OTE 14: WISDOM LITERATURE

PROVERBS 1:20-33

OCTOBER 18, 2015

Rev. Dr. Richard Meyer

(Play Audio)

 

            How many people here this morning, like me, still have all your wisdom teeth? Most adults have four of them. It’s possible to have more or fewer, but the vast majority of adults have one in each quadrant of their molars.

            We don’t really need our wisdom teeth. Originally we humans had larger jaws to help us chew down foliage, but over time our jaws became smaller, but the additional molars persisted. They have been called wisdom teeth because they came in much later than our other teeth, at an age when people are presumably "wiser" than they were children. Of course, we know that wisdom has nothing to do with age. Some of us old folk can be very foolish, very foolish indeed, and some younger folk can have very wise souls.

            Wisdom was a big thing to the ancient Hebrews. In fact, four books of the bible fall into the category of “wisdom literature.” We run across them in the middle of the Old Testament separated by the Book of Psalms. They are Job, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes and the Song of Solomon.  Let’s take a quick peek at all four. You might also want to fasten your seat belt, because there is a lot of ground to cover this morning, four books in less than twenty minutes, so we need to do it quickly. Ready? Seat belt fastened? OK, here we go.

            We’ll begin with the book of Proverbs. Have you ever been to a sea port? If so, did you notice the buoys? While there are a number of types of buoys … tsunami buoys, buoys with bells, buoys without bells, mooring buoys, speed buoys, channel buoys … while there are a number of types of buoys, the most common are of the navigation variety, marking a channel, warning of reefs or other hazards. In a sense the Book of Proverbs is a book of buoys marking the safe channels of life. It represents the seasoned wisdom of many generations.

            "Wisdom" in the Hebrew language is a difficult word to pronounce … chokmah … and a hard word to translate. It means the ability to meet each challenge put before us so as to get the best results. Someone defined it as “applied knowledge,” and thankfully, the Book of Proverbs is a rich deposit of it. King Solomon wrote most of the book, but others both before and after Solomon contributed to it. The book of Proverbs includes truisms, pithy sayings, folk wisdom, and advice written as a guide to choice behavior. And when one internalizes it, Proverbs becomes an inner compass guiding one's behavior.

            Here in the United States Ben Franklin, our 1776 elder statesman from Pennsylvania, wrote and collected wisdom literature in The Sayings of Poor Richard. "A stitch in time saves nine." "The early bird catches the worm,” but Franklin's wisdom literature was only "this-worldly" and not "other-worldly," too. By that I mean, Franklin left God out of the equation.

            The book of Proverbs, on the other hand, is both earthly and heavenly. As such it gives advice on all sorts of topics including one’s relationship with God, work, loans, speech, anger, marriage, criticism, humor, and more! Furthermore, the book can be divided into two sections. Section one covers chapters one through nine with two key figures taking center stage, a father offering advice to a son, and a woman, whom we will nickname “Lady Wisdom” calling out in the streets to all who will listen. To the ancient reader the second primary figure, Lady Wisdom, was a shocking metaphor! A lady of breeding stayed home. When she had to venture out it was always with a veil, hair put up, and with a chaperone. The idea of a lady walking the streets raising her voice in the market, and crying out for all to hear was unthinkable. Yet in the person of Lady Wisdom one sees here how very serious God is about making himself and his wisdom known among beggars, sellers, farm hands, criminals, and the well-to-do.

            So the first nine chapters primarily consists of Lady Wisdom walking the streets as well as the advice of a father to a son. The second half of the book, chapters ten through thirty-one, contains short, pithy statements from which the book gets its name. Some of them are well known and much loved like “A soft answer turns away wrath” (15:1) and “As iron sharpens iron, so one person sharpens another” (27:17). Some are funny …  “If you wake your friend in the early morning by shouting “Rise and shine!” It will sound to him more like a curse than a blessing” (27:14, MSG) and “Like vinegar to the teeth, and smoke to the eyes, so are the lazy to their employers” (10:27). And many spiritual heavyweights, like Billy Graham for example, have made it a practice to read one chapter of Proverbs each day, based on the day of the month. They do so to internalize the wisdom of God. Those spiritual heavyweights would be reading chapter 18 of Proverbs today. It’s a great spiritual practice.  I recommend it to you.

            So that’s the book of Proverbs. Let’s take a quick peek now at the book of Job. By the way, this is no time to unbuckle your seat belts. It’s still not safe to walk around the cabin. We need to keep the peddle to the metal. Job is one of the best known books of the Old Testament, being the story of a virtuous man who suffers greatly. It addresses the age-old question why good people suffer and evil people prosper, and no one embodies the question of why bad things happen to good people more so than Job.

            Of course, not everyone wants to think about such a question. Even thinking about the subject adds to their stress. In the old comic strip, Calvin and Hobbes are standing outside, awestruck, staring at the stars. Calvin responds as many youngsters might. He says, "The universe just goes out forever and ever!"

            To which Hobbes (his stuffed tiger-friend) says, "It kind of makes you wonder why humans considers themselves such a big screaming deal!” 

            The last panel shows Calvin and Hobbes indoors, TV on, telephone ringing, and the stereo blaring. Calvin says, "That's why we stay inside with our appliances!"

            Some have that kind of attitude toward the great questions of life. Turn up the TV and let’s not think about it. Still, we can’t ignore the question. Sooner or later, all of us are confronted with the specter of heartache. Job helps us confront that situation head-on.

            Job's trials were sudden, senseless, and severe. They recall that fateful day on September 11, 2001, when thousands of people headed to work one morning and never came home. The overwhelming majority of them good, good people.

            Reading the book of Job may not answer the question of why bad things happen to good people to our satisfaction, but at least it does address the question.  If you haven’t read it, and if you have ever struggled with that issue, I suggest you add Job to your reading list.

            The third book of wisdom is Ecclesiastes. Ecclesiastes most notably addresses the question of what is the meaning or purpose of life?

            To understand it’s message, we must recognize that there are two speakers. One voice is that of “the Teacher,” who dominates the book.  He takes center stage beginning in the twelfth verse of the book and does not exit until midway through the very last chapter of the book. What he says is downright depressing. He makes Debbie Downer look like Robert Schuller or Norman Vincent Peale. He explores life to discover its meaning. He looks at work and wisdom and money and power and fame and pleasure and concludes that “everything is meaningless.” In brief, he concludes that life is difficult and then we die. If he were here this morning, we wouldn’t want him sitting at our table during the potluck. He would bring down everyone at our table.

            Now even though the Teacher delivers a depressing message, it’s important not to confuse his teaching with underlying message of the book. The second voice, an unnamed wise man, frames the teacher’s words. The second voice, speaks in the prologue and the epilogue of the book. He uses the Teacher’s ideas to teach his son about what it really important in life. He affirms the Teacher’s research and affirms the Teacher’s conclusion which is, “Apart from God, life is difficult and then we die.” The ultimate purpose in life is not found in work, money, pleasure or any of the other areas that the Teacher explored. Turn with me to the second speakers concluding words to his son. Chapter 12, verse 13, on page 543 of our pew bible.

 

            The end of the matter; all has been heard. Fear God, and keep his commandments; for that is the whole duty of everyone. For God will bring every deed into judgment, including every secret thing, whether good or evil.

 

            In short, put God first. Fear God, that is have the right relationship with God, maintain that relationship with God by obeying God’s commands and live in the light of the coming judgment. We find true meaning in God and after that everything else … work, money, pleasure … can find its proper place. As the Shorter Catechism of the Westminster Confession put it, “What is the chief end of man?” Or for my wife, “What is the chief end of humankind?” “The chief end of man is to glorify God and enjoy him forever.” That’s what gives life meaning.

            The final book of wisdom is the Song of Solomon and it’s PG 13 bordering on an R rating in places. It speaks about sexuality and is a collection of love poems. The poems express tender emotions as well as exciting and provocative imagery. If you aren’t awake now, you will be after reading a little in this book. Listen to how it begins. The book immediately follows the book of Ecclesiastes so you can locate it on the same page of our pew bible, page 543.

 

            Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth!

            For your love is better than wine, your anointing oils are fragrant,

            your name is perfume poured out; therefore the maidens love you.

            Draw me after you, let us make haste.

           

            In other words, this woman is hot to trot! She even beats the pavement to track her lover down. Song of Solomon 3:1 …

 

            Upon my bed at night I sought him whom my soul loves;

            I sought him, but found him not;

            I called him, but he gave no answer.

            “I will rise now and and go about the city, in the streets and the squares;

            I will seek him whom my soul loves.”

            I sought him, but found him not.

            The sentinels found me as they went about the city.

            “Have you seen him whom my soul loves?”

            Scarcely had I passed them, when I found him whom my soul loves.

            I held him, and would not let him go until I brought him into my mother’s house,

            and into the camber of her that had conceived me.

 

            My first wife is really into romance novels. Given that, she would really love this book!

            In the context of the bible as a whole, the Song of Solomon is about the redemption of sexuality. Remember all the way back to the first and second Old Testament essentials about the creation of Adam and Eve and how they were in the Garden and were naked and felt no shame? Also, remember how sin marred that relationship, so they could not stand exposed to each other without feeling shame? Well, the Song of Solomon describes a man and a woman naked and feeling no shame, at least most of the time. In spite of sin, an intimate relationship between a man and woman is still possible.  That’s the message of the book.

            So, need some wisdom? Make the book of Proverbs a regular, if not daily part of you diet. Wonder why bad things happen to good people? Wonder if God still cares? Get to know Job. Wonder if you are putting your eggs in the right basket? Go back to school with the Teacher in Ecclesiastes. And would you like to improve your love life? Give the Song of Solomon a whirl.

            Spend time with the wisdom of the ages.

            Let’s stand and sing.