Tag Archives: Wisdom

Job and Ecclesiastes: Two Sides of the Same Coin

Both Job and Ecclesiastes are books pertaining to the same concept and both, in the end give the same answer, though they come at it from different angles. Job initially and traditionally has been read or taught of as though it is about human suffering. Ecclesiastes is traditionally read and taught as dealing with a similar subject: the meaning of life (which to the writer seems to be: there is no meaning). It is pointless, worthless, or absurd.[1] Yet these are secondary issues being addressed. The main issue with which both Job and Ecclesiastes are dealing is how the reader should respond to God when faced with these secondary issues. As J. H. Walton points out, “the book [of Job] is more interested in one’s view of God than in one’s understanding of suffering.”[2] This may seem like an insignificant difference, but it is indeed a great difference for it shifts the eyes from the sufferer/hopeless to God.

This is quite evident at the very beginning of Job. After introducing Job and his righteous character, the writer immediately turns his focus to God and the angelic assembly. Satan joins the assembly and through conversation accuses God of injustice.

Then Satan answered the LORD and said, “Does Job fear God for no reason? Have you not put a hedge around him and his house and all that he has, on every side? You have blessed the works of his hands, and his possessions have increased in the land. But stretch out your hand and touch all that he has, and he will curse you to your face,” (Job 1:9-11, ESV).

These verses are the point of Job. God does not seem to be playing by the rules. He is bribing people into being righteous by protecting them and giving them good gifts. Who would not want to live righteously if God promised them such wondrous gifts? Yet the opposite would be true for those who do not receive protection and gifts. Why would they want to be righteous before a God who treats them like dirt and ignores their plight in life?

Then again, Ecclesiastes sets its sights on the worthlessness of everything! “Vanity of vanities, says the Preacher, vanity of vanities! All is vanity,” (Ecc 1:2, ESV). Everything one does in life amounts to nothing. There is no value in it. One can work hard all his life earning millions of dollars yet die just like everyone else. Like the poorest of the poor he dies and carries none of his riches with him. In a couple of generations, he is forgotten and his money is gone. It’s not just treasures though, but wisdom. The wise end up in the same boat as the foolish. The worker and the slothful are not that much different after all. What is the point of it all? Why is God playing such a cruel joke on everyone?

Both Job and Ecclesiastes then are speaking toward the same subject: theodicy. According to John Davies, “Theodicy is discourse about the justice of God in the face of indications to the contrary—the presence in the world of evil in all its forms.”[3] In other words, if God is just why is there suffering and evil, which tends to lend itself to many an atheist’s rejection of there being a God at all. Neither Job nor Ecclesiastes seek to answer the question of suffering and evil, but they do seek to answer the indictment that because of suffering and evil God must be unjust or that God simply does not exist.

Job’s argument, while it can be misunderstood, is much clearer than Ecclesiastes’ argument. Yet both become a bit clearer when one remembers the type of literature that these two scriptural works are: wisdom literature. Keeping that these are works of wisdom will help keep the mind focused upon the wisdom within each book. Yet not all wisdom is equally good or equally valid. Both Job and Ecclesiastes end with the main point: only God’s wisdom is good and right.

To get to this point, Job takes us through wrong wisdom first. At first one will find Job’s wife coming to him wanting him to curse God and die (2:9). Notice Job’s response, “But he said to her, ‘You speak as one of the foolish women would speak,” (Job 2:10, ESV; italics mine). This is bad wisdom coming from the wife’s mouth. She is being foolish. Then come the three older friends of Job along with Elihu who is much younger. Each of these three older friends have taken upon themselves worldly wisdom. This is what Walton calls the “retribution principle.”[4] This basically states that God rewards the faithful and punishes the unfaithful. That’s how things work in this world. Therefore, since Job is suffering, he must have been unfaithful in some way. The only way to stop the suffering is for Job to offer sacrifices and/or confess his sins, open or hidden. This line of thinking is not much different than worldly wisdom today. The idea that God will strike one down with lightening or that they are suffering because one hasn’t said their prayers or gone to church lately. So they return to church for a week or two hoping that God will be appeased and their marriage will be fixed or that job will be found or life will simply be easier than before. It is such a small view of God and this world whether in modern times or in Job’s day. “In this way, Job’s friends can be seen as those who are advancing the case that the adversary asserted.”[5] God simply does not play by the rules; He is cheating the system.

Job comes back against such attacks on his character claiming that there is no hidden sin and no blatant sin either. He has lived the righteous life. He refused to admit to something he did not find himself guilty of. If he must suffer for living righteously then he will suffer. He will not give up living the upright life. “Whatever doubts he harbors and whatever accusations he hurls against the Almighty, as inappropriate and inaccurate as they may be, what is important for the book is that he retains the integrity of believing that righteousness is more important than rewards.”[6] Never does Job doubt the importance of being righteous.

Elihu, the youngest of the friends, finally speaks to Job. Though he is young, he gets much closer to godly wisdom than the older, more experienced men. Yet, he does not go far enough. Elihu, who may be the world first true theologian,[7] seeks to explain God’s actions synchretistically. He still utilizes the “retribution principle,” but according to Walton, “He expands the retribution principle so that it not only describes the remedial consequences of past actions (reward for righteousness, punishment or suffering for wickedness) but also now allows that suffering may be disciplinary and thereby preventative as it functions to restrain someone from following an unacceptable course of action.”[8] This is much closer to what pastors and church-goers lean toward. Why do bad things happen? It’s either a punishment on the unbeliever or its discipline on the believer. Yet through it all, God gave a different answer.

The final chapters of Job are filled with question after question that Job cannot answer. And one reads, “Then Job answered the LORD and said: “Behold, I am of small account; what shall I answer you? I lay my hand on my mouth,” (Job 40:3-4, ESV). Still more questions, though Job had gone mute. The point of God’s questions? It was not that God is so big and so great, how dare Job ever question Him! Rather it was to show Job that only God can do what God does. All that God does He does from His wisdom. The question that Job kept asking was, is God just? But the question is not, “Is God just?” but “Is God wise?” For a wise God must be just. If we can trust God’s wisdom and live accordingly (Prov 3:5-6), then we can trust God’s justice. Even when we do not understand why He does it, we can be confident that He does it in good and right wisdom.

Ecclesiastes is not much different, though it reads quite differently than Job. Is it right for God to expect people to live righteously only to die just as those who lived rebelliously? Is it just for a wise man to die like the foolish man? “Everything is absurd because there is no payoff for anything we do. The main reason why this is so is that death cancels out any such potential of profit.”[9] The writer initially compares life to the stream running into the sea, but the sea never fills up. It is like striving after wind which can never be caught. It is all pointless and hopeless because, as the “No Fear” T-shirt of the 90s said, “He who dies with the most toys, still dies.”

Yet there are indications within Ecclesiastes that Solomon has a focus. He is headed in a very clear direction, but one must be astute to that. It does not help that translations, which are by necessity interpretations by the translators, do not explicitly show this, translating the same phrase one way in certain passages and another way in the final passage. “I perceive that there is nothing better for them than to be joyful and to do good as long as they live; also that everyone should eat and drink and take pleasure in all his toil—this is God’s gift to man,” (Ecc. 3:12-13, ESV). The word “everyone” in verse 13 is kol-ha’adam in the Hebrew, kol meaning all (encompassing), ha-adam meaning the man. It is easy to see it being translated as everyone (all the man/men). It is done this way in 2:13, 5:19, and again a very similar translation in 7:2: “It is better to go to the house of mourning than to go to the house of feasting, for this is the end of all mankind, and the living will lay it to heart,” (ESV; italics mine). Yet, it is translated differently in 12:13: “The end of the matter; all has been heard. Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man,” (ESV; italics mine).

Peter Enns points out that when one understands kol-ha’adam the same way in each passage as being the whole duty of man, one begins to see how the book ties together. The whole of man (the very goal of man) is to enjoy the food and drink of his toil. The whole of man (the very goal of man) is to die. Yet the Preacher bemoans both of these goals. As if, is this really all there is to life? Yet when one reads Ecclesiastes 12:13, one ought to get a different feel. Indeed, there is more emphasis in this verse than in the other kol-ha’adam verses (3:13, 5:19, 7:2). Solomon emphasized the word “this” as if he has reached the pinnacle and understands now “this is the whole duty of man!” Those other “duties” are under the umbrella of this duty. What would that duty be? “Fear God and keep his commandments.”[10] “Qohelet [Preacher in Hebrew] is wise, to be sure. As he says, pleasure and death are real and are portion of everyone [kol-ha’adam]. But there is a deeper, more fundamental obligation upon this earth, which is to fear God and keep his commandments. This is truly for everyone. . .”[11]

Fearing God, if one remembers is “the beginning of knowledge,” (Prov 1:7, ESV), and “the beginning of wisdom,” (Prov 9:10, ESV). As with Job, so with Ecclesiastes, one ends with the wisdom of God. That is the answer to suffering and hopelessness, understanding that God is wise in all He does even when one does not understand why He is doing what He does. Incidentally, Habakkuk attests to the negative end of this, but delivers the same truth. “Behold, is it not from the LORD of hosts that peoples labor merely for fire, and nations weary themselves for nothing? [sounds like Ecclesiastes] For the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the LORD as the waters cover the seas,” (Hab 2:13-14). Immediately he states however that the nations are refusing the glory and instead would rather have their shame (cf. Hab 2:16). As one reads through this short prophetic book, he cannot help but get an understanding that while Habakkuk did not know what God was doing and thought Him to be unjust (like Job and Ecclesiastes), as God revealed to him His plan, Habakkuk’s complaints turned to praise.

In the end, the believer cannot help but think of all of the Bible: Creation, Fall, Redemption, and New Creation. Why did God do such and such and allow this and that? It seems wrong and unjust. Yet one sees then that God is wise. His plan is intricately woven into the fabric of this universe and humanity. In the end, one must admit as Job did, “Behold, I am of small account; what shall I answer you? I lay my hand on my mouth,” (Job 40:4, ESV). Since God is wise, He is just. One need not fear though He suffers or sees all life to be pointless. For this reason one can, “know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose,” (Rom 8:28, ESV). So again, these books—particularly Job and Ecclesiastes—are about our response to God: the trusting and fearing of God and His wisdom.

[1] Peter Enns, “Ecclesiastes, the Book of” in Dictionary of the Old Testament: Wisdom, Poetry, and Writings, ed. Tremper Longman III and Peter Enns, (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2008), 129.

[2] J. H. Walton, “Job, the Book of,” in Dictionary of the Old Testament: Wisdom, Poetry, and Writings, ed. Tremper Longman III and Peter Enns, (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2008), 339.

[3] John Davies, “Theodicy” in Dictionary of the Old Testament: Wisdom, Poetry, and Writings, ed. Tremper Longman III and Peter Enns, (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2008), 808.

[4] Walton, “Job, the Book of,” in DOT: Wisdom, 340.

[5] Ibid., 337.

[6] Ibid., 338.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid., 338-339.

[9] Enns, “Ecclesiastes, The Book of,” in DOT: Wisdom, 129-130.

[10] Ibid., 125-129.

[11] Ibid., 129.

Reading Proverbs Afresh: Proverbs in Light of Christ

Wisdom is often described as having the know-how of living out knowledge practically. This is a rather weak definition, especially if one is looking to biblical wisdom using books such as the Wisdom Books: Job, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and the Song of Solomon. One need only to read through the Proverbs to find that the answer lies within the text itself. “The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom, and the knowledge of the Holy One is insight,” (Prov. 9:10, ESV). The writer here used parallelism to explain what wisdom is: the fear of God, the knowledge of the Holy One. Something similar is stated in 1:7 (The fear of the LORD is the beginning of knowledge), though Proverbs 9:10 was chosen for its explicit use of wisdom/insight (synonymous terms) rather than knowledge (as one may tend to still see the two as separate entities as the weak definition above portrays). Thus, wisdom is the fear of the LORD and this use of “the fear of the LORD” (YHWH) is a purposeful use of covenantal language within the Wisdom books. Grant correctly wrote:

How is it that the “fear of Yahweh” indicates the presence of covenant theology within the Wisdom books? There are two answers to this question: (1) Proverbs’ focus on the fear of Yahweh points us specifically to relationships with Israel’s covenant God as being key to true wisdom; (2) fear of Yahweh takes the reader deep into Israel’s covenant theology because of its intertextual links with the book of Deuteronomy.[1]

Where in Deuteronomy? Deuteronomy 10:12-13 (one of the major chapters in all the book) brings out what one needs to know about this type of fear. “And now, Israel, what does the LORD your God require of you, but to fear the LORD your God, to walk in his ways, to love him, to serve the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul, and to keep the commandments and statutes of the LORD, which I am commanding you today for your good,” (ESV; italics added).

Grant explains, “The main question (“What does the LORD your God require of you?”) is answered by the initial central statement (“fear the LORD your God”), and each of the following statements explains what it actually means in reality to fear Yahweh (“walk in his ways, love him, serve him and keep his commandments”).[2] This would mean that the Proverbs are not simply a bunch of sayings unrelated to the rest of the Old Testament (and definitely not of the New Testament), but are intricately linked to both. Though it may not have all the echoes of laws and rites and prophetic remarks of the Laws and Prophets, as Trevor Longman III wrote on Proverbs: “[T]he whole book is theological to the core,”[3] and that theology is in total agreement with the rest of Scripture. “The concept of wisdom is not simply practical skill but is a theological idea.”[4]

That theology is not only shown in “fear of the LORD” language, but in Lady Wisdom (aka Woman Wisdom). Lady Wisdom is wisdom personified as a woman who calls out to young men to come to her, learn from her, and follow as they have been taught. Her archenemy is Lady Folly (aka Woman Folly). This personified foolishness also calls out to the young men to come to her, learn, and so live. As there are two women, there are two paths in which the women point: one being the path of wisdom and the other the path of folly. “The dark path represents one’s behavior in this life, but it culminates not in life but in death. On the other hand, there is the right path, the path that leads to life. This path is straight and well lit. The person who stays on this path will not stumble.”[5]

As one reads the Proverbs and encounters the many times Lady/Woman Wisdom speaks, he/she cannot help but begin to notice that as she speaks, so God has spoken or demonstrated elsewhere within the Bible. “[I]t is clear that Woman Wisdom is a personification of Yahweh’s wisdom and ultimately of Yahweh himself.”[6] Yet where does that leave Lady/Woman Folly? Longman argues that she is the false gods and goddesses of the world. Ultimately, “[T]he choice between Woman Wisdom and Woman Folly is no less than a fundamental religious choice between the true God and false gods.”[7]

Does this not dramatically change the way one reads the Proverbs? It must! As one encounters the many foolish ways (whether directly or indirectly stated), he/she must see that this is the way of this world. It is the way of idolatry, not simply a dumb move that may be regretted later in life. This brings new life and light to Proverbs 3:5-6. “Trust in the LORD with all your heart, and do not lean on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make straight your paths,” (ESV). These verses are not simply about trusting God when one doesn’t understand what it is He is doing. These verses are calling upon the reader not to go down the paths of idolatry and live in folly, but to trust the God-given proverbs (law and prophets) and live by them so that one does not go down the dark way that seems right unto man but ends in death (Cf. Prov 14:12), but goes down the path of light leading to life. Thus, the writers of the Proverbs want what Moses and the Prophets wanted: for their readers to find God in all His glory and splendor. “Both sets of literature [Proverbs and Law] come to the conclusion that it is impossible to do so apart from real, and therefore inevitably covenant, relationship with God.”[8]

Yet, how does one build that covenant relationship? Longman answers: “[I]f one wants to know how the world works and thus to successfully navigate life, one had better know the woman, Yahweh’s wisdom—that is Yahweh himself.”[9] But this begs the question as to how then is one to know her. The answer comes as one reads and notices aspects of Lady Wisdom, such as her being described as being before creation (Prov. 8:28), being co-creator with God (Prov. 8:27-30), God’s delight—being well-pleased with Wisdom (Prov 8:30), and other aspects as well such as the fact that with her are abundant riches (Prov 8:18-21). Anyone who has a clear understanding of the New Testament can see that Lady Wisdom and Jesus Christ are one and the same (cf. Col 1:15-19; 2:3, John 1:1-3; Matt 3:17). “The message is clear: Jesus is Wisdom herself. . . Thus to understand the invitation of Woman Wisdom as the invitation of Christ to relationship with God makes the book contemporary to Christian readers.”[10] What an understatement! If wisdom is the Word of God (not only the recorded Word, but the Living Word) it is not only contemporary but massively important. To reject Christ is to reject wisdom and to reject wisdom is to reject Christ. To live a life in folly is to go after false gods, whether they be tangible or intangible and be utterly ruined, never to be in covenantal relationship with God. That very thought ought to keep the believer holding tight to the Proverbs. Without Christ there is no wisdom, there is no covenant relationship, there is no pleasure from or in God.

[1] J. D. Grant, “Wisdom and Covenant” in Dictionary of the Old Testament: Wisdom, Poetry, and Writings, (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2008) 860-861.

[2] Ibid., 861.

[3] Trevor Longman III, “Proverbs, Book of,” in Dictionary of the Old Testament: Wisdom, Poetry, and Writings, (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2008) 550.

[4] Ibid., 549.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid., 550.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Grant, “Wisdom and Covenant” in DOT: Wisdom, 861.

[9] Longman III, “Proverbs, Book of,” in DOT: Wisdom, 550.

[10] Ibid., 551.