Reviewed by Cooper Smith
The books referred to as the “Wisdom Books” (Proverbs, Job, and Ecclesiastes) are some of the most accessible and inscrutable books of the Old Testament (OT). Along with their compelling content, they are accessible since they do not have a high barrier for entry by not requiring extensive knowledge of Israel’s history for a profitable reading. But this feature of their accessibility also contributes to their inscrutability which prompts many questions. How do these books relate to the rest of the canon? How is Israel’s wisdom unique from her neighbors? Is there anything religious or theological about biblical wisdom or is it solely practical? Do these books present a consistent picture of the relationship between virtue and prosperity and vice and destruction?
Addressing these concerns, Tremper Longman III offers his new volume, The Fear of the Lord is Wisdom. Longman, the Robert H. Gundry Professor of Biblical Studies at Westmont College, is ideally suited to address the topic since he has written extensively on OT wisdom for more than two decades, including authoring commentaries on Proverbs, Job, and Ecclesiastes. In this accessible volume, Longman writes for both pastors and students to provide a theological introduction to the biblical concept of wisdom. Notice that Longman deliberately avoids the terminology “Wisdom Literature,” which has increasingly come under fire in recent years. Longman opts instead for a “synchronic approach” (xviii) that addresses the concept of wisdom in the OT regardless of whether or not the books that center around this concept can be rightly considered a coherent genre. This allows him to begin his study with the traditional Wisdom books of Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and Job since these three books highlight the concept of wisdom most overtly in the OT. Further, his approach allows him to consider the concept of wisdom in other biblical books regardless of whether they are traditionally considered “wisdom books.” Accordingly, Longman positions this study as a work of “biblical theology” (xiv) since he considers the concept of wisdom across the canon.
Longman divides his work into five parts. Parts 1 and 2 both consider the OT material in an inductive manner with the first part comprised of chapters on Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and Job. Part 2 consists of three chapters on other biblical material contributing to the wisdom concept including chapters on Deuteronomy, Psalms, Song of Songs, and prophecy (chapter 4), Joseph and Daniel (chapter 5) and Adam and Solomon (chapter 6). In Part 3, Longman considers whether Israel’s wisdom is universal or unique to her. He does this by examining the sources of wisdom (chapter 7), the relationship between creation and wisdom (chapter 8), ancient Near Eastern (ANE) parallels to biblical wisdom (chapter 9), and the relationship between wisdom, covenant, and law (chapter 10). Part 4 addresses three specific components of biblical wisdom that Longman singles out for further consideration: the retribution theology of wisdom (chapter 11), the social setting of wisdom (chapter 12), and reading strategies for wisdom owing to its patriarchal framing (chapter 13). In the final part, Longman considers wisdom beyond the borders of the OT by focusing on wisdom in the intertestamental period (chapter 14) and wisdom in the New Testament (chapter 15). The book concludes with two appendices. In the first, Longman offers some practical and pastoral advice about how wisdom could be manifest today, and in the second he suggests that wisdom as a genre may be a useful designation if the fuzzy boundaries of genre are remembered and accounted for.
As a distillation of the primary contribution of the volume, Longman’s argument can be summarized in five points. First, wisdom consists of three components: the skill of living (the practical level), right character/actions (the ethical level), and proper dependence on God manifested by fearing him (the theological level). Robust biblical wisdom entails all three. Ultimately, Longman champions the fear of the Lord as the foundation to the biblical concept of wisdom since it figures so prominently in Proverbs, Job, and Ecclesiastes. This three-fold understanding of wisdom is a helpful corrective to the approach of many scholars who primarily think of wisdom as only practical or as practical and ethical (but not theological).
Second, Israel’s wisdom tradition is essentially unique when compared to other ANE sources. While affirming formal parallels and even some parallels of content, Longman denies that biblical and ANE wisdom are parallel in their essence. In contrast to its ANE counterparts, in biblical wisdom, the theological component cannot be excised from the concept due to both the fear of the Lord as the foundation for wisdom and God as the source of wisdom. Accordingly, biblical wisdom is distinctly and uniquely related to Israel and her Scriptures since it consists not only of pragmatics and ethics but also theology that is rooted in Israel’s God.
Third, biblical wisdom is not sui generis but relevantly connected with other ANE and intertestamental wisdom sources. While Longman emphasizes the unique nature of Israel’s wisdom, he does not suggest that it is unique in every aspect. The OT wisdom texts share some generic conventions and pragmatic insights from other cultures of the time. Further, many intertestamental texts explicitly affirm aspects of wisdom that are less overtly present in the biblical material while also preparing for the development of wisdom in the NT. These similarities help us to identify how the OT texts communicate their meaning and where their interests align with or subvert ideas of wisdom in other, similar texts.
Fourth, there are no essential contradictions between Proverbs on the one hand and Job and Ecclesiastes on the other. Proverbs is often pitted against Job and Ecclesiastes by suggesting that Proverbs champions a mechanistic understanding where the righteous always prosper and the wicked always suffer while Job and Ecclesiastes both teach that the opposite is often the case. Longman denies such a characterization of Proverbs’ message for two reasons: 1) the provisional nature of proverbs that affirms them as general principles and not absolute promises and 2) the “better-than” proverbs that praise wisdom as better than wealth, showing that it may be necessary to choose between material prosperity and righteousness so that there is no universal link between the two (e.g., Prov 15:16, 16:8, 16:19, 17:1, and 19:1). In light of this nuanced understanding of Proverbs, “Job and Ecclesiastes are not providing counterexamples to Proverbs but are instead offering a corrective to a misreading of Proverbs” (186).
Fifth, while the primary wisdom texts are coherent with themselves, Longman also suggests that the texts that focus on wisdom are coherent with the rest of the Bible. It has become commonplace for interpreters to deny any strong relationship between Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and Job on the one hand and the the storyline of the Bible articulated in Genesis–Esther on the other. Longman responds by showing how these three books relate to Torah, YHWH worship, and history. Regarding law, many of the Proverbs uphold the same ethic as the Torah (e.g., telling the truth and not causing harm), are described using the same terms (“commands”, “instruction”), are directed toward the same purpose (formation of character), possess the same force (“When the situation is ‘right’ for a proverb, then it becomes ‘law’ for that situation” ), and lead to the same results (reward for obedience and destruction for disobedience). Regarding worship, the foundation for wisdom as the fear of YHWH demonstrates an essentially covenantal and cultic orientation to the whole wisdom concept that cannot be dismissed. Historically, Longman points out that the association of Proverbs and Ecclesiastes with Solomon demonstrates a compatibility between history and wisdom while exemplars of wisdom in the biblical narratives such as Joseph, Daniel, Adam, and Solomon show how wisdom is compatible with Israel’s story. These similarities should not be overplayed since the wisdom books do clearly have different themes and interests than the books that relate Israel’s story. Nevertheless, biblical books focused on wisdom should not be considered incompatible with the majority of the canon as has too often been the case in scholarship.
The five contributions just discussed highlight the value of the book as it uniquely forges an evangelical path in introducing the topic of OT wisdom by emphasizing wisdom’s contribution, coherence, and compatibility with Christian teaching as opposed to some scholars who deny any uniqueness and canonical coherence to OT wisdom. Additionally, the book is well-written, well-organized, and follows a logical progression that develops the argument which further increases its value for the readers. Aiding the readability and accessibility, Longman keeps his audience of students and pastors in mind as he offers helpful overviews before analyzing biblical texts (such as the Joseph story and Daniel) or engaging with potentially unfamiliar concepts (such as covenant). These overviews allow the non-specialist to profit from the volume without needing extensive background knowledge. Further, the focus on wisdom as a concept rather than on “Wisdom Literature” avoids some criticism by those who eschew such a label and also allows Longman to explore texts that are not generally considered “wisdom literature” that nevertheless contribute to the concept (e.g., Genesis, Deuteronomy, and Hosea).
When considering criticism, there is not much to say. In general, there may be some overly specific interest in certain academic discussions that are not particularly germane to most students or pastors. For example, his inquiry into the social setting of wisdom (chapter 12) considers whether wisdom schools existed in Israel, whether the sage was a parallel office to priests and prophets, and the origin of proverbial insight. Such considerations, while common in the academic discussions of wisdom literature, have little to do with a synchronic account of wisdom as a concept––the focus of the book.
Further, given the scope of Longman’s project, not everyone will agree with his interpretation at every turn. For example, many interpreters disagree with his claims that Job 28 contains Job’s words and not the narrator’s and others are uncomfortable with his two-voice approach to Ecclesiastes (which he explains in a chapel sermon here). These are quite insignificant on the whole since Longman carefully buttresses his key points and offers a helpful engagement of so much biblical material.
Given its quality and content, this book is ideally suited for students particularly in a class on Wisdom Theology or Wisdom Literature. Pastors would also benefit from this work since it provides a robust and evangelical introduction to wisdom that can inform teaching and preaching from many OT wisdom texts. Owing to some of the academic discussions and the abstract nature of the topic, the book would not be ideal for most small-group settings. At the same time, Longman’s clear and well-organized presentation could make it attainable to motivated lay readers.
“Where can wisdom be found?” If Longman were asked the question lodged in Job 28:12, he would answer with the sage reply, “In the fear of the Lord as revealed in Scripture.” This book serves as a capable explanation, defense, and expansion of such an answer.
Cooper Smith is a PhD student in Biblical and Theological Studies at Wheaton College.