The Wisdom Literature as an Apologetic: Part Five

Part five of a pretty long essay. Here are parts one, two, three, and four.

Case Study: the Acts-Consequences Nexus and the nations

The so called “acts-consequences nexus” is central to theories of protest within the wisdom corpus. The premise that Proverbs asserts such a worldview, or perhaps that a calcified misinterpretation of Proverbs gave birth to a retributive theology in Israel, while Job and Ecclesiastes protest against it, has found significant scholarly support. [1] However, this retributive view of the world was not limited to Israel, it was a fundamental assumption underpinning the beliefs of many ANE nations, and a motivation in the pursuit of wisdom.[2]

Internal Protest

Von Rad (1972) suggests Jewish wisdom presupposed Yahweh as the order underpinning creation who would only act at last resort.[3] In order to reach this view he inexplicably dismisses Proverbs that call for trust in the Lord (Proverbs 3:5; 14:26; 16:3, 20; 18:10; 19:23; 28:25; 29:25; 30:1-14). The extreme version of this view reduces God to a deistic first-cause with a hands-off approach to creation,[4] and in this view the Yahweh of Proverbs functions the same way as the gods of the ANE.[5]

A retributive “reap-what-you-sow” theology is bound to result in disappointment in a broken world. Seemingly good people suffer, protest literature exploring this disappointment is common in the ANE.[6] Whybray suggests Israel’s protest literature was not unique, nor dependant on foreign works.[7]

This view of protest within the canon has become popular in modern wisdom scholarship,[8] and some have tried to identify retributive theology in the ethics of the prophets, suggesting it played an important role in Jewish theology.[9] Any concept of retributive theology legitimately found in the Old Testament is carefully grounded in the will of Yahweh,[10] and is usually the fruit of a promise.[11] I would suggest this view actually describes the purposes of the wisdom authors in addressing ANE conceptions of reality.

Ecclesiastes and Wisdom

If Ecclesiastes is understood as a protest against the mindless pursuit of wisdom characterised by the “wisdom movement” typified by the statement in 8:16-17, then this has been interpreted as a critique of Proverbs’ embracing of wisdom “Wisdom is supreme, therefore get wisdom” (Proverbs 4:7).[12]

However, it is possible that both statements reflect two sides of the same coin if they are read in the light of the “Fear of the Lord” (Proverbs 1:6, Ecclesiastes 12:13). Qoheleth’s objection to the wisdom movement must then be understood as a rejection of the wisdom movement as it exists in the ANE.[13]

Job and Retribution

Job maintains his blamelessness in the face of his friends, who clearly advocate a doctrine of retribution (for example Elihu’s words in Job 34:4-9).[14] His words in 9:22 speak out against such a doctrine, and his views on Yahweh’s rule of the world, and his own righteousness, are vindicated when Yahweh rebukes the friends because they have “not spoken of me what is right” (Job 42:7,8), dismissing any possible inkling of an acts-consequences nexus.

A major theological purpose of Job seems to be to overturn retributive theology,[15] theology that is commonplace in the ANE,[16] and not as clearly advocated in Proverbs as some suggest.[17]

The Problem with the proverbial Acts-Consequences Nexus

Waltke (1996) rejects what he perceives as three common aspects of the internal protest theory:

  1. Solomon was a dullard who failed to understand reality
  2. Proverbs contains promises that are not true
  3. The aphorisms within Proverbs present “probabilities not promises.[18]

Treating the book as a cohesive unit, rather than treating its aphorisms as axioms, radically countermands all three of these positions. This approach produces a balanced view of the world without an absolute law of cause and effect.[19] It is possible that Proverbs dealt with the “ends of life” rather than the means, and further that it dealt with the eternal consequences of temporal decisions (Proverbs 12:28).[20]

There are several proverbs (Proverbs 15:16-17; 16:8, 19; 17:1; 19:22b; 22:1; 28:6) that explicitly link righteous acts with poverty, and criminal acts with wealth, and others focus on failures of justice (Proverbs 10:2; 11:16; 13:23; 14:31; 15:25; 18:23; 21:6, 7,13; 19:10; 22:8, 22; 23:17; 28:15-16, 27).[21] These fly in the face of this acts-consequences concept,[22] most importantly, is the notion in Proverbs 15:16, that the “Fear of the Lord” can be coupled with having little, and that this is better than wealth.

Suggestions of an acts-consequences nexus may result from an under-realised eschatology. Proverbs suggests the consequences of righteous or wicked decisions may not come until the end of life (Proverbs 11:4,7, 18, 21, 23, 28; 12:7, 12; 14:32; 15:25; 17:5; 19:17; 20:2, 21; 21:6-7, 22:8-9, 16; 23:17-18; 24:20). The eschatological view point of Proverbs is best articulated in 24:14-16,[23] and 12:28, which Waltke suggests contains a promise of immortality.[24] The absence of such an undertone in Ecclesiastes and Job is a result of their more temporal concerns.[25]

This eschatological concern is uncommon in the Old Testament.[26] But securing a place in the afterlife was a primary concern of Egyptian wisdom. Egypt’s wisdom schools were called “Schools of Life,” for this reason.[27] Egyptian wisdom presented the gods of Egypt as subjects to the established order,[28] and the afterlife as tied to living life in accordance with ma’at.[29] Proverbs holds that Yahweh created, and controls this order,[30] and man’s hope is found in fearing him.[31]

The evidence for “protest” against conventional wisdom is strong in Job and Ecclesiastes,[32] but it is plausible to suggest Proverbs was not the target.[33] A simple reductionism of the works into a battle between optimism and pessimism will no longer suffice.[34]


[1] Shields, M.A, ‘The End of Wisdom,’ pp 238-239

[2] See note 6.

[3] Von Rad, Wisdom in Israel, p 191

[4] Waltke, B, ‘Does Proverbs Promise Too Much?,’ Andrews University Seminary Studies, Autumn 1996, Vol. 34, No.2, pp 333-334 citing Huwiler, E.F, “Control of Reality in Israelite Wisdom” (Ph.D. dissertation, Duke University, 1988), p 64

[5] Whybray, N, ‘The Social World of the Wisdom Writers,’ p 246, Blenkinsopp, J, Wisdom and Law in the Old Testament, p 46 suggests the acts-consequence nexus is an unhelpful hangover from Israel’s adaptation of ‘old wisdom’.

[6] Dell, K.J, The Book of Job as Sceptical Literature, (Berlin: Walter De Gruyter, 1991), p 38

[7] Whybray, N, ‘Two Jewish Theologies,’ p 181

[8] See Morrow, W.S, Protest Against God, pp 129-146, Dell, K.J, The Book of Job as Sceptical Literature, pp 35-56, Shaking A Fist At God: Insights from the Book of Job (Ligouri: Triumph Books, 1995), pp 37-66, Enns, P, Inspiration and Incarnation, pp 74-82

[9] Hubbard, ‘The Wisdom Movement,’ p 11 citing Gerstenberger, E. ‘The Woe-Oracles of the Prophets’, Journal of Biblical Literature 81 (1962) 249-263

[10] Lucas, E, ‘The Acts-Consequences Nexus,’ p 8 suggests any character-consequences nexus in Proverbs is not the result of an impersonal order, but rather the “will of Yahweh.”

[11] Israel’s occupation of the Promised Land was certainly linked to their righteousness – cf Deuteronomy 30.

[12] Enns, Inspiration and Incarnation, p 78

[13] Crenshaw, J.L, Ecclesiastes: A Commentary, p 24 suggests Qoheleth’s rejection of observing signs is a rejection of Mesopotamian wisdom, and p 26 suggests his embrace of life as opposed to suicide contrasts with Egyptian and Mesopotamian skepticism.

[14] Some have suggested that Job’s friends are representatives of the wisdom movement, or that all the characters are sages, Perdue, L.G, Wisdom Literature: A Theological History, pp 90-91, Zimmerli, Walther, ‘Expressions of Hope in Proverbs and The Book of Job,’ Man and His Hope in the Old Testament, Studies in Biblical Theology, SCM Press, London, 1971, pp 16-19, When confronted with Job’s plight, Eliphaz calls on Job to return to God, Bildad links righteousness and hope, and Zophar demands Job turn to righteousness. For Zophar the question is straightforward, if Job’s fortunes are in tatters then his righteousness is in question (Job 11), that the friends’ understanding of the underlying order of things, Dumbrell, W.J, The Faith of Israel, p 259 suggests the dialogues “explores the limits of traditional wisdom” before turning to an understanding of the world centred around Yahweh’s controlling interest.

[15] See Dell, K.J, The Book of Job as Sceptical Literature, pp 35-56

[16] Dell, K.J, The Book of Job as Sceptical Literature, p 39, Blenkinsopp, J, Wisdom and Law in the Old Testament,’ p 48 suggests retribution was a common theological belief of the ANE.

[17] For example, Dell, K.J, Shaking A Fist At God, p 40, Dell suggests Job’s friends draw their theological inspiration from Proverbs.

[18] Waltke, ‘Does Proverbs Promise Too Much?, pp 322-325

[19] Shields, M.A, The End of Wisdom: A reappraisal of the historical and canonical function of Ecclesiastes, (Eisenbrauns, 2006), p 15

[20] Waltke, ‘Does Proverbs Promise Too Much?,’ pp 323-327, Lucas, E, Proverbs: The Act-Consequence Nexus, forthcoming, p 4

[21] Van Leeuwen, R.C, “Wealth and Poverty: System and Contradiction in Proverbs,” Hebrew Studies 33 (1992): p 29, Lucas, E, Proverbs: The Act-Consequence Nexus, forthcoming, p 7 suggests these “better than” Proverbs

[22] Waltke, ‘Does Proverbs Promise Too Much?,’ p 326

[23] Waltke, ‘Does Proverbs Promise Too Much?,’ p 326

[24] A position adopted by the NIV but not the ESV, Waltke, ‘Does Proverbs Promise Too Much,’ pp 329-330

[25] Waltke, ‘Does Proverbs Promise Too Much?’, p 327,  notes “they are concerned with events under the sun and focus on the righteous man flattened on the mat for the count of ten; they do not focus on his rising, though they do not rule that out.”

[26] So much so that questions are raised as to whether Israel had any concept of an afterlife. It is fair to say that the notion of a resurrection had developed by the time Paul used it to split the Pharisees and Sadducees – so it is not an idea completely foreign to Old Testament theology. A case could, perhaps, be made for Job’s apparent change of heart regarding “retribution” (Job 27) to be attributed to an eternal view of the world and judgment coming at death.

[27] Waltke, ‘Does Proverbs Promise Too Much?’, p 328 citing Crosser, W “The Meaning of ‘Life’ (Hayyim) in Proverbs, Job, and Ecclesiastes,” Glasgow University Oriental Society Transactions, 15 (1955), pp 51-52

[28] Wright, G.E, The Old Testament Against Its Environment, Studies in Biblical Theology, (London: SCM Press, 1950), p 44

[29] Sinnott, A, ‘The Personification of Wisdom,’ p 41 – Ma’at is important for personal immorality and the “entire basis for the Egyptian understanding of the world”, however, Fox, M.V, ‘World Order and Ma’at: a crooked parallel,’ suggests Ma’at is not a cut and dried “retributive” system

[30] Waltke, ‘Does Proverbs Promise Too Much?,’ p 333

[31] Zimmerli, ‘Expressions of Hope in Proverbs and The Book of Job,’ p 24

[32] Shields, M.A, The End of Wisdom, p 35 suggests that the “apparent distinctive thoughts of Qoheleth” have common ground with Ancient Near East wisdom well before the exile.

[33] Shields, M.A, The End of Wisdom, p 16 suggests the wisdom movement is Job’s target, and that the story of Job demonstrates that God is not subject to the retributive system that had been “established by the sage.”

[34] Waltke, B, ‘Does Proverbs Promise Too Much?,’ p 323, Nonevangelical academics, tend to pit the optimism of the so-called older wisdom represented in the Book of Proverbs against the pessimism of the so-called younger, reflective wisdom represented in the books of Job and Ecclesiastes.”

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.