The Relationship Between Wisdom and Apocalyptic

A few years ago, I took a seminar devoted to exploring the relationship between wisdom literature and apocalyptic literature.  Initially I thought the decision to combine the two had more to do with paucity of the literature, something along of the lines of: “well, there isn’t enough wisdom literature on which to do a whole class, nor is there enough apocalyptic – why don’t we combine them?  That’ll be the perfect length!”

Of course this was a ridiculous assessment; there is enough wisdom literature to fill several seminars, and more than enough apocalyptic literature to do the same especially when one examines extra biblical texts as well!  No, wisdom and apocalyptic are best studied together because both of them share an outlook.

In his book Hope in the Midst of A Hostile World: The Gospel According to Daniel, George M. Schwab does a nice job articulating this, especially as it relates to the book of Daniel:

The second half of Daniel is a series of mysterious dreams, a raz that needs a pesher.  Wise men dream and interpret dreams.  Wild, symbolic, violent, colorful dreams that are encryptions of reality “behind the scenes” are called “apocalypse,” which means “revelation.”  The second half of Daniel is apocalyptic, and apocalyptic has been associated with wisdom material.  Gerhard von Rad lists “eschatological dualism” and “sheer transcendentalism” as characteristics of apocalyptic writings that “purport to be revealed knowledge.”  In contrast to prophecy, the message of apocalypse does not draw preeminently from God’s redeeming acts in history, such as the exodus or the giving of the law.

Once it is realized … that knowledge is the nerve-center of apocalyptic literature, knowledge based on a universal Jahwehism, surprisingly divorced from the saving history, it should not be difficult to determine the real matrix from which the apocalyptic literature originates.  This is Wisdom, in which … exactly the same characteristics appear.

There is a parallel theological perspective and manner of expression between apocalyptic and wisdom.  Both revel in the transcendence of God and speak of the cosmos as revelatory of knowledge.  Both emphasize the End of the matter, of one’s life, although in different ways.  Neither argues from redemptive history.  Both use heavy-handed imagery, like the giant goat and ram of Daniel or the leviathan and behemoth in Job.  In 1 Enoch dreams and visions of an apocalyptic sort can be regarded as “wisdom encoded in mysterious signs, not the straightforward, empirical wisdom of Proverbs and Sirach.”

In other words, what one gains by reading apocalyptic is wisdom.  Not wisdom in the form of straightforward nuggets like proverbs, but insight into the way the world works, how God stands behind the creation, how events are guided with moral purpose, and how one equipped with this knowledge should conduct oneself.

Hope in a Hostile World, pgs. 22-23

Of course how this relationship (wisdom & apocalyptic) is articulated varies from scholar to scholar, but this is an idea I found very intriguing.  I look forward to one day working through Daniel (studying, preaching and teaching) and working out this relationship.  As originally written and read, Daniel was not just a prophecy of future, it heralded true wisdom and knowledge for the present.  And while understanding the signs and symbols of the book inform our eschatological outlook, there is more to them than many prophecy pundits realize.

Rev. Andrew Compton
Christ Reformed Church
Anaheim, CA