The wisdom literature of the Hebrew Bible is found in the five poetic books of Job, Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes and Song of Songs. This biblical corpus continues to be a “tree of life” (Prov 3:18) to me personally as I grow in the Christian faith through various trials, personal losses and even debilitating diseases. In particular, the books of Proverbs, Ecclesiastes (=Qohelet in Hebrew) and Job address the meaning of life and what might be called the problem of pain. I have found that the ancient Israelite perspective on these existential matters is more like a faith-based worldview than an answer to some of our contemporary philosophical questions.
In Hebrew parlance, the term “wisdom” (chokmah) is often used synonymously with the terms for “knowledge” (da‘at) and “understanding” (binah). As I continue to study the concept of wisdom in the books of Proverbs, Ecclesiastes and Job I become increasingly convinced that these books advance the pursuit of wisdom as an essentially faith-based initiative. Collectively these books teach that meaningful “wisdom” is founded on faith. In other words, experiential “knowledge” is based on trusting God. Again, in other words, ultimate “understanding” starts with fearing God. I contend that biblical wisdom literature is advocating for faithful wisdom.
First, Proverbs teaches that faith is what the fear of God/YHWH is all about. Proverbs 1:7 serves as a kind of thesis statement in the prologue of Proverbs, stating that “The fear of YHWH is the beginning of knowledge; fools despise wisdom and discipline.” And Prov 9:10 repeats the same idea: “The basis of wisdom is the fear of YHWH, and knowledge of the Holy One is understanding.” The “fear of God/YHWH,” which also appears at the end of the collection (Prov 31:30), is the phrase that Israelite wisdom literature uses for trusting God in a covenant relationship. It is a phrase found repeatedly in the Torah to denote the life of faith (see Gen 22:12; Exod 14:31; 20:20; Lev 19:14, 32; Deut 6:2, 13, 24; etc.). In other words, the path of wisdom begins with belief in the one true God; faith is foundational for understanding, knowledge and wisdom.
Second, Ecclesiastes teaches that faith is essential for finding life’s meaning. The message of Ecclesiastes is that it is futile to search for meaning in life apart from the fear of God. After hearing Qohelet’s royal testimony about the absurdity of life “under the sun” and his hedonistic resolution to enjoy life today because tomorrow all will die, the wisdom teacher explains in Ecclesiastes 12:13-14 how the missing faith-factor changes everything. “The end of the matter — all has been heard. Fear God, that is, keep his stipulations. This is what human existence is all about. For God will bring every deed into judgment, with every secret thing, whether good or bad.” The wisdom teacher is saying here that fearing God is the same thing as heeding the Torah or keeping the covenant (cf. Deut 6:1-25; 31:12-13; Ps 19:7-9; 119:63). Finding meaning — rather than absurdity — in life is only possible when faith/fear entails trust in God‘s revelation or in God’s words (Eccl 12:13). Furthermore, faith/fear in God also entails belief in the afterlife and in God’s future judgment (Eccl 12:14). This kind of faith has meaningful implications for living the present life.
An example from Qohelet’s first-person speech in Ecclesiastes 7:1-4 (“…better to go to the house of mourning…”), read within the teacher’s third-person framework, shows that contemplating our mortality can work as a sharp goad (Eccl 12:11) that prods us in the right direction. But it must be done in the fear of God — faith in the commands/Torah and in God’s judgment (Eccl 12:13-14). Faithful contemplation of one’s end can catalyze a meaningful new beginning. The meaningful life begins with faith in God’s lasting word, or hope in God’s lasting promises, rather than with the transient absurdity of our grassy flesh, wasting body, misty life, or perishable seed (see Isa 40:6-8; 2 Cor 4:16-18; Jas 4:14; 1 Pet 1:23-25).
Third, Job teaches that faith is essential for facing suffering and pain. The message of Job is summarized in God’s dramatic disclosure to humanity in Job 28:12-28, which is positioned in the literary center of the book. In answer to the question “Where shall wisdom be found?” or “Where is the place of understanding?” the Creator explains that he alone knows the path to and the place of wisdom. He reveals this to mortals: “Look, the fear of the Lord, that is wisdom, and to turn away from evil is understanding” (Job 28:28). In other words, wisdom is found in God alone. Wisdom comes from God, and God is the source of wisdom. Creatures must revere their Creator if they hope to find meaning during their pain. The dramatic scenario that plays out in the book of Job is that humans are unable to explain the causes of chaos apart from divine revelation.
The wise approach to suffering is trusting in the only one who is qualified to assess the causes of suffering. Humans are not qualified to answer the inevitable “Why?” questions of life. Rather, they would do well to trust the only one who knows the answers. The person who fears the Lord trusts that a wise God has purposes and plans, and that kind of deference makes all the difference in a world of suffering and injustice.
Fourth and finally, Jesus teaches that faith is a purposeful perspective on life. This is faith-based wisdom. That is, Jesus Christ, whose perspective epitomizes the Israelite approach to wisdom (he was, no doubt, steeped in the Old Testament wisdom texts), responds to the problem of pain in the same way that God responds to such questions in Job. John 9:1-3 says, “As he passed by, he saw a man blind from birth. And his disciples asked him, ‘Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?’ Jesus answered, ‘It was not that this man sinned, or his parents, but that the works of God might be displayed in him’” (ESV). Essentially Jesus explains that the disciples are asking the wrong question. They are asking a justice-question about causes — that is, the “Why?” question which sufferers naturally ask. Instead of giving a direct answer, Jesus directs the disciples on the path of wisdom and teaches them to consider how God’s works are displayed in the blind man’s life.
The lesson is the same for Christ-followers today. When we experience suffering, it is best to consider God’s purposes and plans rather than the possible causes. Instead of fixating on the “Why?” question, it is better to ask, “What for?” or “What is God doing?” Asking those questions puts us on the proper path, according to Jesus and the book of Job. If we can perceive or seek to identify God’s works displayed in life, then we are on the path to finding both a meaning-filled life and God’s purposes during our pain.
In my own pursuit to understand life’s meaning and pain’s purposes, I have found that the faith-based message of Old Testament wisdom literature is always congruent with the life and teachings of Jesus Christ. The apostle Paul explains that Jesus “became to us wisdom from God” (1 Cor 1:30 ESV), and in him “are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge” (Col 2:3 ESV). Importantly, James the brother of Jesus reminds us, “If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given him. But let him ask in faith…” (Jas 1:5-6 ESV).