Note: As with my take on the Book of Samuel and the Book of Job, this post was originally posted on Facebook. At the time I had just begun to read the Bible — I read Proverbs and Ecclesiastes in Alter’s translation. I have edited the original piece slightly.
I finished the Book of Proverbs and the Book of Ecclesiastes, which along with the Book of Job make up the “Wisdom Books” of the Old Testament. The books have very distinct narrative styles. For most of his book, Job is Matthew McConaughey in “True Detective” – downbeat, cosmic, anti-natalist. The Book of Proverbs reminds me of Dave Ramsey — upbeat, optimistic, and practical in a theological context.
Deliver yourself like a gazelle from the hand of the hunter,
And like a bird from the hand of the fowler.
Go to the ant, you sluggard!
Consider her ways and be wise,
Which, having no captain,
Overseer or ruler,
Provides her supplies in the summer,
And gathers her food in the harvest.
How long will you slumber, O sluggard?
When will you rise from your sleep?
And Ecclesiastes… I hear Ecclesiastes the voice of John Derbyshire. The writer shares with Derbyshire a general pessimism and skepticism, a fear of chaos greater than a fear of arbitrary rule, and a rational take to maximizing enjoyment of life. “Eat, drink, and be merry” is one memorable line — “of making books there is no end” is another.
The words of the wise are like goads, and the words of scholars are like well-driven nails,
given by one Shepherd.
And further, my son,
be admonished by these.
Of making many books there is no end,
and much study is wearisome to the flesh.
You can see the difference in emphasis in how Proverbs and Ecclesiastes judge kings. They are the arbiters of justice:
The king’s favor is toward a wise servant,
But his wrath is against him who causes shame.
And the cause of censorship:
Do not curse the king, even in your thought;
Do not curse the rich, even in your bedroom;
For a bird of the air may carry your voice,
And a bird in flight may tell the matter.
Proverbs reminds me of the praise hymns and the sermons that we all kind of remember from childhood. Job is what happens when that world view encounters death. Ecclesiastes is after an even more challenging confrontation: the ups and down of a mostly successful life.
The Former Prophets (the war story of Joshua, the westerns of Judges, the Shakespeare + Game of Thrones + House of Cards + intrigue of Samuel, the Battlestar Galactica destruction of Kings) are better stories.
But the Wisdom Books (the philosophical horror of Job, the cheery ministry of Proverbs, the skeptical and human theology of Ecclesiastes) are more thought-provoking. They are the closest the Hebrews came to philosophy and, by emphasizing the human measure of all things, are in many ways superior.