Robert Short opined,
Lots of knowledge,
but little understanding.
Lots of means,
but little meaning.
Lots of know-how,
but little know-why.
Lots of sight,
but little insight.
certain bumper sticker conveyed a similar sentiment with these words, “You are
only young once, but you can be immature your whole life.”1
In a word, what we sorely lack today is wisdom.
What is wisdom? How does wisdom differ from its close cousins knowledge, understanding,
and discernment? Knowledge is that which comes from the ability to see, to hear,
and to ascertain through experience. Knowledge resides in the intellect.
Understanding is insight into the nature of a thing, a deeper level of knowing.
A former parishioner distinguished understanding from knowledge when he confessed,
“I don’t understand all I know about that.” I know that a computer works with
a binary code of 0’s and 1’s, for example, but I don’t understand how a computer
Discernment is the ability to distinguish one thing from another and often involves
one’s moral sensitivities, i.e., feelings about right and wrong. The discerning
person not only distinguishes one thing from another but will normally proceed
to make a moral judgment as to which is best.
Wisdom goes beyond knowledge, understanding, and discernment. Wisdom is to exercise
sound judgment based on these so as to pursue a proper course of action. The
Bible terms as wisdom (hokma) various skills and abilities, including
skill in spinning (Ex. 35:25), tailoring (Ex. 28:3), engraving and embrodering
(Ex. 35:35), goldsmithing (Jer. 10:9), solving riddles (Pro. 1:6) and soothsaying
(Gen. 41:8), as well as the ability to work as a military strategist or statesman
(Isa. 10:13; 29:14; Jer. 49:7), architect (Ex. 35:30 – 36:1), or sailor (Ezek.
27:8). Over and above all of these exercises of wisdom, the greatest wisdom
known to Scripture is found in the skill of living well. True wisdom is to perceive
the nature of this world as created by God and to live in accord with it. In
other words, wisdom is getting tuned into God’s frequency for life and living
in that frequency.2
The Hebrew Bible divides our Christian Old Testament into three sections: Torah,
Prophets, and Writings. Included in the Writings are the books of wisdom. While
wisdom and wisdom-related themes appear throughout the Bible, they are concentrated
especially in Job, Proverbs, and Ecclesiastes. Approximately one dozen of the
psalms are also categorized as wisdom writings.3 In the
New Testament, the epistle of James bears the marks of this genre.4
The Bible contains two
types of wisdom literature. Reflective or speculative wisdom literature contemplates
the nature of this divinely created world and man’s place in it. Theodicy, the
justification of God’s ways in this world, is a common theme. Job, Ecclesiastes,
and most of the Wisdom Psalms are reflective in nature.
Practical or proverbial
wisdom constitutes the greater part of the second type of wisdom literature.
Proverbial wisdom provides instruction for dealing with life’s daily affairs.
Proverbs and James fit in here.
in Historical Context
Much of the Bible’s wisdom
literature came out of the period of the United Kingdom. Why? Solomon, whom
God gave special wisdom, lived during this period; therefore, more wisdom was
available for recording. Additionally, peace and prosperity in his kingdom (1
Kgs. 4:20-34) allowed Solomon to devote himself to intellectual and philosophical
pursuits (e.g., exploring nature, recording his discoveries, and composing proverbs
[1 Kgs. 4:32-33; Ecc. 12:9]), unlike his father David who was constantly engaged
in strategizing for warfare and singing of God’s intervention.
The pursuit of wisdom
garnered international interest before, during, and after the United Kingdom
era. The Bible refers to wisdom gathered by the Edomites (Jer. 49:7), Egyptians,
and peoples of the East (1 Kgs. 4:30). Two periods of Egyptian history especially
yield numerous wisdom texts: the Old Kingdom period (3000 – 2500 B.C.) and the
New Kingdom period (1555 – 945 B.C.). The most notable Egyptian wisdom text
was “The Instruction of Amen-em-opet,” a set of admonitions of a father to his
son that is closely akin to Prov. 22:17 – 24:22. Sumerian documents composed
in the third millennium B.C. (before and around the time of Job and Abraham)
and Babylonian documents composed between 1500 – 1000 B.C. also bear similarities
to biblical wisdom books.
Wisdom literature continued
to be important to the Jews after the Kingdom of Israel divided and grew in
perceived importance following the Babylonian Exile. C. Hassell Bullock writes:
After the exile and eventual
cessation of prophecy, Hebrew wisdom became increasingly important as a mode
of religious expression. Whereas the prophetic urging of the word of the Lord
upon Israel and the counsel of the wise had existed side by side in preexilic
times . . . the postexilic era witnessed the demise of prophetic activity. When
we recognize that Israel had depended upon the prophetic word for several centuries,
then the vacuum left by its cessation appears serious.5
The Apocrypha, religious
books from the intertestamental period that weren’t included in the canon of
Scripture, contains at least two wisdom books. Matthew records the visit of
wise men from the east at the infant home of Jesus. The adult Jesus spoke as
a wise man using proverbs and parables. All of this evinces the constant significance
of wisdom in and around ancient Israel up to and including the Gospel-era.
The culture of Israel
in the Old Testament and early New Testament was a markedly oral culture. An
oral culture is not necessarily illiterate but one wherein history, traditions,
and wisdom are passed down from generation to generation using primarily oral,
rather than written, media. Oral cultures package their history, traditions,
and wisdom in various forms, including stories, songs, proverbs, riddles, instructions,
and monologues and dialogues. The Bible includes examples of all of these forms
both in and outside of its wisdom literature.
Oral cultures today continue
to transmit their history, traditions, and wisdom in these same forms. I enjoyed
the privilege of helping a friend edit his Ph.D. dissertation on the oral culture
of his people, the Kikuyu of Kenya. He reported that stories recounting Kikuyu
history are regularly told during special regional and national gatherings.
The storyteller often includes songs in his stories, songs he expects his hearers
to sing with him. Proverbs form a common part of daily dialog among the Kikuyu;
and children especially love riddles, a tool used by parents to educate their
I believe that segments
of America, especially inner-city America, can be more effectively reached using
stories, songs, proverbs, riddles, etc. than by the traditional 3-points-and-a-poem
sermon. Much of American culture is oral. A 2002 survey by the National Endowment
of the Arts found that only 56% of American adults read a book of any kind in
According to “America’s
Most Literate Cities 2004,” out of 79 cities with populations over 200,000,
my city of Memphis ranks 67th in literacy.
I have seen where stories,
songs, proverbs, riddles, instructions, and dialogue either already have or
would likely appeal to segments of this culture. Inner-city youth incarcerated
at the facility I serve as a volunteer chaplain sit on the edge of their seats
to hear well-told biblical stories. They love riddles. Being able to pose a
riddle, then furnish the answer, gives them a feeling of intellectual superiority.
Through my mentoring at
Youth for Christ I encountered other youth who had successfully memorized dozens
of rap songs but never learned their multiplication tables. The rhythm of the
songs proved as memorable to them as melodic.
All of the youth in my
experiences have responded enthusiastically to well-known lines from movies
and TV, the proverbs of 21st century America. They appreciate specific
instructions on how to handle life’s problems more than general admonitions.
Dialogue between pulpit
and pew has long been an important element in African-American preaching. Sitting
quietly through a 45-minute sermon doesn’t sit well with the kids I know; but
if they can “talk back” and express their feelings about what they’re hearing,
they’ll gladly sit up to an hour.
No one would argue that
today’s world needs wisdom. In the wisdom literature of his Bible, the preacher
finds both the content to address this need and forms for effectively delivering
in the Contemporary Sermon
I have long been committed
to a historical-grammatical-theological hermeneutic that endeavors to apply
the teachings of Scripture to today’s world only after determining their original
intent. Increasingly, I am growing in my commitment to a fourth dimension of
this hermeneutic, the rhetorical, that seeks to understand how the Scripture
“spoke” to its first audience and then attempts to replicate this process through
homiletical technique. What follows is a collection of suggestions, warnings,
and ideas on how to preach the Bible’s wisdom literature so as to communicate
accurately both its grammatical content and rhetorical intent.
1. Beware of taking your
text from the sayings of Job’s uninspired friends. They did not speak for God.
2. Preach the story from
an “omniscient” point of view. The Bible tells the story in this way. The writer
takes us behind the scenes to show us things the characters did not know. You
can preach from this point of view in 3rd person by just telling
the story (emphasizing the highpoints) or in 1st person as an angel
or departed saint who was there when “the sons of God” presented themselves
and saw the drama unfold.
When preaching from this
point of view, avoid the temptation to belittle Job’s pain. Just because you
know it’s going to work out alright in the end doesn’t make what he endured
any less painful while he endured it.
3. Preach the story from
a limited point of view. Job, his wife, nor his friends knew why he was suffering.
Put yourself in their place and recount the story and what you learned from
it as one of the actors.
I think people respond
better to the limited point of view because that’s where we operate. None of
us fully knows why. God never did explain Himself to Job. We can sympathize
with Job and his wife. Knowing we’re not alone in our experience makes it more
4. Preach the dialogues
as dialogue. Present the thoughts of one of Job’s friends using your own words.
Then, present Job’s response or God’s answer as found elsewhere in Scripture.
It’s a point and counter-point approach to the sermon: What man says. What God
5. Challenge the expression
“the patience of Job.” Acknowledge that Job persevered until the trial ended,
but he grew impatient during the process. He impatiently wanted to know why,
but he was never told why. He impatiently waited for vindication, but vindication
didn’t come right away. He impatiently wished for a Mediator, but He didn’t
arrive until 2000 years later in a manager in Bethlehem. Like Job, we may never
know why. Vindication may not come as soon as we would like; but all that’s
okay, because we know we have a Mediator Who represents our interests to the
6. However you preach
the story, do more than analyze it. Tap into it existentially. Identify with
the characters. Create space for your congregation to feel their confusion,
pain, and anger.
Whole volumes and workshops
have been devoted to considering how to interpret and preach the Psalms. I have
found Haddon Robinson’s insights particularly helpful. Rather than rehash his
ideas, let me note in passing that the wisdom psalms are composed from different
1. From a 1st
person perspective the psalmist addresses God directly. In 3rd person
he may exhort others to address Him with their own praises and petitions. Such
an arrangement suggests the preacher could let his congregation “overhear” him
carrying on a one-sided conversation with God in line with the psalm’s content
or exhort his congregation directly to pray about specific matters mentioned
in the text.
2. The 2nd
person perspective is employed when the psalmist speaks straight to the reader
and offers him instruction. Direct instructions are precisely what the seeker
churches today have found speak effectively to our culture.
3. The psalmist may use
the 1st person perspective again to make statements and offer insights
for the reader to consider and heed. The nature of this instruction is less
directive and authoritative than occurs when the 2nd person perspective
is used. Following the psalmist’s lead, the preacher might assume a contemplative
air as he probes his text’s insights in light of the contemporary world.
4. From a more aloof 3rd
person perspective the author makes statements about an aspect of life but does
not appear to be addressing anyone in particular. He simply seeks to praise
an idea or explore its dimensions. The preacher could do likewise, even building
on and going beyond what the psalmist writes to what other passages of Scripture
say about the idea.
1. Preach the proverbs
topically. Collect, arrange, and expound all proverbs related to a given topic.
Such an approach gives the congregation the “big picture” of Scripture’s position
on the issue. Unfortunately, the preacher may overlook important verses because
on the surface they seemed unrelated. This possibility and the fact that the
inspired writers did not record their insights in such an orderly way make the
topical approach appear dubious in the eyes of certain writers.8
2. Preach the proverbs
in clusters.9 Locate these related proverbs by looking
for common themes, repeated terms, and related images in successive verses.
and Song of Songs, in New American Commentary [Nashville: Broadman/Holman,
1993] helpfully identifies these clusters. They prove especially prominent in
Next, specify the principles
taught in the cluster. Develop the sermon around these principles and use the
proverbs to validate them. Positively, principlizing the proverbs gives the
hearer definitive explanations and explicit applications. Audience members are
told precisely what to think and do. Negatively, when you reduce a proverb to
a principle, you lose the impact of its imagery and the satisfaction of self-discovery.
The move resembles a person describing a sunset to another person who can see
it for herself.
3. Preach the proverbs
individually. Thomas Long suggested that the preacher first look backward into
the Bible and personal experience to see how a select proverb has been proved
true. Then, he should project forward to show how the proverb would apply in
Ronald Clements also advocated
concentrating on one proverb at a time but with a different strategy. First,
the preacher should explain the proverb, bringing in other proverbs that shed
light on the one under consideration. Next, he should identify the problem of
life to which the proverb speaks. Finally, he should give the solution to the
problem as developed in the proverb and as ultimately found in the Gospel of
Long’s and Clements’ strategies
offer off-setting strengths and weaknesses. Long’s homiletic adequately explores
and forcefully impresses the proverb’s image into the mind of the audience but
leaves the hearer to discern for himself how to apply the proverb. Clements’
approach offers a clearer, more direct explanation of the proverb but loses
part of the image’s impact in the explanation.10
I believe all of the preceding
strategies can be employed to communicate the proverbs effectively. A preacher
might use first one in this message and another in that, or he might combine
two or more strategies in any given sermon. Regardless of the route he travels,
he will face the constant tension of trying to preserve the impact of the proverb’s
image and open-ended invitation for self-interpretation on the one hand and
offering explicit application on the other.
1. When preaching from
one of Solomon’s many assessments of life that fill this book, account for both
the positive and the negative sides of the assessment in your message. To present
one side only will lead either to abject pessimism or blind optimism. For example,
you find a negative assessment of work in 2:18-23, followed by a positive assessment
in 2:24-26. Preach only the negative, and you promote laziness. Preach only
the positive, and you promote workaholism.
2. Preach Ecclesiastes
as a way of showing your people that faith need not blind us to life’s inequities,
nor do life’s inequities need to destroy our faith. We can acknowledge the bad
in life while still thanking God for and enjoying the good.
3. Assign a philosophical
title (e.g., materialism, hedonism, fatalism) to those avenues of life “under
the sun” down which Solomon walked looking for meaning. Compare what he said
about the outcomes of those philosophies to what both their proponents and opponents
have stated elsewhere. Bring in contemporary quotes and illustrations from television
and movies where your people have unwittingly encountered these philosophies.
4. Use Solomon’s denunciation
of certain vain philosophies (i.e., “worldly wisdom”) as a springboard into
discussing other philosophies he failed to mention but stand at odds with the
Scriptures (e.g., pluralism, modernism, postmodernism).
James speaks to many of
the same themes found in the Old Testament wisdom texts but does so in the light
of Jesus’ death, resurrection, and ascension. His letter presents a sketch of
faith with its workclothes on. Without such garb, faith stands naked before
a gawking world. To James’ eyes a naked faith is pornographic. While the same
exegetical and homiletical tools one uses on Paul’s epistles can be used on
this epistle, the preacher needs to exercise special caution because of the
letter’s emphasis on works and use of Old Testament imagery.
1. James alludes to Old
Testament people and events he assumed his audience would recognize. In today’s
biblically illiterate world, we cannot make such assumptions. When you come
across one of these allusions in your preaching text, explain it fully (but
beware of going into so much detail that you cause your hearers to lose track
of James’ train of thought).
2. When James develops
an idea or image found in the Sermon on the Mount (comp. 1:22 with Matt. 7:24-27)
or other saying of Jesus, you could take time to go back and look at what Jesus
3. James addresses his
exhortations to people who have already professed faith in Christ. You need
to remind your hearers that this letter is intended for those whose sins are
forgiven and who possess God’s Spirit within. Lost people will not be saved
by obeying the contents of the letter, nor do they possess the Spirit’s power
needed to do so.
4. Avoid preaching this
epistle legalistically. Legalists believe they please God by keeping the rules.
Christians are already pleasing to God because of Jesus. (We are “accepted in
the Beloved” – Eph. 1:6.) Love and gratitude should regulate our actions rather
than the vain attempt to please the Lord on our own. Love and gratitude should
produce the kinds of results James demands. If these results aren’t found in
our lives, we may have allowed the icy fingers of apathy, forgetfulness, and
ingratitude to wrap themselves around our hearts. Remind your hearers of this
truth periodically when preaching from this letter.
The world leaves us wizened. The Word makes us wise. We preachers bear the awesome
responsibility of proclaiming that Word which gives instruction for successful
living in this world and the one to come. Wise is the preacher who, like our
predecessor in Ecclesiastes, imparts knowledge; ponders, searches out, and sets
in order many proverbs; and searches to find just the right words to get the
point across (Ecc. 12:9-10).
Hollifield is Assistant Professor of Bible and Theology at Crichton College
in Memphis, TN.
Edward K. Rowell, ed., Quotes & Idea Starters for Preaching & Teaching
(Grand Rapids: Baker, 1996), 88, 185.
2. Adapted from Charles Colson and Nancy Pearcey, How Now Shall
We Live? Workbook (Nashville:
LifeWay, 1999), 170.
3. Psalms commonly designated as Wisdom Psalms include 1, 19, 36, 37,
49, 73, 112, 119, 127, 128, and 133.
4. Literalists see the Song of Solomon as a poetic treatment of the
practical issues of human sexuality and love. Allegorists view the Song as being
more reflective, pertaining to the relationship of God/Christ and His people.
The Song of Solomon is not technically “wisdom literature” but is often designated
as such because of its authorship, form (a song), and method of instruction.
I prefer to treat the Song under the heading Poetic Books and will therefore
say nothing more about it here.
5. C. Hassell Bullock, An Introduction to the Old Testament Poetic
Books (Chicago: Moody, 1988), 49.
6. See, Thomas G. Long, Preaching and the Literary Forms of the
Bible (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1989) for additional insights on how the
preacher can capitalize on the Bible’s literary structures.
7. For these insights on the psalms’ perspectives, I am especially indebted
to Donald K. Berry, An Introduction to Wisdom and Poetry of the Old Testament
(Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 1995), 107.
8. Dave Bland, “A New Proposal for Preaching from Proverbs,” Preaching
(May-June 1997); Walter C. Kaiser Jr., Preaching and Teaching from the Old
Testament (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2003); and Long, Preaching and the
Literary Forms of the Bible all denounced the topical approach.
9. Both Bland and Kaiser advocate this homiletical strategy.
10. See, Long, 53-65; Ronald Clements, “Preaching form the Wisdom Literature,”
in Biblical Preaching, ed. James W. Cox (Philadelphia: Westminster,