This Sunday School lesson covers the entirety of the biblical books of Proverbs and Ecclesiastes. Of course justice cannot be done to these books in one lesson (or in one blog post). I will attempt to give a bit of an overview of what these two books are about in a way that I hope is of some help.1

Proverbs and Ecclesiastes are part of a genre of literature somewhat unique among biblical books, but quite common throughout the ancient world.  This kind of writing is referred to as “Wisdom literature” and is composed of wise sayings and advice and is found in the books of Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Job, and some of the Psalms.  It is quite distinct from the rest of the Bible in that no mention is made of Moses and his writings nor of many of the other traditional figures and histories.  The sayings contained in the biblical Wisdom literature is more akin to similar proverbial sayings found throughout the Ancient Near East, especially in Egypt.

The books considered in this lesson are both traditionally attributed to King Solomon, who was renowned for his great wisdom. Besides having as a source his God-given gift for wisdom, tradition also holds that Solomon married Pharaoh’s daughter, and the ancient Egyptian traditions may also have been an influence on Israelite Wisdom literature.


The Book of Proverbs has no narrative — it is, seemingly, a quite random collection of wise sayings.  They are presented from the beginning (Chapter 1) as the “proverbs of Solomon the son of David, king of Israel.” Jewish tradition holds that Solomon was the author of over 3000 proverbs (1 Kgs 4:32), and there are other non-canonical books, such as the “Wisdom of Solomon” that have been influential to Jewish and Christian thought.

Despite the attribution to Solomon, most of the proverbs do not clearly attribute authorship or make reference to him. They are generally presented as a father’s wise counsels to his son.  In fact, a number of the proverbs are attributed in the text to other possible authors besides Solomon:  ”the wise” (chapters 22-23), Agur (chapter 30), and Lemuel (chapter 31 — I bet you didn’t realize Lemuel was so wise!!).  Some of the proverbs are said to have been collected under the direction of King Hezekiah.

The sayings are not even largely “religious”, but seek to present good advice on common life situations, including how to avoid life’s pitfalls.  These are the advice of someone who has experience in life and would that his children might steer clear of folly.

The Strange Woman and Lady Wisdom

Two recurring figures in the proverbs are the “strange woman” (an adulteress or prostitute; see, e.g., chptrs. 2, 5, 7) and the female figure of Wisdom (see chptrs. 1, 8).  While the “strange woman” is very dangerous and should be avoided at all costs, Lady Wisdom is completely praiseworthy and is to be sought out with great diligence.  One leads to death and the other to eternal life.  While these metaphors may be taken as a lesson on morality/chastity, it is apparent that early Jews and Christians saw in the opposing symbols of these two allegorical women a much broader spectrum of applications.

The Harlot leads to all evil, to death — away from the ways of Truth and Wisdom. “Running after” or “going in unto” the Prostitute is symbolic of apostasy from the truth.  This is what John had in mind in the New Testament apocalypse.  The Great Whore sitting upon many waters, committing fornication with the kings of the earth in Rev. 17 is an apostate imitation of the Great Lady who was clothed with the Sun, who was the Mother of the Messiah (Rev. 12). The Whore is dressed in scarlet robes and decked out with gold, precious stones and pearls. The name written on her forehead –Mystery, Babylon the Great…– is in imitation of that holy Name inscribed on the forehead of the High Priest. This “Strange Woman” represents the Great and Abominable Church, the Apostate Temple.2

Wisdom, on the other hand, represented all that was holy, pure, and true. She is depicted in John’s revelation as the Mother of the Son of God who was forced to flee into the wilderness. Her place is temporarily taken by the Harlot, but after the latter’s great fall, Lady Wisdom was to return in the last days in all her glory.  She is the true Church and Temple.  She is the Tree of Life (Prov. 3:18) standing by the Throne of God (see my post relevant to this topic here).  Many scholars see in Lady Wisdom a perpetuation of an ancient Hebrew belief in a Mother Goddess who was with God in the beginning and participated with him in the Creation.  Proverbs 8 is an example of the perpetuation of this belief (see also Prov. 3:19).  The idea that the Creator was both male and female makes sense in light of Gen. 1:26–27 where we are told that God said “Let us create man in our image” and Man was created both male and female.  Wisdom was the Queen of Heaven, the Heavenly Mother, and we are told that “happy is the man that findeth wisdom” (Prov. 3:13).3

A Favorite Proverb

I must say that I don’t know the proverbs as well as I would like to, despite having taught an Old Testament seminary course.  One that I have had impressed upon my memory not only because it is a Scripture Mastery verse, but also because it was a favorite of both my parents and my grandparents is Prov. 3:5–6:

Trust in the Lord with all thine heart; and lean not unto thine own understanding.

In all thy ways acknowledge him, and he shall direct thy paths.


This book is another collection of Wisdom literature attributed to King Solomon.  It is, however, a rather odd selection of thoughts that seem to deal largely with folly, despair and the inevitable nature of death.  Apparently there was a good deal of debate anciently as to whether or not it should even be included in the biblical canon — its authority as a book attributed to Solomon is likely what guaranteed its final placement among holy scripture.  Collins notes that its value as part of the canon continued to be questioned as late as the 4th century C.E. due to its “lack of coherence and its radical questioning of tradition.”4  While there are some good sayings and memorable lines in the book, most do not find it very inspiring as a whole.  You may notice that the Sunday School study guide contains no quotes from or references to passages in Ecclesiastes.

The Hebrew name for the book, Qoheleth, is difficult to interpret. It’s root in Hebrew is the word for “assembly”, which leads scholars to interpret the title to refer to a “gatherer” or “assembler.” The general idea is that Qoheleth was a preacher or teacher, a wise man who instructed the people in the ways of Wisdom.

Vanity of Vanities

The Hebrew word (hebel) that is often translated as “vanity” (see Eccles. 1:2) in English versions literally means “vapor.” The thought with the use of this language here is akin to Socrates’ “All we are is dust in the wind” (remember Bill and Ted?!).  The repeated theme is that nothing lasts. History repeats itself and man’s only destiny is to rot in the ground.

To Everything There Is a Seaon

As in the Book of Proverbs, one of Ecclesiastes’ most famous passages comes in chapter 3:

1 To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven:

2 A time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up that which is planted;

3 A time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up;

4 A time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance;

5 A time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones together; a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing;

6 A time to get, and a time to lose; a time to keep, and a time to cast away;

7 A time to rend, and a time to sew; a time to keep bsilence, and a time to speak;

8 A time to love, and a time to hate; a time of war, and a time of peace.

What Can We Get From All This

I really don’t know if we can consider Ecclesiastes to be “inspired” writing or not. It certainly doesn’t seem to claim such status for itself.  However, I do believe that there is something to be learned from every book of the Bible.  Even if we only take it to represent an ancient Hebrew philosophical treatise or the common-sense reasoning of the folk of the ancient world, I think there is Wisdom to be obtained in these writings.  One of the lessons that I take from Ecclesiastes is that we should seek wisdom, especially because we are usually so far from her. As the Preacher notes in 11:5:

As thou knowest not what is the way of the spirit, nor how the bones do grow in the womb of her that is with child: even so thou knowest not the works of God who maketh all.

In Conclusion

As I look back over what I have written here about the Wisdom literature in the books of Proverbs and Ecclesiastes, I don’t know that I have managed to offer much that is helpful. It has not been my intention to diminish either of these books and my few words here have certainly not done justice to the wealth of their contents.  But I believe that their true treasures can only be found in reading and pondering their sayings and finding those precious pearls of wisdom that can enrich your own life.  In a sense, the author of Ecclesiastes is correct in emphasizing the fact that history repeats itself — the wisdom of times past is so often relevant and applicable to ourselves in our own time as well.

Wisdom is the principal thing; therefore get wisdom: and with all thy getting get understanding (Prov. 4:7).

  1. Many of my thoughts for this post stem from my reading of the relevant chapters in John J. Collins, Introduction to the Hebrew Bible, Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2004
  2. See Margaret Barker, Temple Themes in Christian Worship, p. 53
  3. For a great summary of her thoughts on the subject of Wisdom, see Margaret Barker, Temple Theology: An Introduction, pp. 75-93
  4. Collins, Introduction, p. 518

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