The books of Job and Proverbs probably were completed around the same time. Both of them present a kind of wisdom, but both of them are in tension with one another.
Proverbs presents a kind of Practical wisdom. It’s the kind of stuff that common sense is made up of. On the other hand Job contains a more speculative wisdom, which is also found in Ecclesiastes. This wisdom seems to assail the practical. It lambastes the Sage of the proverbs for pie in the sky thinking when there is obviously a great deal of suffering in the world.
The speculative Wiseman who composed Job knows that sometimes a life lived with an adherence to the Practical Wisdom of the Proverbs, does not guarantee that everything will go your way.
Sometimes justice fails.
This world-view portrayed beautifully in a line from one of my favourite poems by A.E. Houseman, “Terence, this is stupid stuff.” It states:
Therefore, since the world has still
Much good, but much less good than ill,
And while the sun and moon endure.
Luck’s a chance, but trouble’s sure,
I’d face it as a wise man would,
And train for ill and not for good.
“Man is born unto trouble, as the sparks fly upward.”
This observation makes up the primary argument of the speculative wiseman in Job. One must expect their virtue to reap as much suffering as it does blessing. The universe is not a simple as karma in karma out. A life that is lived for virtue is still the best way to live, but virtue doesn’t promise temporal rewards.
In light of this attack, is there any defense for Proverbs?
I think that the case for Practical wisdom might be best made most simply by Dylan Thomas when he states, “Do not go gentle into that good night”
The sage of Practical wisdom knows that the world is full of sorrow, and yet it spite of it determines to proclaim what he believes to be good and right.
In a sense Practical wisdom is not ignorant platitudes, but the battle cry of those who seek to “Rage, rage against the dying of the light.” As they see the very life of the word around them fall into corruption they lift their voice and cry out.
They are wild men who are not afraid to seem insane to a world gone mad. This is why I love the image of wisdom given in Proverbs 1:20:
Wisdom crieth without; she uttereth her voice in the street.
Practical wisdom is a cry and a shout, it is a rebel, and a beggar.
So which is better, the Practical Sage or the speculative philosopher?
We need the wisdom of both!