Introduction to the Wisdom Literature

Exploring some of the finest creativity and craftmanship in God's Word

Photo (c) by stock.xchng user Mattox.

People today have different ideas and definitions for what it means to be "wise." Sometimes we connect wisdom with age, for example. Other times we connect wisdom with pithy sayings or phrases that sound mysterious. Or, sometimes we define wisdom in terms of ideas or principles that have stood the test of time over decades, centuries, or even millennia.

It's fitting, then, that the segment of Scripture known as the "Wisdom Literature" contains several different genres and styles of wisdom, including poetry, prose, proverbs, and more.

Let's take a look.

The Basics

The books that make up the Wisdom Literature in the Bible are as follows: Job, Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and Song of Solomon. In terms of chronology and authorship, they are as diverse as any other segment of books in the Bible -- Job is probably the oldest book in God's Word, and both the Psalms and Proverbs saw several different authors contribute to each book. 

Thematically, the Bible's wisdom literature does provide several examples of what we think of as "wisdom." The Proverbs, especially, contain several concise and quotable statements that help us make wise decisions.

Here are some examples:

Trust in the Lord with all your heart
    and lean not on your own understanding;
in all your ways submit to him,
    and he will make your paths straight.
Proverbs 3:5-6

The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom,
    and knowledge of the Holy One is understanding.
Proverbs 9:10

A wife of noble character who can find?
    She is worth far more than rubies.
Proverbs 31:10

So, there is wisdom in the Wisdom Literature. But perhaps more important is the amount of humanity and human emotion conveyed in this genre of the Bible. For example, the wisdom literature contains the lament of Job after the loss of his family.

It's filled with the joyful praise, sorrowful confessions, and angry accusations of men like David. It even contains the passion and fire of romantic love expressed in the Song of Solomon.

It's precisely these connections with real life and real struggles that makes the Wisdom Literature so poignant and powerful in our lives even today. Let's take a deeper look.


Now that we've got the basics, here's a brief summary of each of the books considered to be "Wisdom Literature" in God's Word.

The Book of Job: Why do good people suffer? Why is there suffering in the world at all? And where can we turn for hope and comfort when find ourselves in the midst of suffering? These are the questions addressed through the story of Job -- a righteous man who lost everything he held dear and took his petitions to God.

The Book of Psalms: The Psalms are a collection of 150 poems and songs, with most of them written over a period of a few decades. David wrote 73 of the psalms throughout his life, and the others were written by the sons of Korah (a group of musicians), Solomon (David's son), Moses, and a few anonymous contributors. Like Job, these psalms connect deeply with human emotions and real-life situations.

That's why they've offered such comfort and encouragement to millions of people over the centuries.

The Book of Proverbs: Essentially a collection of good advice, the Book of Proverbs was compiled with the expressed intention of helping readers remain on the path of a righteous and successful life (see Proverbs 1:1-7). The majority of the proverbs collected in this work were written by King Solomon -- widely considered one of the wisest people in history. Other contributors include men named Lemuel and Agur, who are relatively unknown in terms of their origins and history.

The Book of Ecclesiastes: While Solomon compiled the Book of Proverbs with the goal of helping a younger generation be successful in life, the goal and tone of Ecclesiastes is much different. In fact, Solomon's observations in Ecclesiastes can be best expressed as a search for the meaning of life.

Specifically, Solomon explored the purpose of a life outside of God's plan -- and found it meaningless.

The Song of Solomon: "Is it really about sex?" That's the question most people ask about the Song of Solomon. And the answer is yes -- mostly. While many people have tried to come up with alternative explanations, we shouldn't be surprised that God would dedicate a portion of His Word to the power, tension, and emotion of romantic love.