A Miser had buried his gold in a secret place in his garden. Every day he went to the spot, dug up the treasure and counted it piece by piece to make sure it was all there. He made so many trips that a Thief, who had been observing him, guessed what it was the Miser had hidden, and one night quietly dug up the treasure and made off with it.
When the Miser discovered his loss, he was overcome with grief and despair. He groaned and cried and tore his hair. A passerby heard his cries and asked what had happened.
“My gold! O my gold!” cried the Miser, wildly, “someone has robbed me!”
“Your gold! There in that hole? Why did you put it there? Why did you not keep it in the house where you could easily get it when you had to buy things?”
“Buy!” screamed the Miser angrily. “Why, I never touched the gold. I couldn’t think of spending any of it.”
The stranger picked up a large stone and threw it into the hole. “If that is the case,” he said, “cover up that stone. It is worth just as much to you as the treasure you lost!” Wealth Without Value
I pray as we review the wealth of wisdom found in the Bible, we will do more than merely pull it out and gaze with fondness on the truths contained. May we be wise enough to apply the gnomic truths to our hearts and let the truths penetrate into the very fibers of our character.
INTRODUCTION TO THE WEALTH OF WISDOM
This blog post will limit itself to the discussion of Hebrew wisdom as found in the Bible. Proverbs, Job, and Ecclesiastes make up the largest category called Hebrew Wisdom and some scholars included the Song of Solomon (Song of Songs). Even some of the Psalms fall under this category. Not every verse of these books reflects ‘Hebrew wisdom.’
While many proverbs are found in the books mentioned above proverbs appear in many other books and even in the New Testament. Two examples suffice: Jesus’ teachings in the Gospels and the Book of James. Almost all books of the Bible contain these proverbial statements. Genesis 4:9 asks, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” Psalm 334:8, “Taste and see that the Lord is good.” Even 1 Corinthians 13:13, “so faith, hope, and love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love (RSV).
WHAT IS THE WEALTH OF WISDOM?
Wisdom is the ability to see our situations in life as God sees them. Or wisdom involves the skill to employ godly choices in life (Fee, How to Read the Bible, 225). The process is to apply God’s Word to our lives and thereby we make godly choices. If only it were that easy!
Proverbs are one of the most common forms of Wisdom literature. Robert H. Stein defines ‘proverb’ as “a pithy saying that expresses a general truth that has become common property whose authorship is generally unknown” (Stein, Playing by the Rules, 131).
Three categories capture our attention in the study of Proverbs.
1) Maxims or proverbs handing out advice on behavior,
2) axiom, or proverbs whose truth is assumed to be self-evident, and
3) aphorism, or a proverb which contains a concise statement of a principle or truth.
Remember the purpose of the wisdom books is the develop character into the reader. The collection of proverbs provides the reader with generalized insights into godly living. The literature is intended to guide the reader into making godly choices. R. B. Y Scott explains, “has to do how men (and women) ought to act in the workaday world, with personal character, and with a way of life that can be called good because it has coherence, value, and meaning.” (Scott, The Way of Wisdom in the Old Testament, 5).
HOW CAN THE WEALTH OF WISDOM CHARACTERIZED?
Leland Ryken highlights five essential characteristics of proverbs:
1) Proverbs are striking and memorable. The goal of a biblical proverb is to help us remember its gnomic truth.
2) Proverbs are both simple and profound. While a proverb may be short, the depth of truth contained in it may never be fully mined.
3) Proverbs are both specific and general. Proverbs highlight a universal bent in life.
4) Proverbs are often poetic in form. Many of the proverbs are presented in parallel statements. Metaphor and simile appear quite often among the proverbs. 5) Proverbs are observations about human experience. The writers of Hebrew Wisdom were the most observant of their day and were able to relate the truths observed into written form. (Leland Ryken, How to Read the Bible as Literature, 122-123.
A common feature demanding that it be kept in the mind when studying proverbs is that the Hebrew author was presenting general truths and did not worry about exceptions to the truth he expressed. The proverb writer believed his reader would employ common sense and recognize that the proverb might not apply to every situation.
HOW DO WE GAIN UNDERSTANDING FROM THE WEALTH OF WISDOM?
First, remember that the wisdom literature, in general, and the Proverbs, specifically, present probable truth and not absolute truth. These point out general patterns of behavior which provides the reader with potential success if followed. These are not “legal guarantees” from God. Their aim is to present a truth in a memorable manner without seeking to cover every conceivable life situation. Stated another way, the proverb does not concern itself with possible exceptions to its truth. The statement merely ignores it from thought.
Second, attempt to avoid placing modern, Western thoughts upon the statements. Most of the proverbial statements reflect a simply and content life. Any thoughts of affluence and abundance are generally imposed on these sayings. The life of the ancient Hebrew proverbial writers were simple: simple houses, a desire to have enough food to eat, and a general hope for a happy life.
Thirdly, the starting point is with the literary categories which make up the proverb. As stated earlier, we must ask does the proverb present itself in parallelism form, as simile, as metaphor, as a word play or even in narrative? Paying attention to these literary forms releases the potential for the reader to grasp the intended meaning of the original writer.
Finally, one handy method to study the proverbs comes when these are categorized according to topic: family, money, business dealings, etc. Or the proverbs may be examined according to character traits: the lazy man, the frugal man, the wicked man, etc.
ARE THERE RESOURCES TO HELP UNDERSTAND AND APPLY THE WEALTH OF WISDOM?
Alter, R. The Art of Biblical Poetry. New York: Basic Books, 1985.
Fee, Gorden D. and Douglass Stuart. How to Read the Bible for all its Worth. 3rd ed. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2003
Murphy, R. E. The Tree of Life: An Exploration of Biblical Wisdom Literature, 2nd ed. Grand Rapids: Eerdman’s, 1996.
Ryken, L. How to Read the Bible as Literature. Grand Rapids: Zondervan/Academic Books, 1984.
Stein, Robert H. A Basic Guide to Interpreting the Bible. 2nd ed. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2001.