I’ve been feeling the need for wisdom, so I naturally thought of the so-called wisdom literature of Hebrew scripture. I’ve never been much of a fan of Proverbs (don’t laugh), so I bypassed that collection. The other main canonical wisdom works—Job and Ecclesiastes¹—are more to my taste. Now, I had just received a quarterly periodical from The Bible Project,² and the particular issue happened to be devoted to wisdom literature. I gleaned some very good things from the periodical, and I’ll come back to a few of those.
A couple Saturdays ago, I spent a couple hours reading Ecclesiastes in a new-to-me version, The Voice. This Bible had me hooked with the first line of the editors’ introduction: “One of the most enigmatic books of the Old Testament, . . .” Then “the teacher” of Ecclesiastes itself drew me in much further. At the end of chapter 2, I was overwhelmed by the mounting up of all the things it’s possible to be enthused over. No surprise if you’ve read it before, but no possibility turns out to be a lasting one!
Chapter 5 offers, “It is better to quietly reverence God” (5:2 and 5:8). After trying to ignore the split infinitive, I thought of the proliferation of words in the worship music industry, which displays anything but quiet reverence. Some contemporary worship leaders just won’t shut up. (I have been one of those.) I thought, too, of Matt and Beth Redman’s song “Let My Words Be Few.” The song is not in my top 150—I never prefer such expressions as “in love with you” when referring to adoration of deity—but the song did come to mind since it stresses sparing words as we stand in awe. You can listen here to Phillips, Craig & Dean’s version if you have the time—overlooking, of course, the irony of the fact that the “few words” message is carried by words!
Back to Ecclesiastes. Chapter 6 mentions that it is better to have been stillborn (“an untimely birth” in the RSV, and a “miscarriage” in the NASB) than to live without the soul’s satisfaction. The “study note” comment in The Voice version seeks to divert attention from the starkness of this “wisdom,” but I rather think the editors might be embarrassed at part of the philosophy here. “Believers pray for a good life for all of God’s creatures,” they assert, as they amplify the comparison between (1) one who doesn’t find good in this life and (2) a child who never draws breath. That does seem to be an emphasis of Ecclesiastes. Still, I think it is wise to hold onto eternal values while attaining to the worldview of the Teacher. When he says something so patently unpalatable as “it is better if it had been a miscarried birth,” it might be poetic hyperbole, but it also might bear the wisdom of a focus on the eternal life over the here-and-now.
Tomorrow: part 2
¹ Some wisdom literature may be found in various Psalms. My mother encouraged me to read Psalm 30 recently, for instance, and there was wisdom there for me. The Song of Songs is classed here, as well, but I would say the category has then been morphed to “poetry,” not “wisdom.” Among the influential wisdeom writings, we shouldn’t discount some of the “apocryphal” writings such as Wisdom of Solomon and Sirach. These books were included in the Septuagint, which was the Greek version of the “Old Testament” in wide use around the time of Jesus.
² Editors-teachers Tim Mackie and Jon Collins of TBP have a “unified and linear” motif in their videos, believing that the Bible is a “unified story that points to Jesus.” Personally, I am cautious about both the “unified” and the “linear” ideas, although there are clearly unifying elements and themes among the various documents, and although I certainly believe Jesus is central in human and redemptive history. I don’t think these concerns play into the content of this issue of the periodical—or of this post on wisdom literature.