December 2, 2012 0

Episode 17 – Wisdom Part 1: King Solomon’s Mind (Proverbs & Qoheleth)

By in Blog, Podcast


Hey, kids! Put on your thinkin’ beanie and stroke your long grey beard,  it’s ancient wisdom day here on BOOK!


Hello, and welcome to BOOK, a bible podcast for everybody. I’m Josh Way. We’re taking a break from the historical narrative of the bible to look at some of the specialized genres in the Hebrew literary canon. Last time we looked at the psalms, and we now turn our puzzled gaze unto the wisdom literature. This week we’ll look at the writings associated with Israel’s King Solomon, and next time we’ll talk about Job, one of the juiciest and most-oft-mangled books in the bible. Join us, won’t me?

The wisdom tradition of Israel, like most of its national attributes, was similar to and yet distinct from wisdom traditions throughout the ancient world. And within Israel’s unique expression of wisdom, we observe an intriguing evolution. As Israel’s religion, geography, and sociology stretched and changed through prosperity, war, famine, and exile, so too the literature changed and “grew up.” Our brief look at the Solomon writings will testify to this. Our first job is to define wisdom in the ancient sense, then examine the specific Israelite notion more closely, and, of course, look at the literature.

Today “wisdom” denotes a quality or state of mind. Wisdom isn’t something you can pin down or catalog, it’s something one possesses or does not possess. It’s discernment, the ability to instinctively make sound judgments. While this definition is most certainly related to the ancient one, there’s another dimension to ancient wisdom we have to acknowledge. Wisdom, in the near eastern world of the bible, was a special and practical KNOWLEDGE – a KNOWLEDGE of how the universe works. We’ll see how this plays out in the literature in a moment, but by way of introduction this is the key: the ancient “wise one” was (believed to be) gifted with special knowledge that he or she would then teach to others, usually children.

In Israel, there were three major “offices” which defined leadership: priest, king, and prophet. Priests managed Israel’s relationship with her God, kings were supposed to unite and inspire Israel, and prophets spoke urgent words of truth at times of crisis. A fourth office, sometimes called “sage,” represents the influence of wisdom. But the relationships between these offices are a bit convoluted. It’s something like this: A priest can be a prophet (like Samuel), but a prophet wouldn’t be king. Kings get into trouble for acting as priests (like Saul), but any of these could be a sage. There were professional teachers and sages, and then there were those in other positions who were gifted with wisdom. The most famous of these is the presumed author of today’s material, King Solomon.

The first scroll of Kings says this about Solomon in chapter 4 verse 29:

[29] And God gave Solomon wisdom and understanding beyond measure, with understanding as vast as the sands on the seashore. [30] Solomon’s wisdom surpassed the wisdom of all the Kedomites and all the wisdom of the Egyptians. [31] He was the wisest of all men, wiser than Ethan the Ezrahite, and Heman, Calcol, and Darda, the sons of Mahol, and his fame was in all the surrounding nations. [32] He composed 3,000 proverbs, and his songs numbered 1,005.

The bible scroll called simply “Proverbs” is a collection of some portion of Solomon’s 3,000 proverbs, though it appears to have been compiled much later during the reforms of King Hezekiah, and it contains collected sayings from other sages as well. Scholarship always calls biblical authorship into question for one reason or another, but in this case it is reasonable to think that Solomon (or perhaps a school or fanclub he established) is responsible for these writings, which make up the bulk of the scroll. The first few verses present the proverbs and state their purpose:

1 The proverbs of Solomon son of David, king of Israel:
2 For learning wisdom and discipline; For understanding words of insight;
3 For acquiring the discipline for success, Righteousness, justice, and equity;
4 For endowing the simple with shrewdness, The young with knowledge and foresight.
5 The wise man, hearing them, will gain more wisdom; The discerning man will learn to be adroit;
6 For understanding proverb and epigram, The words of the wise and their riddles.
7 The fear of the LORD is the beginning of knowledge; Fools despise wisdom and discipline.

The purpose of wisdom is made explicit at the start: “for acquiring the discipline for success.” The proposal is straightforward: this material is the truth, and if you align yourself with the truth you will be successful. The proverbs aren’t meant to inspire or encourage better behavior, they are meant to tell you how to live. And while the wisdom tradition overall is more general and universal than, say, the law or the psalms, we can see from verse 7 that the context here is still covenant Israel. “Fear YHWH” isn’t a generic call to believe in God, it’s a specific instruction to keep the law of the covenant.

And here is the key which unlocks the Proverbs. Whereas today our tendency would be to read these saying as suggestions or ideals, they were intended as axioms, as immutable truths from God’s own mind. This becomes clear in the text itself, in chapter 3:

[3:19] The LORD by wisdom founded the earth;
by understanding he established the heavens;
[20] by his knowledge the deeps broke open,
and the clouds drop down the dew.
[21] My son, do not lose sight of these—
keep sound wisdom and discretion,
[22] and they will be life for your soul
and adornment for your neck.
[23] Then you will walk on your way securely,
and your foot will not stumble.

The wisdom of the proverbs, says the author of Proverbs, is YHWH’s own wisdom, the wisdom he used to shape and order the universe. Therefore, if you listen to this wisdom, and live accordingly, you are guaranteed success – “they will be your life and your soul.” They aren’t just good ideas, they’re the capital-tee Truth. To the early Israelite sage, the wisdom sayings are like gravity or photosynthesis – they are natural laws, descriptions of how the world works. That’s how we have to read this material. Whether or not it pans out that way in “real life” is another issue we’ll explore as we proceed.

The first section of proverbs consists of several poems about the nature and importance of wisdom before the actual proverbs begin in (what we call) chapter ten. Most of the poems are framed as appeals from a father to a son, and a recurring image is that of a woman, or rather two women, embodiments of wisdom and folly. This is from chapter 8:

[8:1] Does not Lady Wisdom call?
Does not understanding raise her voice?
[2] On the heights beside the way,
at the crossroads she takes her stand;
[3] beside the gates in front of the town,
at the entrance of the portals she cries aloud:
[4] “To you, O men, I call,
and my cry is to the children of man.
[5] O simple ones, learn prudence;
O fools, learn sense.
[6] Hear, for I will speak noble things,
and from my lips will come what is right,
[7] for my mouth will utter truth;
wickedness is an abomination to my lips.
[8] All the words of my mouth are righteous;
there is nothing twisted or crooked in them.
[9] They are all straight to him who understands,
and right to those who find knowledge.
[10] Take my instruction instead of silver,
and knowledge rather than choice gold,
[11] for wisdom is better than jewels,
and all that you may desire cannot compare with her.”

…and this is from chapter 9:

[13] The Woman Folly is loud;
she is seductive and knows nothing.
[14] She sits at the door of her house;
she takes a seat on the highest places of the town,
[15] calling to those who pass by,
who are going straight on their way,
[16] “Whoever is simple, let him turn in here!”
And to him who lacks sense she says,
[17] “Stolen water is sweet,
and bread eaten in secret is pleasant.”
[18] But he does not know that the dead are there,
that her guests are in the depths of the grave.

This kind of didactic, either/or instruction is the bread and butter of wisdom teaching, and it becomes downright formulaic in the proverbs themselves. Solomon’s proverbs take the form of simple couplets, presenting an A/B idea that sums up a “wisdom law.” Here are several examples. (See the accompanying blog post for the bible references.)

[10:1] A wise son makes a glad father,
but a foolish son is a sorrow to his mother.
[2] Treasures gained by wickedness do not profit,
but righteousness delivers from death.
[3] The LORD does not let the righteous go hungry,
but he thwarts the craving of the wicked.
[4] A slack hand causes poverty,
but the hand of the diligent makes rich.

[14] The wise lay up knowledge,
but the mouth of a fool brings ruin near.
[15] A rich man’s wealth is his strong city;
the poverty of the poor is their ruin.
[16] The wage of the righteous leads to life,
the gain of the wicked to sin.

[11:9] With his mouth the godless man would destroy his neighbor,
but by knowledge the righteous are delivered.
[10] When it goes well with the righteous, the city rejoices,
and when the wicked perish there are shouts of gladness.
[11] By the blessing of the upright a city is exalted,
but by the mouth of the wicked it is overthrown.

[12:21] No ill befalls the righteous,
but the wicked are filled with trouble.
[22] Lying lips are an abomination to the LORD,
but those who act faithfully are his delight.

[22:4] The reward for humility and fear of the LORD
is riches and honor and life.
[5] Thorns and snares are in the way of the crooked;
whoever guards his soul will keep far from them.
[6] Train up a child in the way he should go;
even when he is old he will not depart from it.

[11] He who loves purity of heart,
and whose speech is gracious, will have the king as his friend.
[12] The eyes of the LORD keep watch over knowledge,
but he overthrows the words of the traitor.
[13] The sluggard says, “There is a lion outside!
I shall be killed in the streets!”

That last one about the sluggard is unique and kind of hilarious. Instead of two contrasting ideas, it’s just a singular joke making fun of a man who refuses to get a job because, “hey, there might be a lion outside!” Read properly, the bible can be quite funny. We’ve picked out a few funny bits along the way, but before too long we’ll look at an entire book that I believe is intended as a dark comedy. You probably won’t be able to guess which one…

If Solomon’s proverbs were meant to be suggestions, little nudges in the right direction, they wouldn’t be controversial at all. The righteous ought to prosper, and the vain and foolish ought to suffer the consequences of their folly. But that’s not what Proverbs says. It says “the righteous WILL and MUST prosper, because that’s how the universe has been structured. The wicked WILL and MUST fail, because that’s how the world works. In so-called “real life,” that’s a bit more difficult to swallow. Those who live humble and righteous lives often suffer, and those who lie and cheat and oppress often prosper. The Proverbs seem from this perspective to be at best naive, and at worst demonstrably untrue.

Now, a common religious answer to that objection is that the bible is talking about eternity, where righteousness and wickedness are fully repaid and justice done. But the paradigm of Proverbs is life in Israel, not the afterlife. And, before we dismiss or shoot down the objection, we ought to acknowledge the fact that the bible itself gives voice to the very same protest. And so, we move on to Qoheleth.

Called “Ecclesiastes” in English (by way of Greek), Qoheleth is the name of the book’s author, or more likely his or her title, probably “Teacher.” The scroll’s inscription reads:

[1:1] The words of Qoheleth, son of David, king in Jerusalem.

This has led to the traditional belief that Solomon himself was the Qoheleth in question. And, though “son of David” is a vague designation indicating any king from the tribe of Judah, it’s hard to think of another king whose wisdom and life experience would qualify him to write such a text. Whether it was written by Solomon himself or by some other royal Israelite, the book reflects a very different view on wisdom. Put these excerpts from just the first chapter in your philosophical pipe and smoke them:

[2] Utter futility, says Qoheleth,
Utter futility! All is futile!
[3] What real value is there for a man in that
at which he toils under the sun?

[9] What has been is what will be,
and what has been done is what will be done,
and there is nothing new under the sun.
[10] Is there a thing of which it is said,
“See, this is new”?
It has been already
in the ages before us.
[11] There is no remembrance of former things,
nor will there be any remembrance
of later things yet to be
among those who come after.

[12] I Qoheleth have been king over Israel in Jerusalem. [13] And I applied my heart to seek and to search out by wisdom all that is done under heaven. It is an unhappy business that God has given to the children of man to be busy with. [14] I have seen everything that is done under the sun, and behold, all is futility and a chasing after wind.
[15] What is crooked cannot be made straight,
and what is lacking cannot be counted.
[16] I said in my heart, “I have acquired great wisdom, surpassing all who were over Jerusalem before me, and my heart has had great experience of wisdom and knowledge.” [17] And I applied my heart to know wisdom and to know madness and folly. I perceived that this also is but a chasing after wind.
[18] For in much wisdom is much frustration,
and he who increases knowledge increases sorrow.

What we have in Qoheleth – basically in its own words – is a world-weary sort of anti-wisdom, a refutation of the cut-and-dry axioms of the proverbs. Qoheleth says, “I tried that, I pursued wisdom, and – like everything else in real life – it turned out to be a sham.” The book decries many vain pursuits such as wealth, hard work, and love, but the most surprising critique is the one reserved for wisdom itself. This is from chapter 2:

[12] So I turned to consider wisdom and madness and folly. For what can the man do who comes after the king? Only what has already been done. [13] Then I saw that there is more gain in wisdom than in folly, as there is more gain in light than in darkness. [14] The wise person has his eyes in his head, but the fool walks in darkness. And yet I perceived that the same fate awaits them both. [15] Then I said in my heart, “What happens to the fool will also happen to me. To what advantage, then, have I been so very wise?” And I said in my heart that this also is futility. [16] For of the wise as of the fool there is no enduring remembrance, seeing that in the days to come all will have been long forgotten. How the wise dies just like the fool! [17] So I hated life, because what is done under the sun was grievous to me, for all is futility and a chasing after wind.

Qoheleth looks back on a life of great wisdom and success, and concludes that wisdom itself is a kind of folly. At this point, we wish we knew a little more about the Qoheleth. Is this an older, wiser Solomon, world-weary and ashamed after his descent into apostasy and moral failure? Or is this a later king of Israel, reflecting on the sad state of the nation and the covenant? Whatever the case, the scroll is a refreshing dose of humanity and candor after the inspiring but often frustrating proverbs. One of the most famous passages from Qoheleth is this bit about seasons and the balance of life experience from chapter 3:

[3:1] For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven:
[2] a time to be born, and a time to die;
a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted;
[3] a time to kill, and a time to heal;
a time to break down, and a time to build up;
[4] a time to weep, and a time to laugh;
a time to mourn, and a time to dance;
[5] a time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones together;
a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing;
[6] a time to seek, and a time to lose;
a time to keep, and a time to cast away;
[7] a time to tear, and a time to sew;
a time to keep silence, and a time to speak;
[8] a time to love, and a time to hate;
a time for war, and a time for peace.

Not unlike Proverbs, this is an appeal to the design of creation. It says, there is a system that works and we can participate in it. But unlike Proverbs, it does not insist that the good things are part of the design, and the bad things must be your fault. Both good AND bad are part of the design, says Qoheleth. It’s simultaneously kind of depressing and comforting. The honest humanity of it all is refreshing, anyway.

Qoheleth isn’t all gloom and doom. The author does prescribe a way of living, and in fact it’s a very orthodox Israelite way of living and keeping the covenant. But the presentation of wisdom in Qoheleth has a much different tone, a much more realistic and less idealistic tenor. This is the scroll’s conclusion:

[12:8] Utter futility, says Qoheleth; Utter futility!
[9] Because Qoheleth was a sage, he continued to instruct the people, weighing and studying and arranging many maxims with great care. [10] Qoheleth sought to find words of delight, and uprightly he wrote words of truth.
[11] The words of the wise are like goads, and like nails firmly fixed are the collected sayings; they are given by one Shepherd. [12] My son, against these be warned! Of making many books there is no end, and much study is a weariness of the flesh.
[13] The end of the matter; all has been heard. Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man. [14] For God will bring every deed into judgment, with every secret thing, whether good or bad.

Qoheleth didn’t abandon wisdom, nor did he even abandon the use of proverbs. But his closing message is this: don’t choke on wisdom! Don’t let the burden of wisdom ruin your enjoyment of life. “Fear YHWH and keep the covenant,” that part of the message never changed. But a man who lived his life by the letter of wisdom is back to report that it can be just as stifling and deadly as vanity and folly. Let God make the judgments of right and wrong, just do your part to live your life and make your contribution. These words from chapter 9 put it succinctly:

[9:7] Go, eat your bread with joy, and drink your wine with a merry heart, for God approved of your behavior long ago.
[8] Let your clothes always be clean, and your head never lacking ointment.
[9] Enjoy life with the wife whom you love, all the fleeting days of your life that have been granted to you under the sun, for that alone is what you can get out of life and out of the means you acquire under the sun. [10] Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with all your might, for there is no work or thought or knowledge or wisdom in the grave, to which you are going.

That’s from THE BIBLE!

Proverbs and Qoheleth: another biblical conversation that thwarts our expectations and challenges our view of the entire canon. Once again I stress the humanity that underlies these texts, and I urge you – whatever your affiliation or your interest in the bible – to do your best to allow the very real witness of these ancient words another hearing. It might be easier if the bible were the single-minded instruction book so many on all sides imagine it to be, but it wouldn’t be nearly as wonderful and relatable as it really is.

Next time we’ll see where the book of Job took the wisdom tradition. I hope it will be as surprising and challenging for you as it has been for me and many others.

This has been BOOK, a bible podcast for everybody, and I have been Josh Way. If you enjoyed this podcast, I encourage you to share, like, tweet, blog, tumbl, stumble, and chumble it to your online friends and family. If you have any comments, questions or constructive feedback, email me at You can also leave a voicemail at 801-760-3013, and maybe I’ll answer it on the podcast. Read the BOOK blog and find more content at BOOK.JOSHWAY.COM. That’s it for me, Bible pals. I’ll catch you next time.

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