While the Bible is a single volume, it is composed of sixty six individual books. And those books can be categorized into different genres: law, history/narrative, poetry, wisdom literature, prophecy, gospels, epistles, and apocalyptic. Don’t let this overwhelm or confuse you! It’s actually a beautiful depiction of God’s creativity and care for his people. Each genre reveals something unique about God in both style and substance. Each genre draws readers to truth and the person of God in a distinct way, and we need them all.
We must also approach each genre differently. We can’t read poetry like history or wisdom literature like epistles. We need to read them in their intended style so we can really see what God is revealing of Himself.
Ecclesiastes, Proverbs, and Job comprise the wisdom literature genre. The aim of wisdom literature is to help us grow in biblical wisdom (obviously). What is that? In short, it is living life with godly skill, thinking with the mind of God, and prioritizing or judging with godly priorities. These books deal in the stuff and substance of everyday life, and our goal in reading and studying them is to learn how to faithfully walk with the Lord in all of life.
Here are a few pointers for reading wisdom literature well so you can get the most out of it
- Remember that these are God’s words as much as any other book of the Bible, even if they seem opaque or confusing sometimes. Wisdom literature reveals the mind, the priorities, the decision-making, and the character of God. While it may not have many propositional statements about God, all wisdom literature is essentially God telling us how He thinks.
- Wisdom literature, especially proverbs, should be read as principles, not promises. We can find exceptions to every principle. (eg. If you work hard you will succeed OR If you live lawfully you will live peaceably.) So we must read these books as principial truths rather than truths specific to every circumstance. Principles are true in general. And they are the way things ought to be.
- Wisdom literature is often poetic, so it uses word pictures and vivid imagery. It is not to be read like a scientific or doctrinal work marked by linguistic precision. Rather we are to consider what it is evoking, what it is drawing out of our hearts? That is the aim of biblical wisdom, to transform the heart into alignment with God.
- An oft-used technique in this poetic language is parallelism: stating truths in couplets that often seem at odds or like nonsequiturs, but that actually clarify and uphold one another. For example Proverbs 26:4-5 says, “Don’t answer a fool according to his foolishness or you’ll be like him yourself. Answer a fool according to his foolishness or he’ll become wise in his own eyes.” Well, which is it? Remember that the aim is godly skill and discernment, so both are true and only wisdom can help us determine which is applicable and helpful in a given circumstance.
- Because of poetic language and techniques like parallelism, we must be cautious about pulling a verse out of its context to prove a point or offer as a command. (eg. Consider Proverbs 26:4 again, “Don’t answer a fool according to his foolishness or you’ll be like him yourself.” Take that out of context and we lose the counter-balance of “Answer a fool according to his foolishness or he’ll become wise in his own eyes.”) Context matters in all biblical interpretation, but it is especially significant when dealing with principles and evocative language.
- Sometimes wisdom literature focuses on anti-wisdom (what the Bible calls foolishness) so that we can see both the consequences of defying God and the beauty of walking with Him. Ecclesiastes and Job do this. This means we must read them with an eye toward the greater reality of God’s heart, God’s desires, God’s design, and God’s priorities. Otherwise we can mistake a lengthy passage about anti-wisdom as prescriptive for our lives or as morally good.
- All wisdom literature must be read in light of Genesis 1–God’s good creation according to His perfect design–and in light of Genesis 3–the reality of sin and God’s curse on the world that brought about the disordering and twisting of all things. Much of wisdom is seeing the good in the twisted and the twisted or sinful in the good. It is rarely so simple as labeling something “good” or “bad.” Rather wisdom allows us to recognize the reflection of Genesis 1 and the marks of Genesis 3 in all aspects of life.
- Remember that all wisdom is fulfilled and embodied in Christ. We cannot gain godly wisdom outside of life in Jesus. He is our means of wisdom through His saving work and the giving of His Holy Spirit. It is easy to think of “gaining wisdom” as something we do through discipline and rigor. And while we do strive for it, it is given by God through His Son.
This is an excerpt from Ecclesiastes: Finding Meaning in a World of passing Pursuits, a study I wrote for individuals and small groups. It is available through Amazon or Lifeway.com (the better option if you are ordering for groups).
- Vanity Under the Sun
- Wealth, Fame, and Power
- Number Your Days
- Enjoy the Life God Has Given You
- Fear God and Keep His Commands
- 8 small group sessions
- 8 teaching videos and session previews featuring author Barnabas Piper—access included with purchase of Bible Study Book
- Bonus videos on challenging verses in Ecclesiastes
- Personal study opportunities for ongoing spiritual growth
- Reading plan for the book of Ecclesiastes