The Message of the Hebrew Wisdom Literature

by
Christi Goeser

When you think of ancient wisdom, what is the first image that pops into your mind? For some it might be a Greek philosopher, poised in silent contemplation, surrounded by a myriad of faithful pupils eagerly waiting to hear his words of truth. For others, it might be a Renaissance man seated smugly behind a huge wooden desk, craftily penning uncensored wisdom due to his recent "enlightenment." Perhaps some other era of human achievement stands out to you as a particularly poignant example of ancient wisdom and thought. To be sure, each epic of mankind's life has brought with it a characteristic ideal, branding a distinctive mark upon the course of history. Now, I'd like to invite you to travel back centuries, even millenniums ago, to an ancient culture whose brand has never quite left the hearts and lives of humankind. The ideals of these people are still foundational to man's beliefs and institutions today. I'd like to take you back to the wisdom of the Hebrew people, with the hope of hearing the message that their literature still proclaims today.

A Distinctive Mark

What is it that sets the wisdom of the Hebrews apart from the other cultures of their time? The answer to this question likes in knowing the presuppositions that they held as part of life itself. This in turn lays the foundation to understanding the message that their literature proclaims. There truly is a difference in the assumptions that formed the framework for the Hebrew thinking, and the assumptions of the other nations of the time; the most distinguishing being their beliefs about God.

Unlike other cultures of the day, the Hebrew people believed in one God, and His Name was YHWH. That in itself was distinctive because most other cultures engaged in polytheistic worship, where not one god, but many were exalted. Yet, it is not merely their belief in one God that set the foundation for Hebrew thinking and living; it is what they believed about Him that made the difference. The Hebrew people saw God as one who was actively involved in human life. He created all things (Psalm 104:24), sustains all things (Psalm 145:16), is sovereign over all things (Psalm 67:4) and so demands the respect and worship of his handiwork (Psalm 150:6). This foundational belief concerning God's role in human affairs effected the Hebrews perspective and perception of life itself. God was not distant, but involved in all human life, directing its events and circumstances. As a result, the felt a unique relationship wit Him, one of friendship as well as accountability; they were His people, and He was their God (Psalm 95:6-7).

In contrast to this, other cultures of the time saw their gods as removed from everyday human life. Their divinities were too busy fighting with each other to be overly concerned with mere mortals. Two of the most prominent societies of the time were the Egyptians and the Babylonians. The Egyptians had a complex system of religion that included a multiplicity of gods, often represented by animals such as a cat, baboon, or lion. Even through modern research it is hard to piece together a complete system of Egyptian religion because of the inconsistent and confusing information left behind. Many of the gods and goddesses seem more or less identical, yet they existed together. Contradictory myths explaining the creation of the world, natural phenomena, and the like were accepted without argument. Attributes of deities were freely and indiscriminately adopted from one group or locality to another, and combinations and fusions of gods were frequent. The Egyptian gods were made by the people, fabricated to suit their desieres and ideas. Unfortunately, these gods could not be counted upon to be faithful or loyal to their followers. Blessing was based upon flattery and offerings.

Likewise, the Babylonian system of religion revolved around many personalities, most of which were related to nature. Their religious ideas developed as a result of other Near Eastern religions in the Mesopotamian area. In their theological thinking, man was created for the benefit of the gods. His whole purpose was to serve, proved for, pamper, worship, and revere them. in return, the people could hope for protection and blessing, even though the personalities of their gods were, more often than not, abusive and cruel. Warfare, revenge, murder, and the like were, common behaviors to expect from the Babylonian deities.

Thus, the contrast of theology between these cultures and the Hebrew people is evident. The god of the Hebrews was not dependent upon them, they were vitally dependent upon Him. His nature was one of justice and mercy, blessing and provision. He was sovereignly involved in their existence, loyal and almighty. How did this belief affect their understanding of life? They had Someone to answer to, who required obedience and reverence, but at the same time, was pleased to be known as their God. This caused their wisdom to become more than ethereal, idealistic thought. It brought about a very practical understanding and ideal for and about life. One must live righteously, trusting in YHWH alone to be the source of help and strength in every situation; help that they could count upon, because of his faithfulness. This is the ray of hope that emanates from the Hebrew people which outshines all of the other cultures of the day, and which enabled them to trust in God and wait for His salvation. As the Psalmist said, "Whoever is wise, let him heed these things and consider the great love of the Lord" (Psalm 107:43).

Practical Advice for Living

One look at the book of Proverbs and it is evident that the Hebrew wisdom was practical advice for living. There are rare passages that refer to abstract ideals (perhaps the most frequent being the personification of wisdom as a woman), but for he most part, it is a book that meets people were they live and tells them how to do it successfully. This practicality comes from their theological presuppositions about God. in their eyes, he was the Almighty One and living in obedience to his law was what a righteous, blessed life was all about. In other words, someone who is smart will obey the one who knows it all anyway!

These proverbs can be broken down into two general categories: the first being the characteristics of a "righteous" life (such as their speech, actions, motives, etc.), and the second being how people should relate to each other (relationships such as marriage, parenting, employer/employee, government, etc.). All of the advice in the book of Proverbs centers around one word: wisdom. That is the heart of their search for finding good success and blessing in life. in fact, the prologue of the book begins with this explanation, "The Proverbs of Solomon, son of David, king of Israel: for attaining wisdom..." (Proverbs 1:1-2a). The purpose of this collection of Hebrew maxims is to attain wisdom. The word "wisdom" carries with it the idea of skill, primarily in the management of life. The Hebrews were not impressed with haphazard living that had no direction or purpose. They sought skillful and Godly wisdom, which would in turn beget a righteous and blessed life.

This practical advice is not without a theological emphasis. Over and over again, it is pointed out that true wisdom, real skill for living comes from the Lord first. One of the most often repeated of the Hebrew proverbs goes, "The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom" (Prov. 1:7, 9:10, and 15:33). This was not a fear in the sense of being scared of God, but rather a deep reverence and respect for Him and His Word which would motivate one to obedience. In the Hebrew mind, a blessed life began by attaining wisdom, which in turn began by coming into a relationship with the Lord. A relationship with God was the foundation to it all.

Unpretentious Philosophy

Along with practical wisdom for living day to day, the Hebrews did deal with philosophical questions about life such as suffering, calamity, inequity, and injustice. The difference between their perspective and that of their contemporaries, is that the were not always understood and could not always be explained. So, Hebrew thought left the unexplainable unexplained. This is not to intimate that they somehow ignored crisis and inequity, or gave a pseudo-intellectual answer. As is reflected in their writings, they honestly questioned and openly confronted both man and God. Yet, ultimately some things were beyond knowing, at which point the Hebrews responded with the attitude, "God sees and knows, and I will trust in Him."

In view of their beliefs concerning the nature and character of God this attitude is not a "cop-out." It is a reality. God is God, the Sovereign One, and mankind is His workmanship. Hebrew wisdom magnifies the greatness and power of God above the circumstance in an unpretentious and practical way. Although it doesn't give a lot of "answers," it seeks God as the giver of wisdom and the keeper of the deepest mysteries of the heart. he will keep the care for those who will trust in Him. The book of Psalms exemplifies this more than any of the other Hebrew wisdom literature. Even in the midst of heartache and suffering, the Psalmist again and again cries out to God in confidence that he will hear and deliver. Consider these verses in light of their honest cry and plea for help from the Lord in the face of injustice and evil:

O Lord, how many are my foes!
how many rise up against me!
many are saying of me, "God will not deliver him."
But You are a shield around me, O Lord;
You bestow glory upon me and lift up my head.
To the Lord I cry aloud and he answers me from His holy hill.
(Psalm 3:1-3)

I wait for the Lord,
my soul waits,
and in His word I put my hope.
My soul waits for the Lord more than the watchman waits for the morning,
more than the watchman waits for the morning
(Psalm 130:5-6)

Unpretentious and uncomplicated, the Hebrews were a people who could come to God with complaint as well as praise and know that He would hear and respond to both.

Answers to Life's Questions

The Hebrew Wisdom Literature specifically refers to the books of Job, Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and Song of Solomon. These stand out from other portions of the Hebrew Writings in that they deal less with the Old Testament themes of Law, Covenant and History, and instead give voice to the cries of the human heart. Questions that poke at the depth of the soul are addressed and dealt with. "What is the meaning of life? What is the purpose of man's existence? how does one reconcile the fact that suffering and inequity can rage through the life of those who are righteous and innocent?" These are the type of hones questions which the Hebrews posed to an Almighty God. In researching these writings, it seemed to me that they could be broken down into the following categories.

BookIdea Addressed
Job Why does suffering happen to the righteous and why doesn't God do something about it?
Psalms The expression of man to God through heart cries of joy, sorrow, and trust, exalting God as the Almighty God, King, Deliverer, and Creator.
Proverbs The expression of man to man in light of God's counsel and wisdom, teaching practical living and righteous, godly attitudes and actions.
Ecclesiastes The expression of man to himself, questioning the seeming inequities and folly of life.
Song of Solomon The expression of the love of God to his people through a lyric poem about a King and a Shulamite daughter.

Evil vs. Good: Why Does it Happen?

One of the most prevalent questions that the Hebrew writings approaches is the question of evil vs. good. As in every human life and culture, there is always ample circumstance to drive men and women to this question: "Why does evil seem to triumph over good, if good is supposedly greater than evil?" The Hebrew people dealt with this theme in their wisdom literature, and arrive at several possibilities. In reconciling this seeming inconsistency of life, one is often forced to believe that either God purposely uses evil as a tool to achieve His purpose and plan, or that evil is more powerful than good. The framework for such reconciliation is built upon three presuppositions, and it is hard to find a solution to the question of evil vs. good that doesn't offend at least one of these basic beliefs about God.

The three presuppositions are: (1) God is good - His nature is one of complete purity and mercy which allows for His great benevolence to flow freely to humankind; (2) God is great - He is more powerful than the forces that could rage against Him or His people; (3) Evil exists - despite the goodness and power of the lord, there is no way to deny that fact that evil exists, and too often triumphs over people, both innocent and guilty alike. When these beliefs are challenged by unwelcome circumstances, one must find a way to reconcile the paradox without forfeiting the belief. If one determines that God is no longer good, then the foundation for belief in a Holy God is tainted by the idea that there is somehow some "evil" in His own being. If one decides that God by nature is good, but of no greatness or power, then the foundation for belief in a Mighty God who is able to deliver disintegrates. If one denies that evil does not exist, that it is only a superstitious idea, then reality is distorted. What results? The tendency is to just assume that God is too distant to care, much less be involved. God must be removed from it all, taken out of the picture, and humankind is left alone to survive the best he/she can.

The Hebrew Wisdom Literature holds more hope than this. It unyieldingly acknowledges the goodness and greatness of the Lord, but never denies the existence of evil. The heart of each book maintains and promotes a steadfast belief in God's ability to bring ultimate good out of even the worst of situations.

The account of Job is perhaps the most popular resource of the Wisdom Literature when faced with this question of evil vs. good. Here we are greed with the reconciliation of the suffering of man in light of true Hebrew thought. As one examines the message of the book of Job, it is evident that the answer to human suffering is not merely a matter of simple logic. In a discourse between the afflicted Job and his three friends, the question is presented, answered out of human reasoning and assumption, and finally overridden by the Word of God directly to Job. Although there is never a clear black and white response given, the sovereignty and ultimate power and justice of the Lord is upheld, and Job is vindicated for his faith in God.

The book of Job begins with God's stamp of approval on "His servant Job." The Lord makes the statement, "Have you considered My servant Job? There is no one on earth like him; he is blameless and upright, a man who fears God and shuns evil" (Job 1:8). Job is a prosperous and blessed man who is known for his integrity. When Satan comes and accuses him before God, he uses this integrity and prosperity as the point of accusation. Satan says to the Lord, "Does Job fear You for nothing? Have You not put a hedge around him and his household?" (vs. 1:9-10a). In other words, Satan is saying, "Of course Job serves You. You have blessed him and he just wants to make sure that the blessing continues." The very godliness in which God takes such great delight is, in the Accuser's opinion, really void of all integrity because it is a self-serving righteousness out of greed. Let the favor of God be removed and Job would surely curse God. When God allows Satan to wreak havoc in Job's life, the stage is set for a great debate about theodicy: is God just? How can God permit the suffering of Job through evil attacks of Satan, and still be a good and just God? So, in the book of Job, the question of evil vs. good is approached as a theological question through the suffering of a righteous and upright man named Job.

Job loses his ten children, his entire animal stock (including 7000 sheep, 3000 camels, 500 oxen, and 500 donkeys), all his servants, and most of his personal property within the course of a single day. If that weren't enough, he is then afflicted with a painful disease. Thus begins the anguish of Job, robbed of every sign of God's favor for no apparent reason. Evil seems to have triumphed over this righteous man's life.

One by one Job's friends come to offer him their advice as to why this sudden calamity has visited Job and his entire household. Because the Hebrew mind would never allow the idea that God was somehow mistaken (He was no longer good), or that he had lost his power (He was no longer great), they were rushed by simple human logic to this conclusion: Job had sinned and was now reaping the just punishment for his wicked ways. In their eyes, Job had transgressed the Law of God and the suffering he was facing was, in effect, all his fault. This answer, however, merely pours salt on the wounds. To tell someone in the midst of pain that they are only reaping what is just before God because of their sin is not only foolish, but as God makes clear in Job's case, untrue (Job 42:7b). Job's friends were not privy to the mind of God, and even job himself was at a loss to explain the reason for the sad circumstances he faced - a fact the Hebrew wisdom writer of Job wanted to make very clear. As much as the human mind would like to, it can not reduce bitter, seemingly unjust suffering to a consistent pattern of personal sinfulness. On the contrary, Job's sufferings appear not as God's judgment, but as His confidence that Job's integrity was authentic and true, based not in greed or self-gain, but in humble faith and love.

The book ends with Job's justification and restoration (more than he had to begin with) and the rebuke of his three friends for "not speaking what was right." (Job 42:7b). Even in Job's complete confoundment at God and the suffering, he spoke honestly and deep down trusted in His sovereignty and righteous character. Unlike his friends, he didn't offer a quick theological platitude, and despite his mistakes in word and attitude at times, God saw his heart of faith and vindicated his integrity.

The wisdom of this book magnifies the sovereignty of God. In the midst of personal suffering, when evil has for all real purpose triumphed over the innocent, one does not challenge the Lord in arrogant, self-justifying defense. Instead, one must relax in His sovereign grace to deliver. One of the central themes in the book of Job is that mankind doesn't and won't have the understanding of God for every situation encountered. The unpretentiousness of the Hebrew Wisdom literature shines brilliantly in this conclusion. There is no clear cut solution. God doesn't answer Job's questions, but He does answer the need of his heart. Thus, evil is not greater than good, although it touches humankind in unexpected severity at times. The advice of the ancient Israelites is not a formula, but a sigh. Ultimately, things happen in which we are limited in our horizon of understanding to explain. Yet, rest assured that God is still good and just, and faith in Him never disappoints.

The book of Ecclesiastes approaches the dilemma of evil vs. good in a different way. At first reading, it could seem that the answer the writer of Ecclesiastes gives to the question, "Why does evil happen?" is simply this: all mankind is trapped in a vain and meaningless cycle of inequity.

The extreme pessimism of the response is due to the fact that from his human observation, everything that one does, whether good or bad, leads to the same end: the grave. So if death is all that awaits the individual, then the ultimate good in life must be to enjoy what you can now. The writer argues, "So I commend the enjoyment of life, because nothing is better for a man under the sun than to eat, drink and be glad" (Ecc. 8:15). This motto has followed down the path of history, even to our present age, as is evident by the abundance of "if it feels good, do it" attitudes that are prompted in almost every form of media available. People still wrestle with the inability to see beyond the present and maintain an eternal perspective.

A look beyond the obvious uncovers the true message and wisdom of this writing. Ecclesiastes is more than just a grouping of negative, fatalistic proverbs. It is a search; for meaning in this life and a longing for eternity, or as J. Sidlow Baxter put it, it is a "quest for the chief good." The disjointed and obscure style of the book serves to emphasize the point that the book itself is trying to make. There is no sense, sometimes, to the vanity of life. It often appears that people struggle to do good and come out no better than those who are deceitful and self-serving. Yet, this perspective is not the answer, just the observation. As God reveals His grace to mankind in the form of His Son Jesus Christ, we come to a new understanding that life hold much meaning, and eternity is a real truth that unfolds the ultimate plan and purpose of God. Life in Christ is not bound by the grave and so there is reason to rejoice and believe that inequity will be corrected and vanity replaced by fulfillment.

How does this book represent the wisdom of the Hebrews? It shows the honest assessment of a life lived for one's own pleasure and profit, without a living, vibrant knowledge of God, and bound by the confinement of the grave. With such a perspective, there will naturally be a pessimistic and painful tone in the reading. The conclusion of such an observation? "Now all has been heard; here is the conclusion of the matter: Fear God and keep His commandments, for this is the whole duty of man. For God will bring every deed into judgment, including every hidden thing, whether it is good or evil" (Ecc. 12:13-14). Ultimately, the wisdom of the Hebrews again points to the sovereignty of God to bring about justice and judgment. In light of His underlying presence in the affairs of all human life, the best thing to do is to revere and obey Him, leaving the rest to his discernment. Because the Hebrew people did not put much thought into an afterlife at this time in their history, this answer was as good as the revelation of God's grace could give them for the moment. Similar to the book of Job, Ecclesiastes resolves itself to the mighty hand of the Lord with unpretentious faith in His power and goodness. Evil may exist, inequity may abound, but in the end God still has the last word.

The book of Psalms provides another glimpse into the mind of the Hebrew people as they sought to understand evil vs. good. The 150 songs collected in the book of Psalms express a wide range of prayers and praises to the Lord. Heart cries of joy, sorrow, and trust are echoed over and over again. God is exalted as the Almighty One, the King, the Creator, and Deliverer. Yet, unlike the books of Job and Ecclesiastes, Psalms does not seek to provide a theological observation about the purpose of suffering or the meaning of life. It is simply a book revealing the human heart's cry to a real and present God. Psalms shows the intimacy that one could have with the Lord, sharing in the deepest tragedies and highest joys of life. God is not distant and uninvolved. He is caring and aware of all. With this as an anchor to their cries, the songs of the book of Psalms are filled with pleas for divine intervention, deliverance and justice. They seem to intimate that though evil may rage against the godly and upright, God who is good and great, will bring about true salvation for all who will wait and trust in him. A good example of this is found in Psalm 62:5-8 which reads:

Find rest, O my soul, in God alone;
my hope comes from him.
He alone is my rock and my salvation;
he is my fortress, I will not be shaken.
My salvation and my honor depend on God;
he is my mighty rock, my refuge.
Trust in him at all times, O people;
pour out your hearts to him, for God is our refuge.

The wisdom of this book is not a philosophical debate. It is a practical expression of the heart of man to a Living God. The book of Psalms acknowledges the problem of evil prevailing over the innocent, but still ascertains that God is able, and will, bring about true justice in the end.

The Final Word

If you want to hear the message of the Hebrew Wisdom Literature, then tune your ears to the practical, unpretentious song of faith in a sovereign and caring God. Consistently throughout their writing, this is the bottom line to their thinking. Whether it be in the face of suffering or blessing, defeat or victory, the Hebrew people knew that they had been called by a God who was good and powerful. Faith in Him would bring about reward and see to it that all inequity would be made right: a powerful truth that can bring much peace to our own hearts.

Love the Lord and do what is right: this was the heart of the Hebrews and this is still the call of God to all humankind.

Bibliography

"Egyptian Religion" The Columbia Encyclopedia. New York: Columbia University Press, 1967.

The New Bible Commentary. New York: Eerdmans, 1984.

The NIV Study Bible. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1985