Wisdom Literature

One of the most confusing forms of literature within the Bible is found in the books commonly known as the “Wisdom” books.  Westerners are, generally, not too familiar with this form of literature; as a result, we often do not interpret it properly. To show this point most clearly, allow me to use an example.

Train up a child in the way he should go; even when he is old he will not depart from it. (Proverbs 22:6 ESV)

The common interpretation of this verse would render it like this:

If you raise your child properly, then you won’t have any trouble with her.

Not only is this how we interpret it, but, commonly, this is viewed as a universal truth.  It is stated as though it were true in all cases no matter what the circumstances.  No matter what.  If you are a good parent, raise your children as good Christian children, then, even if they go prodigal on you, eventually they will be a Christian again and will live a good life as an upstanding citizen.

This brief snippet of Scripture is usually coupled with another pithy little quote:

Whoever spares the rod hates his son, but he who loves him is diligent to discipline him. (Proverbs 13:24 ESV)

In other words, “Spare the rod, spoil the child.”  The full interpretation would be rendered something like this:

If you raise your child properly, with prompt discipline when they do something wrong, then you will never have any problems with your kids.

This simply goes to show that we Westerners do not understand Wisdom literature.

Defining Wisdom Literature

According to Wikipedia, Wisdom literature is:

the genre of literature common in the Ancient Near East. This genre is characterized by sayings of wisdom intended to teach about divinity and about virtue…[In the Old Testament, the philosophy] apparent in these texts is a science not of ontology in the modern sense of the term, but of practical life.  The Hebrew wisdom evident in these works is a departure from early Hebraic texts that tell of the decrees of God through prophets and kings to acknowledgment of the plethora of human emotions in daily life and recommendations on how humans can maintain a relationship with God.

To simplify this definition, Biblical Wisdom literature, to stay within the context of our current discussion, is not law, but rather a philosophy of life or an application of faith to the every day.  Therefore, just like poetry, Wisdom literature is very subjective.

Reading and Applying Wisdom Literature

In light of the subjective nature of Wisdom Literature, how do we apply passages like Proverbs 22:6?

For starters, we must read it within the context of our day to day lives.  The reality is, there are a plethora of good parents out there who raise their kids under the guidance of Christian principles.  They raise them as Christians, set them on the narrow path, teach them how to be proper ladies and gentlemen, even encourage them in their individual hopes and dreams.  But, somewhere along the way, something happens.  The kid turns and goes his own way and it makes absolutely no sense to anyone what is going on.  If Proverbs 22:6 were a universally true statement, if it is always true that if you “start children off on the way they should go,” they will continue on that path to their dying breath, then there would never be a black sheep in the family.  The Prodigal Son story becomes moot.  Isaiah is lying when he says that we are all like sheep that have strayed from our Father’s fold.

The truth of the matter is, sometimes things go wrong.  Sometimes kids get messed up.  From a literal standpoint, Proverbs 22:6 is simply not true every time.  And because it is not true every time, it cannot be universally applied.

This is the case with every piece of Wisdom Literature in the Bible.  It must be applied contextually and within our own individual lives.  It will apply differently for each of us.  Some texts may not apply to you as an individual at all.  And that is part of the beauty of Wisdom.

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3 thoughts on “Wisdom Literature

  1. maaark says:

    On Proverbs 22:6; “train child in the WAY he should go”. I’ve heard that this way is according to the childs natural temprament or bent. But its just hear say.

    Wisdom literature; appreciate your points! Something I’ve thought about is asking why is the Bible wisdom literature different among other writings? And in fact some of Egypt’s proverbs were included on our Bible proverbs. I think Confucious was writing his proverbial wisdom about the same time as the biblical proverbs. The beauty of the bible is that it is so common to culture and yet transcends. So I see the Biblical proverbs being distinguished in the opening chapters that personify wisdom giving allusions to the person of Christ.

  2. Rob Kashow says:

    Perhaps wisdom literature is true in its original context, but once used canonically becomes proverbial in nature, thus a good principle and not the rule?

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