a text, and we apply what the biblical text is showing to be actually wrong. So this is the danger of reading Joe, because Joe received a lot of bad advice. As it turns out, I'll have more to say about Joe here in a while. But Joe, chapter 15 versus 20 through 22. Let me turn to that. Job. 15:20-22 This is one of Job's friends, Elphaz, who writes this. A wicked person rise in pain all his days throughout the number of years reserved for the ruthless, dreadful sounds fill his ears where he is at peace. A robber attacks him. He doesn't believe he will return from darkness. He is destined for the sword. This passage has been used to preach that unbelievers are actually quite unhappy. But but Job in Chapter 17 actually denies that. Matter of fact, the biblical authors oftentimes will affirm that sin is quite pleasurable. Otherwise, people wouldn't do it. Right. And the writer of Hebrews says that as well. So some some people will misuse the proverbs and the wisdom literature by not recognizing that what's being affirmed in it is is is actually something that is is wrong. Let's let's think about the specific wisdom literature for a bit. Proverbs What what is a proverb? Well, a proverb is a short, pithy saying memorable saying, easy to remember that expresses a general truth about living wisely in God's world. And we have to remember that this world has been broken by sin. So it's a general truth about living wisely in God's broken world. But it's still God's world. It wasn't created broken. It has become broken and all of that. Genesis one, two and three is very important when we consider biblical wisdom. It's a brief statement of a universally accepted truth that is formulated in such a way so as to be memorable. These are truths that hold in a general case, but they're not promises that are guaranteed to hold. Exceptions are allowed, and we have. It's the Book of Job, for example, is one big question or one big answer to a question. Why do the righteous suffer? Because the biblical wisdom would say the righteous don't suffer. If you live wisely, then you'll prosper and you'll be successful. And yet we know that this is a broken world where bad things happen. So exceptions are allowed. Again, go back to speech theory. What is God doing in the text? It's not. It's not a promise. It's more of a general statement. Think of the Proverbs this way of in the ancient Near East, there's a wise old man who has walked with the Lord for many, many years, and he sits at the city gate and he's got children and grandchildren and great grandchildren. He has lived life and he has been prosperous. And he's there now to drop wisdom on anybody who will listen. And that that that I think is a good way to understand how the biblical wisdom works. They're generalized statements intended to give advice rather than to establish rigid codes by which God works and to which God has to actually behold. They're not laws. They're not promises from the lips of God. So Axiom 24 Proverbs are general truths about living wisely in God's world. We might add to that, and that world is broken. The benefits, though, of wisdom in Proverbs one through four and chapters eight through nine are the same as those of God's Word in statutes and testimonies in Psalm 119. And so there is a likening between the Word of God and and wisdom, and we need to remember that. Well, by way of example, just open up the Book of Proverbs and you'll see lots of biblical proverbs, but there's also proverbs in Matthew and, and Luke. I, I'd mentioned in the earlier lesson that Jesus often he dropped a lot of wisdom and he spoke axiomatically at time. Now there are different kinds of proverbs, and some of the proverbs actually have no exceptions, and these are statements about who God is and what he delights in. Some proverbs are essentially promises when they deal with the Lord's character and his commitment to His holiness and glory. So, for example, Proverbs 11 one, a false balance is an abomination to the Lord, but it just wait is his delight. Notice we have this is antithetical parallelism where there's two statements, one is contrasted with the other. And it's always true that a false balance is an abomination to the Lord. What's being asserted here? God is just and he hates injustice. He's just he hates. And that's that's true all the time. There's no exceptions to that. Proverbs six, we looked at that. That's that. There's six things the Lord hates seven that are abomination to him. I suspect those seven are always an abomination to him. Some proverbs, though, describe God's interaction with the world, and we need to pay careful attention to the time frames. The guilty will eventually be punished. But that's the point. Eventually God will make good on that. It just might not happen in this lifetime. So Proverbs chapter ten, verse two says Treasured gain by wickedness do not profit, but righteousness delivers from death. Well, we could add that to make it more helpful in interpretation. Treasures gained by wickedness do not ultimately profit. That's. That's the point. It may profit throughout the lifetime of an individual. But they're going to stand before God someday. Proverbs 11 four. Riches do not profit in the day of wrath, but righteousness delivers from death. Oh, now we're thinking a little bit more about what's going on in the future. Proverbs 11 seven When the wicked dies, his hope will perish and the expectation of wealth perishes too. Oh, okay. So now we have some some more balance to that. Proverbs Chapter ten where treasures gained by wickedness do not profit because we're thinking, I know lots of wicked people have way more money than me, and that's not fair. But, uh, yeah, that's accounted for in the biblical wisdom. What's the difference between a biblical proverb and other proverbs? And like in Solzhenitsyn, in his gulag, Archipelago says to the crowd, Better dead than read. One of the characters does. Well, that's a proverb, and it's easy to remember, and I think likely true. The point there better dead than to be a communist and to be a scoundrel. That's. That's a proverb. It's easy to remember. I think it's axiomatic. All cultures have proverbs, many of which accurately reflect the nature of living and prospering in this world. Otherwise they wouldn't be proverbs. You prefer like ancient Chinese secrets or something like that? There's. There's lots of Chinese proverbs. Many of them even reflect biblical wisdom. We should expect that too. We shouldn't be ashamed of that or think, Oh, what's going on? How did these guys tap into wisdom? Because they're living in this world that God made and they're created in God's image. So we should expect there to be overlap between biblical wisdom and secular wisdom. But we also ought to expect that there won't be complete overlap. Many proverbs do not reflect biblical wisdom. Many secular proverbs do not reflect biblical wisdom. In fact, some are actually contradicted by biblical wisdom. And we should expect that too, because this is our father's world. But this world has rebelled against God and broken it. Biblical proverbs are not just human wisdom observed in the light of human experiences and circumstances. Rather. Biblical wisdom is a human wisdom filtered through the author's biblical teachings and biblical worldview. Its observations on life in the light of a biblical worldview. So how do we interpret the Proverbs? Well, we need to first note the form of the wisdom, saying, Is it a dialog? Is it a proverb? A longer didactic speech? Even even the subgenres may have different rules for interpretation. So we want to pay attention to that. We need to ask whether context is important. And and and even I'm able to find some context in the biblical proverbs, Proverbs one through nine. It's addressed in such a way that that a father is talking to his son and then Proverbs 30 and 31, you know, we get introduced to the Hebrew Superwoman, for example, there. Proverbs ten through 29, that's a lot more difficult to come up with what the context might be there. In my my recommendation there is interpret them line by line and collate similar proverbs, interpret them together, be more a topical approach. Context is going to be very important in other wisdom literature, though, like in the Book of Job or the Book of Ecclesiastes. Determine whether hyperbole is present. Proverbs three nine and ten, Proverbs three, nine and ten. You want it. If I flip over to that. We read this. Honor the Lord with your possessions and with the first produce of your entire harvest, Then your barns will be completely filled and your vats will overflow with new wine. This could be taken, I suppose, as a guarantee that the Christian farmer will be blessed with plenty of riches in this in this world's terms. Yet look at verse 11, the very next verse. Do not despise the Lord's instruction, my son, and do not lose his discipline so that the blessed man is actually going to be disciplined by the Lord. So. So which one is it? We could flip over to Proverbs 23. Versus four and five. Would be another more balance to this 23, four and five. Don't wear yourself out to get rich because you know better stop as soon as your eyes fly to it. It disappears for it makes wings for itself and it flies like an eagle to the sky. So. So there the pursuit of of riches and wealth is is actually discredited. So you may think, well, well, which one is it? Is this a contradiction? No, this is this is biblical wisdom. These are general truths that apply. Another thing we have to remember here is what is the covenantal context in which the the wisdom literature is written and almost all of it is written in the context of the Mosaic covenant, where there were prescribed blessings for obedience and prescribed curses for disobedience. And the wisdom literature reflects that. So we would expect under the Mosaic covenant, if a person were faithful and righteous, that they would be blessed with. Wealth with vats that brim over with new wine and barns that are filled to overflowing. God literally said that he would do that for Israel if they remained faithful to the Covenant. We have to remember that's the context in which the wisdom literature was written. And so the blessings use that kind of language. We're under new management. We are part of the New Covenant where we have better promises and we have different sorts of blessings. Generally speaking, God will still bless and the way that God works the world. Honesty is typically the best way to to advance and survive and to thrive. But the blessings of the New Covenant are different than the blessings of the old covenant. And so we need to be mindful of that as well. Obscure passages must be cross-culturally applied to analogous situations today. So here's what I mean by that. Turn over to Proverbs Chapter 11, verse one, and we're told this dishonest scales are detestable to the Lord, but an accurate weight is his delight. We normally don't use scales in the manner that they were used in the past. I guess I suppose it's possible that the checkout clerk in your grocery store line might put his or her thumb on the scale. The point here is, is that God wants just a just scale. He wants there to be fairness and and integrity, that sort of thing. And so try to figure out what is the general principle as it's as it comes to us in very culturally, relative language. And then once we figure that out, then we can apply that wisdom statement to analogous situations today. Don't be a cheater. I think it's what Proverbs 11 says. There's more wisdom literature than just the book of Proverbs. So the book of Ecclesiastes is probably the greatest of all the philosophy books. And what's interesting about the book of Ecclesiastes is, is that God doesn't say a word in it. We get we get no. Thus, says the Lord, it's it's about life. And God does play a role, but he never speaks. And so we might ask, how is this divine revelation? Well, I like the words of Peter briefed on this. He says, The Book of Ecclesiastes. It is inspired monologue. God in his providence, has arranged for this one book of mere rational philosophy to be included in the canon of Scripture, because this too is divine revelation. It is divine revelation precisely in being the absence of divine revelation. It is revelation by darkness rather than by light. In this book, God reveals to us exactly what life is when God does not reveal to us what life is. Ecclesiastes frames the Bible as death frames life. And so if you've read Ecclesiastes before, you know that there's this quest for wisdom, for purpose and meaning, apart from God. And it fails every single time. Ultimately, nothing that the writer, the preacher, as he's called, of Ecclesiastes, is nothing that he does, works, and he despairs the end at the very end. There's a few statements about serving the Lord. But the book, though, is really a logical argument. It's not a bunch of scattered observations. The argument is summarized, though, in the very first three verses Ecclesiastes chapter one versus one through three. The words of the teacher, son of David King in Jerusalem. That's the title and the author. Verse two Absolute futility, says the teacher. Absolute futility. Everything is futile. That's the point and the conclusion of the entire book. Verse three What does a person gain from all his efforts that he labors at under the sun? That's the essential argument for it. No matter what you do, it's all meaningless. So in this and I take it the Solomon is the author, he looks at five toils or five attempts to find or make meaning. And the reason why so many pastors today are turning to the book of Ecclesiastes and preaching it is because it preaches so well. Even today, there's nothing new under the sun. As the as the author says here in the first few verses, there's nothing new. And the attempts at making meaning back then are still the main attempts at making meaning by us today. What are those five wisdom philosophy to fill your mind? Second pleasure. A hedonism to fill your body. Third. Wealth and power. Materialism to fill your pocket. Fourth duty or social service or honor ethics, if you will, to fill your conscience. And five piety, strangely enough, for religion. Religion to fill your spirit. And I say interesting about piety and religion because the author of Ecclesiastes, he says that doesn't work either. I don't know that there's five that there's any other ways that people pursue meaning other than those five. It is it is remarkable in its brilliance. Solomon then points to five features of this world that regularly kill meaning and again, this preaches because it hits so contemporary the sameness and indifference of all things. It's just mind numbing to people. Second death as the certain end of life. We hear that in a variety of ways all the time. Life stinks and then you die. Or the two most certain things in life death and taxes. Death is the certain end for one. Of course, if you're Christian, you would say amongst Jesus returns, which I'm rooting for a third time as the cycle of endless repetition, which I'm sure to anybody who has a job, they feel that deep in their bones. Fourth, evil as perennial and unsolvable, where it's it just feels overwhelming. And why? Why does why is there so much evil in the world? And it makes no sense. And then God as an unknowable mystery, where people cry out to the Lord and and they don't get the answers they're looking for. Those are the five features of this world that kill meaning, according to Solomon, the last six verses of Ecclesiastes that the story turns. And many feel that the book ended at verse eight with the last six versus adding the Orthodox answer to Solomon's question like, This book's too dang embarrassing. Let's, let's like Christianize it or something, except the Jewish people wouldn't have thought to Christianize it. I don't think that's the case, though. What are our lives here under the sun for? Is the question. That's that's the greatest question in the world. What are our lives under the sun for? At the end of Ecclesiastes, we're given this answer. In addition, the teacher to the teacher being a wise man, he constantly taught the people knowledge. He Wade explored and arranged many proverbs. The teacher sought to find delightful sayings and write words of truth accurately. The sayings of the wise are like cattle prods, and those from masters of collections are like firmly embedded nails. The sayings are given by one shepherd. But beyond these, my son, be warned, there is no end to the making of many books and much study. Where is the body when all has been heard? The conclusion of the matter is this fear God and keep his commands because this is for all humanity. For God will bring every act to judgment, including every hidden thing, whether good or evil. What are our lives here under the sun for? It's the greatest question in the world. The greatest question that could ever be asked. The only greater book would be one that answers the world's greatest question. And that's I would submit to you that's what we have in Scripture. Another book of wisdom is the Book of Job. And I would argue that Job was an historical character. He's treated as historical in Ezekiel 14 versus 14 and 20 also in the New Testament by James in chapter five, verse 11. So I understand this to be a true story. It's written in poetic form. Job is really about the problem of evil, and we call this the theological term, for this is theodicy. Why is there evil? Why did not create the world this way? You might have heard the objection to Christianity or to religion in general. If God is good and God is all powerful, then there shouldn't be evil in the world. But there is evil in the world. So one of the first two can't be right. Well, this this book is a theodicy. Job is is about the problem of faith versus experience, if you will. What happens when what we experience runs against what we know to be true? And Job gives us insight into how much we actually really know, which is not as much as we might think we know. And it's not always what we need. We don't have as much as we need it. Job provides a peek behind the curtain as it will, as it were. It provides a behind the scenes look at the counsels of God. In chapters one. In chapters two. We know what's going on. We know why Job is suffering. But importantly, Jobe doesn't. As readers, we are privy to things Job was not privy to as he lived out this horror. We read it and it takes just moments to read those first few chapters and see how. Jobe Hang in there. You can do it. But Job is living this day by day by day, and it's hard. All of those of that kind of divine bet. Basically, God makes a wager with Satan. It's unknown to Job or any of the participants. Job is also about the problem of the meaning of life and job. Chapter ten Verse 18. We read this job ten, verse 18 Why did you bring me out of the womb? I should have died and never been seen. That's a statement of great despair that job is feeling. That Job's friends are more like the book of Ecclesiastes. They're eternally philosophizing. Job. At the very end, he he gets answers, but they're not answers to the questions he was asking. But he gets God. He does get God. He sees God and that's enough. He's in that. He's kind of like Moses who asks to see the glory of God. Job is about the problem of God. Why was Job right and his friends were not? Hey, have you ever studied the words of Job's friends and asked yourself. What? What did they say that was so wrong? And this is complicated because I would submit to you that you could proof text every single thing that Job's Friends said to job right out of the Book of Proverbs. It. They they tell Job how God's world generally works. So why were they so wrong? And why was Jobe so right? Why was Jobs final friend better? It's hard. It's hard to answer that. Maybe the answer is that Job's friends spoke about God while Jobe spoke directly to God. There might be something there. The second big problem is about how God could satisfy Job without answering any of his questions. We still know more than Jobe did as far as as far as we know, right? We know that there was this big bet and we're like rooting for Job to stay faithful. Why didn't God just show up and say, Hey, Job, great job. I made a bet with Satan and you were faithful. Good work. Job well done. Great is your reward, right? We know that. But Job doesn't. So how could God satisfy Joe without answering any one of his questions? Job. Job keeps begging. I want to. I want to have an audience with God. I want to state my case. And then he gets what he asked for. Remember? Some of God's greatest blessings are unanswered prayers. Job actually gets the answer to his prayers, and it's terrifying. And he puts his hand over his mouth and he says, I won't say anything. I was foolish to ask for this. There are some some pretty critical passages in the Book of Job where we see just the faith of Job at work. He he very famously says, I know that my redeemer lives in Job chapter nine, verses 32 through 33. We have this magnificent statement where Job is begging, begging for an audience with God. If I could only speak to God, if I could present my case before him, Job knew that God was just that wasn't the issue. If he could present his case, then a just God would recognize that he had been blameless. But then he thinks better of it in chapter nine, because he goes to saying, What am I actually asking for? It's like he gets a preview of how things are going to be when he stands before God, and he says in verse 32, He is not a man like me that I can answer him. That we can take each other to court. It's like, what am I asking for? This is crazy talk. And he says, Verse 33, There is no mediator between us to lay his hand on both of us. Job has been begging for an audience with God. And if only I could stand before God and present my case. And he goes, Wait a second, I can't do that because God has gone. I'm not. What I need is a mediator. I need someone who can lay his hand on us both. I need someone who who is like me, who knows what it's like to be me, could put his hand on me. And I need someone who is like God, who could put his hand on God. Someone who could stand between the two of us. I need a mediator. But for Job, that person wasn't there. Of course, for us there is, isn't there? Jesus Christ. He can put his hand on God and he can put his hand on us. He knows what it's like to be God because He is God. He knows what it's like to be us because He is one of us. It's great to be a follower of Jesus, isn't it? Lots of wisdom, literature and be careful as you interpret it. There is obviously great wisdom in the wisdom literature, but as with everything, it has to be interpreted rightly.