Observing the contrast between wisdom literature and the law is something I've been stumbling on to in the last five years. I'm neither married nor a parent but it does seem as though in our eagerness to avoid relativism and antinominianism we as conservative Protestants can transform the wisdom literature, but especially Proverbs, into a new kind of law that goes beyond what scripture itself advises. The older I get the more I appreciate that we get not one but two books in the wisdom literature that provide different warnings against a misuse of proverbs. Both of these correctives reveal the ways in which proverbs aren't laws. Job shows us a personal case study of a godly man who meets disaster.
A friend of mine once taught a course on Job at a church and he explained that Job's friends had the correct theology, the correct theodicy but that at the end of the day they were still told by God that they had not spoken the truth about Him. The right theology applied at the wrong time to the wrong person for the wrong reasons is still wrong theology about the Lord. Too few Christians realize the staggering implications and ramifications of this, particularly when we are tempted to pass judgment on other Christians for going through suffering or experiencing failure. Then, of course, there are proverbs that have contrasting observations. Your friend's observations intrigue me because, well, I have been concluding that Christians need to read proverbs as riddles rather than rules, riddles that allow us to examine the mysteries of living rather than as checklists to ensure that we won't meet disaster (ergo what I said earlier about Job's friends and their mistake of universal application of what was given, as you noted, as situational wisdom).
If Job presents us with the personal history of a godly man who faced disaster permitted by God then Ecclesiastes reveals that a lifetime of wisdom does not necessarily yield the happiness a person would expect. A believer can treat the proverbs as rules for living a great life and then still find himself or herself looking back on a life lived by rules that do not bring fulfillment.
One of my favorite observations about Ecclesiastes is that in the epilogue we're shown that in addition to being wise the Preacher collected and weighed many proverbs. Ecclesiastes can be seen as the Preacher approaching the end of his life and realizing that amassing all that wisdom did not bring the kind of success or fulfillment he assumed would be his. Why, then, had he been so very wise? Ecclesiastes looks at the limits and problems of attempting to live life as though proverbs were rules for success. It is not merely an example of how "earthly wisdom" reveals our need for Christ. Ecclesiastes predates Christ so, obviously, we won't be pointed to Jesus.
What we are pointed to is that even the divinely inspired scriptures we get in the form of wisdom literature through Proverbs was given to give us wisdom but that wisdom will reveal conflicting priorities. What happens when a father and mother approach an adult child about taking on their debt? A blunt application of the ten commandments might advice the child to handle his/her parents' debt while Proverbs 6 would warn against taking on anyone's debt for any reason. As Tim Keller put it, wisdom is what we need because there are many decisions that are not forbidden by the Bible and are not really immoral but are, finally, still not wise. Attempting to reduce wisdom to a checklist of moral or immoral actions can cause us to forsake wisdom while thinking we are attaining it.
This is perhaps best summed up in the otherwise inexplicable "Do not be too righteous and do not be a fool." This is not necessarily a warning against self-righteous religious pride or we wouldn't see the Preacher say that no one is blameless just a few verses later. The most self-righteous people in the world are frequently the first people to say "I'm not perfect" before condemning you for not being them. We know this even without having to consult the scriptures!
If no one is righteous because no one can fail to avoid sin then the admonition to not be overly righteous as a reference to religious self-righteousness makes no sense. It's pointless to warn people to avoid doing something they can't do. Clearly it is impossible to live without sin. Conversely, advising people to not be wicked and die before one's time is pedestrian by itself. That the overly righteous man dies early like the overly wicked does not suggest that this is a case of religious self-righteousness. It makes far more sense to read this passage not as a reference to piety but as a reference to the stance rather than the actual wisdom of the wise person.
In a useful cross reference to the JPS Tanakh the reading goes roughly as follows--"In my short life I have seen everything. I have seen a wise man die despite his wisdom and an evil man prosper despite his wickedness. So don't overdo goodness and don't act the wise man too much or you will be dumbfounded. Don't overdo wickedness and be a fool and then die early. It is best to grasp the one without letting go of the other because the one who fears God will account for both." Let me propose that the problem with Job's friends was that they had the affectation of wisdom rather than actual wisdom. In the end they were dumbfounded by the Lord while Job, who asked questions that went unanswered was, strangely, vindicated not by any answers but by a visitation from the Lord.
If balance in avoiding the extremes of Ecclesiastes 7 is the measure of the one who fears God then it can't refer to either sin or to self-righteousness. The godly person knows sinlessness is impossible but does not as a result embrace sin. It makes more sense to say we are warned against the affectation of wisdom rather than some kind of false piety or religious self-righteousness. Why, because if it weren't then why are we warned that there are wicked who prosper in their wickedness while there are wise people who die early in their wisdom?
When God said He would confound the wisdom of the wise it was not merely the pagan wisdom He was confounding. Christ is a stumbling block to both the Jew as well as the Gentile. In fact I may as well be so bold as to point out that you will not see Christ in the wisdom literature. Christ Himself is the wisdom of God that the wisdom literature aspired to comprehend but cannot comprehend. Let us not forget that Proverbs is a collection of axioms and observations and riddles collected by people attempting to live in light of the fear of the Lord. Ecclesiastes is a reflection on the limits of those observations and the depth of those riddles. Job is a series of speeches in which orthodox friends of Job misapply orthodoxy to the issue of Job's suffering at the hands of God. Depending on who we talk to Song of Songs is a typological reflection on God's love for His chosen people or a manual of sex positions and communication techniques. But none of this necessarily points us to Christ.
Look at the life of Christ in light of Proverbs, particularly if you would like to interpret Proverbs as a set of rules or laws. Did Christ receive a wife that would be a sign of blessing from the Lord? Did He have an inheritance to leave to his children? Oh, well, no, He didn't. What about not taking up the debts of others? Wasn't there that coin that was miraculously provided for Peter to pay his tax? Sure, Jesus was sinless but consider that what Christ did in going to the cross was not just foolishness to the Greeks, there was a great deal of it that would have to be considered foolishness even by the measure of Proverbs. It is not for nothing that Paul wrote that the foolishness of God is better than the wisdom of men, and that would even include the wisdom of men compiled for our benefit in the canonical book of Proverbs or Job or Ecclesiastes.
Scripture tells us that the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom and this is beyond dispute. What I am learning as I go is that, given the riddles explored by the wisdom literature, that the fear of the Lord is also the GOAL of wisdom. We can't just tell ourselves that if we consider ourselves reverant enough toward the Lord that we will then get wisdom. That often doesn't happen! It often leads to nothing more than the affectation of wisdom. In my life that has manifest in the form of married guys assuming they have more wisdom than single guys because they are married. It manifests in the form of liberals or conservatives assuming they have more wisdom than their idiotic alternates. None of that is wisdom, the fear of the Lord is wisdom. If there is more hope for a fool than for a man who is wise in his own eyes then we must not only be cautious about how wise we think we are but about the scope and usefulness even, dare I say it, of the wisdom tradition in general. If we construe the aim of the wisdom literature as living a successful life then we are in danger of distorting the real goal of the wisdom literature which is the fear of the Lord. Yes, if you get wisdom you will have more odds at success but no guarantees of it.