Genres are categories of literature, each with its own tone and techniques. The Bible uses a handful of genres—narrative and law, prophecy and letters, wisdom literature, and apocalyptic literature. Understanding the genre in which the passage is written can help guide our reading. Follow the Biblical Genre Series to get the most out of your Bible reading.
The literary genre in the Bible known as “Wisdom literature” is a group of five books that tells us about who God created us to be. Each book presents a unique perspective on how God can be a part of our daily lives. Each of these books—Proverbs, Song of Songs, Ecclesiastes, Job, and Psalms—reflects a different facet of the human experience. If you want to know how to live well, these books are a great starting point. If you feel life isn’t fair—come to these texts.
Wisdom literature starts from the premise that we were created by a good God, but that our humanity has been marred by sin—in every aspect of life. Starting there, the books explore how that brokenness affects us, and what we can do about it. Basically, the practice of discerning between good and evil in our lives is what the Bible calls wisdom.
In our culture of self-help blogs, Proverbs gives us what we’re really craving. This book is a collection of wise sayings—simple, but profound. The world of Proverbs is one where doing good things—like working hard, saving money, and being faithful to your spouse—brings blessing. If you want to know how to be a good friend, or how to figure out what you should be devoting your time and energy to, read Proverbs. When you read Proverbs, keep in mind, that wisdom is often personified—sometimes as a woman, and sometimes as a mysterious person who was with God since the beginning of time. This is important, because it hints that when we’re seeking wisdom, we’re looking for a real person. Centuries later, Jesus claimed to be the truth behind all wisdom (John 14:6). When we seek true wisdom, we’re seeking God.
Song of Songs
Song of Songs is the ancient equivalent of a romantic love song between two young lovers. In this book, the man and woman wax rapturous about each other as they anticipate and consummate marriage. Scholars differ over the specifics of character and narrative, but all agree that these songs show an ideal marriage relationship, marked by loyalty, love, and delight. Some people interpret this book as a picture of the richness of God’s love for God’s people, (a metaphor the apostle Paul later picks up on to describe the relationship between Christ and his church). Read this book when you want to learn about God’s definition of love.
Think of Johnny Cash singing “Hurt” mournfully—that’s the preacher in Ecclesiastes. His cynicism is jarring next to the idealized lives in Proverbs and Song of Songs. The preacher is frustrated by life’s seeming meaninglessness. His famous refrain “all of life is vanity under the sun” expresses the painful lack of purpose we often feel. The key to understanding Ecclesiastes is the phrase “under the sun,” which denotes an existence apart from divine grace. Instead of living under the rule of an attentive, just, and powerful God, the preacher has tried to live without acknowledging God. He finds this life futile, meaningless. Even people who do acknowledge God experience seasons of doubt, depression and despair. We’re afraid that what we do each day doesn’t matter. Ecclesiastes walks us through those times, and brings us out looking to God, to whom everything is important.
But don’t people suffer desperate loss even when they are seeking God’s grace? The poetic book of Job describes a man who has done everything right—yet God allows terrible suffering in his life. Why do such bad things happen to good people? How could God be all-powerful when there is so much evil, pain, and death in the world? Job cries out his questions to God, rejecting the simplistic cause-and-effect view of his friends. He longs for an advocate who will present his case to God. Consider this book when you are suffering, when you feel you’ve lost hope, and desperately need God to intervene.
The Psalms tie together the pain and cynicism of Job and Ecclesiastes with the elation, risk, and longing of the Proverbs and Song of Songs. Here is the full range of human experience. The Psalms are a group of prayers and songs, expressing, with total honesty, all that the other books have described. The people praying these psalms shout out their doubt, confusion, grief, anxiety, joy, and worship to their Creator. Throughout the psalms runs a current of hope for restoration to individuals and to the whole community. Even in pain, the psalmists hang on to God’s promised deliverance. Whatever you feel, there is a psalm for you to pray. Try paraphrasing a psalm in your own words, and direct it to God.
How it works
What if you’re not wise? What if your marriage is blighted? What if you hate your work and are never satisfied? What if you have suffered devastating loss or persistent failure, despite your life of faith? Wisdom literature brings all of these questions to God, and at the same time, alternately conceals and reveals—like vapor—an answer to come.
As you read, go slowly, and invite God to be with you. As you pray for wisdom (Psalm 119:73), God will give it to you (James 1:5).
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