Guest Series: Preaching Wisdom – 1. What is Wisdom?

wisdom1Guest blog: My good friend, Huw Williams, has offered this series on preaching wisdom literature.  Huw is the pastor of the International Church in Torino, Italy, where he lives with his wife and daughter.  Here is his personal blog.  Thanks Huw!


We’re going to think this week about preaching wisdom literature. It’s a big subject, so let’s pitch right in and ask, how can we improve our preaching of this important genre? Firstly…

1. …Understand what wisdom is.

What exactly is biblical wisdom? Perhaps the easiest way to answer this question, is to look at a passage – not in one of the wisdom books ironically – but a very important narrative in 1 Kings 12. Solomon, the archetypal wise king, has died and his son Rehoboam is taking the throne. The people of Israel come to him and say “Your Dad laid a heavy burden on us in taxes and so on, so lighten it for us.” What is Rehoboam going to do?

He starts well – he gets counsel. First, he listens to his father Solomon’s old advisers. They tell him “Do as the people say and they will serve you totally.” Next he takes counsel from his old school buddies, and they tell him that he needs to stamp his authority on this people, make a statement, show them that he is not to messed with. “My little finger is thicker than my father’s thigh… he disciplined you with whips, I will discipline you with scorpions.” That ought to do it – that’ll show them who’s boss. So who is Rehoboam going to listen to? – And here’s the point, because for a Hebrew reader, this decision has “wisdom” and “folly” written all over it. Solomon’s counsellors are older, they are experienced in helping to run a country, they have spent a lot of time with wise King Solomon and they would have learned from his wisdom. Rehoboam’s old school pals are young, have no experience of running a kingdom, and not much experience of life, either. To the Hebrew mind, it’s a ‘no-brainer’. A wise man is going to listen to the wise old counsellors and the foolish man is going to listen to the foolish young counsellors. Which will Rehoboam do? Will he show himself to be wise or foolish? I’m sure you know, and the rest as they say, is history.

And this is invaluable to us in understanding biblical wisdom. For us Westerners especially, when we think of wisdom our minds go very quickly to intelligence. We tend to think that the cleverer, the more educated a person is, the wiser he/she will be. But that is a Western idea, not a particularly biblical one. I imagine that Rehoboam’s young counsellors had a good education, but they were still foolish by way of their youth and inexperience. Many of us live in a culture which is obsessed with the idol of youth. We are drawn to young people with new, fresh ideas. But again that is a Western idea, not an expecially biblical one. In biblical cultures, older people were held with higher regard than younger people because of their years, their experience and hence their relative wisdom. Of course there are exceptions – you will find foolish old people and wise young people in the Bible – Solomon himself, as a young king recognised his need for wisdom and asked God for it – and that’s a big theme in Proverbs for example, of enabling the young to get wisdom. So let’s understand what wisdom is – it is not intelligence, education or information. Wisdom is the knowledge of God and how to live in His world. 

And tomorrow we’ll actually look at some of the wisdom books. I promise.

The Hardest Genre? Part 2

Yesterday we looked at just some of the challenges that come with preaching epistles, gospels and historical narrative. Now for the other four genre. Which do you find the hardest?

Poetry – Psalms and songs are readily leaned on in times of personal trial, but preaching them well is not so easy. The imagery is sometimes alien to us. The forms and structures are unfamiliar. The genre taps into the affections and emotions in a way that can be difficult to communicate. The temptation to dissect and turn the passage into an epistle is very real. As is true with every passage, but especially here, the passage does not give a complete theology of . . . whatever it’s about.

Wisdom – The Hebraic parallelism and other forms of wisdom literature are especially foreign to our ears. The wisdom literature often sits in the context of a covenant system that applied uniquely to Israel in relationship to God, so application can be treacherous territory if we’re not careful. The brevity of statement provides a different challenge than an extended narrative.

Prophecy – Written by a certain kind of person, to a certain people, at a certain time . . . none of which is the same today. It can be really challenging to enter into the historical context of the prophet, and also to enter fully into the written context of the book (where the start and end of each burden/oracle is often hard to discern). While the prophets reveal the heart and plans of God very boldly, there is plenty in form and content that appears obscure to contemporary ears and sensibilities.

Apocalyptic – Biblical apocalyptic is a genre that is challenging to contemporary interpreters. Many seem so quick to dismiss the content by reference to the genre that all meaning is apparently stripped from the texts. Then there is the conflict in the commentaries and even disputes in the pews over issues of eschatology that can quickly zap any zeal to announce an apocalyptic preaching text. As with prophecy, the challenges are there in terms of interpreting in context, and in applying to contemporary listeners.

Personally I would list the hardest for me as: 1 – historical narrative (Old Testament), 2 – wisdom, and 3 – apocalyptic (because of the potential problems from the pew, more than the interpretation of it). What about you? Let’s make sure we’re not avoiding some genre and growing complacent with others.

Getting to Grips with the Genres: Poetry (2)

Yesterday’s post was concerned with how poetry works.  Now let’s consider the implications for our preaching.

Implications for Preaching Poetry

-If preaching narrative connects listeners to plot and discourse connects listeners to ideas, then poetry connects listeners to feelings attached to ideas.

-This means that preaching poetry is slow. It’s less like going on a run than it is like sitting before a painting in an art gallery. The preacher is to draw out colors, themes, nuance, and ideas, line by line, in a way that gives time and space for listeners to connect not just cognitively but affectively to the poem.

-Consider using music, paintings, pictures, movie clips, etc., to draw-out an idea.

-Consider allowing for testimony that affirms the points in poetry. Consider attaching biblical narrative to the points too.

-Poetry speaks to truths and feelings that we have felt, will feel, and need to feel. They are not fiction but fact. We need to be shaped by them. Allow your preaching of poetry the time, space, tone, posture, and space to accomplish this. It’s worth it!

Getting to Grips with the Genres: Poetry (1)

Poetry is different from narrative and it is very different from discourse. How though is our preaching of poetry different from our preaching of narrative and discourse? To answer this question, today we will consider how poetry works and functions. Then tomorrow we’ll consider some implications for preaching poetry.

How Poetry Works – Besides employing literary devices such as imagery, metaphor, allegory, simile, wordplay, irony, hyperbole, etc., the prevalent literary device in Hebrew poetry is parallelism. There are many ways to describe parallelism. One common way is to discern between four kinds of parallelism – antithetical parallelism, synonymous parallelism, synthetic parallelism, and emblematic parallelism. In antithetical parallelism, the first line of a sentence is in contrast to the second line (Ps 34:19). In synonymous parallelism, the first line of a sentence is similar to the second line (Ps 49:3). In synthetic parallelism, the second line of a sentence builds upon the idea of the first line (Ps. 49:5). In emblematic parallelism, the two parts of a sentence connect through simile or metaphor (Ps 49:20).

How Poetry Functions – Parallelism insists that the reader slow down, mull over, and consider how each sentence functions. More than that, because each sentence is laced with metaphor, allegory, simile, wordplay, irony, hyperbole, etc., poetry insists that its content be felt. Rhetorically, poetry connects affect to ideas.