Book Review: Old Testament Wisdom Literature (Bartholomew and O’Dowd)

Old Testament Wisdom Literature Bartholomew O'Dowd

What does the Bible have to say about wisdom? Can pithy poetics really form character? In their new book Old Testament Wisdom Literature, Craig Bartholomew and Ryan O’Dowd present a theological introduction to the Bible’s wisdom books—Proverbs, Job, and Ecclesiastes. Proverbs 3.19 says God created the world by wisdom, yet most 21st century Westerners have lost the wonder of creation. Christians are saved through the blood of Christ, what do we need to understand about the world? Being in a real covenantal relationship with Yahweh brought Israel together with the God who both created the universe and who redeemed Israel out of Egypt. Knowing his law meant knowing how to life. It meant wisdom and understanding (Deut 4.6). How can man expect to find it, and how can 21st century Christians apply 3,000-year-old Old Testament wisdom to their lives?


Chapters 1-3 bring us into (1) Israel’s world of wisdom—they believed that they were in covenant with the one God who created all of reality and who was the source of knowledge. Yet, as Job expresses, they knew their knowledge was limited. Next (2), the authors take a tour through Egyptian and Mesopotamian wisdom to bring us into the flow of thought around Israel. Chapter 3 makes a plea for poetry, which “gives us a nuanced understanding of people, language and culture” (51). Stating a mere proposition such as “God is omnipotent” is very different than “declaring that God rules ‘the raging sea'” or that he can “draw in Leviathan with a hook” (69). Poetry brings imagery to the stories which make up our life. 

At 160 pages, Chapters 4-9 make up the core of the book. The authors spend two chapters on each of Proverbs, Job, and Ecclesiastes. In the first chapter on each book, rather than rehearsing the main gist of each book, they describe the book’s theological function. Each book’s second chapter (“Chapter B” as I call it) explores a particular theme in that book.


Proverbs 1-9 develops a character-consequence scheme. Here, your character (wise/foolish) determines the consequences in your life (life/ruin). Proverbs 10-30 nuance this idea and bring exceptions to the rule. These proverbs are not categorized by topic, but seem to be written chaotically and at random, just the way life is. In chapter B, the authors examine how wisdom is embodied in the Proverbs 31 woman, though she is not a real person for no one person could do what she does. Rather, that figure represents the extent to which wisdom reaches and the practical ways of living in which wisdom is required.

Unlike Proverbs 1-9, Job and Ecclesiastes “focus on profound experiences of apparent contradictions to the character-consequence theme,” which deepen our faith and our wisdom and form our character (285). The authors note, “Ecclesiastes is performatively enigmatic, just like suffering, and Job is long, at times tedious, with all those speeches, just like suffering” (318). Sometimes the text’s form is just as important as what it says.


Job asks “Where can wisdom be found?” (28.20). His friends think they know it all, yet in the end Job is to make sacrifices for their foolish words. Job replies like a human being—he gives strong responses, fears, worries, and contradictions. Just like the process of suffering, all people learn as the conversation of suffering goes on. They change their answers from one idea to another, even being hopeful at points (Job 28), before plunging back into suffering again, and still yet before God shows up in a revealing way. Chapter B examines Job 28 and how we, limited in our understanding of all things, must go to the One who stands outside of creation to obtain wisdom.


Similarly, Qohelet in Ecclesiastes looks for meaning in the world through his own autonomous wisdom—which is actually “folly” because Qohelet’s search occurs apart from God. The book “ultimately affirms life and joy… but only as the end result of a ferocious struggle with the brokenness of life” (189). Job presents bodily suffering; Ecclesiastes presents mental anguish. It’s not enough to have a high IQ. Job had money. Qohelet asked difficult philosophical questions. But wisdom requires us to admit our finite creatureliness before the infinite Creator. We, like the woman in Proverbs 31, can embody wisdom and image God. Chapter B takes up the topic of time, seeing the larger story, and using our time well.

Chapters 10 looks at wisdom in the NT through the coming of Jesus. Chapter 11 gives an OT theology of wisdom. The chapter both summarizes and expands on what has been said previously. Wisdom is related to creation and how the world works. It is brought about by the Creator who is also Israel’s Redeemer. God’s good creation links his wisdom with his law/covenant with the prophets. Chapter 12 applies wisdom to our present life concerning education, politics, spirituality, the ordinary, and the dark night of the soul. For example, even after we receive salvation, we still want to be the captains of our souls. We have “false selves” that we want to put on to protect ourselves, and God uses suffering to dismantle those false selves. The authors refer to C.S. Lewis’ image of someone buying a small cabin in the woods. She thinks it’s great to have God come live with her… until he begins to tear down walls and change out the stairs. He wants to revamp the whole house, and it hurts. But believing that he is great and good will help carry us to the end of the darkness that feels like our closest friend.


I greatly appreciated Bartholomew and O’Dowd’s theological interpretation. According to Ecclesiastes, how can we know if we truly have wisdom? Job 28 tells us that man searches high and low for treasure, yet even Abaddon and death themselves do not have wisdom (v. 22). God doesn’t come out and give us all the answers we need. How can man expect to find it, and how can a 21st century person apply 3,000 year old wisdom to their lives? The authors look at the meaning of the texts and what is really going on. Teacher and pastors would do well to read this book. Hopefully more people will grasp the importance of these important, often ignored Old Testament books. All people of all statuses everywhere can receive wisdom and they can use it, but it starts with fearing the Lord who both calms the raging seas, who condescends to know us, and who has descended and ascended to save us.


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Disclosure: I received this book free from IVP Academic. The opinions I have expressed are my own, and I was not required to write a positive review. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255

Amazon Affiliate Disclosure: I receive a percentage of revenue if you buy from Amazon on my blog. 


How Should Women Read Proverbs?

Why does Proverbs 1–9 present a father instructing his son against a strange (or “foreign”) woman? Are daughters not important enough to learn and receive wisdom? Why must folly be presented as a woman? And why is the woman portrayed so poorly in certain proverbs (21.9; cf. Eccl 7.25–29)? Also, the only female character in Job, his wife, urges Job to “curse God and die” (Jb 2.9). In his chapter “Wisdom and Gender” in his new book, The Fear of the Lord is WisdomTremper Longman states, “One cannot deny that they [Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and Job] are male-oriented… though it is also the case that some elements within these books empower women” (202).

Woman and Mothers

First of all, though the father is instructing the son, he puts his wife’s instructions on the same level as his:

1.8Hear, my son, your father’s instruction,
and forsake not your mother’s teaching 

6.20My son, keep your father’s commandment,
and forsake not your mother’s teaching.

It was extremely rare in the Ancient Near East to acknowledge the mother in this way, putting her instructions as authoritatively equal to the father’s. Other proverbs emphasize respect for one’s mother:

10.1A wise son makes a glad father,

but a foolish son is a sorrow to his mother.

15.20A wise son makes a glad father,

but a foolish man despises his mother.

At the beginning of Proverbs 31, King Lemuel offers a teaching which he received from his mother:

31.26The sayings of King Lemuel—an inspired utterance his mother taught him.

This comes before the well-known section on the Proverbs 31 Woman—a section that is not about a wife whose sole purpose is to pop out babies and stay home all day making sandwiches. Rather, she is a “noble woman.” Walter Kaiser says that the noble woman 

is depicted as a competent manager of goods and real estate, an expert business woman in cottage industry, a competent mother and wife, and a personwith a strong sense of personal worth able to carry out her sphere of authority with resoluteness and great efficiency.

She is full of practical knowledge, wisdom, and social skills: 

31.26She opens her mouth with wisdom,
and the teaching of kindness is on her tongue.

31.28Her children rise up and call her blessed;
her husband also, and he praises her.

In the Song of Songs, the Shulammite woman speaks just over half of the time. Although not the author, her voice is filled with import and significance. 

Forward to Eden

Longman states that in the garden of Eden, “God created woman from the man’s side, clearly indicating their equality. The woman is not created from Adam’s head as if she is superior or from Adam’s feet as if she were inferior, but from his side, showing mutuality and equality” (206). He then notes that Eve was created as Adam’s “helper” (Hb, ‘ezer) though it might be better to translate that word as “ally.” In his relationship to Israel, God is also referred to as ‘ezer (Pss 33.20; 89.18–19; Deut 33.19) so it does not denote an inferior status. Adam and Eve had a joint task in guarding the garden of Eden.

Proverbs and Ecclesiastes “adopt the ancient Near Eastern practice of fathers instructing their sons,” and these two books reflect the patriarchy of the time (207). We live after in a different redemptive-historical time, which is post-Christ’s death and resurrection. Longman argues that when a woman reads Proverbs 21.9, she should substitute the word “woman” for “man.” In a footnote, Longman believes that parents took the content of Proverbs and taught them to their daughters also. Why allow the sons to be wise with money (17.16) but not the daughters? Surely, being in covenant with Yahweh who redeemed them out of Israel, parents would want their daughters to be wise, righteous, and godly.

Patrick Schreiner, in his new book The Kingdom of God and the Glory of the Cross, says that the father, king Solomon (Prov 1.1), is teaching his son the wisdom and understanding (1.2) which stems from God’s instructions (Deut 4.6). The kingly father is “training him to be the ideal king who establishes David’s forever dynasty. The good king will rule in wisdom and righteousness by obeying the Torah. He is to decree laws (Prov. 16:10), execute justice (Prov. 31:89), and pour out wrath on evildoers (Prov. 16:14)” (70). If that is the case, then it makes sense why a son is being spoken to. On the one hand, even the other males wouldn’t fit this category for none of them were in the line to rule. On the other hand, the king was to display wisdom, understanding, justice, and righteousness to Israel so that they would follow suit. Both men and women could know and apply Proverbs to their life.

Lady Wisdom and the Noble Woman

What about Lady Wisdom found in Proverbs 1–9 or the noble woman in Proverbs 31.20–31? Longman says that woman can switch the genders to Manly Wisdom and the noble man (cf. Ps 112 which resembles Ps 31.20–31). Many may already be doing this. Why is wisdom portrayed as a woman? Because the father is talking to his young son. He portrays wisdom and folly as women to keep his sons interest while presenting them in their proper forms. What I mean is that Dame Folly is presented as seductive, loud, and lazy, sitting at the door of her house and calling men over (Prov 9.13–15). That is foolishness. That is a sluggard. Those who follow the way of foolishness (and those who do so by literally going to commit adultery) will cost them their lives (especially when the spouse comes home, see 7.20, 23). Dame Folly stands for the false gods 

Lady Wisdom, by contrast, builds her house (9.1). She slaughtered her meat and mixes the wine for a banquet (v. 2). She sets the table and sends out invitations (vv. 2–3). She works. She has practical knowledge and knows how to get things done well. Rather than eating in secret (v. 17), the way of wisdom provides an opportunity for joy at a public banquet. Longman adds, “Woman Wisdom stands for Yahweh’s wisdom, indeed for Yahweh himself” (250). 

Whether male or female, wisdom calls and says,

“Come, eat of my bread and drink of the wine I have mixed. Leave your simple ways, and live, and walk in the way of insight” (9.5–6).

(You can read my review here).

The Fear of the Lord is Wisdom Treamper Longman

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Book Review: God’s Wisdom For Navigating Life (Tim Keller)

God's Wisdom for Navigating Life Keller Review

Many Christians use New Years resolutions to revamp their Bible reading. Tim and Kathy Keller have provided a daily devotional in the book of Proverbs (with some readings in other biblical texts). Proverbs requires a year (and more!) of daily consideration. It’s full of so much thought, and it is a book that reminds us that “you’ve never really thought enough about anything” (ix). Having just come out with a year devotional on Psalms, Keller says, “Psalms is about how to throw ourselves fully upon God in faith. Proverbs is about how, having trusted God, we should then live that faith out” (ix).

Proverbs are not truths that are true at all times. It is a “poetic art form that instills wisdom in you as you wrestle with it” (ix). Two ideas, sentences, or phrases are brought together to hit at a truth from different angles. They require you to wrestle with their meaning to know how to live. Keller gives an example. Proverbs 12.15 says, “The way of a fool is right in his own eyes, but a wise man listens to advice,” whereas Proverbs 16.25 says, “There is a way that seems right to a man, but its end is the way to death.“ The fool thinks a way is correct, but it leads to death and ruin. Yet, at the same time, ruin can happen to anyone. There is order in the world, but there is sin and chaos which come about from fallen sinners.

The reader is encouraged to read the book with someone else or with others. Most of the devotions end with a question to consider and a concluding prayer. Keller provides two other questions in the Introduction for the reader to consider each day:

  1. Where in your life or the life of someone else have you seen this observation illustrated?
  2. How can you put this observation into practice—in thought, attitude, word, or deed?

Instead of going straight through Proverbs, Keller organizes Proverbs into seven different sections.

  1. Knowing Wisdom
  2. Knowing God
  3. Knowing the Heart
  4. Knowing Others
  5. Knowing the Times and Seasons
  6. Knowing the Spheres (e.g., marriage, sex, parenting, money and work, power, justice)
  7. Knowing Jesus, the True Wisdom of God

Keller doesn’t stop with Proverbs, but looks to Jesus. The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, and Jesus is the fulfillment of all wisdom. He is the “greater Solomon” (Lk 11.31).

Keller is insightful and convicting. In section six, when it comes to justice, Keller pinpoints talking about righteousness and justice when it comes to the poor, asking questions such as:

  • “How are you building your character and relationship to God now, so that you will be able to do the sacrificial thing when the time comes?” (332)
  • Unjust social systems are set up which prey on the poor and helpless: low wages, excessive interest loans, prejudice against minorities and immigrants, and legal battles where the rich often get away scot-free. “Compared with those who are truly poor, most of us are wealthy in the eyes of the world. How are we being judged as believers for our use of the resources God has given us?” (334)
  • There are multitudes of ways that poverty can come upon someone. Fire. Divorce. Hurricanes. A bad loan choice. sometimes the people circumstances come upon made a rash, unwise decision. Sometimes it just sprung upon them. “How does compassion for the poor express itself in your life?” (335). “Do you need to confess any ways in which you have believed that the poor have brought their poverty on themselves by their agency alone? What have you deserved at the hands of God for your sins? What have you received?” (336). “What possessions of yours belong to others? How will you get them to those people? “(337).


If you’re looking for a new devotional book, I would recommend Keller’s God’s Wisdom for Navigating Life. Each chapter is short and only takes 1-2 minutes to read yet sometimes can take all day to consider. Keller helps us to consider the Bible each day more as God’s people. Have been made righteous in Christ, we should be living righteously before God and to others—our spouses, children, coworkers, and the poor among us. Having the wisdom of God available to us, we should work to gain more of his wisdom—to live well, to flourish in the new covenant, to serve, to work hard, to relax, to offer help, to be a good friend, to know what to do when difficult situations arise—to God’s glory. 


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Disclosure: I received this book free from Penguin Books. The opinions I have expressed are my own, and I was not required to write a positive review. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255

Amazon Affiliate Disclosure: I receive a percentage of revenue if you buy from Amazon on my blog.