The Performative Nature of Wisdom Literature

March 11, 2018 · 329 words · 2 minute read Thought   Wisdom   Wisdom Literature   Performativity   Performative Literature   Philosophy of Language   Old Testament  

Wisdom literature in the Bible (books like Job, Proverbs, and Ecclesiastes) is not easy to understand... and this is no accident. It is designed not only to show you what true wisdom is, but also to produce it within you. Thus, wisdom literature is performative.

Performative Wisdom Literature

In linguistics, performativity describes of the ability of communication (in any form) to do something.1 This is a break from the way we normally view language as a means of describing something or asking someone to do something. Language itself can do things. For example, saying “I now pronounce you husband and wife” in the proper context is not just a declarative statement about what I happen to be doing at the moment. That statement actually does something (namely, seals a marriage).

The Bible contains an entire theology of performative language (creation, prayer, worship, etc.), but wisdom literature too is performative. Wisdom literature does not simply describe and define wisdom as you would expect from a text-book; it also produces wisdom in those who read and wrestle with the text. That is, it does something to the reader. This is why wisdom literature is so difficult to read and understand.

If you have read Ecclesiastes cursorily a few times and think you understand it, you probably do not (reread it and wrestle with it… do the preacher’s words in 7:15-18 give biblical, Godly advice?). The arguments presented by Job, Eliphaz, Bildad, Zophar, and Elihu in the book of Job build on one another throughout the book and can be complex. If you want easy, ‘fast-food’-style bible study, wisdom literature is not the place to go (although, the desire for spiritual ‘fast-food’ is itself a problem). Studying, understanding, and applying wisdom literature is hard. And it has to be this way in order to teach you what true wisdom is and to start producing it in your life.

I encourage you to wrestle with Ecclesiastes or Job. Both of these are powerful books that will force you to develop wisdom. Make no mistake… wisdom literature has an agenda. It is out to get you (Proverbs 9:3-6).


1. Jillian R. Cavanaugh, “Performativity,” Performativity - Anthropology - Oxford Bibliographies, February 15, 2018, , accessed March 12, 2018,