Old Testament 102: Wisdom and Biblical Theology (part one)

I’m wildly speculating that one of the questions on wisdom literature in next Tuesday’s exam will be on how to fit wisdom literature into Biblical Theology. One of the “main men” of biblical theology is Australia’s very own Graeme Goldsworthy. His “Gospel and…” series has laid the foundations for the Australian approach to the issue more than any other unifying ideas. His “God’s people living in God’s place, under God’s rule” maxim is a useful way to quickly come to terms with where any particular piece of the Bible fits into the broader narrative, both in the past, and in terms of eschatology.

Gospel and Wisdom is his attempt to integrate the wisdom literature (and more broadly, the wisdom movement) into the narrative of the Bible. The wisdom literature doesn’t fit easily into such characterisation because it almost completely excludes reference to Israel’s covenant obligations (I think there’s an alternative way to do it, which I’ve outlined in my six part posting of my Wisdom Literature essay. Which I’ll summarise in a later post. But you can read it starting from here.

Summarising Gospel and Wisdom is going to take a few posts. But here’s the reconstruction Goldsworthy offers for the development (and place) of wisdom literature in Israel’s history. In 17 points. There are a lot of points in here that I think sit nicely with my idea that the wisdom literature was used as part of Israel’s covenant obligation to bless the nations… but we’ll get to that.

1.     Popular folk wisdom would have emerged at various levels of society as the expression of what people learned through their life’s experiences. It is not certain what form the earliest wisdom sayings took, but the evidence does not support the idea that longer sayings developed from the one line proverb.

2.     In the period before Israel went into Egypt, education in family groups would most likely have led to the formation of sayings used in the training of children.

3.     With the development of the organized state of Israel came the recognition of men who would give wise counsel in the matter of running the country.

4.     The sages or wise men emerged as a recognizable group. It is not clear whether these were recognised as officials of government, religion or education. It has been suggested that the scribes later came to be the guardians of wisdom.

5.     Wisdom may not have been a “single phenomenon” but rather a search for knowledge and understanding pursued in various ways.

6.     Solomon was probably a patron of Israel’s wisdom movement during its heyday.

7.     Egypt and Babylon’s wisdom no doubt influenced Israel’s – but how much is a matter of some discussion.

8.     The movement to a monarchy began form a sinful desire to be like the nations (contrasted to the Judge’s efforts to bring the nation back to YHWH, sometimes spectacularly). But was eventually demonstrated to be an appropriate pointer to the coming Messiah.

9.     David is also influential in the development of wisdom, a wise woman encourages him to act wisely with regard to Absalom, she flatters David as one who has the wisdom of an angel, the same as the ability to discern good and evil (2 Samuel 14).

10. Wise men were emerging under David (good and bad counsel from counselors seems a bit of a theme in 2 Samuel). Egypt had had people performing the same functions in the time of Moses.

11. Deuteronomy 4 has already established a relationship between wisdom and the law. “Observe them carefully for this will show your wisdom and understanding to the nations” – who will hear about all these decrees and say “surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people”

12. The law did not cover every contingency in life – it provided a framework within which Israel had to show its responsibility before God. Had the law covered every contingency it would have showed a very different view of man.

13. Keeping the law was wisdom, but the law was not exhaustive. Israel was given guidelines in the law by which to understand and maintain relationships with God, man, and the world. But the law was never a substitute for the pursuit of wisdom. The humanness of God’s people meant much more than doing those things specifically stated in the law. The law did not tell Israel how to develop the arts, but it did put a limit on artistic endeavour (Exodus 20:4).

14. Between Abraham and David God revealed the meaning of the covenant through redemption and law – what was begun in the Exodus was finally established under David.

15. Under David and Solomon the stage is set for the flowering of wisdom – “the tutelage of the law loses its absolute status because the kingdom means the freedom to live wisely and responsibly.”

16. Wisdom grew from Israel’s beginnings, but during the formative period of salvation history it was not prominent in the life of Israel.

17. “God wants his people to live not  by a lot of rules and regulations, but responsibly and in a manner which harmonises with his kingly rule.”

The author

Nathan runs St Eutychus. He loves Jesus. His wife. His daughter. His son. His other daughter. His dog. Coffee. And the Internet. He is the campus pastor at Creek Road South Bank, a graduate of Queensland Theological College (M. Div) and the Queensland University of Technology (B. Journ). He spent a significant portion of his pre-ministry-as-a-full-time-job life working in Public Relations, and now loves promoting Jesus in Brisbane and online. He can't believe how great it is that people pay him to talk and think about Jesus.