Who doesn’t want to be wise? Everyone wants to be wise! No one wants to make foolish decisions that they will later regret. And Christians especially want to know how to make decisions that are pleasing to the Lord.
That’s why we have the wisdom literature in our Bible (for my purposes here, I’m lumping in Job, Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and Song of Solomon, all in this category). These books are given specifically so that we could know how to live wisely.
But the problem is that when we pick up these books, we’re often filled with more questions than answers: How come these statements aren’t always true in my life? How come some back-to-back statements seem to contradict each other (Prov 26.4-5)? What are all these strange forms of sayings and strange images? How is someone ever supposed to live on the corner of a roof anyway (Prov 25.24)?
Here are ten hopefully helpful principles for interpreting Wisdom Literature. It’s important that we get this right, since this is God’s means of helping us to become wise.
10 Principles for Interpreting Wisdom Literature: 1
- Think practice, not theory: understand the purpose of wisdom literature is simply to make me wise (Prov 1.4)
- Understand the true meaning of wisdom: the ability to discern truth from error in real life contexts and to make righteous life decisions in the fear of God
- Remember that wisdom literature is more concerned with the application of sound theology in specific life contexts, than with teaching the basics of doctrine; let the clearly didactic sections of Scripture have priority in formalizing and finalizing our theology
- Familiarize yourself with wisdom devices: synonymous parallelism (Prov 7.4), antithetical parallelism (Prov 10.1), parables, allegories, riddles, merism, metonymy, synecdoche, personification, etc.
- Always consider that wisdom is a candy meant to be savoured, not chomped; don’t settle for first impressions from proverbs or sayings, but ponder and consider
- Proverbs are not legal guarantees from God (e.g. Prov 15.25 isn’t always the case in the world)
- Proverbs must be read as a whole collection, each part balancing another (e.g. Prov 6.20 presumes fear of the Lord has priority over a father’s command, and Prov 21.22 is not counselling foolhardiness in war strategies)
- Proverbs are worded to be memorable, not theologically precise (compare Prov 15.19 with the whole account of Job, for example)
- Some Proverbs will need to be translated in order to be appreciated; a good study Bible or a popular-level commentary will always prove helpful when trying to interpret cultural elements embedded in the sayings (for instance, understanding Ancient Near Eastern roofs will help us better appreciate Prov 21.9)
- All wisdom literature is to point us forward to the only one who made ultimately wise decisions and lived a perfectly God-fearing life in the midst of this broken world. When we see our foolishness we see our need for his grace and his perfectly lived righteousness credited to us. If you leave the wisdom literature thinking, ‘Okay, now I can live a good life and please God on my own strength,’ you’ve missed the point.
- This list is made up from my reflections on various sources including How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth by Fee & Stuart, Introduction to Biblical Interpretation by Klein, Blomberg, and Hubbard, An Invitation to Biblical Interpretation by Kostenberger and Patterson, and Knowing Scripture by RC Sproul. ↩