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.



Wisdom by Titian [Public Domain], via Wikimedia Commons


So many voices.

All wanting my attention…

–the professional solicitor raising money for an entity I might have vaguely heard of.

–the advertiser suggesting their product can offer me security, contentment, sexual satisfaction, health.

–the pundit trying to gain more views and following by provocation, pulling on the strings of emotion so that I will keep clicking.

–the media personality trying to keep my attention by arousing my sense of outrage over everything from product defects to people who pose a threat.

–the politicians who play upon both my frustrations and aspirations to garner my vote, even though in the end, they may do little to address either, only deepening my disillusionment.

So many voices.

I wonder if they drown out the voice I most need to hear. This is a voice that doesn’t join the clamor nor tries to drown it out, but to capture the attention of those who realize that life isn’t found in the clamor. It is a voice that asks questions, probing us to explore the meaning of a life well-lived and what it means to live such a life in our broadband, two hundred channel, smartphone media world. It’s a voice that bids me to a life beyond being safe, prosperous, or hip; to ask the questions of what it means to seek not only our own flourishing but those of the neighbor, whether the one on my street, or the one with whom I share my planet’s food, water, and atmosphere. It’s a voice bidding me to a life of goodness, truth, and beauty, to work with skill and excellence and yet modesty, realizing it’s all but a small part of a larger plan. It’s the voice that pierces that clamor to help me understand the time in which I live.

I call it the voice of wisdom.

Where can we go to find wisdom in the midst of the clamor? I wonder if this is actually the wrong question. I wonder if perhaps the prior question is do I hunger and thirst for something more than the clamoring voices are offering? Do I value wisdom more than a flush bank account and all the baubles of affluence by which we are lured? Do I tremble when I realize the capacity I have for both great good and great folly, and that somehow I am accountable, whether to God, myself, or simply the rest of humanity, what the writer of Proverbs might have called, “the fear of the Lord?”

Alan Jacobs has written recently of the demise of the Christian intellectual, the long history of whom stretches from Augustine and Aquinas to C.S. Lewis and Reinhold Niebuhr. Now I will be the first to admit that not all intellectuals are wise, as I warned my son in his youth that you can be very smart and not very wise. But I wonder in the distraction of the clamor if we have lost sight of the value of the wise voices who may help us interpret the times and how we might live well in them. I equally wonder if such voices have retreated from the public square because they have been shouted down as anachronisms from a benighted past.

Perhaps the beginning is to listen for the voices of wisdom among us…

–it could be an elder in a senior facility, who has seen a good deal of life, and while failing of body retains the wisdom of years.

–perhaps it is found in the lives of those who have suffered, who know the loss of what others count precious, and the qualities of character and the intangibles of goodness that remain.

–there are the religious teachers among us–not the big flashy media personalities–but those who combine prayer and reflection on sacred scripture with caring for people in all the exigencies of life.

–and there are the voices inscribed, whether the writers of sacred scripture, or those who have thought deeply on the human condition.

Proverbs 8:1-3 speaks of “Lady Wisdom” in these words:

Does not wisdom call?
    Does not understanding raise her voice?
On the heights beside the way,
    at the crossroads she takes her stand;
beside the gates in front of the town,
    at the entrance of the portals she cries aloud (ESV)

The matter is not the lack of wisdom for Lady Wisdom may be found wherever we look. The question is will we hear her voice in the clamor of so many.


[Acknowledgement: my thanks for the inspiration for this post go to Pastor Rich and a conversation with a real life Sophia.]

Review: Hear, My Son: Teaching & Learning in Proverbs 1-9

Hear, My Son: Teaching & Learning in Proverbs 1-9
Hear, My Son: Teaching & Learning in Proverbs 1-9 by Daniel J. Estes
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Proverbs 1 to 9 is an extended address on the value of wisdom from a father or elder teacher to a son or student that introduces the wisdom sayings of the remainder of Proverbs. Daniel J. Estes has taken a novel approach to this literature and written a monograph exploring the philosophy and practice of teaching and learning reflected in this instruction given in these chapters. It is part of the New Studies in Biblical Theology series of monographs.

That may sound like dry, stodgy stuff but what Estes does is outline in a very straightforward fashion what we might learn from these texts about teaching and learning. The book is not an exposition of Proverbs 1 to 9 but rather a study of this discourse through the lens of what it teaches about education.

Here is the outline of the book. After an introduction describing and giving a rationale for this study, Estes looks first at the worldview underlying Proverbs as one seeing the universe as God’s creation, one with a moral order and rationality that reflect the character of God, and thus implying a proper reverence for God by humans and other creatures. He then turns to values for education, of which the top one is wisdom which is understanding how to live well and in accord with God’s order in the world, teachability, righteousness and life. Then follows a consideration of education’s goals: commitment on the part of the learner, growth in character, competence in living, protection from folly and its consequences, prosperity and the knowledge of God.

The next sections turn to the nuts and bolts of education. Proverbs 1-9 describes a threefold curriculum of learning through observation of the world, through instruction in traditional wisdom passed along, and through revealed truth from God. He then turns to the educational process evident in this discourse which includes an address (“hear, my son”), description of the wise and foolish, various forms of commands, incentives, and an invitation to embrace the teaching. This then leads to a consideration of the role of teacher and learner in this process. Because the teacher alternates between expert authority and the role of facilitating wisdom’s embrace, he sees the teacher as functioning as a knowledgeable guide in the learning process. Conversely the learner must receive, respond to, value and assimilate wisdom. Estes then concludes the book by summarizing these chapters and outlining avenues for further exploration as well as by offering few comments on contemporary education.

What I most appreciate about this book is that it articulates an approach to education that integrates faith and rigorous study of the world rather than bracketing these off into separate ventures. In fact, the earliest scientists studied the world as well as theology to understand God’s order. Similarly, tradition, history, literature, and philosophy need not be opposed to either theology or science but all function together as a comprehensive curriculum to teach the fear of God, the order of creation, the cultivation of moral character, competence and common sense in the conduct of life. Competence and character, reason and faith walk together.

In sum, this book is a concise work that gives fresh insight into an aspect of Proverbs–teaching and learning–that has relevance for anyone engaged in the educational enterprise and particularly those who want to think Christianly about how education is done.

View all my reviews

Lady Wisdom’s Unheeded Call

I’ve been reading a bit lately about a subject I don’t hear much about these days–wisdom. My hunch is that we don’t like this idea of wisdom because it seems to suggest that there are ideas of how to live well that are already “out there”–that might have a certain “fixed” quality about them that aren’t subject to our own “make it up as we go” kind of life. It seems to me these days that our preferred method of gaining wisdom, if we care about this at all, is learning from our mistakes. And I have a hunch that many of us do learn this way (I have) and yet it seems that this way is fraught with lots of pain for not only ourselves, but that it leads to inflicting pain on those around us. And sometimes, we don’t live to profit from the lessons–we are merely an object lesson for others. Is there a better way?

Hear my son

One of the books I’ve been reading recently is Hear, My Son by Daniel J. Estes, which looks at the first nine chapters of the book of Proverbs. One of the interesting truths that it has reminded me of is the notion that there is a certain wisdom and order that has been woven into the fabric of creation.

“By wisdom the Lord laid the earth’s foundations, by understanding he set the heavens in place; by his knowledge the watery depths were divided,and the clouds let drop the dew.” (Proverbs 3:19-20, NIV)

Wisdom tells us that despite how “empowering” it was for Thelma and Louise to drive over a cliff into the Grand Canyon, that this all would end very badly.

Thelma and Louise

It is often times not nearly as dramatic. The laziness that fails to clean out a gutter leads to overflows that damage walls and structures. Water has to go somewhere! The neglect of sleep and the abuse of my body lead to illness and other physical problems. Pulling nutrients out of the earth without replacing them depletes soils and makes good land useless until replenished.

A teacher observed to me once that we not so much break God’s laws as break ourselves against them. And as I think about it, I’m struck that such “wisdom” may be the Creator’s gracious means to save us a good deal of pain in life, rather than a mean-spirited attempt to take all the fun out of life.

I think where this is really hard for me is my own self-will. I want to live life in the words of Frank Sinatra, “my way”. Even though Lady Wisdom in Proverbs 8 makes a compelling case, it is often my own self-willed notion that I know better that closes my ear to her voice, even though her pleas come with promises of blessing:

“Blessed are those who listen to me, watching daily at my doors, waiting at my doorway. For those who find me find life and receive favor from the Lord.” (Proverbs 8:34:35, NIV).

The last word in this quote is the hardest for me, even though I believe in God and have followed Christ for many years. While I don’t mind someone watching over and helping me when I’m sick, or needy, or in trouble, the truth is most of the time, I don’t want God’s help or even to admit that my life is being lived before someone who can be called “Lord.” Yet Proverbs suggests that this is the most profound wisdom of all, foundational to everything else:

“The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge,
    but fools despise wisdom and instruction.” (Proverbs 1:7, NIV)

Some fears are healthy. Proverbs says that the recognition that my life is lived for God is actually a healthy fear. I think how that works for me is that it leads me to cry for God’s help to live wisely before him in all the nooks, crannies, and crevices of my life. Everything matters, and God would spare us unneeded pain–there is plenty of pain without that which we bring on ourselves. If there is a choice between living well and making life hard–do I really want the latter? Better to listen for the voice of Lady Wisdom…