Just recently I put that question to a bright, ecclectic group of Christian students. The response was a row of bemused and blank faces. One guy eventually offered that his pastor ‘had once preached a series on Ecclesiastes.’ The rest had never heard a sermon on Ecclesiastes, Job or Proverbs.
That’s right: not one sermon.
Such things are anecdotal, I know. Yet I strongly suspect that wisdom is an under-preached genre. At least in the circles where I move, pastors seem to fear that their congregations could not ‘survive’ a series on a wisdom book. In all fairness, there is some justification for their trepidation!
We don’t need ‘the wisdom of Solomon’ to identify some challenges which wisdom literature presents the preacher.
First, there’s the style of it. The wisdom genre is dominated by Hebrew poetry. For some of us, Hebrew poetry is completely ‘uncharted waters’. For others of us, though we have studied it for years, it can still seem ”unfamiliar territory’. Whether its coping with the constant use of parallelism, or working out how to preach pithy sayings (Proverbs!) or long theologically inaccurate discourses (Job!), this brand of literature is tough to interpret and tougher to preach. We fear becoming ship-wrecked on the rocks of the unusual style of this literature.
A second challenge is the subjects addressed by wisdom literature. The themes that wisdom literature raises are not typical when compared with wider Scripture. For instance, wisdom is rooted in theology but it is not primarily theological instruction. Similarly, wisdom has an ethical dimension, but it is not pure ethical instruction. Wisdom deals with how to live skillful, godly lives in the fear of the Lord. It deals with topics like the choices we make, the friends we choose, and the way we work. It addresses how to make life work, and how to cope when our life seems to unravel.
A final challenge has do with how the storyline of the bible connects with wisdom literature. In other words, how do we preach wisdom redemptively? Is it possible to preach a Christ-exalting sermon from Proverbs? And if so, how do we do that responsibly? This is an important question and it demands serious thought. It may be our struggle to answer this question, that above all, causes us to shy away from wisdom.
(I am currently preaching a series on Proverbs, and trying to learn how to do it better. Tomorrow: Why bother with wisdom?)