Review: Interpreting the Wisdom Books

interpreting the wisdom books

Interpreting the Wisdom Books: An Exegetical Handbook, Edward M. Curtis. Grand Rapids: Kregel Academic, 2017.

Summary: A handbook offering step by step help in moving from text to sermon exegeting and expositing the Wisdom books of Job, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and Song of Songs.

It is not often that members of most churches hear preaching from the Wisdom books of Job, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and Song of Songs, apart from citations in topical sermons, or an occasional venture into these books. That is regrettable since there is so much of profit in all of these books. A grad student friend once described a period in his life of profound depression and said that the book of Ecclesiastes was the only book he could read, and it got him through this dark season.

The purpose of this book is to help pastors and teachers who want to tackle one or more of these books, giving practical, step by step assistance in moving from text to message. The handbook is not a commentary on these four books, but assumes a willingness to do the hard work of moving from careful, personal study (preferably in Hebrew) of the text, to interpretation, and finally to preparing and proclaiming messages from these texts.

What the author does is focus in on the particular issues involved in exegeting these books, applying good general principles of exegesis to this particular genre. He begins in chapter one with considering the genre, the nature of Old Testament Wisdom and the particular ways in which Hebrew poetry and proverbs function, including a discussion of parallelism and other devices like metaphor and image. This, I thought some of the most helpful material in the book.

Chapter two considers the primary themes one finds in each of the Wisdom books. This chapter, while including much helpful material, does approach being at least an overview commentary of each book, and feels a bit like a shortcut in the process. I would personally advise reading the book multiple times and trying to arrive at primary themes or a basic outline of the book by oneself. Nevertheless, there are helpful observations, including the importance of the idea of the fear of the Lord in Proverbs, or hebel in Ecclesiastes.

Chapter three gets down to the spade work of good exegesis: ancient near East backgrounds and parallels with the Wisdom books, the challenges of textual criticism (especially difficult with Job), doing good translation work from the Hebrew text, and then considering what others have written. Each section here includes a helpful list of basic resources to aid in this work.

Chapter four explores basic interpretive issues specific to each book. In Job, this includes reading individual passages in light of the whole book (otherwise Job may sound really bad, and his friends really good!). In Proverbs, the same applies and is particularly important when it comes to interpreting a particular proverb in terms of all the proverbs on this topic, which often balance each other. Likewise, in Ecclesiastes, the tensions within the book mean it is vital to reach a balanced understanding of the whole. In Song of Songs, so much of the issue is understanding the love poetry one finds here without so breaking it down in a message that it, as the author observes, has “the same impact as ‘explaining a joke.’ ”

Chapter five moves from exegesis to proclamation, and some important considerations in proclaiming the wisdom of each book. He gives examples of developing preaching outlines for Proverbs 2 and Job 28, and then turns to principles for each book. There is a strong emphasis on application, showing how this wisdom bears on modern life, whether concerning suffering and faith, unanswered questions, marital love, or the everyday wisdom of Proverbs rooted in the fear of the Lord.

Chapter six is a kind of summary or recap, showing the process of moving from text to sermon. He uses the examples of a topical study of friendship from Proverbs, and a study of Job 4-6 on Job’s friend Eliphaz.

An appendix, contributed by Austen M. Dutton surveys the software and online resources available for the study of the Wisdom books. Dutton includes some of the best free online resources as well as software running from inexpensive to more costly. A glossary of important terms (also highlighted in the text) is included.

The word “handbook” is a good descriptor for this book. It offers the person who will preach or teach from Wisdom texts a step by step framework for careful textual study, good interpretive principles, and homiletic considerations, without doing the work either of the preacher or the Holy Spirit. Curtis also provides sufficient background and overview of key themes of the books to make the case for the value to be found in studying and preaching them. His examples throughout convey that this is an interpreter who has spent long hours with great love studying and teaching and applying these books, and one who believes you want to do likewise!


Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.