Apart from the Psalms, it can be argued that Wisdom literature contains the most read and contemplated portions of Old Testament Scriptures. While the practicality of these books lends their message easily to the young and old in the faith, without a proper understanding of the purpose and nature of the genre, one opens the door to misinterpretation and misapplication. My goal here is to provide a basic outline of the purpose of this genre that should govern your approach as you read and seek to apply these portions of Scripture.
First, Wisdom literature informs us of God’s perspective on life in a fallen world. Wisdom literature first and foremost points our attention to God as the source of wisdom, “For the Lord gives wisdom; from his mouth come knowledge and understanding.” We are desperately in need of his wisdom because we live in a world marred by sin, “What is crooked cannot be made straight, and what is lacking cannot be counted.” This underlines the reality of the world we live in, which requires discernment that would lead to life rather than death. Human wisdom and ingenuity will not guide one successfully through the maze of life, but must be received from the One who created the world and established its order.
Second, Wisdom literature informs us how we are to live practically in a fallen world. Knowing that God is the source of wisdom and the world is fallen is helpful, but what are we to do with that knowledge? How should it practically influence our life? To truly grasp the meaning of these books one must see their relevance for their everyday, mundane life. These books are useless if they do not find a practical expression in daily life. As Kostenberger and Patterson observe, Wisdom literature “includes not only the accumulation of knowledge but above all the skill to discern how to apply the principles of godly wisdom to specific situations.”
Third, Wisdom literature outlines how things generally work, not present absolutes for every instance. Robert Stein insightfully points out, “Proverbs are not laws. They are not even promises. They are generalizations learned from careful observation and wise analysis of life…they have exemptions.” This does not make them any less true, but rather guards us from misusing their intent.
 Proverbs 2:6 ESV.
 Ecclesiastes 1:15 ESV.
Bartholomew, Craig G. and O’Dowd, Ryan P. Old Testament Wisdom Literature: A Theological Introduction. Downers Grove, IL: Inter Varsity Press, 2011, 17.
 Kostenberger, Andreas J. and Patterson, Richard D. Invitation to Biblical Interpretation: Exploring the Hermeneutical Triad of History, Literature, and Theology. Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications, 2011, 292.
 Stein, Robert H. A Basic Guide to Interpreting the Bible: Playing by the Rules, 2nd Ed. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2011, 133.
“The account of the Israelites’ time in the wilderness [as recorded by the book of Numbers] is picked up in a number of ways in the New Testament. One of the most striking uses comes in the account of the temptation of Jesus (Matt. 4:1–11; Luke 4:1–13). Indeed, it is impossible to fully understand the story of Jesus’s temptation without appreciating how he is contrasted with the Israelites who came out of Egypt. Whereas the ancient Israelites were tested in the wilderness and failed, Jesus, as the new Israel, succeeds. This theme is reflected in all three temptations. In the first, Jesus is hungry after fasting for forty days and is asked to turn stones into bread. But if, like the ancient Israelites, he would give priority to his own physical appetite, he would imply dissatisfaction with God’s provision for him. The second temptation, following Matthew’s order, focuses on God’s ability to save. Here Jesus is challenged to follow the example of the earlier Israelites and test, rather than trust, God’s might to protect him. The third temptation focuses on God’s capacity to give to Jesus the kingdoms that are under the control of another. Whereas the Israelites doubted God’s strength to give them the land of Canaan, Jesus expresses complete confidence in God. Thus in various ways, Jesus’s faith in God contrasts sharply with that of the Israelites who came out of Egypt.
Several passages in John’s Gospel refer directly to the Old Testament account of the Israelites’ sojourn in the wilderness. In his conversation with Nicodemus, Jesus briefly mentions the incident of the bronze snake in Numbers 21:4–9: “Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes may have eternal life in him” (John 3:14–15). Here Jesus draws an important parallel between himself and the bronze snake. While the ancient Israelites received life by trusting in the bronze snake, those who trust in Jesus will receive eternal life.
Later in John’s Gospel, in a discussion that takes place shortly after the feeding of the five thousand, Jesus compares himself to the manna provided in the wilderness (John 6:25–59). Like the manna, he has been sent from heaven to give life to those who feed upon him (6:33, 35–40, 50–51, 54–58). However, the life that Jesus offers, in contrast to that given by the manna, is eternal (6:47–51, 58). John observes that many of the Jews respond to Jesus’s words by grumbling (6:41, 43). Like their unbelieving ancestors, they fail to appreciate what has happened in their midst. For them, the miraculous feeding of the five thousand, which should have been seen as a sign of Jesus’s divine origin, conveys nothing of significance.”
Desmond Alexander in From Paradise to Promise Land, pg 283-284.
Have you ever wondered how all the descriptions of the tabernacle in the book of Exodus relate to us? Or if there is a greater purpose than to know how to draw the thing for books? In many ways it points us to the work and person of Jesus Christ.
Here is a short paragraph describing how the tabernacle and various elements in it point to Jesus. It is taken from Eugene Merrill’s book A Historical Survey of the OT, chapter 5.
“No doubt the tabernacle and its furniture have great typical meaning [regarding how they point beyond themselves], though interpreters sometimes read far more into it than can be justified by sound hermeneutics and biblical theology. For example, the showbread does speak of the fact that Jesus is the Bread of Life, and the candlestick typifies that he is the Light of the world. The altar of burnt offering is a reminder of Calvary, where the Lamb of God died for the sins of the world, and the altar of incense is a type of prayer, even for the Christian. The veil, especially, is a type of the body of the Savior, and it is striking that when his body was impaled on the cross the veil of the temple at Jerusalem was torn in two, from top to bottom. The writer of Hebrews verifies this type when he declares that the veil indeed represented the body of the Lord (Heb. 10:20).”
Hopefully next time you are reading through those passages you will have a greater appreciation for how God was preparing the world for his coming in the person of Jesus Christ.
Here are some follow up resources to my blog post earlier this week.
-Faith and mental illness: http://www.whitehorseinn.org/blog/2014/07/06/whi-1213-faith-and-mental-illness/
-Darkness is my only companion: http://www.whitehorseinn.org/blog/2014/07/13/whi-1214-darkness-is-my-only-companion/
-Rid of my disgrace: http://www.whitehorseinn.org/blog/2014/07/20/whi-1215-rid-of-my-disgrace/
-Extravagant grace: http://www.whitehorseinn.org/blog/2014/07/27/whi-1216-extravagant-grace/
A few short films: http://headhearthand.org/blog/2014/02/17/films/
A number of articles and blog posts: http://www.patheos.com/blogs/adrianwarnock/2013/05/a-conversation-about-faith-and-mental-illness/
Hope you find them helpful!!