Few Old Testament books are more puzzling than Job and Ecclesiastes. And few books are more frequently misunderstood and misapplied than Proverbs. The Wisdom literature of the Hebrews may be challenging for Western minds to grasp, but it is very rewarding. Craig Bartholomew and Ryan O’Dowd have helped the student of the Bible’s Wisdom literature immensely with their new book Old Testament Wisdom Literature: A Theological Introduction, from IVP Academic.
The authors aim to introduce the reader to Wisdom literature and the theology behind it. This is not just a commentary, although they do offer plenty of insights and comments along the way. Rather it is an introduction and orientation after which one will be more prepared to pick up a commentary an study the Wisdom books more closely.
After the author’s preface and introduction, the book starts with an introduction to Old Testament Wisdom. They compare Egyptian and Babylonian wisdom writings with that of the Hebrews, showing the similarities and differences. The authors appreciate the insights such comparisons provide but make no apologies for the unique approach that the Bible presents. Rather than a pantheon of gods and contradictory wisdom writings, Israel is presented with the one true God, in whose fear is the only place where wisdom can be found.
Next the book gives a helpful treatment of poetry, it’s role in life and the three OT books which are the focus of this work (Job, Ecclesiastes and Proverbs), as well as a discussion of the techniques of Hebrew poetry.
After these introductory chapters, each OT book is discussed as a whole followed by a more in-depth treatment of one special passage \”“ Prov. 31, Job 28, and Eccl. 3:1-15. Next comes a discussion of Jesus as the Wisdom of God, where the New Testament’s treatment of Wisdom and its portrayal of Jesus Christ as Wisdom incarnate.
The book ends with a discussion of the theology of OT Wisdom and then an application of how Wisdom is relevant for today.
My copy of this book is filled with dog-eared pages, scribbles and underlined sections. The authors have done a fabulous job of bringing the best research to bear and digging up the most appropriate quotes for each theme they address. They do a masterful job of discrediting the current criticism of OT Wisdom literature that Proverbs focuses strictly on act-consequence and Job and Ecclesiastes offer a counterpoint or crisis where such a simplistic view is shown to be untenable. Bartholomew and O’Dowd argue that Job and Ecclesiastes merely make what’s implicit in Proverbs, explicit. The nuances and tension in Proverbs itself finds expression in Job and Ecclesiastes. The character of the righteous life is what is blessed in Proverbs, not righteous actions by themselves. And life on earth never realizes divine justice in full.
Proverbs in all its diversity is carefully handled, and I especially appreciated the emphasis on Lady Wisdom and how the Proverbs 31 woman may be understood as Wisdom personified, in a theological way.
The discussion of Job was most illuminating. The struggle and difficulty one has in trying to read through Job is part of the genius of the book, illustrating the perplexing situation Job found himself in. The diagrams in the chapter on Job are helpful, as most of the diagrams sprinkled throughout this work are. I also appreciated the discussion of Job 28 and it’s key role in Job.
Ecclesiastes was similarly handled well. \”The Preacher\” (or Qohelet) is never expressly said to be Solomon, yet a comparison with Solomon is intended by the author/narrator of Ecclesiastes. The treatment of Ecclesiastes shows how the book traces the intellectual struggle of Qohelet as he struggles with employing Greek wisdom to his world yet knowing the truth that Hebrew wisdom had already taught him. Seeing Ecclesiastes as a struggle with many passages set in \”contradictory juxtaposition\” with one another, goes a long way in helping one make sense of the book as a whole.
I very much appreciated the discussion of Jesus as the Wisdom of God, it helps to situate OT Wisdom in the redemptive flow of Scripture. The authors resisted a simplistic equation of Jesus and Lady Wisdom, and take pains to show how the authors of the New Testament in their own unique ways appropriated the Wisdom tradition in their exposition of Jesus Christ and his uniquely Divine status and mission.
The final chapters summarizing OT Wisdom theology and it’s impact today is an outstanding example of how to apply Scripture to life and not leave the heady study of doctrine and theology on a shelf away from life in the real world.
The tenor and tack of the authors is profoundly evangelical, yet appreciative of the insights gained from all sorts of scholars. One won’t agree with all of the conclusions of this book, but the clarity and candor with which the authors present their own view is both commendable and refreshing.
Perhaps the point the authors drive home the most is that OT Wisdom literature is anything but dualistic. It is rooted in creation theology and offers us a way to live in God’s world appreciating all of life. I will close with a summary quote which encapsulates the primary message of the OT Wisdom books.
At the heart of the distinction between folly and wisdom is one’s relation to the creation: does one receive it with joy and wonder as the Lord’s gift, or does one make onself the center around which one relates to the world? The classic term for the latter approach is idolatry. (pg. 316)
I came away from my study of OT Wisdom literature reflecting on the hold idolatry may have in my life. A study of the OT Wisdom books may be just the thing to encourage us to live all of life to God’s glory. Such a study would be greatly helped along by using this book from Bartholomew and O’Dowd as a text-book or study tool. I highly recommend it.
Disclaimer: This book was provided by InterVarsity Press. I was under no obligation to offer a favorable review.