Volume III - Bible and Church History

The Old Testament

Wisdom

The books of the Bible which are commonly called the Wisdom books include Job, Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and the Song of Solomon, as well as the Wisdom of Jesus, Son of Sirach, also called Ecclesiasticus, and the Wisdom of Solomon from the so-called apocrypha.

The Book of Job, usually dated sometime at the period of exile, is the story of righteous suffering in which the sufferer pleads his cause before God only to “repent in dust and ashes” (42:6) upon seeing the Lord for himself and being confronted by Him with His own defense of His unspeakable and unfathomable majesty. Selections from this book are read on the first days of Holy Week in the Orthodox Church because they deal with the most profound problem facing believers, the problem of suffering, which is brought to its ultimate completion in Christ who is not merely the most perfect of “suffering innocents,” but indeed the Suffering God in human flesh.

The Book of Proverbs, called the “proverbs of Solomon,” undoubtedly comes from Solomon’s time, although scholars place some of the proverbs at a much later date and tell us that the book was put in its present form only after the Babylonian exile. The proverbs are short sayings concerning the proper conduct of wise and righteous persons. They are read in their entirety at t he weekday Vesper services of the Church during Great Lent. Selections from the Proverbs are also read at the vigils of a number of feasts of the Church since for Christians the Wisdom of God is personified and embodied in Christ.

Ecclesiastes is a book of common-sense meditations on the vanity of life in this world and the wisdom of fearing God and keeping His commandments which is “the whole duty of man” (11:3). It is traditionally ascribed to Solomon, the Preacher. Scholars place the book in the third century before Christ, however, and find in its message a hellenistic spirit taken over by the Jews in diaspora among the gentile nations.

The same hellenistic spirit and influences of Greek philosophy, but to a much greater degree, are found in both the Wisdom of Jesus, Son of Sirach and the Wisdom of Solomon which come from the same period, the very eve of New Testament times. Of the three books just mentioned, only the Wisdom of Solomon, which is considered to be the last of them written, is read liturgically in the Orthodox Church.

The Song of Solomon—also called the Song of Songs or Canticle of Canticles—is considered by scholars as a Canaanite wedding hymn of uncertain date. In Orthodox Church Tradition it is interpreted as a mystical love story between man’s soul and God. Christian saints of East and West, such as Gregory of Nyssa and Bernard of Clairvaux, have given such a meaning to the book which is in line with the biblical tradition of viewing the interrelationship of God and His People as that of conjugal love (See Hos, Jer 2-3, Eph 5, Rev 21-22). This book is never read in the liturgical services of the Orthodox Church, although certain lines from it are traditionally sung in the Russian Orthodox Church when the bride approaches her bridegroom in the church before the celebration of their marriage.

Although not technically a “wisdom” book, mention may be made at this point of The Prayer of Manasseh from the so-called apocrypha. This penitential prayer of the King of Judah, which for the Orthodox is part of the Bible, is included in the Great Compline service of the Orthodox Church.