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The Wisdom in the Middle

Up until this point, our journey through the Bible has been somewhat of a chronological narrative.  We started in Genesis with the creation and the fall, then worked generally forward through time as God chose His people and led them, ultimately giving them a king.  

In the last session, we saw that the king thing didn’t work out very well for God’s people.  Despite kingly leadership, more often than not, they were led astray, ultimately resulting in God’s judgment and punishment.

The last of the historical books, Ezra and Nehemiah, finish the historical arc of ancient Israel on a bit of an up-note.  God remembered His people.  He didn’t leave them in captivity in Babylon.  A remnant was preserved and returned to their ancestral homeland around Jerusalem.  They lacked all of their former glory, but they were home.

We’re going to leave this storyline for a while and shift focus.  If you follow through your Bible, the next five books take a new direction.  No longer are they about history, but they introduce a new topic that we will stop to consider.

In the middle of our Bible (by page count), we find the section called “Wisdom Literature.”  It’s a series of books that seem to be misfits.  They don’t follow the narrative pattern that we’ve been enjoying up until this point.  They don’t seem to hang together in the same way that the History books work to tell a single story.

If you didn’t have a biblical background, you might think that this was the dumping ground for all the misfit books.  Any book that didn’t fit in another section was put here because the people that organized the Bible didn’t have anywhere else to put them.

The truth is that these books do have a common theme.  It’s not historical or narrative.  These books are all linked together by a similar idea or topic that they are all considering:

Wisdom.

In today’s culture, wisdom has a meaning and a definition.  We usually think of wisdom as being associated with intelligence or experience.  Perhaps you’ve heard wisdom defined as “knowledge applied”.  That’s not a bad answer.  But it this case, it’s a good answer to a different question.

Most of us think about wisdom as defined by the original rationalists – the Greeks.   Their word for wisdom, Sophos, gives us words today like “sophisticated”.  You can see the idea of intelligence or smarts buried at the root of this word.

When we read about wisdom in the Bible, however, we’re looking at a completely different time and language.  The “wisdom literature” of the Bible is rooted in an ancient Middle Eastern or oriental notion of wisdom.

In that culture, the wise person was one who lived the “good life”.  They were to be emulated by others.  They had done it right and had their priorities and values in correct alignment.  They focused on what mattered and ignored what was temporary or less important.

‘Behold, the fear of the Lord, that is wisdom,
and to turn away from evil is understanding.’
Job 28:28

From a biblical perspective, the wise person was one who lived a godly or God-fearing life.  This didn’t mean that they had snappy answers to all of life’s problems and challenges.  But they did know what was important and how to set their priorities.  In return, they experienced the blessings of God.  This didn’t always appear as material blessings.  Even the wise person can suffer.  But the wise person has a proper perspective when hard times come upon them.

The fundamental question being considered through the wisdom section in our Bible is “How can a person live a life that pleases God?”

There are five different books in the section of our Bible that we traditionally call “The Wisdom Literature.”

  • Job
  • Psalms
  • Proverbs
  • Ecclesiastes
  • Song of Solomon

Each of these books has a different perspective on wisdom and gives us unique lessons on what the “good life” looks like.

Job – A Perspective on Suffering

Job was a god-fearing man who lived at some time in antiquity.  The Bible describes him as blameless and upright.  Not only did he fear God, but he actively turned away from evil.  So attuned was he to the fear of God, every time his kids threw a party, he would offer sacrifices on their behalf lest they, in a fit of revelry, should say or do something unrighteous.

Satan Challenges; God Accepts

Very early in the book of Job, we read of Satan visiting God in heaven.  When God remarked about His servant Job, Satan countered to say that Job only loved God because of the material favor God had poured out on him. 

So God permitted Satan to persecute Job, all the way up to (but not including) taking his life.   The wager was that when the blessings were removed, Job would stop loving God.  Satan left heaven ready to unleash a world of suffering on Job that would crush his spirit and turn him against God.

The first round of suffering focused on the things Satan thought Job would hold dear.  First were his children, then his vast estates and herds of livestock.  In one fell swoop, Satan ripped them away from Job.

Job’s response to this calamity was to fall and worship God.  He did not accuse God of wrongdoing.  In essence, he said “if I enjoyed what God gave me, then I have no reason to complain when He takes it away.

Satan doubled down by taking Job’s health.   Beset by pain, Job sat around and tried to care for himself, treating boils and plague-like symptoms.   Even with this turn of events, Job would not accuse God of anything wrong.

Job’s wife was not so patient.  Having watched as everything was taken from them, she had a very different reaction.  Astutely she understood that this was a spiritual attack.  Yet she did not have the right perspective on it.  Her advice to Job was “Curse God and let Him kill you and be done with it.”

Job rejected her advice, clung to his faith in God, and simply waited.

Bad Advice and Discussions with Friends

Such was the fall of a prominent man in the community that Job’s friends soon came to commiserate with him and offer him advice.  Three, in particular, are described in the Book of Job.  They came as friends, and sat with Job for a week, offering no judgments or advice.

Finally, when they could take it no longer, they shared their advice.  In a word, it was all bad advice.  They did not show wisdom.  From a human standpoint, it all sounded good.  It was just wrong.

The dialog between Job and his friends begins in chapter 2 and continues for most of the book.  It consists of a formal process where each friend makes case for Job’s guilt and identifies his circumstances as God’s just punishment for that sin.

Job answers each of his friends and challenges their advice.  Throughout his answers, he consistently claims that he is blameless before God and that God is allowed to bring whatever circumstance He wants into Job’s life.

Job did not know of God’s arrangement with Satan.  His friends could only look at the circumstances and apply worldly logic to figure out what was going on.  Job said he didn’t understand, but that he was blameless in the outcome.  His friends continued to challenge him to admit his guilt and repent so that God’s mercy and grace would continue.

Job Clings to His Redeemer

In the middle of this dialog – an argument with his friends, Job lays out his core belief that God’s justice will be finally served.

“Oh that my words were written!
Oh that they were inscribed in a book!
 Oh that with an iron pen and lead
they were engraved in the rock forever!
 For I know that my Redeemer lives,
and at the last he will stand upon the earth.
And after my skin has been thus destroyed,
yet in my flesh I shall see God,
 whom I shall see for myself,
and my eyes shall behold, and not another.
My heart faints within me!
Job 19:23-27

In this great proclamation of faith in God, Job laid out his belief, that even if he were to die from his circumstance, he would still stand before his Redeemer.  Job understood that this was all about God and not at all about him.  God’s holiness and justice would be preserved and Job’s present condition would not cause any shadow upon God’s character.

God Enters the Discussion

Finally, in chapter 38, God entered the discussion and spoke to Job.   In essence, God asked Job, “Can you do my job?”  He then proceeds to outline the requirements of God’s care for the entire world.

Job chapters 38 – 40 is a tour de force presentation of God’s power, told from the perspective of God Himself.  He challenges our traditional western scientific understanding with a more stylized set of requirements (do you know how many raindrops I have in the entire inventory of heaven?).  God’s monolog through these three chapters expresses majesty and power that doesn’t fit in our human existence.

If you want to change your view of God, stop for a moment, and read these three chapters.  God is rebuking Job for his presumption of arguing on behalf of God.  Job’s knowledge of God, His power, His plans, and His motivations is so pathetic, that it was an act of great presumption to tell his friends what God was trying to do or accomplish.

Only God is capable of containing the whole of His plan.  God does not need us to speak on his behalf or defend Him.  He is capable of caring for Himself. 

Job’s Repentance and Restoration

Upon hearing God’s rebuke, Job immediately repented. 

Therefore I have uttered what I did not understand,
things too wonderful for me, which I did not know
Job 42:3

He knew that he had spoken out of turn and was guilty of presumption.  His final response was “Going forward, I’ll ask questions, but let You answer them.”

Throughout this time of suffering, Job’s only sin was presuming to speak for God – something of which he had no real knowledge.  At no time did he accuse God of being unfair to him.  Nor did his faith and focus on God waver throughout the ordeal.

In the end, he learned that faith does not necessarily result in knowledge.  And that it is better to hold as faith that which cannot be known, instead of manufacturing knowledge that was beyond him.

Satan lost the wager.  Job did not turn against God.

God’s response was to restore Job to the position of material success.  His wealth was returned and he was given a new family.

In Job, we see the great lesson that our place is to submit to the great and awesome God.  We cannot explain Him away.  We cannot put Him in a box where we think we have Him figured out.  Our job is to accept what He brings into our lives and be thankful for any circumstance.

Psalms – The Heart Relates to God through Music

The Psalms have been called the hymnal of the Hebrews.  The book in our Bible contains 150 songs that were sung in worship to God.  It seems reasonable to expect that they were compositions that were sung by choirs in the majestic Temple that Solomon built. 

The Psalms give voice to a wide range of emotions and the circumstances behind them.  Often we like to sing songs of God’s goodness.  But the Psalms are honest in that they faithfully express our hearts in all different times of our life.

  • Laments or petitions for God to intervene (Psalm 3, 51)
  • Thanksgiving or praise to God (Psalm 30, 65)
  • Trust in God (Psalm 4)
  • Hymns – Songs about God and His glory (Psalm 47)
  • Teaching and wisdom  (Psalm 1, 119)

The book of Psalms is a composition from many different composers.  While David was called the sweet psalmist of Israel (2 Samuel 23:1), he did not write all of the Psalms that we have today.  Throughout the book, we see the poetic expression that is attributed to many different artists.

The fact that a songbook is included in our Bible gives meaning to the command “Make a joyful noise to the Lord ”.   Music has always been a part of the worship of God.  And with the inclusion of a book of songs, we are confirmed that God values our songs as expressions of our worship to Him.

The Psalms offer redemption for our bleakest days, knowing that we are not alone and that there is a way to share hard times with God.  As the psalmists poured out their hearts in the middle of their most difficult times, so too can we reach out to God when our perspective seems dark and unforgiving.

  • David wrote Psalm 3 as he ran from Absalom who usurped his throne.
  • David also wrote Psalm 51 as he repented of his sin with Bathsheba and the death of their son.

The Psalms guide us toward wisdom as they direct our emotions toward God.  They show that no topic or subject is beneath God’s concern.  Any trial we are experiencing can be poured out to God. 

The wise person, who truly fears God, is so oriented toward Him that when trouble or rejoicing comes into their life, their automatic and natural response is to turn to God and share what is happening.  There is no sense of “I have to work it out first.”   Our frustration and our joy are equally welcome in the psalmist’s expression.

The Psalms teach us that we should set our affections upon God.  This isn’t because we’ll get something back in return.  Often the cry for relief is met with the answer that justice will eventually happen, but maybe not in our lives.  We share with God because ultimately He is in control.  When we remember that we are crying out to the Maker of the universe, we can finally rest in His decision and His promise to deliver justice without fail. 

We may not get the closure we desire.  But we rest in the knowledge that God is God and that He is good.

Oh, taste and see that the LORD is good!
Blessed is the man who takes refuge in him!
Psalm 34:8

Proverbs – Wisdom Nuggets

The book of Proverbs is attributed to Solomon, the wisest man who ever lived.  When he ascended to the throne of Israel, God asked him what he most wanted.  Solomon chose to ask for wisdom to be able to govern God’s great people.

So God granted him wisdom to be the wisest man who lived.  Much of that wisdom is distilled into little bite-sized nuggets in the Proverbs.

The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom,
and the knowledge of the Holy One is insight.
Proverbs 9:10

From his unique position of insight into how to live in a way that pleases God, Solomon shares little nuggets of wisdom in pithy phrases.   The book of Proverbs doesn’t’ tell a story, but if we see life through the lens of the wisdom that is shared, we begin to understand how the story of our lives should be lived.

The Proverbs always draw us back to God.  Just as the fear of God is the beginning, our challenge is to keep that fear and awe and respect central in our lives.  As soon as we shift our focus away from God, we leave the path of wisdom and begin living under our power and insight.  Since we neither create nor design anything of significance, our wisdom, living a life that pleases us, is guaranteed to end badly.

The Book of Proverbs has 31 chapters.  It is a common devotional strategy to read one chapter of Proverbs each day, according to the number of the day of the month.  This would cause us to look upon wise advice every day, with the prayer that we would find the wisdom to apply to our lives every day.

If you are looking for a way to cultivate wisdom, try this for a month.  Don’t wait for a new month.  You can begin today by reading the chapter of Proverbs that matches today’s date.  It’s a gift of wisdom that cannot be overlooked in putting our feet on the right path in our life.

Ecclesiastes – the Meaning of Life

The book of Ecclesiastes was also written by Solomon.  It’s like gaining insight into his journal as he explored life.  He was fabulously wealthy and powerful.  He could do whatever he wanted.  So he tested and explored the boundaries of meaning.

Throughout the book Solomon repeated the phrase “Vanity of vanities, all is vanity!”  The word Vanity occurs repeatedly.  We might think of it as “being vain and puffed up.”  The meaning is the opposite.  When he says ‘vanity’, Solomon is talking about something insignificant or insubstantial.  It lacks the significance of being worthy of discussion.

The book of Ecclesiastes hinges around the conclusion that Solomon expresses in chapter 12.

The end of the matter; all has been heard. Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man.
Ecclesiastes 12: 13

In the final analysis, none of the subjects that Solomon explored amounted to enough substance to be worth recommending.  The only thing that Solomon concludes to be worth chasing is to “fear God and keep His commandments.” 

Throughout the book of Ecclesiastes, Solomon shares how he explored every possible diversion under the sun.  Every time he thought he found a meaningful good time, he eventually had to conclude that it was vanity – insignificant, not able to bring meaning or purpose to life.

If we read all but the last few verses of the book of Ecclesiastes, we might be tempted to consider it a nihilistic book, one that finds no purpose or value in any endeavor.  Instead, as we consider the whole of it we see that without God, life has no meaningful purpose.  Only in God do we find the value that transcends our existence.

Therefore, Solomon concludes, the duty of all humanity is to pursue God.  Sadly from our time in the histories, we learn that even Solomon in all his wisdom was unable to follow his advice.  In his later days, he turned from God to idols, influenced by his many foreign wives.  But his failure to follow his advice does not decrease the wisdom of the advice.  Quite the contrary, it emphasizes the urgency of this advice of wisdom.

If we want to end our lives well, then we will follow the wise advice of fearing and obeying God to the end of our days.    This is the sign of a life well-lived.

Song of Solomon – Courtship, and Love in Relationship

On the heels of Solomon failing to heed his wisdom, distracted and diverted by his wives, we read the Song of Solomon.  In this book, Solomon shares his earlier, wise thoughts, on relationships and how to conduct them well.

Ever since Genesis 2, God’s declaration that we were created for relationships drives us together.  While it is possible to live outside of marriage, the common expression of desire is for a life shared with others.

Song of Solomon paints a picture of love expressed between a man and a woman, told through the voice of the woman.  It places a high value on the love and romantic longing between men and women that leads to marriage.  Just as God sanctified marriage in Genesis 2, Song of Solomon gives expression to the emotions that lead to marriage.

Final Thoughts

I hope now you see these five books nestled in the middle of your Bible as more than “the collection of misfits that don’t belong anywhere else.”  Today more than ever we need to be reminded of the divine definition of “the Good Life.”

Our culture tries to offer counterfeit pictures of what a good life looks like.   These range from overtly hedonistic, “get what you can and enjoy it for all it’s worth”, to moralistic “follow the golden rule” to the idealistic “just love everyone.” 

But none of the world’s definitions of “good life” include God.  Nor do these ideals present the idea that our life is to revolve around anyone besides ourselves.

In the wisdom literature, we see that a life oriented toward God is the only Good Life we can pursue.  Anything oriented around ourselves leads to vanity and futility and insignificance.  At the same time, we gain a perspective of God as greater than ourselves and not something that can be placed in any box we desire.  Our faith in Him is just that – Faith in Him.  We cannot substitute that faith for knowledge, or it ceases to be faith.

God must capture and hold our attention.  Whether we are debating with skeptics or expressing our frustration at the proliferation of evil in the world, we are oriented to God.  He gets to decide what happens and what does not.  His sense of justice is enough for us.  We accept Him and trust in Him.

For us today who have seen Jesus and the picture of God, we have a double assurance of wisdom.  Jesus did not fight for what was rightfully His.  He did not receive full vindication in the moment of injustice.  He suffered and afflicted in a way that we as mere humans cannot possibly understand.  Yet He went through with it and kept His focus on God, faithfully remaining obedient to God’s plan.

We’ve seen what it looks like.  As we read the Wisdom in the Middle, we should remember Jesus and the example He has already given us.