Is the wisdom literature of the Old Testament an exercise in natural theology?

Introduction

Proverbs, Job and Ecclesiastes have posed a puzzle for interpreters eager to account for their place in the canon. What, if any, connection there is between the Old Testament Law and Prophets, whose topic is the Israel’s history, and this ‘wisdom literature’, which, at best, seems only to allude to Israel’s history? One popular answer, described as a ‘scholarly consensus’, has been that it is

something like “natural theology”; that is, it is theology that discloses to serious discernment something of the hidden character and underpinnings of all reality. Thus the wisdom teachers do not rely for insight on prophetic utterance or decrees from Sinai that explicitly claim to be revelatory, but believe that what is given as “true” arises in lived experience rightly (wisely) discerned.1

We shall examine to what extent this ‘scholarly consensus’ is accurate. Firstly, we shall explore some of the theological presuppositions that inform the use of the term ‘natural theology’ in Old Testament scholarship. Then, we shall summarise the argument for natural theology in the wisdom literature. This will be followed by various direct and indirect challenges to the argument for natural theology. We shall treat at some length the issues of the theological tensions within the wisdom literature itself, and the nature of the connections between wisdom and salvation-history. Finally, we will look at the argument against natural theology, and present some conclusions.

The meaning of ‘Natural theology’

‘Theology’ is a remarkably fluid concept. It can have a range of meanings, from vague universal notions such as Schleiermacher’s ‘feeling of absolute dependence’;2 through discernment of impersonal transcendent order;3 through discernment of the attributes of infinite being; to personal understanding of the covenant God of Scripture. The variety of conceptions of ‘natural theology’ amongst the scholarly literature compounds this fluidity. Collins’ description, for example, is more aptly described as ‘natural anthropology’: ‘the attempt to give an autonomous account of the common human experience independently of special revelation.’4 Goldingay, among others, seems to assume that discovering something about the truth of man and the world automatically leads to discovering something about the truth of God.5 However, the proper subject of any theology should really be God himself; and Barth is surely right (if sweeping) in describing natural theology as ‘guaranteeing the knowability of God apart from grace and therefore from faith.’6

Barth believes that natural theology (as practised by the Roman Catholic tradition) is logically impossible because the triune God is compartmentalised (only the ‘creator’, not the redeemer, is deemed knowable from nature) and in the process is redefined away from the true God.7 Barr, the champion of the existence of natural theology in Scripture, disagrees:

“[B]y nature”, that is, just by being human beings, men and women have a certain degree of knowledge of God and awareness of him, or at least a capacity for such an awareness; [. . .] anterior to the special revelation of God made through Jesus Christ, through the Church, through the Bible8

Barr’s definition is precise and has been the most influential in biblical studies. It is important to note that natural theology is different to ‘theology of nature’, although the two have been confused. Theology of nature is posterior to special revelation; it relies on that revelation to make inferences about empirical observations; and so is unconvincing apart from its foundation in special revelation.9 When, for example, the author of Job ‘recognises how elusive wisdom is: and having recognized the problem, declares that its solution lies in “the fear of Yahweh” (28:28)’10 we need to ask whether this is this natural theology or theology of nature. The answer will depend on whether the author of Job relied on an anterior conception of the fear of Yahweh. We shall discuss this in more detail below.

There is also a prior question lurking behind the many of the discussions: What is the nature of revelation itself? The scholarly consensus has operated on the principle that Scripture (like all theology) is a ‘response’, ‘reflection’, ‘articulation’ or ‘record’ of revelation rather than revelation itself.11 Even for Barr, Scripture is ‘not revelation coming from God to humanity but [. . .] Israel’s [. . .] response to and interpretation of that revelation.’12 But where is this revelation to be found? The earlier biblical theology movement (prior to 1970) was dominated by a view of revelation that was historical, and not propositional. God does not speak, he acts in salvation-history, and Scripture (like all theology) is a recitation and interpretation of those acts.13 The problem is that the wisdom literature simply does not fit into these salvation-history categories. God does not ‘act’ in the wisdom literature!14

However, this fact did not lead to a questioning of the presuppositions of the nature of Scripture outlined above. Rather, it led to a broadening of the possibilities for revelation. The ‘special revelation’ that occurred in the particular history of Israel became viewed as but one mode of revelation. Wisdom could then be construed as ‘a mode of theological reflection and articulation in ancient Israel that was parallel or alternative to that of historical deeds.’15 This parallel or alternative mode of reflection is based on common ahistorical human experience and language,16 on nature and creation;17 it is ‘undated, international, individualistic, empirical, prudential, everyday, practical’.18 It is a true, but not ‘special’, mode of God’s revelation: for the Israelite, to say that wisdom came ‘from God’ and to say that it came ‘from experience’ was basically to say the same thing.19 Thus the sage mediates the knowledge of God by observing general order in the world, just as the prophet and priest mediate the knowledge of God by observing salvation-history.20 The conclusion that the wisdom literature is natural theology (as defined by Barr, above) follows quite logically on these premises.

In defence of natural theology

Barr’s argument for natural theology in the wisdom literature relies heavily upon two sources: the observation of detailed verbal similarities between Egyptian and Israelite wisdom21 and Collins’ more in-depth argument.22 We will examine each of these in turn.

It is quite clear that there is a strong correlation between the wisdom of Israel and that of other nations in the Ancient Near East. Almost certainly the former shows some degree of reliance upon the latter. Mesopotamian instructions and proverbs seem have been known to Israelite scribes: e.g. the counsels to the disciple as ‘My son’ in the Instruction of Shuruppak find parallels in Proverbs and Ecclesiastes (Prov 1:8, 10, 15; 2:1; 3:1, 11, 21; 4:10, 20; 5:1, 20; 6:1, 3, 20; 7:1; 19:27; 23:15, 19, 26; 24:13, 21; 27:11; 31:2; Eccl 12:12).23 Egyptian instructions and complaints are relevant to the wisdom literature, particularly the Instruction of Amen-em-Opet of ca. 1100 BC which ‘is generally acknowledged to have directly influenced Proverbs 22:17-24:22’.24 For example, the Instruction of Amen-em-Opet has a warning against avarice, which has influenced Proverbs 23:4-5.25 The ‘transcultural’ nature of the observations is, for Barr, a pointer towards the existence of natural theology.26

Collins, in arguing that the wisdom literature is ‘a genuine specimen of natural theology’, posits a two-stage process at work in the wisdom literature: ‘an analysis of human experience and a correlation with a normative religious tradition’.27 The analysis of human experience was entirely antecedent to any notion of salvation-history.28 The use of the covenant name ‘Yahweh’ is not evidence of an antecedent reliance upon salvation-history, but of a postcedent correlation in which it was demonstrated that ‘the route of wisdom leads to the same terminal as the admittedly different route of prophecy’.29 This correlation of wisdom and history was quite minimal, especially when compared to the non-canonical books like Sirach which identify wisdom with Torah (e.g. Sir 19:20, 19:24, 21:11, 34:8, 39:1).30

The analysis of experience was of two types. Firstly, an understanding of human cognitive limitation (Prov 3:7, 16:1, 19:31, 21:30, 27:1) or contradiction (Job and Ecclesiastes) leads to an understanding of God as ‘the infinitely free’, the opposite of limitation.31 Secondly, an understanding of order in the universe leads to an understanding of God as the impersonal instigator of cause-effect moral order.32 Especially important is the personification of wisdom (Proverbs 8), which implies that the individual perceptions of order have been built into a big picture of universal order.33 One must question, on Collins’ schema, how successful the correlation between natural theology and Yahwistic faith actually was, given that the impersonal infinitely free originator of causality looks quite different to the personal covenant-making Yahweh who intervened in Israel’s history. Barth’s claim that the god of natural theology bears no resemblance to the God of special revelation begins to look quite apposite.34

Barr adds his own observations about Ecclesiastes. He is aware that Ecclesiastes’ conclusion that ‘the honest investigation of what goes on under the sun does not lead to God’ may be construed as ‘prime material for the rejection of natural theology’.35 His primary answer is that Ecclesiastes’ reaction against natural theology proves that natural theology was going on in the wisdom tradition, and that Ecclesiastes doesn’t turn to revelation to solve its difficulties.36 This seems quite unsatisfactory. Firstly, proof of natural theology in the wisdom tradition is not proof of natural theology in the wisdom literature, any more than the existence of false prophets made Jeremiah’s prophecy against them false (Jer 14:13). Secondly, it must be assumed that Ecc 12:9-14, which does appear to turn to revelation for an answer, is an appendix foreign to the rest of the book. We will discuss this below.

Scripture as revelation

Having outlined some of the major planks in the argument for natural theology in the wisdom literature, we will present evidence that challenges them. Firstly, there is a case that the authors of Scripture, and even of the wisdom literature, were self-consciously writing revelation, not just reflecting upon revelation. Waltke argues that Proverbs 30:1-6 is a self-conscious claim for verbal plenary inspiration.37 Given that 30:1-6 occurs in a summary position in Proverbs and that the speaker seems to be originally a non-Israelite, this implies that the whole of Proverbs, including the elements reliant upon non-Israelite sources, is ‘special revelation’. It is worth pursuing Waltke’s analysis in detail, expanding upon it in some parts.

Many scholars argue that the passage is a conversation between Agur (a non-Israelite skeptic of natural theology) and an unnamed Israelite sage who is defending natural theology.38 However, this is based on an assumption that the text as it stands is incoherent, since there are no formal speech markers or divisions. Waltke believes that the text as it stands is coherent; it is all the speech of Agur.39 The prophetic term מַשָּׂא (‘pronouncement’) in Proverbs 30:1 seems out of place in wisdom literature, so many argue that it must be a place name.40 However, according to Waltke, the prophetic allusion is intended, and it reinforces the prophetic force of the very next word נְאֻם (‘oracle’).41 Agur is implying inspiration by joining prophetic genre terms to the wisdom genre term ‘sayings’ (דִּבְרֵי)—as he does by joining his sayings to God’s words to David and to Moses in Proverbs 30:5-6.42

Proverbs 30:3 is literally, ‘I have not learned [perfect לֹא־לָמַדְתִּי] wisdom; and/but the knowledge of the holy one is what I will know [imperfect אֵדָע]’. Almost all English versions apply the negative particle לֹא to both verbs (e.g. ‘I have not learned wisdom, nor have I knowledge of the Holy One.’, ESV). However, Waltke’s plainer reading takes the second verb as a positive cohortative ‘but I want to experience knowledge of the Holy One’.43 Thus Agur, the pre-Israelite pagan who has no wisdom, is contrasted to Solomon, the Israelite teacher who made wisdom known (cf. the vocabulary of Proverbs 1:2-7 and 9:10).44 But Agur wants to learn, and his desire is granted in Proverbs 30:4-6.

The answer is in the form of a cluster of allusions and quotations of salvation-history material. All of these allusions and quotations are about knowing Yahweh through his deeds and speech. In Proverbs 30:4, the question ‘Who has ascended to heaven and come down?’ may be based on Deut 30:12-13, about the accessibility of the law only because of God’s gracious revelatory act.45 The further question ‘What is his name?’ (מַה־שְּׁמוֹ), quotes Israel’s foundational question (Exod 3:13). The answer in Exodus is the sovereign Yahweh who has spoken and acted in the history of Israel.46 David’s confession of the reliability of ‘every word of God’ from Psalm 18:30 (Proverbs 30:5) is the answer to the problem of Proverbs 30:2: those who are ‘too stupid’ should take their refuge in the reliable word of Yahweh.47 Finally, the warning against going away from God’s revelation in Proverbs 30:6 is a quotation from Deut 4:2 / 12:32, which is an explicit ‘canon formula’ protecting the status of God’s word in a time of canon-formation.48 So a foreigner who is now converted to faith in the revelation of Yahweh is able to take his place among Israel’s wisdom teachers.

Order: immediate and universal

We should also question the assumption that the discernment of some order in the universe is enough to have any understanding of universal, transcendent order. Murphy had earlier argued that many of the individual observations in Proverbs are dealing with a ‘limited aspect of reality’.49 Hence there are many ambiguities and antinomies (e.g. Prov 26:4-5). Part of the purpose of Job and Ecclesiastes, then, is to correct against generalisation and absolutisation of wisdom sayings (e.g. Eccl 8:17).50 Goldsworthy makes a distinction between ‘immediate’ and ‘ultimate’ meaning.51 Wisdom as the discernment of ‘ultimate meaning’ seems to be on view in Proverbs 8 (e.g. Prov 8:22, where wisdom is the first of God’s works) and Job 28 (where wisdom is at the foundations of the earth, deeper than man can reach).52 While this wisdom can ‘make itself known’ (Niphal reflexive תִּוָּדֵעַ) in the midst of fools, it does not ‘rest (תָּנוּחַ)’ in their hearts as it does in those of the wise (Prov 14:33, taking the plain reading of the MT).53 Thus, although people may be wise in individual circumstances—even the fool is thought wise if he remains silent (Prov 17:28)—they do not in this way infer anything about universal order or God.

Differences from other ANE wisdom.

There are very important differences between biblical wisdom literature and other wisdom literature from the ANE. The Egyptian idea of semi-divine ‘order’ (Maat) has been likened to the personification of wisdom in Proverbs 8, but ‘Wisdom in Proverbs displays a vigor and a personality in pursuit of her lovers that goes far beyond the abstract Egyptian goddess.’54 While Maat is ‘read off’ from the course of the world, Wisdom’s activity is much closer to that of intentional revelation from an active God. Wisdom ‘calls’ (קרא, Prov 8:1, 4), just as Yahweh did at important revelatory moments: to Moses (Exod 3:4), Israel at Sinai (Exod 19:3) and Samuel (1 Sam 3:4-10). Another example is the difference between the Akkadian pessimistic dialogue between master and servant, which looks at the meaninglessness of life and recommends suicide; and Ecclesiastes, which looks at the ‘futility’ of wisdom but recommends trust in the creator.55 Like the ‘conversion’ of Agur,56 we have grounds to suggest that addition of Yahweh’s name into wisdom incorporated from other sources57 is evidence of more than simple correlation: faith in Yahweh appears to be a discriminatory principle at work in the process of incorporation.

Tensions in the wisdom perspective

We are beginning to see that the ‘wisdom perspective’ is not so easily separable from the ‘salvation-history’ perspective as is often assumed. Jenks argues for evidence of a type of Hegelian dialectic between the wisdom perspective (emphasising predictable created order) and the salvation-history perspective (emphasising mystery) within the wisdom literature itself, beginning in Proverbs (e.g. 16:1, 9), increasing in Job and Ecclesiastes, and resulting in a new synthesis in Sirach. This highlights the existence of a prophetic perspective within all of the wisdom literature.58 Waltke goes much further and argues that the two ‘perspectives’ have much more in common and share a common source. He draws numerous connections between Proverbs and the prophetic books, e.g. Proverbs 29:18 which mentions the necessity of covenantal code תּוֹרָה and prophetic vision חָזוֹן .59

Job 28 is important in this regard. Its structure (moving from human inability to Yahweh’s revelation) is similar to Proverbs 30:1-6.60 Job 28 can be described as a ‘metaphor of the entire book’.61 The mining of verses 1-11 parallels the search for wisdom that Job and his friends undertook through Job’s experiences. ‘Human wisdom and achievement are not denigrated, any more than Job’s wealth and happiness were in the prologue.’62 However, the inaccessibility of wisdom in verses 12-19 parallels the fact that wisdom was not found through an extensive analysis of the created order.63 Only God truly knows wisdom, for only he has exhaustive knowledge of the universe, being the creator (28:23-27). The inescapable conclusion is that the fear of the covenant Yahweh of Israel is ‘ultimate’ wisdom, which consists primarily in repentance. It points to the theophany of chapters 38-41.64 However, ‘[t]heophany is a distinctly un-empirical, un-everyday phenomenon. So the Book of Job only solves the problem it examines by looking outside the tradition from which it begins.’65

Wisdom in Ecclesiastes is severely limited. We have, for example, relative (rather than absolute) comparisons of two forms of conduct (Ecc 4:6, 9, 13; 5:5; 7:1-3, 5, 8; 9:17f);66 maxims that only provide partial guidance (Ecc 7:1-12)67 and slight, pragmatic claims for wisdom’s benefits (Ecc 10:12-15), ‘a far cry from the lofty claims of traditional wisdom!’68 This is all in the context of a book with a repeated cry: הֶבֶל! The meaning of הֶבֶל is important for the interpretation of the book. Its literal meaning (‘vapour’ cf Isa 57:13; Prov 13:11, 21:6; Ps 144:4) gives rise to a wide variety of possible metaphorical meanings.69 ‘Meaningless’ (niv) is unsatisfactory, for many things described in Ecclesiastes are immediately comprehensible. ‘Vanity’ (ESV) sounds too much like a Platonic renunciation of physicality.70 Fox posits that הֶבֶל means ‘absurd’, as understood by Camus, ‘a disjunction between two phenomena that are thought to be linked by a bond of harmony or causality, or that should be so linked’. It is a relational concept, and depends upon human perception of contradiction.71 This is appealing, but it is hard to see how ‘absurd’ can be a metaphorical usage of the word ‘vapour’.

Perhaps we should take הֶבֶל as an epistemological, rather than an ontological, term. That is, it is not things or situations, but wisdom itself that is ‘vapour’. An observation may look substantial and have immediate utility but, like vapour, it disappears when one tries to grasp and use it as a guide to ultimate wisdom. Thus the following can be described as vapour: Qohelet’s speech (Ecc 1:2, 2:1, 12:8), Qohelet’s observations (Ecc 1:14 ‘I have seen [. . .] and behold: the whole [of my act of seeing] is vapour’, Ecc 4:4, 2:11), Qohelet’s wisdom (Ecc 2:15), ‘Words’ in general (Ecc 5:7, 6:11), proverbs and observations about life (Ecc 2:21, 23, 26; 3:19; 4:7ff, 4:16, 5:10, 6:2, 6:9, 7:6, 8:10, 8:14), and the sage’s or the individual’s life (Ecc 6:12, 7:15, 9:9, 11:10). This would also make sense of the epexegetical phrase וּרְעוּת רוּחַ which often follows הֶבֶל (Ecc 1:14; 2:11, 17, 26; 4:4, 6; 6:9). It could mean ‘a striving after wind’;72 a more dynamic description of the same phenomenon of failing to grasp ultimate reality by observation. Alternatively, Fox, taking רְעוּת to have an Aramaic root, translates the phrase ‘thoughts [consisting of] breath’.73 Either way, the result is the same. Empirical observations seem, at first, substantial (and they are in a limited way) but when one tries to use them to reach to ultimate reality the whole structure disappears.

Salvation-historical resolution

Is salvation-history wisdom’s resolution to its internal tensions? We should begin by noting that the ‘wisdom perspective’ is not intrinsically alien to salvation-history. The inextricability of the universal creation narrative (Gen 1-11) from the particular history of Abraham and his descendents is well documented.74 The call of Abraham in Genesis 12 looks forward to a time when all the ‘families of the ground’ (כֹּל מִשׁפְּחֹת הָאֲדָמָה) will be blessed. Thus the end-point of salvation-history is the restoration of order in human and non-human creation, which is precisely what we see in the wisdom literature.

Von Rad, on the basis of an historical reconstruction of Israel’s situation, claimed that wisdom was, in fact, ‘a response made by a Yahwism confronted with specific experiences of the world’75 Although wisdom is a common human activity (Prov 10:13, 14:6, 16:16, 20:5, 13:20),76 wisdom literature was an attempt to integrate it with Yahwistic faith. Just as prophets recognised the will of Yahweh in human history, so Proverbs 16:7-12 (which alternates proverbs including and excluding Yahweh) sees an ‘experience of Yahweh’ in the ‘experience of the world’.77 Looking at other key verses, (Prov 1:7, Prov 9:10, Prov 15:33, Job 28:28), von Rad claims that ‘the fear of Yahweh’ is the ‘prerequisite of wisdom’.78 This ‘fear of Yahweh’ is essentially ‘faith’, the ‘prior gift of the knowledge of God’ that is a prerequisite for all of Israel’s thinking.79

However, Collins and Barr are unconvinced; they believe von Rad is too affected by his historical reconstruction and pays too little attention to the lack of salvation-history material in the wisdom literature itself.80 Granted, there are some parallels between the law and wisdom, so that wisdom can be seen as the application of the law to the whole of created being (e.g. Deut 5:17 and Prov 1:10-19; Deut 5:18 and Prov 5).81 The historical Solomon appears to have been a patron of wisdom, both optimistic and pessimistic, which led to his being alluded to in the literature (Prov 1:1, Eccl 1:1, 1 Kings 4:29-34).82 But this does not by itself connect wisdom to salvation-history, for the transmission could still have been purely secular. However, a stronger case can be made from both Proverbs and Ecclesiastes.

The phrase, ‘the fear of Yahweh’ is a very important link between the wisdom literature and salvation-history. In Deuteronomy, the ‘fear of Yahweh’ is all about ‘diligence to observe the laws of God in faithful response to his saving acts’ (Deu 6:2, 13, 24; 8:6; 10:12, 20-21; 31:12-13).83 Goldsworthy argues compellingly that it must be understood in the same way in Proverbs, because the writers were Israelites.84 Collins’ case that this is a later correlation between wisdom and salvation-history cannot be sustained, for the ‘fear of Yahweh’ is found throughout Proverbs.85 There are explicit links between wisdom and law-keeping outside of the wisdom literature (Deut 4:5-6, Ps 19:7, Jer 8:8). Proverbs 1:7, 9:10 and 15:33 (and Job 28:28) link the ‘Fear of Yahweh’ very strongly with wisdom or its cognates. Blocher argues that 1:7 and 9:10 should be translated, ‘the fear of the Lord is the principle of wisdom / knowledge’. That is, revealed knowledge of God has a logical priority in the wisdom literature, and can thus be used to discriminate and incorporate chronologically prior observations from, for example, Egyptian wisdom.86 Practically, it means that wisdom has a religious foundation; wisdom can only proceed properly when one renounces autonomy and trusts the LORD at every step of one’s practical or intellectual progress (Prov 3:5-7).87

As we saw above, Barr’s claim that Ecclesiastes engages in natural theology hinged on the claim that it does not turn to special revelation to solve its difficulties.88 This, in turn, depends on the common assumption that Ecc 12:9-14 is an appendix whose thought is foreign to the rest of the book.89 However, Andrew Shead has shown that it is an epilogue summarising (not criticising) the argument of the book as a whole.90 The structure of the epilogue itself suggests that it is claiming to summarise the rest of Qohelet.91 The ‘final word’ (verses 13-14) is that ‘when life with all its enigmatic realities is properly observed, the observer should decide to fear and obey God.’92 Thus there is a ‘creative clash’ between the vanity of observation (the inner frame of the book, 1:2-12:8) and the fear of God occasioned by revelation (1:1, 12:9-14) such that both are needed to support each other.93 For example, 1:15 (‘what is crooked cannot be straightened’) is resolved in 12:9 – the teacher ‘straightened’ proverbs through his fear of God and belief in judgment.94 In another article, Shead draws out the possibilities for reading another passage (Ecc 7:23-8:1) in the light of the epilogue.95 This gives us a ground for reading passages such as the reality of prior creation (Ecc 12:1) and future judgment (Ecc 3:17, 11:9) in light of the salvation historical understandings of the personal creator and judge, which are required to resolve the tensions raised by Ecclesiastes.96

Theology of nature

We can thus conclude that the wisdom literature is not at all an exercise in natural theology. It relies upon the special revelation given by God’s words and deeds in Israel’s history. It even claims, in its own way, to be special revelation. We can concur with Goldsworthy that, although the perception of order by empirical observation is a true perception as far as it goes, it doesn’t go very far unless it starts ‘from the facts given by revelation of an eternal, personal God who is the ultimate source of all things and their order.’97 The starting point of wisdom is God the creator, which comes by special revelation.98 ‘Without a knowledge of the God of salvation-history, there could be no true wisdom, no real knowledge of the world.’99 The similarities with Egyptian or Mesopotamian wisdom do not show a common ground for ‘ultimate meaning’, only a common ground for ‘immediate meaning’.100 Job and Ecclesiastes, in fact, argue against natural theology. Job learns that God’s order is above the order perceptible to humanity.101 In Ecclesiastes, God has set such strict limits for wisdom that we cannot by ourselves see a large enough picture of reality. This is compounded by human sin.102

Rather, the wisdom literature contains a theology of nature. It seeks to answer the question: Given God’s revelation in his inspired prophetic word, and given specific observations about the world, what should the person who fears Yahweh do? The wisdom literature attempts to connect empirical reality with ultimate reality. Even if those who originated the folk wisdom didn’t think about this connection, there came a time when it had to be considered because of the situation of Israel as a nation. Israelites were driven to a unitary view of the world because of God’s saving acts, showing that he reigns over the whole earth and was saving Israel into a physical kingdom that ruled the physical creation.103 It is not that the heathen knew nothing at all, but rather the heathen lacked any ultimate guiding principle for their knowledge, which only came through the revelation of Yahweh.104 Agur, for example, (Prov 30:1-6) found in Yahwistic faith a universal, foundational, discriminating principle to guide his wisdom; not that he abandoned all of his previous wisdom; but rather, he brought that natural experience into submission to revelation.

However, the wisdom literature also warns us about the limits of our ability to connect empirical reality with revealed theology. In contrast with the non-canonical Sirach (e.g. 19:20 ‘All wisdom is the fear of the Lord, and in all wisdom there is the fulfilment of the law’), the connection between revelation and observation is not watertight. As Job and Ecclesiastes show, often we will not be able to put the two together and need to trust God’s goodness. Yahweh’s revelatory theophany leads to humility for Job, but his sufferings remain unexplained (Job 42:1-3).105 ‘When with abundance dreams and vapours and words grow, then fear God!’ (Eccl 5:7, my translation). Similarly, when there is a wearisome increase in making books and study (or even in writing and reading essays), ‘Fear God and keep his commandments [. . .] For God will bring every deed into judgment, because of everything that is hidden, whether good or bad.’ (Eccl 12:12-14).

Bibliography of Sources Cited

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Barth, Karl. The Doctrine of God. Edited by G. W. Bromiley and T. F. Torrance. Translated by T. H. L. Parker et. al. Church Dogmatics II/1. Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1957.

Blocher, Henri. ‘The Fear of the Lord as the “Principle” of Wisdom’. Tyndale Bulletin 28 (1977): 3-28.

Brueggemann, Walter A. ‘The Social Significance of Solomon as a Patron of Wisdom’. Pages 117-32 in The Sage in Israel and the Ancient Near East. Edited by John G. Gammie and Leo G. Perdue. Winona Lake: Eisenbrauns, 1990.

_______. Theology of the Old Testament: Testimony, Dispute, Advocacy. Minneapolis: Fortress, 1997.

Clifford, Richard J. The Wisdom Literature. Interpreting Biblical Texts. Nashville: Abingdon, 1998.

Collins, John J. ‘The Biblical Precedent for Natural Theology’. Journal of the American Academy of Religion 45/1 supplement (1977): B35-B67.

Dumbrell, William J. Covenant & Creation: An Old Testament Covenantal Theology. Exeter: Paternoster, 1984.

Fox, Michael V. A Time to Tear Down and a Time to Build Up: a Rereading of Ecclesiastes. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1999.

Fyall, Robert S. Now My Eyes Have Seen You: Images of Creation and Evil in the Book of Job. New Studies in Biblical Theology 12. Downers Grove: IVP, 2002.

Goldingay, John. ‘The “Salvation History” Perspective and the “Wisdom” Perspective within the Context of Biblical Theology’. Evangelical Quarterly 51/4 (1979): 194-204.

Goldsworthy, Graeme. Gospel and Wisdom: Israel’s Wisdom Literature in the Christian Life. Biblical Classics Library. Carlisle: Paternoster, 1995.

Jenks, Alan W. ‘Theological Presuppositions of Israel’s Wisdom Literature’. Horizons in Biblical Theology 7 (1985): 43-75.

Koehler, Ludwig, Walter Baumgartner, and Johann J. Stamm (eds.). ‘tW[r>’. Article 8891 in The Hebrew & Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament. Translated by M.E.J. Richardson. CD-ROM ed.Leiden: Koninklijke Brill, 1994-2000.

Lasor, William S., David A. Hubbard, and Frederic W. Bush. Old Testament Survey: The Message, Form, and Background of the Old Testament. 2nd ed. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1996.

Lefebure, Leo D. ‘The Wisdom Tradition in Recent Christian Theology’. Journal of Religion 76/2 (1996): 338-48.

Murphy, Roland E. ‘The Interpretation of Old Testament Wisdom Literature’. Interpretation 23/3 (1969): 289-301.

_______. Proverbs. Word Biblical Commentary Vol. 22. Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1998.

Pfeiffer, Robert H. ‘A Pessimistic Dialogue Between Master and Servant’. Pages 437-38 in Ancient Near Eastern Texts Relating to the Old Testament. Edited by James B. Pritchard. Translated by John A. Wilson, Robert H. Pfeiffer and Robert D. Biggs. 3rd ed. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1992.

Rad, Gerhard von. Wisdom in Israel. London: SCM, 1972.

Scott, R. B. Y. ‘Priesthood, Prophecy, Wisdom, and the Knowledge of God’. Journal of Biblical Literature 80 (1961): 1-15.

Shead, Andrew G. ‘Ecclesiastes from the Outside In’. Reformed Theological Review 55/1 (1996): 24-37.

______. ‘Reading Ecclesiastes “Epilogically”’. Tyndale Bulletin 48/1 (1997): 67-91.

Waltke, Bruce K. ‘The Book of Proverbs and Old Testament Theology’. Bibliotheca Sacra 136/544 (1979): 302-17.

_______. ‘Agur’s Apologia for Verbal, Plenary Inspiration: an Exegesis of Proverbs 30:1-6’. Pages 303-20 in The Challenge of Bible Translation: Communicating God’s Word to the World. Essays in Honor of Ronald F. Youngblood. Edited by Glen G. Scorgie, Mark L. Strauss and Steven M. Voth. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2003.

Wilson, John A., Robert H. Pfeiffer, and Robert D. Biggs. ‘The Instruction of Amen-em-Opet’. Pages 421-24 in Ancient Near Eastern Texts Relating to the Old Testament. Edited by James B. Pritchard. Translated by John A. Wilson, Robert H. Pfeiffer and Robert D. Biggs. 3rd ed. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1992.

Wright, G. Ernest. God Who Acts: Biblical Theology as Recital. Studies in Biblical Theology. London: SCM, 1952.


1 Walter A. Brueggemann, Theology of the Old Testament: Testimony, Dispute, Advocacy (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1997), 681.

2 John J. Collins, ‘The Biblical Precedent for Natural Theology’, Journal of the American Academy of Religion 45/1 supplement (1977): B46-47.

3 Collins, ‘Biblical Precedent’, B48-B52.

4 Collins, ‘Biblical Precedent’, B42.

5 John Goldingay, ‘The “Salvation History” Perspective and the “Wisdom” Perspective within the Context of Biblical Theology’, Evangelical Quarterly 51/4 (1979): 202.

6 Karl Barth, The Doctrine of God (ed. G. W. Bromiley and T. F. Torrance; trans. T. H. L. Parker et. al.; Church Dogmatics II/1; Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1957), 85.

7 Barth, Doctrine of God, 79-85.

8 James Barr, Biblical Faith and Natural Theology: the Gifford Lectures for 1991 (Oxford: Clarendon, 1993), 1.

9 Leo D. Lefebure, ‘The Wisdom Tradition in Recent Christian Theology’, Journal of Religion 76/2 (1996): 340.

10 Goldingay, ‘Perspective’, 199-200.

11 Brueggemann, Theology, 680; e.g. R. B. Y. Scott, ‘Priesthood, Prophecy, Wisdom, and the Knowledge of God’, Journal of Biblical Literature 80 (1961): 1-15.; Roland E. Murphy, ‘The Interpretation of Old Testament Wisdom Literature’, Interpretation 23/3 (1969): 290.

12 Barr, Biblical Faith, 195-97.

13 G. Ernest Wright, God Who Acts: Biblical Theology as Recital (Studies in Biblical Theology; London: SCM, 1952), 11-12; critiqued by Collins, ‘Biblical Precedent’, B36; critiqued by Goldingay, ‘Perspective’, 195.

14 Collins, ‘Biblical Precedent’, B36.

15 Brueggemann, Theology, 680; emphasis mine.

16 Collins, ‘Biblical Precedent’, B37.

17 Murphy, ‘Interpretation’, 291-92.

18 Goldingay, ‘Perspective’, 201.

19 Murphy, ‘Interpretation’, 293.

20 Scott, ‘Knowledge of God’, 1-15.

21 Barr, Biblical Faith, 92.

22 Barr, Biblical Faith, 91.

23 Richard J. Clifford, The Wisdom Literature (Interpreting Biblical Texts; Nashville: Abingdon, 1998), 26-27.

24 Clifford, Wisdom Literature, 33.

25 Cf John A. Wilson, Robert H. Pfeiffer, and Robert D. Biggs, ‘The Instruction of Amen-em-Opet’, in Ancient Near Eastern Texts Relating to the Old Testament (ed. James B. Pritchard; trans. John A. Wilson, Robert H. Pfeiffer and Robert D. Biggs; 3rd ed.; Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1992), 421-24, chapter 7, with Proverbs 23:4-5.

26 Barr, Biblical Faith, 92.

27 Collins, ‘Biblical Precedent’, B38.

28 Collins, ‘Biblical Precedent’, B45.

29 Collins, ‘Biblical Precedent’, B41.

30 Collins, ‘Biblical Precedent’, B52-B53.

31 Collins, ‘Biblical Precedent’, B46-B48.

32 Collins, ‘Biblical Precedent’, B48-B49.

33 Collins, ‘Biblical Precedent’, B50-B52.

34 Barth, Doctrine of God, 79-85.

35 Barr, Biblical Faith, 93.

36 Barr, Biblical Faith, 93.

37 Bruce K. Waltke, ‘Agur’s Apologia for Verbal, Plenary Inspiration: an Exegesis of Proverbs 30:1-6’, in The Challenge of Bible Translation: Communicating God’s Word to the World. Essays in Honor of Ronald F. Youngblood (ed. Glen G. Scorgie, Mark L. Strauss and Steven M. Voth; Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2003), 303-20.

38 William S. Lasor, David A. Hubbard, and Frederic W. Bush, Old Testament Survey: The Message, Form, and Background of the Old Testament (2nd ed.; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1996), 468.

39 Waltke, ‘Verbal Plenary Inspiration’, 305.

40 Lasor, Hubbard, and Bush, Old Testament Survey, 468; RSV.

41 Waltke, ‘Verbal Plenary Inspiration’, 314, fn 7.

42 Waltke, ‘Verbal Plenary Inspiration’, 304.

43 Waltke, ‘Verbal Plenary Inspiration’, 303, 306.

44 Waltke, ‘Verbal Plenary Inspiration’, 306.

45 Waltke, ‘Verbal Plenary Inspiration’, 311.

46 Waltke, ‘Verbal Plenary Inspiration’, 310.

47 Waltke, ‘Verbal Plenary Inspiration’, 305.

48 Waltke, ‘Verbal Plenary Inspiration’, 312-13.

49 Murphy, ‘Interpretation’, 293-94.

50 Murphy, ‘Interpretation’, 294-99.

51 Graeme Goldsworthy, Gospel and Wisdom: Israel’s Wisdom Literature in the Christian Life (Biblical Classics Library; Carlisle: Paternoster, 1995), 140.

52 Robert S. Fyall, Now My Eyes Have Seen You: Images of Creation and Evil in the Book of Job (New Studies in Biblical Theology 12; Downers Grove: IVP, 2002), 69-70.

53 Contra Roland E. Murphy, Proverbs (Word Biblical Commentary Vol. 22; Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1998), 102 & 7.

54 Clifford, Wisdom Literature, 34.

55 Robert H. Pfeiffer, ‘A Pessimistic Dialogue Between Master and Servant’, in Ancient Near Eastern Texts Relating to the Old Testament (ed. James B. Pritchard; trans. John A. Wilson, Robert H. Pfeiffer and Robert D. Biggs; 3rd ed.; Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1992), 437-38.

56 Waltke, ‘Verbal Plenary Inspiration’, 307 (see above).

57 E.g. Prov 22:19 is added into ‘Amen-em-Opet’ 1.

58 Alan W. Jenks, ‘Theological Presuppositions of Israel’s Wisdom Literature’, Horizons in Biblical Theology 7 (1985): 43-75.

59 Bruce K. Waltke, ‘The Book of Proverbs and Old Testament Theology’, Bibliotheca Sacra 136/544 (1979): 307.

60 Waltke, ‘Verbal Plenary Inspiration’, 310.

61 Fyall, Job, 66.

62 Fyall, Job, 68-69.

63 Fyall, Job, 69-70.

64 Clifford, Wisdom Literature, 85.

65 Goldingay, ‘Perspective’, 199.

66 Lasor, Hubbard, and Bush, Old Testament Survey, 505.

67 Clifford, Wisdom Literature, 107.

68 Clifford, Wisdom Literature, 108.

69 Michael V. Fox, A Time to Tear Down and a Time to Build Up: a Rereading of Ecclesiastes (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1999), 25-27.

70 Fox, Ecclesiastes, 26.

71 Fox, Ecclesiastes, 30-33.

72 Ludwig Koehler, Walter Baumgartner, and Johann J. Stamm (eds.), ‘tW[r>’ (8891), in The Hebrew & Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament (trans. M.E.J. Richardson; CD-ROM ed.; Leiden: Koninklijke Brill, 1994-2000).

73 Fox, Ecclesiastes, 42-48.

74 E.g. William J. Dumbrell, Covenant & Creation: An Old Testament Covenantal Theology (Exeter: Paternoster, 1984), 55-64.

75 Gerhard von Rad, Wisdom in Israel (London: SCM, 1972), 307.

76 von Rad, Wisdom in Israel, 57.

77 von Rad, Wisdom in Israel, 62.

78 von Rad, Wisdom in Israel, 65-73.

79 von Rad, Wisdom in Israel, 68.

80 Collins, ‘Biblical Precedent’, B45; Barr, Biblical Faith, 92.

81 Waltke, ‘Proverbs and Old Testament Theology’, 313-14.

82 Walter A. Brueggemann, ‘The Social Significance of Solomon as a Patron of Wisdom’, in The Sage in Israel and the Ancient Near East (ed. John G. Gammie and Leo G. Perdue; Winona Lake: Eisenbrauns, 1990), 117-32.

83 Goldsworthy, Gospel and Wisdom, 68.

84 Goldsworthy, Gospel and Wisdom, 70.

85 Murphy, Proverbs, 256.

86 Henri Blocher, ‘The Fear of the Lord as the “Principle” of Wisdom’, Tyndale Bulletin 28 (1977): 15.

87 Blocher, ‘Fear of the Lord’, 17-18.

88 Barr, Biblical Faith, 93.

89 Clifford, Wisdom Literature, 111.

90 Andrew G. Shead, ‘Ecclesiastes from the Outside In’, Reformed Theological Review 55/1 (1996): 24-37.

91 Shead, ‘Ecclesiastes Outside In’, 28-33.

92 Shead, ‘Ecclesiastes Outside In’, 32.

93 Shead, ‘Ecclesiastes Outside In’, 34.

94 Shead, ‘Ecclesiastes Outside In’, 32.

95 Andrew G. Shead, ‘Reading Ecclesiastes “Epilogically”’, Tyndale Bulletin 48/1 (1997): 85.

96 Contra Clifford, Wisdom Literature, 105; Fox, Ecclesiastes, 322.

97 Goldsworthy, Gospel and Wisdom, 139.

98 Goldsworthy, Gospel and Wisdom, 139-40.

99 Goldsworthy, Gospel and Wisdom, 140.

100 Goldsworthy, Gospel and Wisdom, 140.

101 Goldsworthy, Gospel and Wisdom, 102.

102 Goldsworthy, Gospel and Wisdom, 110.

103 Goldsworthy, Gospel and Wisdom, 131.

104 Blocher, ‘Fear of the Lord’, 15-18.

105 Fyall, Job, 70.

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