How (Not) to Preach Wisdom Literature
When was the last time you preached through wisdom literature? Think about it for a moment. Look back over your preaching calendar if you need to. I was forced to ask myself this question a few years ago. I’m committed to preaching through books of the Bible in their entirety. I’m also committed to preaching the whole counsel of God, so we alternate regularly between the Old and New Testaments and through the various genres of Scripture. Despite all that, I found that I had neglected wisdom literature.
I’m sure there are any number of reasons why. After all, who wants to preach through Song of Solomon on Sunday mornings to a mixed-gender, multi-generational, multi-ethnic congregation? Sure, like most pastors, I preached through a few wisdom Psalms here and there—mostly on Sunday nights or during the summer. Job? Well, that’s a long book—42 chapters, to be exact, and not the most encouraging either. And while we’re speaking of not encouraging, how much more negative can you get than Ecclesiastes? “Nothing new here! Oh, and by the way, every pursuit is empty, and life is a vapor!” Thanks, but no thanks! Now, I must admit that Proverbs is pretty practical stuff, right? But preaching it without sounding like Dr. Phil? That poses its own challenges.
WHY PREACH WISDOM LITERATURE
Maybe you’re much more mature than me. Maybe you’ve preached through all of Job, the Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and the Song of Solomon. I, on the other hand, had to come to terms that if the Bible is God’s Word, sufficient and without error, then I must preach all of it—including wisdom literature. It’s part of the divinely inspired canon. It’s God’s Word. And when we stand before God and give an account, we must be able to say with the apostle Paul that we held nothing back. Our hands are clean of their blood because we preached the whole counsel of God (Acts 20:26–27).
So, knowing we need to preach wisdom literature, let’s consider three overarching questions that will help us preach it faithfully.
1. Ask yourself: what was the original author communicating to his audience?
In other words, what did the message mean to them in their then? This requires the hard work of exegesis. Once you’ve identified the type of text you’re working with (discourse, narrative, or poetry), utilize the strategies that type of text requires. If you’re working through Proverbs, for example, it’s mainly poetry. You will need to understand certain characteristics of poetry— parallelism, images, stanzas, etc.—to understand the message.
Knowing the characteristics of the genre will help you discern how the author has structured the text or passage. Discerning structure will reveal its shape and emphases, which will in turn shape the structure and emphases of your sermon.
And yet, once you’ve discerned the shape and emphases of your passage, you still need to understand its context: in surrounding passages, in the whole book, and even in the whole Bible. Take Ecclesiastes, for example. At first glance, it’s a depressing book. But when you understand that the author is exposing the emptiness of life “under the sun”—a worldview in which there is no God and therefore no heavens—it begins to make sense. Those who live with a materialistic worldview “under the sun” will find their search for purpose meaningless and their pursuits empty. Instead, our purpose and hope are found in the God who exists in the heavens. It is he whom we should love and fear. Knowing the overarching theme of Ecclesiastes helps identify the argument of the individual passages.
It’s also vital to understand historical context. What’s going on in the lives of the original hearers that will inform the interpretation of your passage? Sometimes, the literary context answers these questions. Other times, other passages of Scripture shed light. Often, though, a good dictionary, encyclopedia, or commentary can provide the needed historical background that will help you better understand what your passage meant to them in their then.
For example, Proverbs seems primarily written to Solomon’s sons (Proverbs 1:1, 8; 2:1; 3:1; 4:1; 5:1; 6:1; 7:1; 10:1). Solomon seeks to prepare his sons for covenant faithfulness and even kingship. This idea of covenant faithfulness is important for understanding wisdom literature. The Law was given to Moses in the first five books of the Bible, the Torah. The life or death of Israel was contingent on faithful covenant keeping (Exodus 19:5–6). If Israel obeyed the covenant, they would be richly blessed. If they broke the covenant, they would be terribly cursed (Deuteronomy 28). Israel’s king was the primary covenant keeper (Isaiah 55:3-4). As the kings of Israel went, so followed the nation.
Wisdom literature was a means for instructing Israel in covenant faithfulness and warning them of the consequences of covenant breaking. If Israel obeyed, they received incredible promises—an abundance of crops, of offspring, and of military triumphs. However, if they disobeyed, God would bring them famine, barrenness, defeat, and exile. Wisdom literature distinguishes the way of wisdom, righteousness, and covenant faithfulness from the way of foolishness, unrighteousness, and covenant breaking. Read in this light, Proverbs has some teeth. They’re not mere principles that are often true; they show the path to obtaining the covenant promises.
Answering this first question is often the hardest work in sermon preparation. We’re trying to identify what the passage meant to them in their then. Once you’ve done that, write out a brief sentence that summarizes the author’s main idea. This step is vital because if you’re unclear as to the author’s point, your sermon’s main argument will be unclear to your hearers. Still, while this first question may be the most challenging in the process of sermon preparation, we’re only just beginning.
2. Ask yourself: what light does Christ and his coming shed on your text of Scripture?
Wisdom literature in the Old Testament was written in a covenantal context: God’s covenant with Israel. But Christ’s coming has inaugurated a new covenant. How does this affect how we should read wisdom literature text today?
Before we answer that question, we must remember that before Jesus inaugurated the new covenant, he fulfilled the old covenant. He did so by satisfying its demands fully, thus fulfilling all righteousness. Due to his faithful covenant keeping, Jesus obtained all the covenant blessings. Jesus also fulfilled the old covenant by receiving its curses in the place of covenant-breakers (Galatians 3:13–14). Jesus saved us from the covenant curses by bearing them in our place; he won for us the covenant blessings through his faithful covenant keeping. In doing so, he fulfilled the old covenant, which was temporary to begin with (Galatians 4:1–7), and he inaugurated the new covenant. Now, with the law written on our hearts and God’s Spirit indwelling us, we are empowered to keep the covenant by walking in the way of wisdom.
This raises a question: is wisdom the same in the old and new covenant? Yes, it is. It’s a divine gift (Proverbs 2:1–7; James 1:5; 3:15). It’s graciously given to us that we may know how to walk in covenant faithfulness (James 3:13–18). It gives us insight into God’s character, purposes, and ways by which we develop a view of the world that helps us discern the path of righteousness. Now, under the new covenant, we walk in the way of wisdom and follow Jesus’ steps in the knowledge and fear of God. We receive all the blessings of the covenant, not on the basis of our covenant faithfulness, but by faith in Jesus, the one who kept the covenant for us.
Sometimes, there will be a direct citation of a portion of your text elsewhere in Scripture. See how other authors understand it, especially if it’s in the New Testament. Other times, you’ll need to trace a theme or type from your text to the New Testament. However you get to Jesus—direct citation, allusion, theme, type, promise-fulfillment, analogy, or contrast—you must reveal Christ and his good news for his people from your text. Otherwise, particularly in Old Testament wisdom literature, you’ll merely be preaching moralistic sermons devoid of power.
3. Finally, ask yourself: what will be my main argument from this passage of Scripture?
The original author’s main point or idea written to them in their then must now be written for us in our now. In other words, you want to make the same argument the original author made to his audience but in the language of today and in light of Christ. This becomes your sermon’s main argument, its big theme or idea. Once you’ve written your main argument in a brief sentence in today’s language, flesh out the text’s implications for both believers and unbelievers.
Once you’ve prepared, boldly preach the point of the text and apply it faithfully to your congregation. Because you’re preaching the text in light of Christ, you won’t preach a moralistic sermon. Instead, you’ll preach Jesus Christ, our wisdom, the One who empowers his people to walk in the way of wisdom.
Estes, Daniel J., Handbook on the Wisdom Books and Psalms (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2005).
Greidanus, Sidney, Preaching Christ from the Old Testament: A Contemporary Hermeneutical
Method (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1999).
Kidner, Derek, The Wisdom of Proverbs, Job and Ecclesiastes: An Introduction to Wisdom
Literature (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 1985).
O’Donnel, Douglas Sean, The Beginning and End of Wisdom: Preaching Christ from the First and Last Chapters of Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and Job (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2011).