The sage (Ecclesiastes 7)

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Illustration: Seven ancient sages

The epilogue of Ecclesiastes identifies the writer as a sage or wise man (Ecclesiastes 12:9). His teachings are viewed as part of “the words of the wise”, which are like goads. Those who master these teachings are said to be firmly embedded nails (12:11). Such ideas represent the outlook of Biblical Wisdom Literature. Although the theme of wisdom is present throughout the Bible, most scholars consider Job, Proverbs and Ecclesiastes to be Biblical Wisdom Literature in the strictest sense. Outside the Bible, in both Jewish and pagan writings, there are many other texts that could be called wisdom literature, a genre that can be recognized both by how it speaks and by what it says.

  • Wisdom texts frequently assume the posture of a parent addressing a child. The reader is thus often addressed as “my son” (cf. Proverbs 1:8, 10, 15, 2:1, 3:1, 5:1, Ecclesiastes 12:12).
  • Wisdom literature uses proverbial sayings and parabels, as well as mnemonic (intended or arranged to assist memory) or numerical lists (e.g. Proverbs 1:1, 10:1, 30:15-16, 18-19, 21-23, 29-31, Ecclesiastes 12:9).
  • Wisdom literature concentrates on ethical themes within wisdom texts, even to the extent of addressing the conduct of God himself (as is done several times in Job).
  • The figure of the sage is at the centre of wisdom tradition.

Sometimes “wise” is simply an adjective to connote that an individual was thoughtful, intelligent, skilled or devout (Deuteronomy 1:13, 1 Kings 2:9). In other instances, however, a wise person was assumed to have been a member of a social class of sages, whose functions included those of teacher, government counsellor or scribe.

The sage was the embodiment of wisdom, the master of tradition and the teacher of all who craved instruction. The sage was the opposite of the fool (Proverbs 3:35, 10:1, 14:1, Ecclesiastes 10:12).

The Bible attests to the presence of sages in a technical sense in Egypt (Genesis 41:8), Babylon (Daniel 2:12-18), Persia (Esther 1:13) and Israel itself (Proverbs 1:6, 13:20, Ecclesiastes 12:11).

Significant examples of wisdom literature have been discovered throughout the ancient Near East. Egyptian examples can be seen in The Instruction of Ptahotep and The Instruction of Anii. Mesopotamian examples are found in texts such as The Wisdom of Ahiqar, The Babylonian Theodicy and even aspects of The Epic of Gilgamesh. Many of these texts contain ideas and terms that are similar to what is seen in Biblical wisdom traditions. For some scholars the contact between the Bible and othe ancient Near Eastern literature seem closest in this era.

Wisdom literature continued in the Jewish literature of the post-Biblical period. Texts in the Apocrypha such as The Wisdom of Sirach (or Ecclesiasticus) and The Wisdom of Solomon attest to the vibrancy of the tradition. After the destruction of Herod’s temple in A.D. 70, the Judaism of the rabbinic sages was constructed around wisdom’s central call that “the fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge (Proverbs 1:7, 22:4, Ecclesiastes 12:13). The voluminous Jewish literary production of Mishnah, Midrash and Talmud has been affectionately deemed the “literature of the sages”.


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