The Wisdom Literature

The books of Proverbs and Ecclesiastes provide an intriguing variation in our Old Testament study. Not the grand hymnal praises of the preceding Psalms, not the general prose of the Books of Moses, not the historical tomes of the Chronicles, not the highly structured poetry of Isaiah, they offer snippets of thought in the form of a collection that might almost be a Book of Famous Quotations.

“The Hebrew word rendered proverb is mashal, a similitude or parable, but the book contains many maxims and sayings not properly so called, and also connected poems of considerable length. There is much in it that does not rise above the plane of worldly wisdom, but . . . The least spiritual of the Proverbs are valuable . . . reminding us that the voice of Divine Inspiration does not disdain to utter homely truths.” (Bible Dictionary)

“Proverbs are small pieces of human wisdom that have been handed down from generation to generation and that continue to be applicable and valid even in our modern technological age. Proverbs, simply defined, are concise statements of an apparent truth that have currency among the people because they contain a generally accepted insight, observation, and wisdom. . . .it expresses. . . .in a nutshell the philosophy of the common people. . . . Proverbs are the true voice of all the people. . . . There appears to be present a certain pragmatic optimism in the majority of proverbs.” (Wolfgang Meider, 1986)

“The book of Ecclesiastes consists of reflections on some of the deepest problems of life, as they present themselves to the thoughtful observer. The epilogue sets forth the main conclusions at which the writer has arrived. . . .The most spiritual part of the book appears in chapters 11 and 12, where it is concluded that the only activity of lasting and permanent value comes from obedience to God’s commandments, since all things will be examined in the judgement that God will render on man.” (Bible Dictionary)

Beyond the fact that these proverbs or reflections encompass some apparent truth, it is noteworthy that they reflect quite clearly the values of the culture in which they were conceived. When the book of Proverbs tells us that the Lord hates “[sowing] discord among brethren” as much as much as “[shedding] innocent blood,” and that both are an abomination to Him, we have just been taught how much the old Israelite civilization valued peaceful coexistence, loving one’s neighbor if you will. (See Proverbs 6:16-19)

The Beginning of Wisdom is the Fear of God

Though this collection of proverbs and sayings addresses numerous topics, that of wisdom is definitely the most prominent, both in the quality of the observations and the sheer number dedicated to this theme.

Actually by their very existence these two books that seek to capture the wisdom necessary to live a successful life demonstrate the significance of wisdom. (These two books are often referred to as “The Wisdom Literature.”)

Additionally if these verses dwelling on the importance of wisdom were compiled, as is generally believed, by Solomon, renowned for his wisdom, we should expect that wisdom would be a prominent subject. We should also expect that we can learn much from this “expert” on wisdom.

“And God gave Solomon wisdom and understanding exceeding much, and largeness of heart, even as the sand that is on the sea shore. And Solomon’s wisdom excelled the wisdom of all the children of the east country, and all the wisdom of Egypt. For he was wiser than all men; than Ethan the Ezrahite, and Heman, and Chalcol, and Darda, the sons of Mahol: and his fame was in all nations round about. And he spake three thousand proverbs. . . .” (1 Kings 4:29 – 32)

Joseph Smith commented that we need knowledge to be saved and exalted. The gospel of Jesus Christ, as offered by the Latter-day Saints, emphasizes this. Certainly the focus of the Proverbs demonstrates this.

“Wisdom is the principal thing; therefore get wisdom: and with all thy getting get understanding.” (Proverbs 4:7)

“For wisdom is better than rubies; and all the things that may be desired are not to be compared to it.” (Proverbs 8:11)

“Give instruction to a wise man, and he will be yet wiser: teach a just man, and he will increase in learning.” (Proverbs 9:9)

“A man’s wisdom maketh his face to shine, and the boldness of his face shall be changed.” (Ecclesiastes 8:1)

“The way of a fool is right in his own eyes; but he that harkeneth unto counsel is wise.” (Proverbs 12:15)

Trust Draws to Heaven

This subject includes perhaps the most well known of the proverbs: “Trust in the LORD with all thine heart; and lean not unto thine own understanding.


In all thy ways acknowledge him, and he shall direct thy paths.” (Proverbs 3:5-6)

Trust as used in Proverbs is usually in conjunction with the Lord; trusting in the Lord is basically the principle of faith. The message of the proverbs is that fear damages faith, and in fact is quite the opposite in the sense that one displaces the other. Fear displaces faith, and faith can supplant fear, clearly making them opposites.

James E. Faust observed, “Terror perpetrated in this new millennium has been skillfully designed to frighten us, but fear need not control us. . . . Satan is our greatest enemy and works night and day to destroy us. But we need not become paralyzed with fear of Satan’s power. He can have no power over us unless we permit it.” (OCT 2002 First Presidency Message)

Gentle Words Ease Sorrow

The destructive and evil use of words include lying, gossiping, verbal abuse, character assassination, misrepresentation, and deception. Few things are more destructive to the soul than the misuse of words. Often it seems obvious that a person’s life can be ruined by such attacks. The more subtle message is that the soul of the attacker is actually the most damaged. The author of Proverbs would have us refrain from the poison of “reviling” and adopt the Christian attitude of charity.

If the comments in Proverbs and Ecclesiastes were not sufficient to convince one, perhaps it should be noted that of all the things Christ talked of, this was a common concern and frequent subject of His.

On the other hand, positive communication is the currency of communion, the fabric of human interaction that carefully and slowly turns us toward God.

Pride and Grace Never Dwell in the Same Place

With wisdom as the most prominent subject in the books of Proverbs and Ecclesiastes, it is natural to expect that foolishness or folly or some other “opposite” would be most often used in antithesis. Intriguingly, it is not. The negative attribute most often logically linked with wisdom is pride. At first glance, this is an odd combination; at second it is profound.

The wisdom talked about in these books is coming to know ourselves as God knows us.

Misunderstanding (the absence of wisdom) one’s place and role in life comes in two forms: (1) pride, which over-estimates one’s worth, and (2) discouragement, which under-estimates individual value. It would probably not be overstating the point to say that the goal most sought by Satan in his attempts to lead God’s children to destruction is to confuse them about their worth. Once he has snared them in this misunderstanding, sin is nearly always a forgone conclusion. Either pride or discouragement are often hallmarks of an impending fall. Only wisdom and its companion, humility, save us from this misplacement of value, this misjudgement of worth.
“When pride cometh, then cometh shame; but with the lowly is wisdom.” (Proverbs 11:2)

“Pride goeth before destruction, and an haughty spirit before a fall.” (Proverbs 16:18)

True Friendship Is Like a Single Soul

The implications of “celestial” friendship are enormous. It demands that we rise above the limits of common friendship and grasp the higher values that the gospel has been teaching us. A friendship in this world usually develops because we share similar backgrounds, interests, goals, abilities, or traits. Yet these can be tenuous, or in a word, temporary, temporal, not eternal. If instead we start with the background of having the same eternal parents and the objective of eternal life, the bond is definitely more powerful. If we can move beyond the petty boundaries that eventually seem to plateau friendship in this world and replace envy, jealousy, and strife with faith and charity, we have a chance at forming an eternal friendship here on this imperfect earth.

Who Loves Well, Chastises Well

Rearing children is a topic that fits well with the rest of the advice offered in Proverbs and Ecclesiastes. Gentle speech, study and wisdom, happiness and good humor, a true understanding of the value and role of parenting (neither pridefully abusive nor discouragingly permissive all contribute greatly.) But perhaps the single most helpful proverb concerning raising children would be the advice to “trust the Lord.” In few areas of human endeavor will listening to the still, small voice be of more help than in raising children. Both long-term planning and coping with the many, sudden situations that arise benefit from the promptings of the Holy Ghost.
Brigham Young added: “I do not believe in making my authority .


 

. . known by brute force. . . . in all humility and patience, not as a tyrannical ruler, but as . . . a thoughtful and unassuming superior; let me be honored in my station through faithful diligence; and be fully capable, by the aid of God’s Spirit, of filling my office in a way to effect the salvation of all who are committed to my charge.”

Cheerfulness Gives Sweetness to Life

It is fitting that this lesson should end by examining the topic of “happiness and good humor” since the title sets this up as a goal. Undoubtedly following the gospel path the proverbs outline will lead us to such a state; and they also teach that because of one’s agency of spirit and control over spirit we have considerable latitude in determining our presence of mind.

Though different in flavor and revelatory intensity, these books still have much to say to help us prepare to enter into eternal life.

“Let us hear the conclusion of the whole matter: Fear God, and keep his commandments: for this is the whole duty of man.”

Ecclesiastes 12:13)

 

NOTES

“Happy is the man that findeth wisdom, and the man that getteth understanding.” (Proverbs 3:13)

Proverbs

“Proverbs are the coins of the people.” – Russian Proverb

“A good proverb strikes one full in the eye.” – Russian Proverb

“Old proverbs are the children of truth.” – Welsh Proverb

“There is no proverb without a grain of truth.” – Russian Proverb

“A wise man who knows proverbs reconciles difficulties.” – Yoruba Proverb

“A proverb is always wise.” – Russian Proverb

“Proverbs are the daughters of daily experience.” – Dutch Proverb

“Proverbs cannot be contradicted.” – Irish Proverb

“Proverbs beautify speech.” – Russian Proverb

Wisdom

“The beginning of wisdom is the fear of God.” – Irish Proverb

“The best wisdom is ignorance of evil.” – Welsh Proverb

“Each one thinks much of his own wisdom, therefore the world is full of fools.” – Swedish Proverb

“For every wagonload of wisdom there are two of stupidity.” – Serbo-Croatian Proverb

“He who is ashamed of asking is ashamed of learning.” – Danish Proverb

“In that night did God appear unto Solomon, and said unto him, Ask what I shall give thee. And Solomon said unto God, Thou hast shewed great mercy unto David my father, and hast made me to reign in his stead. Now, O LORD God, let thy promise unto David my father be established: for thou hast made me king over a people like the dust of the earth in multitude. Give me now wisdom and knowledge, that I may go out and come in before this people: for who can judge this thy people, that is so great? And God said to Solomon, Because this was in thine heart, and thou hast not asked riches, wealth, or honour, nor the life of thine enemies, neither yet hast asked long life; but hast asked wisdom and knowledge for thyself, that thou mayest judge my people, over whom I have made thee king: Wisdom and knowledge is granted unto thee . . . .” (2 Chronicles 1:7-12)

Trust

“Trust draws to heaven, honor to earth.” – Yiddish Proverb

“Confidence is the only bond of friendship.” (Darius Lyman)

“The essence of friendship is entireness, a total magnanimity and trust.” (Emerson)

“He who gives me his trust bestows a greater gift than he who gives me his love.” – English Prover

Words

“Gentle Words Ease Sorrow. – Philippine Proverb

“A word is not a knife, but it wounds just as deeply. – Philippine Proverb

“Better one word less than one word too many.” – Maltese Proverb

“More is done with words than with hands.” – German Proverb

“Words should be weighed and not counted.” – Yiddish Proverb

Pride

“Pride and grace never dwell in the same place.” – English Proverb

“There are two sorts of pride: one in which we approve ourselves, the other in which we cannot accept ourselves.” (Henri Frederic Amiel, 1853)

“Vanity is a static thing. It puts its faith in what it has, and is easily wounded. Pride is active, and satisfied only with what it can do, hence accustomed not to feel small stings.” (Jacques Barzun, The House of Intellect, 1959)

“Pride is said to be the last vice the good man gets clear of.” (Benjamin Franklin, Poor Richard’s Almanack)

“When a proud man hears another praised, he thinks himself injured.” – English Proverb

“Pride, perceiving humility honourable, often borrows her cloak.” (Thomas Fuller, Gnomologia, 1732)

“Pride that dines on vanity sups on contempt. ” (Benjamin Franklin, “The Way to Wealth,” 1757)

Friendship

“True friendship is like a single soul split in two to fill two bodies.” – Mexican Proverb

“Friendship is a single soul dwelling in two bodies.” (Aristotle)

“Wishing to be friends is quick work, but friendship is a slow-ripening fruit.” (Aristotle)

“This communicating of a man’s self to his friend works two contrary effects; for it redoubleth joys, and cutteth griefs in half.


 

” (Francis Bacon)

“I keep my friends as misers do their treasure, because, of all the things granted us by wisdom, none is greater or better than friendship.” (Pietro Aretino, 1537)

Children

“Who loves well, chastises well.” – French Proverb

“Love your children with your heart, but train them with your hand.” – Russian Proverb

“Love asks faith, and faith asks firmness.” – English Proverb

“To understand your parents’ love you must raise children yourself.” – Chinese Proverb

“What children hear their parents say by the fireside they repeat on the highway.” – Spanish Proverb

“Successful . . . families are established and maintained on principles of faith, prayer, repentance, forgiveness, respect, love, compassion, work, and wholesome recreational activities.” (“The Family: A Proclamation to the World”)

Happiness

“Cheerfulness gives sweetness to life.” – Philippine Proverb

Selections from Chapter 3 of the Book of Proverbs
(considered the most profound)

“My son, forget not my law; but let thine heart keep my commandments: For length of days, and long life, and peace, shall they add to thee. It shall be health to thy navel, and marrow to thy bones.” (Proverbs 3:1, 2, 8)

“Let not mercy and truth forsake thee: bind them about thy neck; write them upon the table of thine heart. . . .” (Proverbs 3:3)

“My son, despise not the chastening of the LORD; neither be weary of his correction: For whom the LORD loveth he correcteth; even as a father the son in whom he delighteth.” (Proverbs 3:11-12)

“Wisdom. . . . is a tree of life to them that lay hold upon her: and happy is every one that retaineth her.” (Proverbs 3:13, 18)

“The LORD by wisdom hath founded the earth; by understanding hath he established the heavens.” (Proverbs 3:19)

“My son . . . keep sound wisdom and discretion. . . . When thou liest down, thou shalt not be afraid: yea, thou shalt lie down, and thy sleep shall be sweet.” (Proverbs 3:21-24)

“Be not afraid of sudden fear, neither of the desolation of the wicked, when it cometh. For the LORD shall be thy confidence, and shall keep thy foot from being taken.” (Proverbs 3:25-26)

“Withhold not good from them to whom it is due, when it is in the power of thine hand to do it.” (Proverbs 3:27)

“Devise not evil against thy neighbour, seeing he dwelleth securely by thee.” ” (Proverbs 3:29)

The wise shall inherit glory: but shame shall be the promotion of fools. (Proverbs 3:35)