Wisdom literature is a form of writing that was common among the nations of the Ancient Near East, including Egypt, Mesopotamia, Phoenicia, Canaan, and Israel. Sages, wise men, and court scribes shared practical, intelligent maxims concerning how to live life well and contemplated the meaning and value of being human. Mashals were the most common form of wise sayings, taught orally in schools by sages to young men of the king’s court. In its simplest form, a mashal is a couplet comparing two contrasting ideas or opposing concepts.
The two principal types of wisdom are practical wisdom and speculative wisdom. Practical wisdom consists primarily of wise maxims providing prudent instruction in how to lead a successful, happy life. Speculative wisdom, on the other hand, dwells deeper into the human experience, wrestling with the problems concerning good and evil and the value of life.
Wisdom literature is found throughout the Bible in both the Old and New Testaments, as well as several extra-canonical writings like Tobit, Wisdom of Ben Sirach, and IV Maccabees.
Primarily written by Solomon, son of David, the Book of Proverbs is a collection of wise sayings gathered by several different individuals. Proverbs is a treasure trove of pragmatic wisdom exploring every facet of life. It describes the order and purpose of life, offers discernment in decision-making, and details a path to finding fulfillment in living for the glory of God.
Proverbs 1:1-7 (ESV)
1 The proverbs of Solomon, son of David, king of Israel:
2 To know wisdom and instruction,
to understand words of insight,
3 to receive instruction in wise dealing,
in righteousness, justice, and equity;
4 to give prudence to the simple,
knowledge and discretion to the youth—
5 Let the wise hear and increase in learning,
and the one who understands obtain guidance,
6 to understand a proverb and a saying,
the words of the wise and their riddles.
7 The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge;
fools despise wisdom and instruction.
A number of words found in the introductory section recur repeatedly throughout the Book of Proverbs. The word “wisdom” found in verse 2 refers to the ability to use knowledge correctly. It occurs dozens of times in Proverbs. “Instruction”, also in verse 2, means to teach discipline, while “intelligence” can be rendered as discernment. Righteousness, justice, and equity shape the principles binding the book. Prudence, skill, and character are expressions of wisdom. The writer declares only an arrogant, blustering fool would discard God’s wisdom and instruction while making clear that a happy and successful life is rooted in having the proper respect and reverence for God.
A valued commodity in ancient times, wisdom remains a much-needed resource in today’s 21st-century life.
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Ironside, H.A. (1908). Notes on the Book of Proverbs. Loizeaux Brothers. Neptune, New Jersey.
Lockyer, Herbert (1966). All the Books and Chapters of the Bible. Zondervan. Grand Rapids, Michigan.
Wiersbe, Warren W. (1995). Be Skillful: God’s Guidebook to Wise Living. OT Commentary: Proverbs. David Cook. Colorado Springs, CO.