The Wisdom Literature

An ancient tradition among the Jews divided the collection of their holy books into three major divisions: the Law (Pentateuch), the Prophets (Former and Latter) and the Writings. Included within the third division are Psalms and wisdom materials such as Job, Proverbs and Ecclesiastes (also some psalms and probably the Song of Songs—see introduction to that book: Interpretation).

This wisdom literature is usually associated with the sages who are mentioned along with priests and prophets as an important force in Israelite society (see, e.g., Jer 18:18 and note). These gifted persons were recognized as possessing wide knowledge of the created world (see 1Ki 4:29-34), special insight into human affairs (as exemplified by proverbs) and exceptionally good judgment regarding courses of action to be followed to attain success in various enterprises (see 2Sa 16:15-23). In general, priests and prophets dealt with religious and moral concerns (proclaiming, teaching, interpreting and applying God’s word to his people), whereas the sages generally focused more on the practical aspects of how life should be guided in the created order of things (Proverbs) and on the intellectual challenges that arise from the ambiguities of human experience (Job, Ecclesiastes).

Israel’s sages reflected on life in light of God’s special revelations to his people, but for their unique contribution to understanding how people ought to live in God’s world they drew heavily on human experience of the created order. In this they learned much from the sages and wisdom traditions of other peoples. Comparison of their writings with those of their neighbors discloses their acquaintance with the larger intellectual world of the ancient Near East but also the distinctive perspective they brought to their reflections on the human condition.


© Zondervan. From the Zondervan NIV Study Bible. Used with Permission.