The Wisdom of Wisdom Literature

Many Christians enjoy reading Proverbs and other instances of Hebrew wisdom literature. When I was in fifth grade and got my Gideon’s New Testament plus Psalms and Proverbs, I started a personal commentary of Proverbs. Every day, after lunch, I would pull my little KJV out of my desk, read a verse of proverbs, and write down what I thought it meant. I don’t remember how far I got, but that project died somewhere along the way, as do most of my projects.

The Proverbs are nice encapsulations of the wisdom of the ages. And they are definitely part of the Bible.

The problem comes in when people read them as promises and not as wise guidance. Many Christians want the Bible to be a user’s guide for life, leaving no questions unanswered. That might be nice, but it isn’t what the Bible is. Truly, the more we read, the more questions we have.

It is disconcerting to many Christians that their traditional understanding of how the world works is controverted by the Bible. One simply cannot say that God always does this or that in response to this or that. If you don’t get that, you have not read enough of the Bible.

One good example of misreading of Proverbs concerns Proverbs 22:6, here from the NRSV —

Train children in the right way,
and when old, they will not stray.

This is great advice for parents, to train children in the right way. But it is no promise. I can name dozens of cases I know about where this advice has failed to produce the expected result. And dozens more where it has.

If parents who experience a “failure” believe this is a promise, they must put the blame on themselves when their children stray. And we have all seen that, too.

Better to see it as advice. Good advice. It will increase your chances.

Proverbs are like statistics.

If two percent of all people have red hair, that will tell you nothing about the individual. You may or may not have red hair. I do not have red hair. Carol definitely has red hair. But you can’t tell this by looking at the statistics. You must look at the individual.

I’m reading Job and I see this same principle coming into play. Job’s friend Bildad relies on conventional wisdom to analyze Job’s situation. And he is both terribly wrong and terribly hurtful to Job.

I love what John Goldingay says about it. If you don’t read John Goldingay, you are missing some of the very best stuff about the Old Testament.

Bildad has learned well from the tradition. All that he says about God’s nature and God’s way of working with the faithless and the upright is true. His declarations about how the faithful may expect their suffering to be short-lived will be proved true in Job’s life. But he offers no recognition that there are exceptions to the tradition’s teaching. It applies eighty or ninety percent of the time, maybe, but not one hundred percent. There are wicked people who die happily in their beds and faithful people who experience no restoration. This doesn’t make the tradition valueless, but it does make it dangerous. The terrible result of absolutizing the tradition is that one can end up rewriting people’s lives when they do not illustrate it. That is what Bildad does near the beginning of his address when he speaks of Job’s children.

John Goldingay, Job for Everyone, 1st ed., Old Testament for Everyone (Louisville, KY; London: Westminster John Knox Press; Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 2013), 51. [Emphasis mine.]

The Bible is sometimes dangerous. Useful tools often have danger associated with them. Be careful how you use it.

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