The Bible’s wisdom literature pictures what it looks like to live life the way God intended. These words of wisdom tackle difficult questions along the way.
In the New King James Version of the Bible, the word wisdom appears 227 times across 66 books. Ninety-nine of those instances are contained in the books of Proverbs, Ecclesiastes and Job. That means if you’re reading a passage about wisdom, there’s more than a 40 percent chance you’re reading one of those books.
It’s little wonder those three books are traditionally labeled “wisdom literature.” Wisdom is a concept sitting at the core of each of these books, but the connection goes deeper than that.
All of these books grapple with the question, “What does life look like when we live it the way God intended?” And all three of these books come at that same question from different perspectives, exploring different threads of reasoning and trains of thought—but coming, in the end, to remarkably similar conclusions.
Solomon’s words of wisdom in Proverbs
Solomon wasn’t just a wise king—He was the wisest king (1 Kings 3:9-12). God gave him special insight into both how the world works and how people work.
Solomon “spoke three thousand proverbs, and his songs were one thousand and five. … And men of all nations, from all the kings of the earth who had heard of his wisdom, came to hear the wisdom of Solomon” (1 Kings 4:32, 34).
Most of those 3,000 proverbs have been lost to time, but God preserved quite a few of them for us in the aptly named book of Proverbs.
The theme of Proverbs is wisdom—practical, down-to-earth instructions for dealing with difficult situations (and difficult people). Looking through the lens of the book of Proverbs, you see that living life as God intended means taking hold of wisdom and using it to structure your life.
And what is wisdom? Solomon personified wisdom this way: “The LORD possessed me at the beginning of His way, before His works of old. I have been established from everlasting, from the beginning, before there was ever an earth. … I was beside Him as a master craftsman; and I was daily His delight” (Proverbs 8:22-23, 30).
Solomon identified wisdom as a tool God used to order and structure the universe we live in. “The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom,” he explained (Proverbs 9:10). By starting with respect and admiration for God, we can tap into that wisdom, understand the world around us and live fulfilling lives.
The rest of the book is filled with concise yet profound insights into the inner workings of God’s creation. And even though the book is a few thousand years old, the wisdom of Solomon is hardly out-of-date.
Whether you’re looking for advice on marriage, your career, social conflict or something else, it’s all there. Find some fascinating lists of practical wisdom in our online articles “How to Be Wise” and “Proverbs.”
But Proverbs is only part of the picture. While it provides a very cause-and-effect approach to life, it doesn’t often address the exceptions. Sometimes bad things happen to good people, and sometimes good things happen to bad people. Why? How can that factor into life as God intended?
That’s where the book of Ecclesiastes comes in.
Words of wisdom in Ecclesiastes
Ecclesiastes was written by “the Preacher,” who we believe to be Solomon—an older, depressed Solomon whose decisions had taken him far from the wisdom God had provided him. The Bible tells us that “when Solomon was old, that his wives turned his heart after other gods; and his heart was not loyal to the LORD his God” (1 Kings 11:4).
Ecclesiastes reads like a reckless experiment—a man with unbridled power and resources on the hunt for the key to happiness and meaning.Ecclesiastes reads like a reckless experiment—a man with unbridled power and resources on the hunt for the key to happiness and meaning: “Whatever my eyes desired I did not keep from them. I did not withhold my heart from any pleasure” (Ecclesiastes 2:10). He did whatever he wanted, however he wanted, whenever he wanted.
Throughout the book, the Preacher becomes disillusioned with a world that doesn’t seem to function according to any sort of rhyme or reason. He sees a world where good people suffer, evil people prosper, death comes for the rich and for the poor, success fades into obscurity, and everything repeats itself in an endless, exhausting, pointless cycle.
It all builds to a depressing conclusion: “‘Vanity of vanities,’ says the Preacher, ‘all is vanity’” (Ecclesiastes 12:8).
And then comes a footnote—a short, six-verse commentary on the Preacher’s desire to seek out words of wisdom and truth. It ends like this:
“Let us hear the conclusion of the whole matter: Fear God and keep His commandments, for this is man’s all. For God will bring every work into judgment, including every secret thing, whether good or evil” (Ecclesiastes 12:13-14).
Yes, sometimes the world feels awful. Or unfair. Or like a total throw of the dice where your best efforts are a meaningless waste of time. But in spite of all that, Ecclesiastes ends with a reminder that God is still in control, and still calling the shots, even when things aren’t working the way we expect.
The book of Job steps in to tackle the most difficult question of all: Why does obedience to God not always yield the results we expect?
Words of wisdom in Job
The book of Job is a story of a man who lived and died long before Solomon was ever born—a man who was “blameless and upright, and one who feared God and shunned evil” (Job 1:1).
In short order, Job’s perfect life is smashed to pieces. His 10 children die in a single catastrophe, and every tangible material good he owns is destroyed, stolen or burned. Job gets no explanation from God about why this happened, but his friends think they know the answer:
Job must have sinned. Terribly. Bad things don’t happen to good people; therefore, God was punishing Job for something. Job maintains that he has done nothing wrong, and this goes on for chapters and chapters—Job’s friends trying to help him see reason, with Job becoming more and more agitated, eventually accusing God of injustice and demanding arbitration.
What Job can’t see—and what we become privy to as readers of this story—is what was happening behind the curtain. Job’s friends were wrong; he hadn’t sinned and brought this upon himself. God calls him His servant, blameless and upright, unique on the face of the earth (Job 1:8). But Job was wrong too; God was not being unjust in allowing Job’s life to crumble. And Satan, who had been challenging God’s decisions and antagonizing Job, was proven the most wrong of all.
In the end, Job gets his audience with God—but instead of answering Job’s accusations directly, God puts Job in the hot seat. “Who is this who darkens counsel by words without knowledge?” asks God. “Now prepare yourself like a man; I will question you, and you shall answer Me” (Job 38:2-3). And for three chapters, God asks Job to demonstrate his understanding of the universe.
Was he there when God designed and created the earth? Does he have the wisdom and the power to summon forth light or snow or the oceans or thunder? Can he bind the stars into formations? Can he command the animals of the earth? Does he understand their design?
Can he right all the injustices in the world? Can he fathom the depth and breadth of everything God has done and is doing?
And the answer is no. Of course not. Job cannot do these things; he cannot even understand these things. God’s divine perspective and wisdom and power allows Him to comprehend and plan and enact things that Job’s tiny human brain can’t begin to imagine—that our tiny human brains can’t begin to imagine.
Just because things aren’t working the way we expect doesn’t mean that God isn’t involved and guiding things to a favorable outcome.Just because things aren’t working the way we expect doesn’t mean that God isn’t involved and guiding things to a favorable outcome.
Job replies to God, “I know that You can do everything, and that no purpose of Yours can be withheld from You. You asked, ‘Who is this who hides counsel without knowledge?’ Therefore I have uttered what I did not understand, things too wonderful for me, which I did not know. … I have heard of You by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees You. Therefore I abhor myself, and repent in dust and ashes” (Job 42:2-6).
Putting the pieces together
What does it look like to live life the way God intended? It’s not a simple question. It takes three books of wisdom literature to even scratch the surface of the subject. But put the messages of those books together, and this is the answer we find:
Through wisdom, God structured and ordered the universe in a way that makes sense. When we embrace God’s words of wisdom, we can live a fulfilling life that also makes sense. But sometimes life doesn’t make sense—and when that happens, we obey God anyway, trusting that He sees what we can’t, knowing that He will ultimately reward those who embrace His words of wisdom and follow His lead.
The prophecies of Micah aren’t regarded as wisdom literature, but in a single verse, Micah offers what might be the most succinct overview of the lesson the Bible’s wisdom literature has to offer:
“He has shown you, O man, what is good; and what does the LORD require of you but to do justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God?” (Micah 6:8).
- Do justly.
- Love mercy.
- Walk humbly.
- Trust God with the rest.
For more insight into these three books, see our online articles on Proverbs, Ecclesiastes and Job.