Wisdom Literature

Theme Verses: Deut. 10:14To the LORD your God belong the heavens, even the highest heavens, the earth and everything in it. Deut. 10:18He defends the cause of the fatherless and the widow, and loves the alien, giving him food and clothing. 2 Cor. 9:8And God is able to make all grace abound to you, so that in all things at all times, having all that you need, you will abound in every good work. James 1:27Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.

Study Texts: Job 1:1-3; 31:16-40; Psalm 37:25-26; 10:1-11; 73:1-14; Proverbs 19:17; 21:13; 28:27; 14:31; 25:21-22; Exodus 23:4-5; Proverbs 23:4-5; 28:20-22; 17:5; 30:7-9; 6:6-11; 19:24; 26:13

Wisdom Literature

“Well, Job was rich.” This has been said by more than a few people to justify their acquisition of wealth. It is true that Job was wealthy, but what did he do with it? If people knew that, they might shy away from the comparison.

The proverbs tell us if we work hard, we will succeed. And the Psalms say that a righteous man will never go hungry. It has to be true!

Wisdom literature is about practical living. From showing the power of faith in God to overcome suffering in the world, such as in Job, to short, generalized statements on how to live day by day, such as in Proverbs. Wealth and poverty are topics that wisdom literature did not shy from. Due to the great number of references, many passages have been left out. It is important in studying these texts to remember what the authors were attempting to do. The book of Proverbs is a book of aphorisms, short sayings whose meanings are generalizations. They are not fool-proof, nor are they meant to be. If followed, the reader has a greater chance of having the expressed outcome. If taken as absolutes, serious misapplications could occur.

The Psalms are expressions of Israel’s faith in God. They are unlike the other books where God spoke to man, for here man was speaking to God. Many times they reflect the experiences of one man or one generation’s life. They are poetic in form, expressing ideas also in a generalized manner. Careful attention must be given to each principle regarding wealth and poverty.

Questions for Home Study and Class Interaction

1. Job amassed a great amount of wealth and was considered blameless (Job 1:1). What did Job do with his wealth (Job 31:16-40)? Respond to this statement: “If you are rich, be rich like Job.”

Job was a man of great wealth, possessing numerous livestock and servants, but more importantly, he was man characterized as “blameless and upright.” He had moral integrity. “Blameless” is a better translation of the Hebrew than “perfect”. The word tam has the idea of being whole or complete, not necessarily perfect. Job never claimed to be sinless, but to have lived a life that did not deserve the suffering he had to face if he was truly suffering for his sins. Knowing that scripture attributes these characteristics to Job, it is important for us in this study to see how Job dealt with his vast fortune. What did this virtuous, God fearing man do with his stuff?
In chapter 22, Eliphaz responded to Job’s argument that God does not bless and curse men simply because they are righteous or wicked. He had seen the wicked prosper without ever facing punishment from God. His friends should not have spoken of God’s sovereignty so simply. Life itself teaches that things are not that simple. Eliphaz rebuked Job, telling him that God is not bound by Job’s rules either and no man is beyond God’s punishment. If the righteous suffer, it has to be because of sin. He then goes on to accuse Job of possible sins that could have caused him to suffer the way he did. In verses 6 to 9, he claims Job had refused to help the poor, widows and orphans. Such sins in the eyes of Eliphaz were truly deserving of what Job experienced.
Job refutes these charges in chapter 31. In a powerful confession of righteous living Job clams to not only have lived an ethical and moral life, but to have possessed the attitudes that drive a man to living this kind of life. He was honest in his business deals (vv. 5-8), he was honest and just to his workers and treated them as equals (vv.13-15), he helped the poor, widows and orphans at every opportunity he had been given (vv.16-23), he did not put his trust in his wealth (vv.23-24), he was hospitable to those who were strangers and aliens (vv. 31-32) and he paid his workers properly for their service (vv. 38-39). All of these things he did because he feared God (vv. 23, 28). Job understood the implications of his blessings from God and lived a life as one who sought God’s glory and the benefit of others. He knew what it meant to be blessed by God. He understood the responsibilities God had given him when he blessed him with an abundance of material possessions.
Note verses 1-4, Job expressed the same idea Jesus did in Matthew 5:28. To him sin abided in the heart first. Job knew that even thinking of other women in a sexually perverse manner would be a violation of his covenant with his wife. He knew to fix his attention on another women would lead to nothing but impure thoughts. He cut off sin from its roots: the inner man. He understood the need for a proper inward change. Such was his view of wealth. To focus his life and work on his wealth or the accumulation of wealth was wrong. God stood as his focus in life (vv. 24-28); perhaps connecting the subject of wealth with idolatry was no accident.

2. Does Psalm 37:25 mean that a righteous man will never starve to death? If not, what does it mean?

This psalm is a wisdom psalm expressed in a deeply poetic fashion. It is an acrostic, each line beginning with a subsequent letter of the Hebrew alphabet, probably designed to facilitate memorization. Its intention is to teach a valuable lesson learned from a wise man’s experience. It showed how one man had come to understand an important truth about living his life in the service of God and as a member of His covenant people. It is this man’s personal observation of life.
The theme of the psalm is the vindication of the righteous in a world where the wicked seem to prosper. In the section we are focusing on (vv. 23-26), the psalmist claims that those who lived sinful lives would be brought low by God in the end. Those who were righteous would be taken care of by God. It was his experience that no righteous man would be forsaken and his children ever reduced to begging for bread because God cared for them (“bread” in Hebrew is also the general word for “food”). Such was this man’s experience. Verse 25 could be a poetic way of stating an understanding that God cares for His people. The psalmist believed God constantly gave His protection and support, but to make this a hard fast rule misses the point completely. Yes, we should trust that God will provide for our needs. And yes, we should believe he will, but if there are those out there who are reduced to begging for help, we must pay attention to God’s desire for us to help them and His admission that even among his people there will be those who will need assistance. It is important to understand the difference between the psalmist’s understanding of the short run and long run. In the short run, it may have looked like the wicked were getting away with their sinful deeds and the righteous suffered, but God had given the righteous strength to endure so the he may see the long run. In the long run, the wicked will fall and God will bless the righteous. God will provide, even if his people have to wait for these provisions.
There will be a day when the righteous will never have to beg for food for their children or for themselves. This world is imperfect, and in the short run, we may find ourselves or others within our community of believers in need. Perhaps that too is the point. In verse 26, the one who is cared for by God also cares for others. He opens his hands to those around him in need. If the community lived like this, then perhaps there would be no one among us in need or, as the psalmist states, begging for bread.

3. Read Psalms 10:5; 73:1-14. What are the dangers in assuming wealth is an indication of righteous living?

These Psalms admit to the same thing: the wicked do prosper and nothing wrong ever seems to happen to them. In Psalms 10, the psalmist is struck by the inconsistency of his view of the world and reality. He did not believe that the wicked should prosper, but there it was right in front of him. They were prospering. This did not fit into his theology! In Psalms 73, the writer’s faith is seriously shaken. Even though he begins with his conclusion: “Surely God is good to Israel, to those who are pure in heart”, he immediately rushes headlong into his complaint and confession of nearly spiritually collapsing. His complaint: “I see the wicked getting rich and I do not think that is fair.” This stands in contrast to his view, perhaps even derived from the Law (cf. Leviticus 26 and Deuteronomy 28). This psalm forces us to never assume that the amount of one’s material possessions is directly related to his righteousness. God sends rain for the just and the unjust (Matthew 5:45). This kind of assumption leads to only distrust and faithlessness. It can do no good. We must be like the psalmist who concludes that God will eventually bring the unjust to ruin and He will give to us strength to endure (vv.1, 25-28).

4. Read Proverbs 19:17; 21:13; 28:27. What is the outcome of helping the poor? What is the outcome of not helping the poor? Is this always true?

Proverbs 19:17 indicates that lending to the poor is essentially lending to God. What o ne does to his brother, he does to God. Refusal to help the poor is a refusal to work with God. It is a denial of His will. And for those who do help the poor, God will repay them, and not necessarily materially. We cannot be that short-sighted. Having God pleased with our work and life is a far better reward than any physical gift.
In 21:13, the writer warns those who refuse to listen to the pleas of the poor. Those who turn their backs on the needy will not have their requests answered. Such an act of hatred and malice receives nothing from God when the perpetrator finds his own self in need.
In Proverbs 28:27, the writer declares that those who do assist the poor will in turn have their needs filled. “Shutting one’s eyes” suggest a callous reaction to seeing those in need by attempting to ignore it. This raises an interesting question: do we immediately turn the channel when we see commercials such as “Save the Children” because we refuse to accept the idea that children are dying all around us of starvation every day? Not that we have to give to these organizations, but what motivates some to ignore this reality? Ignoring the poor here led to being cursed by God. “Cursed” is translated from the Hebrew word m ’erah which carries with it the idea of the threat of punishment due to certain actions, many in the context of breaking the Law (see Deuteronomy 28:20; Malachi 2:2; 3:9). All of its usages are found within the context of one’s relationship with God.

5. Read Proverbs 14:31. How is God honored? How does one show contempt for his maker? How is this an expression of contempt?

Contempt for God is expressed in many different ways, but here it is oppressing the poor. “Contempt” here can also be translated “blaspheme, reproach, defy.” It has the idea of casting blame, scorn or condemnation (see Psalms 74:10) or, like here, stands as the antithesis of honoring. In 2 Kings 19:22, it has the idea of “mocking”. Those who make the plight of the poor worse are defying God, dishonoring him as the one who made all mankind. It is an act against nature, the way God created us, to force the poor deeper into poverty.

6. Read Proverbs 25:21-22 and Exodus 23:4-5. What financial responsibility do we have to our enemies in need?

Even in the OT, God’s people were not to hate their enemies. God expected them to
treat them with a certain respect. In Proverbs 25:21-22, the writer proclaims that the wise man was expected to feed his enemy if they were in need of food. Vengeance was not at the heart of the OT people, love was (Leviticus 19:18, 34; Deuteronomy 32:35; Mark 12:28-34 and parallels). “Heap burning coals on one’s head” is questionable in meaning. Many attempt to tie it into an Egyptian custom of having people guilty of a wrong-doing place burning coals on their head as a form of expiation, but it is difficult to prove the Israelites were even aware of such a practice by Solomon’s time or when the proverb was written. It may be best to understand the metaphor as bringing shame to someone and causing an awareness of their wrongdoing. This would lead to a conversion. The Exodus passage indicates the responsibility one has in making sure his enemy does not suffer a loss. If he finds an animal loose that belongs to his enemy, he is to make certain it gets returned to him. If he finds his enemy’s donkey under a heavy load, he does what he can to assure his enemy does not lose his valued animal. Even if this means helping his enemy unload and reload his donkey (perhaps the “you shall refrain from leaving it with him, you will surely release it with him”.

7. Read Proverbs 23:4; 28:20, 22. What is the writer of Proverbs view of get rich quick schemes?

In Proverbs 23:4, the writer indicates that wisdom does not lead one into the pursuit of wealth. A wise man sees the transient nature of such a pursuit (v.5). “Cease from your consideration of it” can also be translated “Stop considering the proposal to get rich” or “Stop because of your intelligence (wisdom).” It is not a goal worthy of those who search for biblical wisdom.
In 28:20 and 22 the wise do not “make haste” to get rich. “Make haste” (see also 19:2; 20:21) is used of words, actions and wealth in scripture, warning those away from acting in such a manner. It seems to indicate some wrongdoing associated with the act. Hasty words are spoken without thought. Those who are hasty to become rich may do what they feel is necessary to get it. This stands in contrast to the “faithful man”, which may indicate an honest worker. He will be blessed by God. The man with an “evil eye” in verse 22 is a man who is avaricious. He seeks to claim his wealth for himself and as quickly as possible. This will only lead to ruin.

8. Read Proverbs 17:5. What attitude does the writer condemn in this passage?

Here, the writer gets at not just how one treated the poor, but his attitude. What they did to the poor, they did to God. The “calamity”, seeing the parallelistic structure, is the calamity of the poor. God will not leave that kind of attitude unpunished. It is that attitude that drives one to refuse to help them.

9. Read Proverbs 30:7-9. How should we pray for material possessions? Why does the writer not want to be wealthy? Why does he not want to be poor? Should we not pray the same prayer for our lives? For what should we pray?

The writer here is an unknown figure named Agur, possibly from Massa (which would make him from Arabia, a descendent of Ishmael; see Genesis 25:14; 1 Chronicles 1:30). This is not for certain because Massa could be a noun meaning “burden” or “oracle”. His identity is inconsequential. His message is not. He prays for three things:1) freedom from deceit; 2) to be neither impoverished nor wealthy; 3) to have a sufficient amount of food to survive. He regards both wealth and poverty as temptations that could draw him away from God. Poverty can easily lead to theft and wealth can easily lead to an attitude of self-sufficiency. He wants neither. Interestingly, he sees no difference in the threat of wealth and the threat of poverty to his relationship with God. We too must be very cautious in respect to our attitude toward both wealth and poverty. We must question our motivation when we pray for God to bless us materially. Why do we ask for what we ask? There is no virtue in poverty, but neither is there virtue in wealth. Virtue and faithfulness come in how one lives under these conditions.

10. Read Proverbs 6:6-11; 19:24; 26:13. What is the writer’s view of work? What are its implications for us?

The ant was a popular figure in the proverbs of the Ancient Near East. It was regarded as a hard worker and industrious. In 6:6-11, the writer draws the attention of the sluggard to this hard-working creature. The sluggard “folds his hands” (prepares for sleep) and nothing else. And then his needs come crashing down on him and he finds himself lacking.
In 19:24, a very comical proverb shows the sluggard as so lazy he either falls asleep while he is eating or is too weak to lift his hand back to mouth. He eventually will starve to death.
In 26:13-16, more comical images are used. First, the sluggard makes up any excuse he can for not getting up and going to work: “There is a lion in the streets!” he cries. Verse 14 has him lying worthlessly in bed, turning in the bed like a door turning back and forth on its hinges. Verse 15 uses the same image as 19:24 does. And verse 16 shows the sluggard as a man who thinks he knows what he is doing, but ends up acting like the fool. He believes himself to be so wise, but only fools himself.
Work is essential to God’s creatures. God created us for that purpose (Genesis1-2). The concept of the Sabbath day implies this. Even the poor were given the dignity of working for their food (Corners of the field, picking up what was left behind the reapers, etc.). As for those who refuse to work, we must reach out to them and help them to see the need to change this way of living as much as we need to reach out to those who commit any sin and to help them see the need to change. We must be servants of God who reach out to the lost world to show them a better way of life, no matter what their sin may be.

Brentwood Hills
Church of Christ
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Nashville, Tennessee 37220
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