Walking with the wise: Learning from the Bible’s poetic wisdom

Walk with the wise and become wise;
associate with fools and get in trouble.

Proverbs 13:20

Sounds like good advice, doesn’t it? Thankfully, the Bible provides a number of books we refer to as ‘wisdom literature.’ Last week, we explored the Book of Psalms, and many of the psalms were intended to pass on wisdom. In addition to these psalms, we have the books of Job, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes and the Song of Songs. We’ll take a look at each of these, but first we need to know exactly what we’re talking about.

The passage I quoted above teaches us to walk with the wise and to not associate with fools. Does this mean we should seek out the brightest people to spend time with, and avoid those who are not quite as sharp? Should we have people take an IQ test before we hang out with them? The word wise in the Bible doesn’t have anything to do with intelligence. It refers to someone who has a ‘skill for living,’ particularly in the sense of making choices and decisions that are truly godly. On the other hand, fools aren’t people who are ignorant or unintelligent, but those who willingly resist and defy what they know to be right, and insist on stubbornly doing their own thing. This is why:

Fear of the LORD is the foundation of wisdom.
Knowledge of the Holy One results in good judgment.

Proverbs 9:10

So if these biblical books will help us gain this skill in living godly, healthy lives, we should take a closer look.


Job

The book of Job is a very ancient book, possibly even written before the time of Moses. Many people are familiar with the basic story: God allowed Satan to harm Job (but not to kill him). Through tragedy after tragedy, Job lost almost everything he knew and loved. Despite being tempted even by his wife to “curse God and die” (Job 2:9), Job held onto his faith in God, movingly expressed in words such as these:

Though he slay me, yet will I hope in him.

Job 13:15 (NIV)

 

The LORD gave and the LORD has taken away;
may the name of the LORD be praised.

Job 1:21

The book of Job begins and ends with the story of Job, but most of the book is a poetic exchange between Job and his friends (and ultimately God). It’s easy to get lost in all the Hebrew poetry, so it’s important to pay attention to who’s speaking at any given point. This is especially necessary because Job’s friends have an understanding of Job’s predicament that is completely upside down. They tell him repeatedly, in very poetic words, that all of his troubles are because of his sin. They insist that if he would simply repent to God and stop sinning, then all the bad things will stop happening and he’ll experience only what is pleasant. (We still hear this today, don’t we?) Toward the end of the book, God himself rebukes the friends and their condemnation of Job. So we want to make sure we’re not drawing our wisdom from the unwise friends of Job! And we certainly don’t want to be teaching their erroneous thoughts as the wisdom of God—as I’ve seen done!


Ecclesiastes

If you don’t understand what this book is all about, it can be the most depressing book in the Bible. Many believe the author was Solomon, although other scholars disagree. Solomon does seem to fit the author’s descriptions of himself. He was king of Israel, ruling from Jerusalem. He had almost unlimited resources and power. And he made it his goal to discover the ultimate meaning of life. He begins the book with his conclusion:

“Everything is meaningless,”
says the Teacher,
“completely meaningless!”

Ecclesiastes 1:2

Isn’t that uplifting? After describing the continuous, unending cycles within nature, he writes:

Everything is wearisome beyond description.
No matter how much we see, we are never satisfied.
No matter how much we hear, we are not content.
History merely repeats itself.
It has all been done before.
Nothing under the sun is truly new.
We don’t remember what happened in the past,
and in future generations, no one will remember what we are doing now.

Ecclesiastes 1:8-11

In the rest of his book, he tells us of everything he tried in order to find meaning and purpose in life. He poured himself into great accomplishments and building projects, into learning and wisdom. He sought to bring justice and benefit to society, and he sought pleasure for pleasure’s sake. Everything became ultimately meaningless to him, like “grasping oil” or “chasing the wind.” The best he could come up with is to fear God, work hard, and enjoy whatever you have with those you love for as long as you can. (Doesn’t sound that different from the common wisdom of today, does it?) For a book we find in the Bible, it’s surprisingly cynical.

But then we notice a phrase that is repeated throughout the book. The author is describing what he’s found “under the sun.” The meaninglessness and elusive, fleeting sense of purpose is the best one can expect to find by looking merely “under the sun”—that is, from a purely human perspective. Unless we can somehow see life from God’s perspective, this is the most we can hope for. I like to compare the depressing, “under the sun” meaninglessness of Ecclesiastes with the words of Paul in his letter to the Philippians:

I once thought these things were valuable, but now I consider them worthless because of what Christ has done. Yes, everything is worthless when compared with the infinite value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord.

Philippians 3:7-8

So we see only what is under the sun, or we see everything that is under the Son.


Song of Songs

This book (another one associated with Solomon) can be confusing to readers. If you don’t know it’s there, it can seem surprisingly graphic for something in the Bible:

Your lips are like scarlet ribbon;
your mouth is inviting.
Your cheeks are like rosy pomegranates
behind your veil.
Your neck is as beautiful as the tower of David,
jeweled with the shields of a thousand heroes.
Your breasts are like two fawns,
twin fawns of a gazelle grazing among the lilies.
Before the dawn breezes blow
and the night shadows flee,
I will hurry to the mountain of myrrh
and to the hill of frankincense.
You are altogether beautiful, my darling,
beautiful in every way.

Song of Songs 4:3-7

Now, today we wouldn’t ordinarily compliment someone by telling them, “Your teeth are as white as sheep”(!) but it’s not hard to look past the ancient Hebrew expressions to see the emotions being expressed. These are emotions that most of us know well. The church went through a period of history when many were embarrassed by the sexual frankness of this book. So they decided it was an allegory about Christ and the church. The problem is that this book is about precisely what it seems to be about! It’s difficult to read Christ and the church into a passage such as:

You are my private garden,
my treasure, my bride,
a secluded spring, a hidden fountain.
Your thighs shelter a paradise of pomegranates . . .

Song of Songs 4:12-13

Okay, but why is it in the Bible? And why are we talking about this book in a study of the wisdom books in the Bible? Don’t forget what “wisdom” is all about in Scripture. It’s a skillfulness in living a life that is pleasing to God (and therefore healthy). Next to our relationship with God, what is more central to our lives than our marital relationship? And what demonstrates the wisdom of God better than a healthy, vibrant marriage?

I think it’s wonderful that this book is in Scripture. Many times, Christians have viewed sexual intimacy as a necessary evil. But the Bible celebrates this beautiful intimacy between husband and wife. We need to remember that the magic of romantic love and the wondrous intensity of emotional, physical and spiritual intimacy we experience in marriage were all created for us by God. The more we see the precious beauty of God-given sexual intimacy in marriage, the more we clearly see sex outside of the marriage relationship as the cheap imitation it is.


Proverbs

When we think of wisdom literature in the Bible, we usually think of the book of Proverbs, so I’ve kept this book for last. We first need to remember that this is a poetic book, so we should expect the usual poetic forms as I described last week. For instance, one proverb tells us:

Sensible children bring joy to their father;
foolish children despise their mother.

Proverbs 15:20

I recall studying this verse in a Bible study years ago, and someone was trying to explain how this proverb showed the different ways mothers and fathers relate to their children. Of course, if we understand how poetry works in the Scriptures, we’ll know this proverb is simply saying the same thing in two different ways. Don’t make the mistake of overcomplicating poetry.

As we’re reading proverbs in the Bible, one of the most important things for us to remember is the nature of a proverb. What is a proverb? We’re all very familiar with proverbs, even if we’ve never read the Bible before. Every culture has proverbs. A proverb is simply a catchy saying that expresses a general truth. Here’s a common American proverb:

Early to bed, early to rise,
makes a man healthy, wealthy and wise.

Is this proverb true? Well, yes, sure it is. But is it an absolute law? Is every person who goes to bed early and rises early guaranteed health and wealth and wisdom? No, of course not. It’s not some kind of law; it’s just expressing a general principle. It’s a short, pithy expression of something that is generally true, without including all of the clarifying details. That’s what a proverb is—and that’s also what a proverb is in the Bible. Let me give you an example:

Don’t answer the foolish arguments of fools,
or you will become as foolish as they are.

Be sure to answer the foolish arguments of fools,
or they will become wise in their own estimation.

Proverbs 26:4-5

Now, is the Bible contradicting itself? No, because these aren’t absolute commands; they’re expressions of principles that are generally true, and very wise. It’s not hard for us to see the wisdom in both proverbs. We don’t want to lower ourselves to the level of the fool (the person stubbornly defying God) and enter into their silly arguments. It just makes us look as foolish as they. But then there’s also a time to counter foolish arguments. If we just remain silent, the claims of the fool could appear unassailable. So we have two proverbs, wisely giving us both perspectives of this problem.

It’s important that we read the proverbs as they’re intended. The proverbs in Scripture are general principles, not absolute promises. It’s common to hear people claim certain proverbs as promises from God that will never fail.

Direct your child onto the right path,
and when they are older, they will not leave it.

Proverbs 22:6

Is this really telling us that if we raise our kids right, when they’re older they will remain faithful? Are good Christian parents guaranteed to have good Christian children? (Does this mean that God was a faulty ‘parent,’ not directing Adam and Eve onto the right path?) Can we claim this as a promise from God? No, because this isn’t found in the book of Promises, but the book of Proverbs—and that’s exactly what it is, a proverb. This is expressing a general principle—kids tend to continue in life according to how they were raised—not an absolute promise or guarantee. The book of Proverbs was not intended to catalogue promises from God, but short, catchy sayings that make us wiser in how we approach life. We need to use them the way God intended.

A proverb is a general principle,
not an absolute promise.

You’ll find humorous proverbs:

A beautiful woman who lacks discretion
is like a gold ring in a pig’s snout.

Proverbs 11:22

Sarcastic proverbs:

Without oxen a stable stays clean,
but you need a strong ox for a large harvest.

Proverbs 14:4

And proverbs with sober warnings:

There is a path before each person that seems right,
but it ends in death.

Proverbs 14:12

There are two primary truths the wisdom literature in Scripture emphasizes over and over again:

1. True wisdom (skill in living a healthy life) comes from God.

2. Wisdom is of inestimable value, something to be earnestly sought.

Tune your ears to wisdom,
and concentrate on understanding.
Cry out for insight,
and ask for understanding.
Search for them as you would for silver;
seek them like hidden treasures.
Then you will understand what it means to fear the LORD,
and you will gain knowledge of God.

Proverbs 2:2-5

How to study the Bible series:

Which Bible version should I use?

The first three rules of Bible study

Why do have to “study” the Bible?

Where are we?: Getting a feel for the bigger story

You’ve got mail: Opening the letters to the churches

Building bridges: Cultural differences in the letters to the churches

Following the story: God and his people, part 1

The heart of the story: Jesus

Following the story: God and his people, part 2

Acting on Acts: How do we apply Acts to the church today?

Should Christians obey the Ten Commandments?: Christians and the Old Testament law

The psalms: Prayers to God that speak to us

Walking with the wise: Learning from the Bible’s poetic wisdom [see above]

The prophets: God’s messengers, calling his people back

Revelation: The story comes full circle

The psalms: Prayers to God that speak to us

The scene is familiar to most of us. We’ve lost someone we care about, so we gather together to share in our grief. At some point, someone may stand and recite these words:

The LORD is my shepherd;
I have all that I need.
He lets me rest in green meadows;
he leads me beside peaceful streams.
He renews my strength.
He guides me along right paths,
bringing honor to his name.
Even though I walk through the darkest valley,
I will not be afraid,
for you are close beside me.
Your rod and your staff protect and comfort me.
You prepare a feast for me
in the presence of my enemies.
You honor me by anointing my head with oil.
My cup overflows with blessings.
Surely your goodness and unfailing love
will pursue me all the days of my life,
and I will live in the house of the LORD forever.

Many immediately recognize this as the 23rd Psalm. But no matter how many times we’ve heard the words before, they still have an effect on us. David’s expression of trust and confidence in his Shepherd somehow comforts and encourages us as well.

The first thing many of us learn about the Book of Psalms is that it’s the really big book in the middle of the Bible! If you’re trying to find a book in the Old Testament, it helps to know whether it comes before Psalms or after. But the psalms are much more than just a handy navigating tool. In fact, they’ve become some of the best-loved, most-remembered passages in Scripture. What is it about them that draws so many people to the psalms?

Prayers
To begin with, we need to recognize that the psalms are not teaching passages like the letters to the churches, and they’re not straightforward stories, such as in the Gospels and Old Testament history. The psalms are prayers. While, in most of Scripture we’re used to God speaking to his people, in the psalms his people spoke to God.

But these aren’t mere routine, go-through-the-motions prayers. These psalmists express overflowing joy and overwhelming sorrow. Because they prayed from their heart, conveying the depth of their emotions, their prayers still resonate with us. Their joy-filled words help us communicate our joy to God; their thankfulness helps us express our gratitude; the pain and confusion they share free us to cry out to God in our own pain and confusion. In speaking to God they speak to us, and help us to speak to God, too.

So, while the psalms do at times tell a story or refer to theological truths, this isn’t their primary focus. The psalms are much more centered on the emotional aspect of our relationship to God and our spiritual lives than they are delivering information. We should accept the psalms for what they are and not try to glean content from them they’re not intended to convey.

Poetry
The psalms are poetry, and we need to read them this way. They use a lot of colorful, descriptive language that we’re not intended to understand literally. When we’re told that God will “shelter you with his wings” we’re not to imagine God as a giant chicken, and when it says the mountains “skip like a calf” we shouldn’t assume some cataclysmic, geological event. This is the kind of poetic language we should expect in the psalms.

We also need to remember that the psalms are in the Old Testament. While some of the psalms look forward to Christ in amazing, prophetic ways, all of them were written long before Jesus was born. The people who wrote the psalms were still under the Old Covenant that God established with the nation of Israel, so they speak often of the Temple, sacrifices, the law, etc. Some of the psalms were used at special times, such as during Passover or the coronation of a new king. This doesn’t mean they can’t be meaningful to us now, but we need to understand them in their historical context.

Music
You’ll also notice they’re numbered. The psalms were prayers set to music, and the Book of Psalms was the songbook for the people of Israel. Each psalm is an individual unit and may focus on a completely different subject than the psalms before and after it. So when we’re reading the psalms, we don’t look at context quite the same as we do in other, more cohesive, books of the Bible.

Because the psalms are music, they’re structured in ways that show their lyrical nature. Many of the psalms have verses and a repeating chorus. Some are call-and-repeat type songs. All of them follow standard forms of Hebrew poetry. One of the most common forms (which we see throughout the psalms and in many other poetic sections in the Bible) is to have two lines say essentially the same thing in a slightly different, creative way:

The heavens proclaim the glory of God.
The skies display his craftsmanship.
Day after day they continue to speak;
night after night they make him known.
They speak without a sound or word;
their voice is never heard.
Yet their message has gone throughout the earth,
and their words to all the world.

Psalm 19:1-4

Do you see how each pair of lines is saying the same thing in slightly different ways? It’s helpful for us to know that this is a common way for Hebrew poetry to work. When the psalm says “the skies display his craftsmanship,” it’s saying essentially the same thing as “the heavens proclaim the glory of God.” If we try to contrast what’s happening “day after day” in verse 2 from what’s happening “night after night,” we’re missing the point—or better put, the poetry—of the psalm. When you read the psalms, read them the way you would song lyrics, sensing the emotional depth of what the psalmist is expressing.

Psalms to fit every need
Just as there are many different emotions involved in our spiritual lives, so there’s more than one kind of psalm. There are psalms of celebration:

Shout with joy to the LORD, all the earth!
Worship the LORD with gladness.
Come before him, singing with joy.
Acknowledge that the LORD is God!
He made us, and we are his.
We are his people, the sheep of his pasture.
Enter his gates with thanksgiving;
go into his courts with praise.
Give thanks to him and praise his name.
For the LORD is good.
His unfailing love continues forever,
and his faithfulness continues to each generation.

Psalm 100

There are psalms of worshipful adoration:

O God, you are my God;
I earnestly search for you.
My soul thirsts for you;
my whole body longs for you
in this parched and weary land
where there is no water.
I have seen you in your sanctuary
and gazed upon your power and glory.
Your unfailing love is better than life itself;
how I praise you!
I will praise you as long as I live,
lifting up my hands to you in prayer.
You satisfy me more than the richest feast.
I will praise you with songs of joy.

Psalm 63:1-5

There are psalms of repentance:

Have mercy on me, O God,
because of your unfailing love.
Because of your great compassion,
blot out the stain of my sins.
Wash me clean from my guilt.
Purify me from my sin.
For I recognize my rebellion;
it haunts me day and night.
Against you, and you alone, have I sinned;
I have done what is evil in your sight.
You will be proved right in what you say,
and your judgment against me is just. . . .
Purify me from my sins, and I will be clean;
wash me, and I will be whiter than snow.
Oh, give me back my joy again;
you have broken me—
now let me rejoice.
Don’t keep looking at my sins.
Remove the stain of my guilt.
Create in me a clean heart, O God.
Renew a loyal spirit within me.
Do not banish me from your presence,
and don’t take your Holy Spirit from me.
Restore to me the joy of your salvation,
and make me willing to obey you.
Then I will teach your ways to rebels,
and they will return to you.
Forgive me for shedding blood, O God who saves;
then I will joyfully sing of your forgiveness.
Unseal my lips, O Lord,
that my mouth may praise you.
You do not desire a sacrifice, or I would offer one.
You do not want a burnt offering.
The sacrifice you desire is a broken spirit.
You will not reject a broken and repentant heart, O God.

Psalm 51:1-17

There are psalms to help us cry out to God when we’re confused and discouraged:

O LORD, low long will you forget me? Forever?
How long will you look the other way?
How long must I struggle with anguish in my soul,
with sorrow in my heart every day?
How long will my enemy have the upper hand?
Turn and answer me, O LORD my God!
Restore the sparkle to my eyes, or I will die.
Don’t let my enemies gloat, saying, “We have defeated him!”
Don’t let them rejoice at my downfall.
But I trust in your unfailing love.
I will rejoice because you have rescued me.
I will sing to the LORD because he is good to me.

Psalm 13

Notice how David (the author of this psalm) asks God, “How long will you forget me?” and “How long will you look the other way?” Does this mean God was actually forgetting him or looking the other way? No, it doesn’t. Remember these aren’t God’s words to David (and us), they’re David’s words to God. They tell us movingly how David felt. And this speaks to us because we’ve felt the same way. This encourages us that we can express to God exactly what we’re feeling. We can pour out our sorrow and frustration to God.

But also notice that David doesn’t give up on his faith in God. After crying out with such anguish—and probably contrary to everything he was feeling and experiencing—David chooses to cling to his hope in God: “But I trust in your unfailing love. I will rejoice . . . I will sing to the LORD . . .”

We even see in the psalms that we can express our anger to God:

Bring shame and disgrace on those trying to kill me;
turn them back and humiliate those who want to harm me.
Blow them away like chaff in the wind—
a wind sent by the angel of the LORD.
Make their path dark and slippery,
with the angel of the LORD pursuing them.
I did them no wrong, but they laid a trap for me.
I did them no wrong, but they dug a pit to catch me.
So let sudden ruin come upon them!
Let them be caught in the trap they set for me!
Let them be destroyed in the pit they dug for me.

Psalm 35:4-8

Is this what God wants for David’s enemies? Not necessarily. This doesn’t tell us God wants to harm or destroy these people anymore than Psalm 13 tells us God forgot David. This is David’s prayer to God, not God’s answer. This perfectly reveals to us the heart of David, not the heart of God. And we can’t forget we now follow the perfect example of Jesus who taught us to love our enemies and do good to those who hate us, the one who prayed, “Father forgive them, for they don’t know what they’re doing.” But these psalms do show us we can express and confess our anger to God. After all, he already knows how mad we are. We can’t hide our anger from him! Better to pour out our feelings to God, than to vent our rage at someone else.

The psalms are a beautiful example of God meeting us where we’re at. No matter what emotions or circumstances we’re struggling with, God has provided us examples of other believers wrestling with the very same things. This should comfort us that we’re not alone in our experiences; other children of God have felt the same things, and God has faithfully brought them through to the other side. And these psalms should encourage us to do as they did: pour out our highest praise, deepest anguish, and most intense longings to the One who loves us more than we can possibly imagine. He is our Shepherd, and he will lovingly care for us.

How to study the Bible series:

Which Bible version should I use?

The first three rules of Bible study

Why do we have to “study” the Bible?

Where are we?: Getting a feel for the bigger story

You’ve got mail: Opening the letters to the churches

Building bridges: Cultural differences in the letters to the churches

Following the story: God and his people, part 1

The heart of the story: Jesus

Following the story: God and his people, part 2

Acting on Acts: How do we apply Acts to the church today?

Should Christians obey the Ten Commandments?: Christians and the Old Testament law

The psalms: Prayers to God that speak to us [see above]

Walking with the wise: Learning from the Bible’s poetic wisdom

The prophets: God’s messengers, calling his people back

Revelation: The story comes full circle