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The Wisdom Literature of the Bible

The Semites were practical rather than speculative thinkers. They did not have a philosophy in the strict sense of the term, and hence we find no philosophical system permeating the pages of the Old Testament. In the religious domain the practical spirit of the Semites took the form of Wisdom or Chokma. This wisdom was a more perfect and profound knowledge of revealed truths acquired by pious meditation and expressed in daily conduct. It was piety and sanctity according to the norm of divine revelation. This practical science of life, this heavenly wisdom, is generally couched in proverbs and parables which are all instinct with the thought of God and of His divine Law, and intended to lead man to a moral life and guide him away from sin. The following books of the Old Testament are classed as Wisdom literature: Job, Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Canticle of Canticles, Wisdom and Ecclesiasticus .

The Wisdom or sapiential literature is designated by the following additional titles: didactic, because it teaches doctrinal truths and inculcates a way of life; moral, because it deals with the principles of morality; poetical, because both the ideas and the form of treatment are poetical. The use of these titles will become more apparent when we study the contents of the books to which they are attributed.


The book deals with the difficult problem of reconciling the sufferings of just and innocent men with the justice and goodness of God. The author does not discuss the question in abstract terms but illustrates his principles by means of a concrete story about the patient and God-fearing Job. Job probably lived in patriarchal times. His home was in the land of Hus in the northeastern part of Palestine. He was the head of a large clan and was rich in lands and cattle. In rapid succession he lost his children and his possessions, was afflicted with a loathesome disease, and became an outcast from his own people.

His three friends - Eliphaz, Baldad and Sophar - who for seven days mourned over him in silence, open the discussion as to the cause of Job's sufferings (ch. 1-3). Sufferings, they contend, are the penalty of wrong doing. God is a severe and just judge who punishes the evil and rewards the good (ch. 4-31).

Eliu, one of the bystanders, reaffirms the justice and omnipotence of God, and maintains that sufferings purify us from vice and strengthen us in virtue (ch. 32-37). God Himself, speaking from a whirlwind, bids man not to probe too curiously into the mysterious ways of divine Providence but to submit to the divine decrees.

Both the prologue and the Epilogue (ch. 42) imply that sufferings are a Providential test of man and redound to the honor of man and the glory of God.

The Psalms

The word "psalm" is derived from the Greek term psalmos or psallein, and according to M Britt, A Dictionary of the Psalter, p. 220, denotes "a sacred song to be sung to the accompaniment  of a stringed instrument." The psalms, then, are one hundred and fifty sacred songs, composed for the greater part by David or during his reign, and used at the religious services on Mount Sion.

The central thoughts of the Psalms are God; the Messias, and man. The Psalms describe the attributes of God, especially His omnipotence, omniscience, providence, justice, holiness and mercy. They predict the advent of the Messias, and describe His future reign, His victories and triumphs, and the new Jerusalem which will draw all peoples to itself. At the same time, they portray the yearnings of man's soul after God, his complaints when crushed by powerful enemies, and his despairing appeals when overwhelmed by afflictions. But God is man's Deliverer, his strength and his hope. He who takes refuge in God has nothing to fear.

More specifically, the Psalms treat of the following subjects:

       1. God's Attributes: "O Lord our Lord, how admirable is thy name in the whole earth. For thy magnificence is elevated above the heavens" (8:2). "The heavens show forth the glory of God, And the firmament declareth the work of his hands" (18:22).
       2. Relations of Man to God: "As the hart panteth after the fountains So my soul panteth after thee, O God" (4:2). "The Lord is my light and my salvation, Whom shall I fear? The Lord is the protector of my life, of whom shall I be afraid?" (26:1).
       3. God's Providence over the Jewish People: "He divided the sea and brought them through, And he made the waters to stand as in a vessel. And he conducted them with a cloud by day, And all the night with a light of fire. He struck the rock in the wilderness, And gave them to drink, as out of the great deep. And had rained down manna upon them to eat, And had given them the bread of angels" (77:13-15, 24).
       4. The Law of God: "Blessed are the undefiled in the way, Who walk in the law of the Lord. Blessed are they that search his testimonies, That seek him with their whole heart" (18:1-2).
       5. Religious Feasts: "I rejoiced at the things that were said to me, We shall go into the house of the Lord. Our feet were standing in thy courts, O Jerusalem (121:1-2).
       6. The Messias and His Kingdom: "The Lord hath said to me: Thou art my son, This day have I begotten thee. Ask of me, and I will give thee the Gentiles for thy inheritance, And the uttermost of the earth for thy possession" (2:7, 8)
       7. Prayer: "Have mercy on me, O God, according to thy great mercy. And according to the multitude of thy tender mercies Blot out my iniquity" (50:3).

The Psalms may be divided into the following groups: didactic, which treat of God's attributes and His relation to man (1, 36, 48, 72); historical, which were inspired by some historical incident (3, 17, 26); national, which treat of the history of the chosen people (77, 78, 104, 105); festal, which were sung at religious feasts and functions (14, 23, 112 to 117); gradual, which were sung by the pilgrims on their way to Jerusalem and by the singers on the steps of the temple (119 to 133); Messianic, which treat of the future Messias (2, 21, 68, 109); penitential, which are permeated by the sentiment of contrition for sin (6, 31, 37, 50, 51, 129, 142); vindictive, which implore punishment upon the enemies of God's chosen people (108). Some psalms (9, 24, 33, 110, 111) are called alphabetical or acrostic because in the original each line began with one of the letters of the Hebrew alphabet. Psalm 118 has 176 lines and is divided into 22 strophes of 8 lines each. The lines of each strophe begin with the same letter of the Hebrew alphabet (Aleph, Beth, etc.).


The book of Proverbs contains not only proverbial sayings - that is, short popular statements expressive of practical wisdom and experience - but also parables, similitudes, comparisons, and short pithy sayings. It is not merely a compilation of unrelated sayings, containing the ethical wisdom of the Orientals, but constitutes the ethical code of its authors. It's spirit is thoroughly religious and the idea of God permeates the entire book.

The introductory part of the book (ch. 1-9) is a treatise on the excellence and advantages of wisdom. It proclaims that the "fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom" (1:7). It exhorts men to seek after wisdom, which is the best preservative against temptation and "more precious than all riches" (3:- 15). It urges men to practice virtue, to flee the company of the wicked and to avoid the occasions of sin.

Chapter 8 contains a panegyric on the Personal Word of God or the Eternal Word of God which, according to Scripturists and theologians, was a foreshadowing of a Second Person in God: "The Lord possessed me in the beginning of his ways, before He made anything from the beginning. I was set up from eternity, And of old before the earth was made" (8:22-23).

The next twenty chapters (ch. 10-29) contain about five hundred Solomonic sayings and axioms, relating to wisdom and folly, virtue and vice. The appendix (ch. 30-31) contains the sayings of a certain Agur, the son of Jakeh, and a poem in praise of a wise housewife.


Ecclesiastes means a "preacher," or a "Collector" of sayings and maxims, or the chief of an assembly of the wise. The author was a Jew who accepted the great religious principles of the Old Testament and adhered to the Monotheism and religion of his forefathers.

Although the book is lacking in a logical arrangement of subject matter, we may, nevertheless distinguish two sections in it. The first part (ch. 1-4:16) is in a certain sense theoretical and strives to answer the following question: What in this world can bring permanent happiness to man? His own investigations had brought him to the mournful conclusion: "Vanity of vanities, and all is vanity." A permanent and immutable happiness, which alone can make man blessed, is not to be found in this world. And why? Because man is short-lived and mortal; things are subject to a constant flux and change; in the present order of things good and evil are inseparably intermingled and man is helpless to change it. Earthly things, such as honor, glory, riches and sensual pleasures bring ennui rather than an abiding happiness. Wisdom itself shows the defects in the world, the perversion of justice, and the vanity of all things.

In the practical part of the book (ch. 4:17 to 12:8) the author points out what man must do to attain happiness. He must observe the commandments of God, submit to Divine Providence, refrain from inquiring too curiously into the ways of Divine Wisdom, avoid covetousness, sensuality, folly, ambition, and detraction, practice patience and mortification, be diligent in good, and remember death and judgment The author cautions us against excesses of all kinds, strikes out for moderation and the happy medium in which virtue and morality consist, and concludes his investigation with the words: "Fear God, and keep his commandments, for this is all man" (12:13).

Solomon's Canticle of Canticles

Both Jewish and Christian tradition interprets the Canticle of Canticles as an allegory, that is, a description of one thing through the image of another. In the words and imagery of an earthly love between a royal bridegroom and his lovely bride the book represents the union between God and His chosen people, between Christ and His Church, and between God and the sanctified soul.

The Canticle is also applied to the Blessed Virgin in whom was accomplished the union or marriage between the Person of the Eternal Word and human nature.

The Old Testament frequently describes the love between God and His creatures in the terms of earthly friendship or love; for example: "The bridegroom shall rejoice over the bride, and thy God shall rejoice over thee" (Isaias 62:5). In the book of Ezechiel, Jerusalem, under the figure of an unfaithful wife, is upbraided by God with her ingratitude and manifold disloyalties (ch. 16). In the New Testament the allegory of marriage is used frequently to portray the union and love between Christ and His Church. We shall quote three passages illustrative of this fact; "Then shall the kingdom of heaven be like to ten virgins, who taking their lamps went out to meet the bridegroom and the bride" (Matthew 25:1); "the husband is the head of the wife, as Christ is the head of the church, He is the saviour of his body. Therefore as the church is subject to Christ, so also let the wives be to their husbands in all things. Husbands, love your wives, as Christ also loved the church" (Ephesians, 5:23- 25); "Let us be glad and rejoice, and give glory to him; for the marriage of the Lamb is come, and His wife hath prepared herself' (Apocalypse 19:7).

The Book of Wisdom

The book sings the praises of wisdom and extols its excellence. It strives to confirm the Jews, living amid worldly and unbelieving men in foreign lands, in this wisdom and faith of their ancient Hebrew forefathers. It condemns idolatry, combats the materialism and Epicureanism of the times, and rebukes the pagan thinkers for their failure to come to a knowledge of the one true God and to a true way of life.

The book falls naturally into three parts: the hortatory (ch. 1-6), didactic (ch. 6-9) and historical (ch. 10-19).

In the first section the author contrasts the peace and happiness of the just with the vain reasonings and unhappiness of the unjust. He points out the difference between the chaste and adulterous generations, between the death of the just and the end of the wicked, between the fruitless repentence of the wicked and the reward of the just in the next life, and concludes with an exhortation to princes to seek after wisdom.

In the second section, the author points out the excellence of wisdom and of her fruits, and indicates the method whereby wisdom may be attained. In ch. 7:22-27 the author personifies Wisdom and speaks of her divine origin. In ch. 9 he appends a prayer for wisdom.

In the last section, the author illustrates his teaching on the excellence of wisdom by pointing out the blessings which wisdom conferred upon the patriarchs and upon the chosen people of God.


In the early Christian centuries this book was called Ecclesiasticus Liber (a church-book), and hence arose our title of Ecclesiasticus. The Church used this book extensively in her public readings and in her instructions of prospective converts. The book aims to point out a way of life for those who seek wisdom and strive to live in conformity with the Divine Law. The book was composed in Jerusalem between 190 and 180 B. C. by Jesus, son of Sirach.

After pointing out in the prologue (ch. 1) the origin and value of wisdom, the book falls into two parts: moral (ch. 2-43) and historical (ch. 44-50:23). In the first part the author lays down, without any apparent order, the rules of practicing virtue in all conditions of life. This section contains lessons from history on obedience, humility, friendship, relations with others, moderation, generosity, etc. Chapter 24 is a special treatise on the origin and dignity of Eternal Wisdom while chapters 42:15 to 43:37 are a magnificent hymn in honor of divine wisdom as manifested in the work of creation. The historical section illustrates the value and influence of wisdom from the lives of great men of the Old Testament. The book concludes with a prayer of praise and thanksgiving (ch. 51).

Discussion Aids

Set I

       1. What did the Jews understand by "wisdom"? How was this wisdom usually expressed? What books of the Old Testament are considered as wisdom literature?
       2. What great problem is discussed in the book of Job? How is it solved? Read the first two chapters of the book of Job in the light of the following quotation from William Shakespeare (1564-1616): "And one that is as slanderous as Satan And as poor as Job And as wicked as his wife."
       3. What is meant by a Psalm? What are the central thoughts of the Psalms? How are the Psalms sometimes grouped?
       4. What is meant by "proverbs"? Indicate the contents of the book of Proverbs?
       5. What is meant by the title "Ecclesiastes"? How may the book be divided?
       6. What is meant by an allegory? In what sense is the Canticle of Canticles an allegory? Is the image of the earthly love used frequently to describe the relation between God and His creatures?
       7. What is the aim of the book of Wisdom? How may the book be divided?
       8. What is the meaning of the word "Ecclesiasticus"? How did the book acquire the title? How may the book be divided?
       9. What idea is contained in Psalms 2:7, 8; 15:10; 21:17-19; 39:6-9; 68:22; 71:10; 109:4? Where have you met this idea before?
       10. What Person of the Blessed Trinity is foreshadowed in the following passages: Proverbs 8:22-23; Wisdom 7:22-27; Ecclesiasticus 24? Compare these passages with Genesis 1:26, 3:22, 11:7; Isaias 6:1-9, which insinuate that there is more than one Person in God.

Set II
The following are some of the sections from the Sapiential books which have been incorporated into various Masses of the Liturgical year. Show how the contents of each selection are indicative of the central theme of the Proper of the Mass.
         Proverbs 8:22-35- Masses of the Blessed Virgin Mary.
         Proverbs 31 :10-31-Mass of a Holy Woman.
         Canticle 2:1-14-Masses of the Blessed Virgin Mary.
         Canticle 3 :2-5-Mass of St. Mary Magdalene.
         Wisdom 3:1-8; 5:16-20-Masses of Several Martyrs.
         Wisdom 4 :7-16-Mass of St. Stanislaus Kostka.
         Wisdom 5 :15-Mass of One Martyr in Paschal time.
         Wisdom 7 :7-14-Mass of St. Thomas Aquinas.
         Ecclesiasticus 24 :52-Masses of the Blessed Virgin Mary.
         Ecclesiasticus 31 :8-11-Mass of Confessors.
         Ecclesiasticus 44:16-27-Mass of Confessors.

Where are Psalms 6:3, 42 and 50 used in the Liturgy?

Religious Practices

In my search for happiness I will be guided by the following three maxims:
1. "I saw in all things vanity, and vexation of mind, and that nothing was lasting under the sun" (Ecclesiastes 2:10-11).
2. "Vanity of vanities, and all is vanity except to love thee and serve Thee alone" (Imitation, Bk. I ch. I n. 3).
3. "Thou hast made us, O Lord, for thyself, and our heart is restless until it rests in thee" (St. Augustine, Confessions, Bk. In. 1).