Old Testament Gospel Doctrine Lesson 31- Proverbs and Ecclesiastes

Old Testament Gospel Doctrine Lesson 31- Proverbs and Ecclesiastes August 12, 2018

Solomon (Gustave Doré, public domain.)

First, it looks like I didn’t do a podcast for Lesson 31 OR 32 in 2010, so no link to offer there. The Manual is here.

But the good news is, this is the lesson you’ve all been waiting for. Most scripture wasn’t written for the purpose of “daily application” or even “how to live a righteous life.” If that’s what you’ve been looking for in the Old Testament, it’s probably been difficult. Schlimm calls this the “Searching for Saints” model of reading; it doesn’t work very well, because scripture was not intended to provide ideal models to emulate and liken.

However, this lesson is the motherlode, because the chapters in question WERE intended to teach daily application and how to live. It’s called Wisdom Literature, and Proverbs is the primary example in the Bible, followed by Ecclesiastes and Job, three different takes on a similar genre. Wisdom literature is found throughout the ancient Near East, and the Israelite version often hews very closely to Egyptian and other examples. This shouldn’t surprise too much; if you took a Jew, a Christian, a Muslim, and an atheist, and asked them how to live a good and moral life on a daily basis, they’d probably all say similar things, like “be honest” and “work hard.” So it is with wisdom literature. I’ll post some readings below, but if you’re looking for a good introduction, try James Crenshaw, Old Testament Wisdom: An Introduction. Here’s his introduction and definition of Wisdom.

Proverbs has no overarching narrative or story, no historical setting, and is only loosely connected with Solomon. Rather, it is a collection of sayings teaching how to live a better life, daily application, and choices. It is often poetry (making use of parallelism) and presented as parental wisdom to a child, e.g.Pro 1:8 (NRSV)

Hear, my child, your father’s instruction,
and do not reject your mother’s teaching;

I’m focusing on two things in Proverbs

1) Explicit presence of the feminine

One of the interesting things in Proverbs is the presence of the feminine in various roles. There are three women, I would say. There is Wisdom personified, the first of God’s creations who creates with him,  the anti-wisdom prostitute in Proverbs 6, and the idealized wife in Proverbs 31.

Wisdom Personified– Proverbs 8 portrays wisdom (Heb. ḥokmah, Greek sophia) as a woman standing at the street corner crying aloud to teach and preach. She starts speaking in the 1st person in v. 4. V.22 is where it gets really interesting.

22 The LORD created me at the beginning of his work, the first of his acts of long ago.
23 Ages ago I was set up, at the first, before the beginning of the earth.
24 When there were no depths I was brought forth, when there were no springs abounding with water.
25 Before the mountains had been shaped, before the hills, I was brought forth–
26 when he had not yet made earth and fields, or the world’s first bits of soil.
27 When he established the heavens, I was there, when he drew a circle on the face of the deep,
28 when he made firm the skies above, when he established the fountains of the deep,
29 when he assigned to the sea its limit, so that the waters might not transgress his command, when he marked out the foundations of the earth,
30 then I was beside him, like a master worker; and I was daily his delight, rejoicing before him always,
31 rejoicing in his inhabited world and delighting in the human race.
32 And now, my children, listen to me: happy are those who keep my ways.

In certain strains of thought, Wisdom went beyond this, so that the Dictionary of Deities and Demons in the Bible can say that Wisdom

is the name of a biblical goddess. She figures prominently in one canonical book and several deuterocanonical writings of the OT: Prov 1–9, Sir, Bar, and Wis. Although modern interpreters have often treated her as a literary personification, it can be argued that what later came to be considered a mere figure of speech started its career as a ‘real’ deity.

(See here for the article.)

The polar opposite of Wisdom standing at the corner is the “strange woman” who also awaits at the corner. While wisdom leads to a better life, this woman provides “the way to Hell, going down to the chambers of Death.” (Pro. 7:27)

4 Say to wisdom, “You are my sister,” and call insight your intimate friend,
5 that they may keep you from the loose woman, from the adulteress with her smooth words.
6 For at the window of my house I looked out through my lattice,
7 and I saw among the simple ones, I observed among the youths, a young man without sense,
8 passing along the street near her corner, taking the road to her house
9 in the twilight, in the evening, at the time of night and darkness.
10 Then a woman comes toward him, decked out like a prostitute, wily of heart.
11 She is loud and wayward; her feet do not stay at home;
12 now in the street, now in the squares, and at every corner she lies in wait.
13 She seizes him and kisses him, and with impudent face she says to him:
14 “I had to offer sacrifices, and today I have paid my vows;
15 so now I have come out to meet you, to seek you eagerly, and I have found you!
16 I have decked my couch with coverings, colored spreads of Egyptian linen;
17 I have perfumed my bed with myrrh, aloes, and cinnamon.
18 Come, let us take our fill of love until morning; let us delight ourselves with love.
19 For my husband is not at home; he has gone on a long journey.
20 He took a bag of money with him; he will not come home until full moon.”
21 With much seductive speech she persuades him; with her smooth talk she compels him.
22 Right away he follows her, and goes like an ox to the slaughter, or bounds like a stag toward the trap
23 until an arrow pierces its entrails. He is like a bird rushing into a snare, not knowing that it will cost him his life.
24 And now, my children, listen to me, and be attentive to the words of my mouth.
25 Do not let your hearts turn aside to her ways; do not stray into her paths.
26 for many are those she has laid low, and numerous are her victims.
27 Her house is the way to Sheol, going down to the chambers of death.
(Pro 7:4-27 NRS)

Proverbs portrays sexual infidelity as the opposite of Wisdom. If wisdom involves mastering appetites, fidelity and application to one’s appointed sphere (including spouse),  and discipline in God’s teaching, succumbing to sexual temptation (particularly with someone else’s spouse) is the antithesis.

For the commandment is a lamp and the teaching a light, and the reproofs of discipline are the way of life,
24 to preserve you from the wife of another, from the smooth tongue of the adulteress.
25 Do not desire her beauty in your heart, and do not let her capture you with her eyelashes;
26 for a prostitute’s fee is only a loaf of bread, but the wife of another stalks a man’s very life.
27 Can fire be carried in the bosom without burning one’s clothes?
28 Or can one walk on hot coals without scorching the feet?
29 So is he who sleeps with his neighbor’s wife; no one who touches her will go unpunished.
30 Thieves are not despised who steal only to satisfy their appetite when they are hungry.
31 Yet if they are caught, they will pay sevenfold; they will forfeit all the goods of their house.
32 But he who commits adultery has no sense; he who does it destroys himself.
(Pro 6:23-32 NRS)

The third portrayal of the feminine is in Proverbs 31:10ff. Here, we see an idealized Israelite wife, with some surprising characteristics.  Jewish men traditionally recite this on Shabbat to call to mind reflection and appreciation for his wife and all she has done that week.  Note that the “virtuous woman” in KJV v. 10 is actually more like “capable woman” and has nothing to do with chastity.

10 A capable wife who can find? She is far more precious than jewels.
11 The heart of her husband trusts in her, and he will have no lack of gain.
12 She does him good, and not harm, all the days of her life.
13 She seeks wool and flax, and works with willing hands.
14 She is like the ships of the merchant, she brings her food from far away.
15 She rises while it is still night and provides food for her household and tasks for her servant-girls.
16 She considers a field and buys it; with the fruit of her hands she plants a vineyard.
17 She girds herself with strength, and makes her arms strong.
18 She perceives that her merchandise is profitable. Her lamp does not go out at night.
19 She puts her hands to the distaff, and her hands hold the spindle.
20 She opens her hand to the poor, and reaches out her hands to the needy.
21 She is not afraid for her household when it snows, for all her household are clothed in crimson.
22 She makes herself coverings; her clothing is fine linen and purple.
23 Her husband is known in the city gates, taking his seat among the elders of the land.
24 She makes linen garments and sells them; she supplies the merchant with sashes.
25 Strength and dignity are her clothing, and she laughs at the time to come.
26 She opens her mouth with wisdom, and the teaching of kindness is on her tongue.
27 She looks well to the ways of her household, and does not eat the bread of idleness.
28 Her children rise up and call her happy; her husband too, and he praises her:
29 “Many women have done excellently, but you surpass them all.”
30 Charm is deceitful, and beauty is vain, but a woman who fears the LORD is to be praised.
31 Give her a share in the fruit of her hands, and let her works praise her in the city gates. (Pro 31:10-31 NRS)

The portrayal here is both traditional and surprising. There are distinct roles for the wife, but they include e.g. business and finance (“she considers a field and buys it” “her merchandise is profitable”), managing servants, providing food and clothing. It also portrays the ideal wife as one with wisdom and foresight, who is well-prepared and can thus “laugh at the time to come.” Clearly, planning and foresight are also desirable in a husband, but I highlight these to show how the idealized (although clearly upper-class) Israelite woman operated in spheres we don’t often think of.

2) Theological Diversity
One of the notable characteristics of the Wisdom literature is that it is not monolithic. As we’ll see, Ecclesiastes differs from Proverbs, and Job from them both. But even within Proverbs, we see what some might term “conflicting” advice.

4 Do not answer fools according to their folly, or you will be a fool yourself.
5 Answer fools according to their folly, or they will be wise in their own eyes. (Pro 26:4-5 NRS)

Well, which is it? Both. Scripture is less about being an answer book, and more about being a sourcebook. That is, for Wisdom, you were supposed to be familiar with the teachings, and be able to make judgments about which was applicable in certain situations. It was not about getting an absolute “never answer fools” or “always answer fools.” Peter Enns (an Evangelical scholar I like and cite often) uses Proverbs to talk about “theological diversity” in one of my favorite Old Testament books I wish everyone would read, Inspiration and Incarnation: Evangelicals and the Problem of the Old Testament. In the book (and his other writings), you can often substitute “Mormon” for “evangelical.”

the history of modern evangelical interpretation exhibits a strong degree of discomfort with the tensions and ambiguities of Scripture. The assumptions often made are that Scripture should have no tensions and that any such tensions are not real but introduced from the outside, namely, by scholarship hostile to evangelical Christianity. -I&I, 72.

He spends a chapter on these tensions, using Wisdom literature and other examples from Israelite law and doctrine to illustrate. (You can read part of it here, but seriously, read the whole book.) He concludes by saying

The types of things reviewed in this chapter can no doubt be somewhat unsettling for some, and I hope I presented the issue in a constructive manner. It seems that there is a significant strand of contemporary Christian thinking on the Old Testament that feels that these sorts of things just shouldn’t happen. And, if they do, they just appear to be a problem. You just need to read a bit more closely or do a little more research, and if you’re patient enough, you’ll get the right answer eventually. For others, however (including myself), such an approach comes close to intellectual dishonesty. To accept the diversity of the Old Testament is not to “cave in to liberalism,” nor is it to seek after novelty. It is, rather, to read the Old Testament quite honestly and seriously. And if diversity is such a prevalent phenomenon in the Old Testament, it would seem to be important to do more than simply take note of diversity and file it away for future reference. We must ask why God would do it this way. Why does God’s word look the way it does?

More on Proverbs from John Collins’ Introduction to the Hebrew Bible

Quick notes on Ecclesiastes

The author of Ecclesiastes is called The  Preacher (KJV) in Ecc. 1:1.  But some Bibles and most scholarly works don’t translate the term, preferring the transliteration Qoheleth, since we’re not perfectly sure what it means.

As for the designation “Qoheleth” (קהלת), this title is derived from the Hebrew word קהל, qahal or “assemble.” A qohelet is the agent of assembly—the “assembler,” so to speak. Thus, Qoheleth could denote the leader of an assembly. This is how the LXX translates it. The Greek ἐκκλησιαστής, ekklēsiastēs (brought into English as Ecclesiastes) is one who heads a church or a congregation (ἐκκλησία, ekklēsia). But “qoheleth” could also refer to an assembler of sayings—a collector of proverbs (see Eccl 12:9–11). So while the former definition gave rise to the English title for this book, the latter is decidedly more consistent with the actual role of our author.

– Steven L. Bridge, Getting the Old Testament: What It Meant to Them, What It Means for Us (a good recommended read. Here’s his take on Wisdom and Proverbs. )

Qoheleth is a realist, a stick-in-the-mud, bordering on cynic. The key word or Leitmotif for Qoheleth is “vanity” as in 1:2 “Vanity of vanities, saith Qoheleth, vanity of vanities, all is vanity.”

He means “vanity” not in the sense of self-centered egotistical puffed-upness, but in the sense of worthlessness, ephemerality, non-importance and non-permanenance. Everything passes away, everything dies, nothing is new, the world keeps going through its cycles and pays no attention to mankind. Note the JPS translation- “Utter futility! — said Koheleth — Utter futility! All is futile!” and the NIV  “Meaningless! Meaningless!” says the Teacher. “Utterly meaningless! Everything is meaningless.”

In fact, you know the Hebrew word translated as “vanity” “futility” and “meaningless” but from a different context; It’s Heb. hével or sometimes hável, which we know as the proper name Abel. Born in Genesis 4:2, Abel dies by v. 8. He’s thus not around very long, transitory, passing away, not lasting, ephemeral…

Abel represents a figure whose life is cut short before its full time is accomplished. Although one may argue that Abel’s name was intended to signify the general condition of humanity as subject to death, it is better to see the name as an anticipation of Abel’s premature death

-“Abel (Person),” ABD.

Qoheleth says that he has sampled wisdom and folly, and life’s opposites. He suggests that we take joy in our work, in our family, and in eating and drinking, but prepare for unpredictability, disaster, and death because that’s reality and humanity’s portion that God has appointed. Qoheleth is a bit like the grumpy old man, or a Biblical version of Shelly’s Ozymandias.

I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: “Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed:
And on the pedestal these words appear:
‘My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!’
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.

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