Wisdom: How the World Works
Updated: Feb 12
The most familiar book in the Bible, Psalms, and the most quoted book, Proverbs, are tucked between two books maybe most are aware of but not many want to read. (Guilty.)
Ecclesiastes, like Proverbs, is filled with all sorts of pithy sayings, but unlike the author of Proverbs, this author seems uncertain about a lot of things. The book of Job introduces you to a man lost in whys and what-ifs of life, and if you know anything about his experience, you know that God was involved in his misfortune.
Yet Job and Ecclesiastes are grouped with the book of Proverbs in what scholars call “wisdom literature.” Each brings a unique perspective, and together, the three provide the tension necessary to explore the depths of wisdom.
First, the easy one—the book of Proverbs.
Every culture has its proverbs. They are passed down from generation to generation as instruction and explanation of how the world works. Proverbs are usually simple sayings about the everyday things of life like work or relationships or character. They're expressed in the vernacular of the day and the context of the culture, but their takeaways are timeless and have universal application.
The Bible’s book of Proverbs is a collection attributed to King Solomon, who, when given a chance to ask God for anything at all, asked Him for wisdom. A wise request indeed. These 900 proverbs are a taste of the wisdom God gave him.
The book begins:
The proverbs of Solomon son of David, king of Israel: for gaining wisdom and instruction for understanding words of insight; for receiving instruction in prudent behavior, doing what is right and just and fair. (Proverbs 1:1-3)
Chapters 1 through 9 introduce us to a wise father instructing his son. He portrays wisdom as a lady crying out in the streets, adjuring all within earshot to listen as she reveals the keys that lead to a long and prosperous life. She declares that right decisions lead to positive outcomes; that your actions determine your destiny, and the remainder of the book outlines the specifics.
Some contrast wise and foolish:
A gentle answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger. (Proverbs 15:1)
Some present cause and effect:
Commit to the Lord whatever you do, and he will establish your plans. Proverbs 16:3
Some are clear:
A wise son brings joy to his father, but a foolish son brings grief to his mother. (Proverbs 10:1)
And some are cryptic:
Where there are no oxen, the manger is empty, but from the strength of an ox come abundant harvests. (Proverbs 14:4)
The book of Proverbs presents us with a life that is ordered and fair. It’s like the Hebrews’ version of systematic theology.
But let’s be honest. Life doesn’t always work that way. It isn’t always fair. Bad things happen to good people. Evil people experience success. Wise decisions bomb and foolish behavior bears no consequence.
The author of Ecclesiastes introduces us to the Teacher, a man with a very different view of how the world works.
I, the Teacher, was king over Israel in Jerusalem. I applied my mind to study and to explore by wisdom all that is done under the heavens. What a heavy burden God has laid on mankind! I have seen all the things that are done under the sun; all of them are meaningless, a chasing after the wind. (Ecclesiastes 1:12-14)
Forty times he says “all is hebel,” which translates “vapor or smoke.“ Like vapor or smoke, the things of this life, even life itself, are transitory, temporary, here and gone, constantly changing and always unpredictable.
While Proverbs says:
He holds success in store for the upright, he is a shield to those whose walk is blameless, for he guards the course of the just and protects the way of his faithful ones. (Proverbs 2:7)
The Teacher tells us:
The race is not to the swift or the battle to the strong, nor does food come to the wise or wealth to the brilliant or favor to the learned; but time and chance happen to them all. (Ecclesiastes 9:11) The book of Proverbs promises:
Blessed are those who find wisdom, those who gain understanding. (Proverbs 3:13)
The Teacher says don’t count on it.
Then I applied myself to the understanding of wisdom, and also of madness and folly, but I learned that this, too, is a chasing after the wind. For with much wisdom comes much sorrow; the more knowledge, the more grief. (Ecclesiastes 1:17-18)
Grrr. I like order. I like logic. A + B should equal C. But when I gave the Teacher a fair hearing, I found wisdom hidden behind his laissez-faire attitude. Some things are just not worth stressing out about. Most things, come to think of it. Well, nothing, really, I guess. Stress serves no purpose. There are things we just can’t change. We are living in a world that can’t always be explained.
As you do not know the path of the wind, or how the body is formed in a mother’s womb, so you cannot understand the work of God, the Maker of all things. (Ecclesiastes 11:5)
Chapter 1 presents us with a curious courtroom scene. Ha satan (the Hebrew word for an adversary or prosecutor, not the name of a specific being) appears before God. God starts bragging about his righteous servant Job, and the adversary says, “Ha! It’s easy to be good when you have an easy life. Let Job suffer a bit and you’ll see his true character.” So Job becomes the subject of a divine experiment.
He gets sick, his animals die, his children are killed. Almost anything that can go wrong does, and his wife is no help at all. Three friends come to comfort him, and although they arrived with good intentions, they overstayed their welcome. They lived thousands of years before the book of Proverbs was written, but they adhered to the principles of Proverbs: the world is governed by justice. So, they surmise, Job must have sinned. Job maintains his innocence, and although he never curses God, he does conclude that God is unjust (Job 34:5).
After twenty-eight chapters of back and forth, round and round discussion between the four, a young man, Elihu, steps up out of nowhere. He contends that Job isn’t suffering because he is unrighteous, but his response to his suffering is wrong.
He says some things that might apply to someone you know:
“People cry out under a load of oppression; they plead for relief from the arm of the powerful. But no one says, ‘Where is God my Maker, who gives songs in the night, who teaches us more than he teaches the beasts of the earth and makes us wiser than the birds in the sky?’ (Job 35:9-11) In other words, quit whining and seek God.
Elihu has just likened God to a storm when out of a storm, God speaks:
“Who is this that obscures my plans with words without knowledge? Brace yourself like a man; I will question you, and you shall answer me.” (Job 38:1-3)
He takes Job on a tour of the universe, revealing His wonders and asking Job questions far beyond any man’s ability to answer. His point? Job has no business judging God’s actions in light of his very, very, very, limited earthly experience.
Job got it.
God rebuked Job’s three friends and told Job to forgive them. He restored Job’s fortunes and left him with more than he had before (Job 42:12). He left us to wonder what He thought about Elihu's input.
So there it is. Following after wisdom is wise, but there is no comprehensive guide to how the world works. God doesn’t give us, nor does He feel he owes us, an explanation for all that happens. He is God, and we are not.
In the end, the writers of Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and Job all agreed on this:
The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge, but fools despise wisdom and instruction. (Proverbs 1:7)
Fear God and keep His commandments, For this is man’s all. For God will bring every work into judgment
Including every secret thing, Whether good or evil. (Ecclesiastes 12:13-14)
I know that you can do all things;
no purpose of yours can be thwarted.
You asked, ‘Who is this that obscures my plans without knowledge?’
Surely I spoke of things I did not understand,
things too wonderful for me to know. (Job 42:2-3)
He has shown you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you?
To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God. (Micah 6:8)