Biblical Wisdom Literature

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Excerpted from Anchor Bible (Proverbs and Ecclesiastes) by R.B.Y. Scott, © 1965 by Doubleday, a division of Random House Inc.  Used with permission of Doubleday, a division of Random House, Inc. 

The Wisdom Books

The third part of the Hebrew Bible, "the Writings" [Hagiographa] is more miscellaneous in content (than the other two major sections of the Bible, the Torah and the Prophets). It is the part of the Old Testament (Hebrew Bible) least dominated by priestly and prophetic interests, and in which "the wise man's counsel" is most prominent. Three of its major works, Proverbs, Job, and Ecclesiastes (Kohelet) are "Wisdom books," as the Psalms and the Song of Songs are also, according to the ancient reckoning.

biblical wisdom literatureOf the remainder [of the books in Writings], Lamentations contains five additional psalms of a particular kind, Ruth is a parable, Esther and Daniel turn in part on the superior wisdom of Jewish piety, and the priest‑scribe Ezra of Ezra‑Nehemiah is described as endowed with divine wisdom (Ezra 7:25)

What is Wisdom?

At one level it is intelligence or shrewdness. At the next it is good sense, sound judgment, and moral understanding. "A clever man's wisdom makes him behave intelligently" (Proverbs 14:8). A third level is the capacity to consider profounder problems of human life and destiny. "Buy truth, and do not sell wisdom, instruction, and understanding" (Proverbs 23:23).

Wisdom thus becomes the fruit of the unending quest for the meaning of man's experience of life and religion. "Where shall wisdom be found?" asks the Book of Job. "Man does not know the way to it. It is hidden from the eyes of all living things, God understands the way to it" (Job 28:12, 21, 23). The search for the higher wisdom led to the twin convictions that, in the last analysis, wisdom comes to man only as a divine gift, and that it belongs to the very nature of God himself.

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Robert Balgarnie Young Scott (1899-1987) was one of Canada's most renowned Bible scholars. He taught at universities in both Canada and in the U.S.; his last appointment was as the William H. Danforth Professor of Religion at Princeton University. He was the author of numerous articles and commentaries.