The Tree of Life

Wisdom literature

Based on Roland E. Murthy

How many books?

Hebrew Bible (Protestant) - Proverbs, Job, and Ecclesiastes

Catholic and Orthodox - The three above plus Ecclesiasticus (Sirach) and the Wisdom of Solomon.

Their characteristic

The absence of what one considers as typically Jewish.

There is no mention of:
(1) the promises to the patriarchs,
(2) Exodus and Moses,
(3) the covenant and Sinai,
(4) the promise to David (2 Sam 7).

The exceptions are Sir 44-50 and Wisdom 11-19 which are relatively late books.

Wisdom deals with daily human experience in the world God created - not with the action of God in Israel’s history (like Pentateuch and historical books). But . . .

The God of Israel is also the God who gives wisdom (Prov 2:6);

They are closely associated with king Solomon known for his wisdom (1 Kings 3-10 - see 1 Kings 3:9; 5:9-14).

Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and Wisdom of Solomon are attributed to Solomon as “author”.

Christian Tradition understanding

They were meant to instruct humankind in the three stages of the spiritual life.

1. For Beginners - The Proverbs - Teaching us how to live virtuously in the world.

2. For those making progress - Ecclesiastes - teaching us how to despise the things of this world as vain and fleeting.

3. The Song of Songs (The Song of Solomon) for the “advanced” - initiating us into the love of God.

Who were those sages

Perhaps, parents (grandparents) were the first sages before a professional sages came into the stage. And so the home was perhaps the original place of wisdom teaching.

Wisdom was first transmitted orally before it was written down in the books. The wisdom saying grew out of human situation and needs.

Who were those sages

In the later stage, wisdom became associated with professional sages and counsellors (see 2 Sam 16:20-23 - Ahitophel; 1 Kings 12:6).

According to Jeremiah 18:18:

the law was associated with the priest;
counsel with the wise;
And the word with the prophet.

The language and Literary Forms


Prov 18:22 - if A than the more so B - the second line intensifies the first line.

Prov 10:5 - opposition that makes an idea clear.

Prov 16:3 - second line draws conclusion from the first one.

Literary Forms

Two main forms:

1. The saying

2. Admonition

The saying

A sentence usually expressed in the indicative mood and based upon experience.

It can be one line or two parallel lines.

Example: 1 Kings 20:11

Two types of saying

The experiential saying

The didactic saying

The experiential saying

The experiential saying tells us “the way it is” but we have to verify it.

Exemple Prov 13:12:

“Hope deferred makes the heart sick,
but a desire fulfilled is a tree of life”.

This psychological observation informs us how things are in human experience.

The didactic saying

The didactic saying promotes a given ideal or value, a course of action.

Prov 14:31: “Whoever oppresses a poor man insults his Maker,
but he who is generous to the needy honors him”.

Generosity as a value

Prov 10:30: “The righteous will never be removed,
but the wicked will not dwell in the land”.

A call to walk in the way of righteousness.

Then we also have

1. The “good” or “not good” saying. Example Prov 19:2.

2. The “better” saying. Example Ecclesiastes 7:5; Prov 15:16.

3. The numerical saying. Example Prov 30:24-31.

4. The “abomination saying”. Example Prov 11:1; cf. Prov 20:10,23)

5. The “blessed” saying. Ps 1, Matt 5:3. Example Prov 28:14.

6. A saying that draws conclusion on the basis of assertion.
Prov 15:11 “Sheol and Abaddon lie open before the Lord;
how much more the hearts of the children of man!” See also Sir 10:30.




Positive Admonition - Command

Usually in imperative. Example Prov 16:3.
“Commit your work to the Lord,
and your plans will be established”.

Compare with a saying in Prov 16:20 that presents similar idea.

Negative Admonition - Prohibition

Example 22:22-23

“Do not rob the poor, because he is poor, or crush the afflicted at the gate, for the Lord will plead their cause and rob of life those who rob them”.

Notice that there is a reason added to this prohibition.

Other forms

Wisdom poem:

Example: Prov 2:1-22 - alphabetical poem - 22 lines - 22 Hebrew letters;

Prov 30:1-31;

Psalm 34 - a wisdom psalm.

Other forms

Lament - Job 3

Reflection - Ecclesiastes 2:12-17; 18-26.

Important note

A proverb presents only a narrow slice of reality.

It should be understood within a context it was at first uttered.

Other forms

Prov 27:21: “The crucible is for silver, and the furnace is for gold, and a man is tested by his praise”;

Prov 25:23: “The north wind brings forth rain, and a backbiting tongue, angry looks”.

These sayings are generalisations.

But, there is always a possibility of exception.

And there is also the mystery of God that can surprise us as well (Prov 21:30-31; 16:9; 20:24).

The proverbs should not be interpreted in a dogmatic fashion.

Neither anyone should deem himself wise (Prov 26:12).

Moreover, we can even find a statement a little folly is also good (Ecclesiastes 10:1).

Good advice

“Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not lean on your own understanding” (Prov 3:5).

“Be not wise in your own eyes; fear the Lord, and turn away from evil” (Prov 3:7).

Sirach 2:6-10; Jer 9:23-24.