In Wendell Berry’s poem “How to be a Poet” he has a line that can help us to become astute in our reading of biblical wisdom literature. Berry says “patience joins time to eternity.” Now one could take that line to mean a lot of different things; it is a poem after all. But for me, I think it means that patience is the key that unlocks the door of understanding.
And this is no more true than with the passages of scripture within the bible we call the wisdom literature. These books: Job, Proverbs and Ecclesiastes, were meant to be sat with, ruminated upon, and slowly digested. They are poetic books - books written in Hebrew poetry which is different from what many of us understand in English to be poetry, but no less powerful or effective.
Hebrew poetry’s primary tool is parallelism. Parallelism involves two (but sometimes three or more) related lines of poetry that, when read together, communicate a unified thought. Often in Hebrew poetry the first line will introduce an idea in a fairly straightforward way and then the following lines will advance, echo or intensify it. A simple example of this is found in Eccesiates 11:9 where the writer says,
You who are young, be happy while
you are young,
and let your heart give you joy in the
days of your youth.
Like a diamond, the idea the poet wants to communicate is intensified as it is explored from a different angle with different words and images. Both lines are similar, belonging to a united idea, yet different and it is in that similarity and difference that we can determine meaning.
Reading Hebrew poetry, then, is an exercise in reading the lines, but also reading in between the lines to get at the ideas communicated in the passage. We are invited into the dynamic relationship between words and images in a way that helps us experience the truths being communicated. This is why poetry can be so engrossing, but it is also the thing that requires us to be patient, attending to the nuance of the passage in order to be impacted by the truths within it.
And this is why it is no mistake that the books within the bible whose express purpose is to make us wise are written in poetry. Because, like poetry, wisdom is a product of patience. In some way, the patience required from us in our reading of the wisdom books can actively teach us the kind of patience that it required to grow in wisdom.
We sit down, put away distraction, and give the Word of God the kind attention that it deserves. We do not rush, we do not intentionally distract ourselves. We let the words read us more than we read them. And in that place of patient attention we allow the truth of the bible to transform our hearts and imaginations.
The wisdom literature of the bible is a kind of invitation to us. Especially in a time of of isolation caused by Covid-19 it can be easy to grow impatient, to march around wasting energy trying to change things we have little power over. Instead, what would it look like if we embraced the teaching of the scripture and attended to the patient rhythms of Hebrew poetry? Growing wise in our understanding of God’s word and developing skills helps us to navigate the complexities of our world.
Reading the Wisdom literature in this way makes it possible for us to join our time to God’s eternity and opens the door to wisdom. There are practical considerations of course, and the patience required to grow in wisdom and read the bible well is not always easy to come by. But the promise of scripture is quite clear. Growth in wisdom is not a matter of hurry and hustle. There is no shortcut to wisdom; it is found in our patience attention to and trust in God’s word.