Bible Old Testament: The Wisdom Writings
Summary by Michael McGoodwin, prepared 1989

Acknowledgement: These books have been summarized using The New International Version Study Bible (NIV translation 1973--84, published Zondervan 1985).  Quotations are for the most part taken from that work, as are paraphrases of its commentary--thus the notes reflect the devoutly evangelical flavor and point of view of that commentary.  Other sources are explicitly cited below.


Job

The author of Job was undoubtedly an Israelite, probably writing between Solomon and the exile (i.e., 970 and 586). Job is a non-Israelite living probably late in the second millennium. It is difficult to translate from the original Hebrew. Its subject is theodicy--the vindication of God's justice in light of human suffering. It assumes that God is almighty and just and asks whether an individual's suffering indicates the degree of his guilt in God's eyes. The explanation for this apparent enigma is that a third party, Satan ("the accuser") intrudes in the relationship between God and man. He seeks to alienate man from God (by causing unjustified suffering) and God from man (by showing that Job is righteous only because it brings direct benefits on him). Man's suffering results because of this struggle between God and Satan and his righteousness is essential to keep Satan from winning. Much of the dialogue is presented in the form of legal disputation.

Job is initially presented as a righteous family man, fearing God and leading a happy and highly prosperous life. Satan comes with the angels ("sons of God") to God and challenges God to a test of Job's righteousness, saying "But stretch out your hand and strike everything he has, and he will surely curse you to your face." God accepts the challenge and Satan first is allowed to kill Job's sons and daughters, livestock and servants. Job responds with resignation: "Naked I came from my mother's womb, and naked will I depart. The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away; may the name of the Lord be praised." But Satan now challenges God to allow him to afflict Job himself as a test. Job is afflicted with painful sores and his wife tells him to "curse God and die." His three friends gather to console him in his suffering. 

Job curses his very birth and existence (but not God), asking "why is light given to those in misery, and life to the bitter soul, to those who long for death that does not come?..." Eliphaz tries to console Job, but in saying "... those who sow trouble reap it.... Man is born to trouble,..." he accuses Job of sinning. Though agreeing that God is aiming his arrows of judgement at him, Job asks for more sympathetic understanding from his friends and refuses to suffer in silence. Bildad takes the heartless view that all the suffering of Job and his children is due to their sins, claiming that "surely God does not reject a blameless man...." Job acknowledges God's greatness and despairs that he could not effectively defend himself in God's presence, as if on trial in a court. Zophar takes a harder line, accusing Job of mocking God and again warning him to avoid sin. Job reacts with sarcasm and points out the unfairness rampant in the world. He wants to argue his case before God, asserting that he would be vindicated over his friends. He then appeals directly to God to hear him out, asking "Why do you hide your face?... Will you chase after dry chaff? For you write down bitter things against me and make me inherit the sins of my youth." He asks God to hide him in a grave until God's anger is passed.

The three friends lose patience and accuses Job of impiety and wickedness, describing in turn and in gruesome detail the terrible fate of the wicked. Job despairs the lack of comforting words from his friends and the rejection he has felt by others. Bildad does not mention any punishment in the realm of death, saying "He is driven from light into darkness and is banished from the world." Job concludes that God has wronged him and has turned away from him: "Though I cry, `I've been wronged!' I get no response.... He has blocked my way so I cannot pass; he has shrouded my paths in darkness. He has stripped me of my honor." Yet he concludes that God will vindicate him after his death and that death will not be the end of his existence: "I know that my Redeemer lives, and that in the end he will stand upon the earth [or `my grave']. And after my skin has been destroyed,... I will see God; I myself will see him with my own eyes.... How my heart yearns within me!" Zophar takes Job's words as an affront. Job again laments that the wicked in fact "spend their years in prosperity" and are seldom punished. He complains that God punishes a man's sons for his own sins. 

Eliphaz unjustly accuses Job of gross sins against the poor and unfortunate, using his current condition as the self-evident proof. He advises Job to submit to God, to forsake wickedness, to pray and obey. But Job despairs his inability to find God in order to present his case. He recognizes God's omnipotence and expresses his fear of him: "But he stands alone, and who can oppose him? He does whatever he pleases. That is why I am terrified before him...." The injustices in the world go unpunished: "The groans of the dying rise from the city, and the souls of the wounded cry out for help. But God charges no one with wrongdoing." Yet he concludes that God keeps his eyes on their ways and that eventually "they are brought low and gathered up like all the others...." Bildad describes the low state of man compared to God: "How can a man be righteous before God? How can one born of woman be pure?" Job expands on the vast power of God and man's limited understanding of his works. Job will maintain his integrity and refuses to speak wickedness ("for what hope has the godless when he is cut off, when God takes away his life?") 

Job asks "where can wisdom be found?" God alone can provide the answer: "`The fear of the Lord--that is wisdom, and to shun evil is understanding.'" Job longs for the happy times of the past and sums up his current plight. He completes his defense, protesting his innocence of all real and imagined charges made against him. 

Elihu, a younger counselor, now joins in, criticizing Job for seeking vindication from God and the others for trying to refute Job rather than letting God do so. He claims to be inspired by the Spirit of God. He also argues that God has not punished Job unjustly and that he cannot be expected to reward Job when he refuses to repent. He advises Job to extol the wonders of God's work. 

The Lord (Yahweh) then speaks to Job out of the storm. He scorns Job's lack of knowledge of the creation of the universe, the heavens, the weather, and the animals, but he does not condemn him. Job cannot defend himself and is silent. God asks "Would you discredit my justice? Would you condemn me to justify yourself?" He describes further his wonders: the behemoth [hippopotamus or elephant?] and the leviathan (which emits firebrands and smoke). Job abjectly repents for questioning God's justice. God criticizes Job's friends (except Elihu) for their own presumption and arrogance and vindicates Job. God restores Job and makes him more prosperous than he ever was before. 

Psalms

In the Septuagint, "Psalms" and "Psalter" referred to stringed instruments and later to songs sung with their accompaniment. In Hebrew, this book was termed "praises" or "prayers". It was compiled in final form in the 3rd Century B.C. and served initially as the prayer book for the second temple. The first two of five books (1-41 and 42-72) originally date from the period of the monarchy and others are also probably preexilic. David undoubtedly wrote some of them. The psalms can be classified as prayers of the individual [3], praise from the individual for God's saving help [23, 30, 34], prayers of the community [12, 44, 79], praise from the community for God's saving help [66, 75], confessions of confidence in the Lord [11, 16, 52], hymns in praise of God's majesty and virtues [8, 19, 29, 65], hymns celebrating God's universal reign [47, 93-99], songs of Zion [46, 48, 76, 84, 122, 126, 129, 137], songs concerning the king [2, 18, 20, 45, 72, 89, 110], pilgrimage songs [120-134], liturgical songs [15, 24, 68], and didactic songs [1, 34, 37, 73, 112, 119, 128, 133]. They are impassioned poems, rich in metaphor and imagery. They do not specifically prophesy the Messiah (except what will be accomplished through David's dynasty) or a new age of righteousness to come. They give voice to the sufferings of God's servants in a hostile world and were taken up by Jesus as His prayers and the prayers of those that followed Him. [Note: the numbering of Psalms differ slightly in the Catholic Bible.]

2: "The kings of the earth take their stand and the rulers gather together...against the Anointed One."
5: "Lead me, O Lord, in your righteousness because of my enemies--make straight your way before me."
6: "No one remembers you [God] when he is dead. Who praises you from the grave?"
8: "When I consider your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars, which you have set in place, what is man that you are mindful of him, the son of man that you care for him?"
13: "How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me?
14: "The fool says in his heart, there is no God." 
15: "Lord, who may dwell in your sanctuary?... He whose walk is blameless and who does what is righteous."
16: "Because you will not abandon me to the grave, nor will you let your Holy One [David, Christ?] see decay... You will fill me with joy in your presence, with eternal pleasures at your right hand [Christ's resurrection?]." 
18: "The Lord is my rock, my fortress, and my deliverer." 
19: The heavens declare the glory of God;... Their voice goes out into all the earth, their words [Paul: the Gospel] to the ends of the world." 
22: "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?... A band of evil men has encircled me, they have pierced my hands and my feet. They divide my garments among them and cast lots for my clothing." [Matthew: said by Jesus on the cross]
23: "The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want...."
24: "Who may ascend the hill of the Lord? Who may stand in his holy place? He who has clean hands and a pure heart... Who is this king of glory? The Lord Almighty--he is the King of glory."
27: The Lord is my light and my salvation--whom shall I fear?... This is what I seek: that I may live in the house of the Lord all the days of my life.... Do not hide your face from me, do not turn your servant away in anger...."
31: "Be my rock of refuge, a strong fortress to save me.... Into your hands I commit my spirit."
37: "Trust in the Lord and do good.... For evil men will be cut off, but those who hope in the Lord will inherit the land.... The meek will inherit the land.... Then you will dwell in the land forever."
39: "Each man's life is but a breath. Man is a mere phantom as he goes to and fro.... "
47: "Shout to God with cries of joy... "
55: "My thoughts trouble me and I am distraught. Fear and trembling have beset me...`Oh, that I had the wings of a dove!'"
66: "Sing the glory of his name, make his praise glorious!"
78: "O my people, hear my teaching;... I will open my mouth in parables [Matthew: Jesus], I will utter hidden things, things from old.... "
84: "How lovely is your dwelling place, O Lord Almighty!... Better is one day in your courts than a thousand elsewhere; I would rather be a doorkeeper in the house of my God than dwell in the tents of the wicked."
88: "Do you show your wonders to the dead? Are your wonders known in the place of darkness, or your righteous deed in the land of oblivion?"
104: "He set the earth on its foundations; it can never be moved.... How many are your works, O Lord!"
110: "The Lord says to my Lord [Jesus?]: `Sit at my right hand... '"
118: "The stone the builders rejected [Israel, Jesus?] has become the capstone... "
121: "I will lift up my eyes to the hills--where does my help come from? My help comes from the Lord, the Maker of heaven and earth.... The Lord watches over you.... The Lord will keep you from all harm.... The Lord will watch over your coming and going both now and forevermore."
148: "Praise the Lord. Praise the Lord from the heavens, praise him in the heights above."

Proverbs

The Hebrew word Proverb translates as "taunt", "oracle", and "parable". Solomon (970 - 930) is the traditional author of some but not all of these proverbs. Hezekiah's men compiled and edited some from 715 to 686 B.C. during a time of spiritual renewal. It consists of wisdom literature that deals generally with practical and philosophic matters dealing with human nature rather than strictly religious issues. They are typically couplets that present a contrast and that describe the consequences of a particular action or trait, often given in figurative language. Their stated purpose was "for attaining wisdom and discipline,...for giving prudence to the simple, knowledge and discretion to the young...." They encourage loving relationships, diligence and hard work, avoidance of arrogance and pride, etc. Wisdom and folly are often personified as women and the proverbs are addressed to males! 

"The lips of the adulteress drip honey.... but in the end she is bitter as gall, sharp as a double-edged sword.... Do not lust in your heart after her beauty.... Her house is a highway to the grave.... "
"Wisdom has built her house; she has hewn out its seven pillars."
"Hatred stirs up dissension but lover covers over all wrongs."
"Wise men store up knowledge but the mouth of a fool invites ruin."
"Like a gold ring in a pig's snout is a beautiful woman who shows no discretion."
"He who brings trouble on his family will inherit only wind."
"A wife of noble character is her husband's crown, but a disgraceful wife is like decay in his bones."
"He who spares the rod hates his son, but he who loves him is careful to discipline him."
"A gentle answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger."
"Pride goes before destruction, a haughty spirit before a fall."
"Better to live on a corner of the roof than share a house with a quarrelsome wife."
"An honest answer is like a kiss on the lips."
"If your enemy is hungry, give him food to eat; if he is thirsty, give him water to drink."
"Do not boast about tomorrow, for you do not know what a day may bring forth."
A wife of noble character.... is worth far more than rubies. She gets up while it is still dark.... She is clothed with strength and dignity.... Charm is deceptive, and beauty is fleeting; but a woman who fears the Lord is to be praised."

Ecclesiastes

Meaning "Teacher", this book may be by King Solomon. The author writes near the end of his life, reflecting on the limitations of human wisdom. Much of his life has been meaningless, perhaps because he had not relied on God [or because of a deep pessimism about the meaning of life that has developed in him.]

"`Meaningless! Meaningless!' says the Teacher.... `Everything is meaningless.' What does man gain from all his labor at which he toils under the sun?... The sun rises and the sun sets.... All things are wearisome, more than one can say.... What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun...."
"What a heavy burden God has laid on men! I have seen all the things that are done under the sun; all of them are meaningless, a chasing after the wind.... For with much wisdom comes much sorrow; the more knowledge, the more grief.
"...Pleasure...also proved to be meaningless.... 
"For the wise man, like the fool, will not be long remembered...."
"I hated all the things I had toiled for under the sun, because I must leave them to the one who comes after me."
"There is a time for everything,...a time to be born and a time to die, a time to plant and a time to uproot, a time to kill and a time to heal, a time to tear down and a time to build,...a time to weep and a time to laugh,...a time to love and a time to hate, a time for war and a time for peace."
"Whatever is has already been, and what will be has been before; and God will call the past to account."
"Guard your steps when you go to the house of God."
"The sleep of a laborer is sweet, whether he eats little or much, but the abundance of a rich man permits him no sleep."
"Naked a man comes form his mother's womb, and as he comes, so he departs."
"There is something else meaningless that occurs on earth: righteous men who get what the wicked deserve, and wicked men who get what the righteous deserve."
"The hearts of men, moreover, are full of evil."
"Enjoy .... all the days of this meaningless life,... for in the grave where you are going, there is neither working nor planning nor knowledge nor wisdom.... The race is not to the swift or the battle to the strong.... but time and chance happen to them all. Moreover, no man knows when his hour will come."
"Cast your bread upon the waters [i.e., be adventurous] for after many days you will find it again."
"As you do not know the path of the wind, or how the body is formed in the mother's womb, so you cannot understand the work of God, the Maker of all things."
"Remember your Creator in the days of your youth."
"Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man."

Song of Songs

Solomon is said to be the author of this "greatest of songs" although that is uncertain. It is wisdom literature celebrating an amorous relationship, depicting love in all its intimacy, spontaneity, power, and exclusiveness. Previously, it was held to be an allegory of the love between God and Israel, etc. The woman's voice in the Song ("Beloved") speaks profoundly of love, suggesting that it is a gift of the Lord to man. 

Beloved: "Your love is more delightful than wine.... Our bed is verdant.... I am a rose of Sharon, a lily of the valleys. My lover is mine and I am his; he browses among the lilies. "Let my lover come into his garden and taste its choice fruits.... Place me like a seal over your heart, like a seal on your arm; for love is as strong as death, its jealousy unyielding as the grave. It burns like blazing fire, like a mighty flame [kindled by God?]. Many waters cannot quench love; rivers cannot wash it away.... Come away, my lover, and be like a gazelle or like a young stag on the spice-laden mountains."