Wisdom’s Call and Wisdom’s Worth
Proverbs 1:20-33; 3:13-20; 8:1-36 – Proverbs: Wisdom for Life
20th Sunday after Pentecost – October 7, 2018 (am)
Heavenly Father, Wisdom is calling out. Help us, by your empowering and illuminating Spirit, to hear her and heed her call that we might have the life that is life indeed, through Christ our Lord. Amen.
This morning’s sermon text is actually a series of paragraphs scattered throughout Proverbs. Turn first to Prov 1:20–33, which begins on p. 527 of the pew Bibles. We’ll begin by reading that. Proverbs ch. 1, vv. 20–33. This is what God says in his word:
Wisdom cries aloud in the street, in the markets she raises her voice; at the head of the noisy streets she cries out; at the entrance of the city gates she speaks: “How long, O simple ones, will you love being simple? How long will scoffers delight in their scoffing and fools hate knowledge? If you turn at my reproof, behold, I will pour out my spirit to you; I will make my words known to you. Because I have called and you refused to listen, have stretched out my hand and no one has heeded, because you have ignored all my counsel and would have none of my reproof, I also will laugh at your calamity; I will mock when terror strikes you, when terror strikes you like a storm and your calamity comes like a whirlwind, when distress and anguish come upon you. Then they will call upon me, but I will not answer; they will seek me diligently but will not find me. Because they hated knowledge and did not choose the fear of the LORD, would have none of my counsel and despised all my reproof, therefore they shall eat the fruit of their way, and have their fill of their own devices. For the simple are killed by their turning away, and the complacency of fools destroys them; but whoever listens to me will dwell secure and will be at ease, without dread of disaster.”
Turn next to ch. 3, vv. 13–20, which begins at the very bottom of the same page in the pew Bibles. We’ll be considering this section in conjunction with 1:20–33. Proverbs 3:13–20:
Blessed is the one who finds wisdom, and the one who gets understanding, for the gain from her is better than gain from silver and her profit better than gold. She is more precious than jewels, and nothing you desire can compare with her. Long life is in her right hand; in her left hand are riches and honor. Her ways are ways of pleasantness, and all her paths are peace. She is a tree of life to those who lay hold of her; those who hold her fast are called blessed. The LORD by wisdom founded the earth; by understanding he established the heavens; by his knowledge the deeps broke open, and the clouds drop down the dew.
And finally, flipping forward a few pages, we will read the whole of Prov 8:
Does not wisdom call? Does not understanding raise her voice? On the heights beside the way, at the crossroads she takes her stand; beside the gates in front of the town, at the entrance of the portals she cries aloud: “To you, O men, I call, and my cry is to the children of man. O simple ones, learn prudence; O fools, learn sense. Hear, for I will speak noble things, and from my lips will come what is right, for my mouth will utter truth; wickedness is an abomination to my lips. All the words of my mouth are righteous; there is nothing twisted or crooked in them. They are all straight to him who understands, and right to those who find knowledge. Take my instruction instead of silver, and knowledge rather than choice gold, for wisdom is better than jewels, and all that you may desire cannot compare with her.
“I, wisdom, dwell with prudence, and I find knowledge and discretion. The fear of the LORD is hatred of evil. Pride and arrogance and the way of evil and perverted speech I hate. I have counsel and sound wisdom; I have insight; I have strength. By me kings reign, and rulers decree what is just; by me princes rule, and nobles, all who govern justly. I love those who love me, and those who seek me diligently find me. Riches and honor are with me, enduring wealth and righteousness. My fruit is better than gold, even fine gold, and my yield than choice silver. I walk in the way of righteousness, in the paths of justice, granting an inheritance to those who love me, and filling their treasuries.
“The LORD possessed me at the beginning of his work, the first of his acts of old. Ages ago I was set up, at the first, before the beginning of the earth. When there were no depths I was brought forth, when there were no springs abounding with water. Before the mountains had been shaped, before the hills, I was brought forth, before he had made the earth with its fields, or the first of the dust of the world. When he established the heavens, I was there; when he drew a circle on the face of the deep, when he made firm the skies above, when he established the fountains of the deep, when he assigned to the sea its limit, so that the waters might not transgress his command, when he marked out the foundations of the earth, then I was beside him, like a master workman, and I was daily his delight, rejoicing before him always, rejoicing in his inhabited world and delighting in the children of man.
“And now, O sons, listen to me: blessed are those who keep my ways. Hear instruction and be wise, and do not neglect it. Blessed is the one who listens to me, watching daily at my gates, waiting beside my doors. For whoever finds me finds life and obtains favor from the LORD, but he who fails to find me injures himself; all who hate me love death.”
This is the Word of God. We had to jump around in our Bibles to read it! It’s worthwhile here at the outset to explain a bit of why we might gather these separate passages together.
Most interpreters are agreed that the first nine chapters of Proverbs fit together, in terms of structure and content, as a single, lengthy introduction to the book.[i] What’s in this extended introduction to Proverbs? Turn to the paragraph beginning at ch. 1, v. 8. Verse 8 reads, “Hear, my son, your father’s instruction.” The paragraph opens with a father’s direct address to a son. The father is not talking about the son; he’s talking to his son, addressing him: “Hear, O my son.” O my son, pay attention. The father first gets his son’s attention. He goes on in vv. 10–18 to give a word of instruction, warning about the lure of violent gangs. Then in v. 19, the father wraps up with a concluding word, explaining the outcome of gaining by violence: “it takes away the life of its possessors.” This poetic paragraph, Prov 1:8–19, is a clearly structured lecture with three distinct parts: (1) direct address and call to pay attention; (2) a detailed lesson and exhortation; and (3) a concluding word summing up the significance of the lesson.
The same thing happens in ch. 2: (1) direct address in v. 1, “My son,” grabbing the son’s attention; (2) an extended lesson in the bulk of ch. 2; then (3) in vv. 20–21, a clear word of summary explaining the expected results of heeding the father’s words. Again in ch. 3: (1) a direct address at the beginning, “My son”; (2) a lesson about trusting in the Lord; and (3) in vv. 11–12, a summary word. Over and over again this happens in Prov 1–9, ten times in total. Proverbs 1–9 is made up of ten clearly marked out mini-lectures or lessons from a father to a son.
But four sections in Prov 1–9 don’t fit this pattern of a father’s direct address to a son, an extended lesson, and a conclusion. Three of them are this morning’s texts: 1:20-33; 3:13-20; 8:1-36; the fourth, at the beginning of ch. 6, we’ll consider at another time. These passages are outliers in Prov 1–9, changes of pace, not fitting the pattern of the surrounding ten lessons from the father to the son. Commentaries use the fancy word “interludes” to name these outlier passages. That just means they’re a break from the book’s normal surrounding flow.
We can think of them in this way. Most of us have probably read a book that has special call-out boxes: the main body of the text runs along, but here and there some bit of text is set aside in a box, in a different font perhaps, highlighting a key point or illustrating some matter in a special way. You know what I’m talking about, right? Call-out boxes often have headings like “To Think About” or “Digging Deeper.” These are common in textbooks and study Bibles. They’re not the main body of the writing, but they play a role in further illuminating the main text. That’s how I think these sections of Proverbs, these outliers among the father’s formal lectures to his son, are meant to land on us readers. They’re like call-out boxes in the text.
What’s the point of these call-out boxes? What’s their purpose in Proverbs? These sections are, at least, meant to stir up passion and desire for wisdom.[ii] They do so by calling to our attention two very important features of the wisdom that this book wants us to seek.[iii]
The first and most immediately recognizable feature of wisdom called out in these sections is that Wisdom has a voice. Wisdom is personified as a woman in the call-out boxes. “Wisdom cries aloud in the street,” Prov 1:20 states, “in the markets she raises her voice.” What’s being called out about wisdom is that Wisdom is herself calling out to us. Wisdom isn’t mere “content” to contemplate, but a character with a voice to hear. Whereas in the father’s lessons we learn a lot about Wisdom, in the call-out boxes we hear Wisdom’s own voice, her speech. And what she speaks are words of wooing. In 1:22, Wisdom pleads with the simple to turn from their ways: “How long, O simple ones, will you love being simple?” In 8:32, Wisdom invites us to turn toward herself: “O sons, listen to me: blessed are those who keep my ways.” The call-out boxes in Proverbs give Wisdom herself space to actively seek us, to shout out to us, to invite us into her house to enjoy her feast of bread and wine and goodness and life.
Why do we need not only to hear about wisdom in the father’s lessons, but also to hear Wisdom’s own voice, as it were, in these call-out boxes? Why is it vital that we are not only taught about the content of wisdom, but are also subjected to the calling out of Woman Wisdom, to her shouts and cries? There are likely several good ways of answering that question.[iv] I want to highlight just one, which can be got at by telling a story about a faraway and magical place (called Minnesota), where a boy and a girl met and began spending time together.
It took me many weeks to build up the nerve to ask Jen out on our first date. I had been attracted to her for some time. What started out as friendship had grown stronger, and all that. But dare I ask her out? It was a scary thought. I would have to be clear about my intentions (who isn’t a bit afraid of transparency?); and I would have to risk rejection (who’s not afraid of rejection?). Being by nature a coward, I tried a low-risk, self-protective move, by sort-of asking her out on a sort-of date through a vague and non-committal email. Low risk; but also low reward. And I was sorely disappointed in the results (you can ask Jen for details). Eventually, I got my act together and asked her directly, “Could I take you out to a movie, you know, for a date, just you and me; because, you know, I, like, like you?” Having pity on human suffering, Jen said, “Of course.” Naturally, I was thrilled, and, with just a few hiccups, we started to hit it off, which emboldened me to continuing pursuing her. But do you know what most encouraged me to continuing courting Jen in those early days? It was when Jen called me for the first time, wanting to spend time together. Then I knew that the affection wasn’t just moving in one direction. It was being reciprocated. Yes, I had affection and desire for Jen; yes, I was pursuing her. But what made things so spectacular, what inspired my heart to greater heights, was that Jen—this godly, bold, witty, wise, thoughtful, lovely woman—was actually seeking out me, inviting me into her life. I was inspired and strengthened in my continued pursuit of her. I even wanted to become a better man myself for her, knowing that she had affection for me.
To be the object of someone’s affections is deeply ennobling and empowering. We were made for love: to love others and to be loved by others. We exist to give and to receive love. And when we receive love from someone, when we are the object of another’s desire and attention and affection, it awakens and transforms us. It emboldens us to continue our pursuit after them, and even inspires us to become better ourselves. That’s true, in general. When, in particular, the one who seeks us and sets their affection on us is one of great worth and deep value and marvelous goodness and beauty, we are all the more inspired and strengthened in our pursuit after such a one, and in our growth into similar goodness and worthiness.
I think that’s one key reason why Wisdom has a voice in Proverbs, why we need to hear her own loud cries. Proverbs wants us not just to give our minds to Wisdom but our hearts.[v] And to inspire us toward this, it shows us that wonderful Wisdom seeks us, calls us to come to her.[vi] She delights in us. That’s what 8:31 says: wisdom delights in the children of men, in us. We receive the affections of a marvelously lovely and supremely worthy person, Woman Wisdom. She pursues us. She wants us to find her. For all sorts of reasons, which the surrounding lessons in Proverbs highlight, Wisdom can be hard to get. But she’s not hard to get because she plays hard to get. No; in fact, she is, in all her wonder and beauty, openly seeking us out. And seeing that can inspire and encourage us in our pursuit of her, even if and when it gets hard.
All of this assumes that Wisdom is, in fact, lovely, beautiful, of great worth. This leads directly to a second feature of Wisdom highlighted in the call-out boxes in Proverbs. These little pauses among the lessons are meant especially to extol Wisdom’s beauty and value.[vii] The call-out boxes in Proverbs exalt the great worth of Wisdom. So in 8:11, Wisdom exalts her own worth, claiming that she is better than jewels and anything else we might desire; basically the same assertions are made in 3:13–20. Wisdom is of highest worth and value, far surpassing anything else we might desire. What makes Wisdom so worthy and valuable? There are at least three facets of Wisdom’s great worth and value that these call-out boxes in Proverbs highlight.
First, Wisdom is worthy of our affections because she is a bringer of beauty and order. Wisdom was what God himself wielded to create the world.[viii] Wisdom’s role in God’s work of creation is a main focus in these passages. Much of ch. 8 exults in Wisdom’s presence at the creation of all things. In 3:19, we are told plainly, “The Lord by wisdom founded the earth; by understanding he established the heavens.” God’s work of creation is portrayed in Proverbs (and throughout Scripture) as a grand building project, laying sure foundations, stretching out measuring lines, setting up pillars.[ix] The world is a building, a house to dwell in, built by a master builder—God almighty, Creator of heaven and earth.[x] To call God a master builder is to say that he is a wise builder. God’s building project of creation was a work done with wisdom.[xi]
As a result, the world is a world of order and beauty. God’s creation is “very good.” It is well-ordered; it’s beautiful; it brings delight.[xii] Genesis is very clear about this. So, too, is Prov 8. Notice how Prov 8:24–29 deliberately moves in elevation from low to high to low again.[xiii] In recalling the work of creation, attention moves from “the depths” and “springs of water” in v. 24, to the “mountains” and “hills” that rise upward in vv. 25–26, and in v. 27 to the heavens measured and set in place above. Then we move in vv. 28–29 from heavens, to the skies, to “the deep” and “sea” below. Our attention is guided in a careful and organized way upward and then downward. There’s a clear, purposeful order in the telling of God’s work of creation, which reflects the clear and purposeful order of everything God created. The world is well-ordered, and hence it’s beautiful and delight-giving.[xiv] And it’s that way because God created it by Wisdom.
With Wisdom, God transformed the world from a formless, empty, dark, and watery chaos, into a world of order and meaning and beauty. And that’s what happens when Wisdom is at our side, when we come to know and love and follow her more surely. When that happens, the chaos of our lives is refashioned and renamed and renewed into something of God’s order and God’s beauty. I don’t think any of us wants chaos. When life seems in disorder and disarray; when the circumstances of our lives don’t fit into our categories of truth or the narratives we thought we were living; when our lives are full to overflowing with busyness but none of it seems to fit together in harmony and we feel tugged in several competing directions; when our lives are chaos, our lives are ugly, out of joint, not the way they’re supposed to be. But Wisdom is a bringer of order and beauty. That’s why Wisdom is so worthy of our affection and pursuit.
A second reason why Wisdom is of such great worth can be discerned in ch. 8, vv. 12–21. In vv. 12–13, we find that Wisdom “dwells with prudence” and possesses “knowledge and discretion,” and that she “hates” things like “pride” and “evil” and “perverted speech.” We might think prudence, discretion, hatred of pride and evil are needed by everyone; but vv. 15–16 zero our attention in on kings. Kings rule by Wisdom, and rulers make just decrees when filled with Wisdom. Princes establish justice, according to v. 16, when they themselves are governed by Wisdom. Note that the author intentionally comes back to “justice” in v. 20. When kings by Wisdom make just decrees and govern justly in vv. 15–16, and when thusly “paths of justice” are established in v. 20, what happens for society, for the people, for the land? What happens is what vv. 17–19 in between describe: riches, honor, and a fruitfulness that is even better than gold.[xv] Wisdom is of highest worth because it helps kings rule wisely and justly and well, so that the people and the world may be freed up for fruitfulness and prosperity and gladness.[xvi]
But few of us are kings and queens and rulers. So we might assume that this aspect of Wisdom’s worth has little of direct practicality our lives. On the contrary, Wisdom’s value for ruling well and wisely has a profound and crucial bearing on everyone created in God’s image. Recall when humanity, Adam and Eve, were created in God’s image back in Genesis. For what purpose were they created? It was, Gen 1 tells us, to rule and subdue the earth, to exercise wise dominion, to guard and grow and guide on earth as wise kings and queens, so that the world might be fulfilled in God’s good purposes for it.[xvii] That’s not just Adam and Eve’s mission and meaning; it’s the mission of every human being in the image of God. Each of us has spheres of responsibility, has plots of land and place that have been entrusted to our care. Our calling as children of Adam and Eve is to rule and guide and cultivate those spheres and plots so that they might be little reflections and manifestations of the peace and flourishing of Eden.[xviii]
In drawing our attention to Wisdom’s role in ruling with justice and prudence, Proverbs is not suggesting that Wisdom is only for a select few, only for the elite. Proverbs is tapping into God’s creational purposes for everyone and for all things.[xix] It’s no coincidence, then, that the call-out boxes featuring Woman Wisdom zero in on Wisdom’s role in creating all things. Neither is it an accident that Prov 3:18 calls Wisdom “a tree of life to those who lay hold of her,” recalling the tree of life in the first garden.[xx] Edenic life, the life each of us was created for, is the life we can all grow into if we lay hold of Wisdom.[xxi] When we find and follow Wisdom, we are, as Prov 3:13 says, “blessed” (happy!), because we begin to live life the way it was meant to be lived, flourishing as the Creator intended us to flourish by ruling wisely in every sphere of responsibility.[xxii] What’s more, we not only flourish as lone individuals, but we also extend flourishing and goodness throughout the spheres we occupy. Little echoes of Edenic peace can be experienced by the people and world around us, as we live into Wisdom. Wisdom leads to true human and creational flourishing; therefore, Wisdom is of exceptional worth and value.
Third and finally, Wisdom is of great worth because she would protect us by calling us to flee destruction. Wisdom not only fills our lives with good things—beauty, order, flourishing; Wisdom also guards us from bad things, from the worst thing, God’s judgment and wrath. In fact, this is one of the most fundamental aspects of Wisdom’s great worth, which is why the first call-out box on Wisdom in ch. 1 draws our attention to it at the outset of the book.[xxiii]
In ch. 1, Wisdom calls out to the simple and foolish, to warn them of what lies ahead.[xxiv] They may scoff at Wisdom now; their own ways may seem to them a better wisdom than God’s; but in the end all such ways lead to death and judgment. And then, according vv. 24–28 of ch. 1, they who scoffed at Wisdom will themselves be scoffed at by Wisdom.[xxv] To Wisdom’s loud cries, the foolish answered not; so when their anguished cries go out to Wisdom in the judgment, Wisdom will be ironically silent. This is a consistent theme in Scripture: justice is poetic.[xxvi] The punishment fits the crime. The sins we delight in will be judged in a way that ironically mocks those sins.[xxvii] So in Scripture the great deceiver, the serpent of old, is consistently defeated by way of deception.[xxviii] Those who worship idols of stone, which cannot see or hear or speak, will in judgment be made like the idols: blind and deaf and hard as stone.[xxix] The ingrates who complain all through life that they’ve received nothing of goodness from a supposedly good God—in the just judgment, everything will, in fact, be stripped from them.[xxx] The violent will come to a violent end.[xxxi] The greedy will be devoured by their own greed.[xxxii] God gives sinners over to their sin, and that is their awful judgment. Wisdom seeks to warn us of that grim and grotesque end. Wisdom loves us and wants us to flee from destruction.
What a precious and sure friend is Wisdom! You know you have a true friend when they’re willing and able to say a hard thing in a kind pursuit after our good, when they name the ugliness of our lives and of where our lives are headed in hopes of shaking us from our foolish, sinful stupor.[xxxiii] That’s what Wisdom is doing in Prov 1. She’s trying to shake us from our stupor. She’s doing nothing less than shouting: she “cries aloud” and “raises her voice” in v. 20, so that our blocked up ears might hear something of her warning. The novelist Flannery O’Connor sagely observed, “to the hard of hearing you shout, and for the almost-blind you draw large and startling figures.”[xxxiv] That’s what Wisdom, our true friend, is doing in Prov 1.[xxxv] She is of immense worth as a friend who would warn us off of the way of death.
But the problem is, we routinely pay no attention to Wisdom’s warnings. Too often, we hear Wisdom’s cries, but we don’t really listen to them, don’t really heed them. We hear but don’t hear. That’s a characteristic of fools.[xxxvi] The simple and foolish are morally deaf. In fact, the foolish never think that they themselves are fools.[xxxvii] They think of themselves as rather wise, that the path that they are on is the true path of wisdom unto life (otherwise, why would they be on it?).[xxxviii] Fools are wise in their own eyes. The truly ungrateful don’t think of themselves as ingrates; they’re just realists who don’t have anything worth giving thanks for in their lives. Those who are consistently disrespectful and damaging to others with their words don’t think of themselves as vicious and hateful; they’re just “honest,” willing to call things as they see them. Those who habitually wield all their goods for self-protection and personal comfort are never selfish in their own eyes; they are “good stewards” and “financially wise.” Fools are never fools in their own eyes, which is precisely why they are blind to true Wisdom.
But this isn’t just some people. This is all of us. Left to ourselves, Wisdom’s cries are just so much background noise to the real important stuff of our own self-defined agendas. Or it’s all “stuff we already know”; only foolish people, not we ourselves, need to pay attention to it. What good is Wisdom’s great worth if, in the end, we are by nature blind and deaf to her invitations? We must reckon with the fact that Wisdom’s shouts are just not loud enough. The large and grotesque figures that she paints with in Prov 1 just aren’t large and startling enough. Left to ourselves, we continue to scoff as Wisdom, as we, like an ox led to slaughter, comfortably, obliviously meander down the path that leads to anguish and mocking and death.
But the good news this morning is that something even more shocking than the picture Wisdom paints in Prov 1 has happened. A shout even louder than Wisdom’s has been lifted up to the heavens; and it’s the shout “It is finished!” from the cross. The truly scandalous heart of the gospel is that the distress and anguish and mocking[xxxix] and devastation and death that we fools deserve has fallen on the one and only truly and fully wise person in history, the only one who most certainly did not deserve destruction and death. Wisdom says in Prov 1 that fools will, in judgment, be mocked and put to death. And Jesus, the only truly wise one among us, was mocked on the cross and then he died. This is the greatest of scandals. And it happened, in the loving conspiracy of Father, Son, and Spirit, in order that fools might live.
At the end of the day, it’s not Wisdom’s shout that can wake up sleepers, that can shake the simple from their stupor, that can shock the foolish into good sense. No, it is the shout of gospel and the shock of the cross of Christ alone that can heal the blind and the deaf and the stone-hearted. It is my hope and prayer that that awakening before Christ’s cross happens for us today—maybe for the first time, maybe as a wake-up call from one of the many mini-stupors of foolishness we find ourselves in through life. And being so healed and awakened, having our ears unstuffed and our eyes unsealed, coming alive to the true fear of the Lord who judges justly and mercifully, let us begin on the path of wisdom. Let us heed Wisdom’s cries and accept her invitations. Let us pay attention to this book of Proverbs with its lessons in wisdom. Let us submit ourselves to apprenticeships in Wisdom as we imitate the wiser ones among us. Let us get practice in the words and ways of wisdom, as we gather Sunday by Sunday to read and recite and enact the words of the great book of wisdom, Holy Scripture.[xl] Based on that very Scripture, I am confident that, as we begin on this path and grow into Wisdom, our lives will begin to manifest, in small but sure ways, order and beauty and flourishing and true life in the place of death to the glory of our great God and King. And to that end, let’s pray.
Father God, you tell us in your word that if any of us lacks wisdom, we can ask you and you will give it to us generously and without reproach. We thank you that this can be our confidence, because Christ has stood in our place in death and has risen again to pour out his Spirit on us. And we pray, grant us wisdom, replace our foolishness with your wisdom, for our good and growth and life, and for the life of the world you have created. Through Christ our Lord. Amen.
[i] With respect to Prov 1–9, I follow the structural discussion of Michael V. Fox, Proverbs 1–9, AB 18A (New York: Doubleday, 2000), 44–45, though instead of speaking, with Fox, of five “interludes” (1:20-33; 3:13-20; 6:1–19; 8:1-36; and 9:1–18) among the ten “lectures” from the father, I prefer to speak of four “interludes” (1:20-33; 3:13-20; 6:1–19; 8:1-36) and an “epilogue” in 9:1–18 to match the “prologue” of 1:1–7. In its basic shape and identification of breaks, this structural outlook is largely shared among commentators, with variation occurring in nomenclature for the sections and identification of the functions of each section. The one notable area of disagreement concerning the basic structural outlook offered here over the identification/role of 3:13–20/35. Here Bruce Waltke, for example, does not discern an “interlude” but another and extended lecture of the father, which “atypically begins with stanzas in praise of wisdom before the typical introduction and motivation” (Bruce K. Waltke, The Book of Proverbs, 2 vols. [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2004–2005], 1:11). In view of Waltke’s admission of the atypicality of this section, it is preferable to take the “stanzas in praise of wisdom” together as a distinct section in its own right, as, in fact, another (the second) interlude (see Richard J. Clifford, Proverbs, OTL [Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1999], 53–54, for identification of verbal and thematic evidence of the unity of 3:13–20). Waltke (following P. Overland) is correct, however, in explaining how the lecture in 3:21 clearly and verbally builds upon and is the climax of 3:13–20 (Proverbs, 1:256).
[ii] In Fox’s estimation, “The Wisdom interludes are, in a sense, midrashic commentaries on the lectures. Their placement makes sense as responses to the substance of the lectures” (Proverbs 1–9, 329, see also 354; though for the third interlude in ch. 6, Fox thinks the commentary is more on what comes later in Proverbs than on the immediately preceding context [ibid., 329n207]). For identification of several connecting threads and themes between the “interludes” and the “lectures,” see ibid., 328, also 356–57. For further discussion on the role of the interludes, see ibid., 322–59, approaching the matter in terms of compositional and conceptual origins. One need not share all of Fox’s assumptions in these matters to find immense benefit from his overall discussion. The key point, as Clifford notes, “is how close Wisdom’s voice is to the voice of the parents in 1:8–19 and to the voices of the father and mother in later chapters. They all speak with the same accents” (Proverbs, 43).
[iii] The discussion below skirts the issue of defining wisdom itself (though hints toward an appropriate answer appear throughout). Here it suffices to say that wisdom must be more than mere knowing, if wisdom is hard to attain (what Proverbs teaches is often not hard to understand or even affirm as true). Wisdom must be something more on the order of “the ability to discern right from wrong and also the desire to pursue the right … Wisdom has an attitudinal or emotional as well as an intellectual component. That is why the son is urged not only to learn wisdom but to love and desire it (4:6–8). Wisdom is a configuration of soul; it is moral character” (Fox, Proverbs 1–9, 348, emphasis original; see further 275–76). Note also the recent and more fulsome and very good definition proffered by J. de Waal Dryden: “I would define wisdom (understood as a skill) as a formed intuition that is able to make sound moral judgments and to desire what is good, virtuous, and life giving. Wisdom is more than a body of knowledge that one can transmit or possess; it is a disposition” (A Hermeneutic of Wisdom: Recovering the Formative Agency of Scripture [Grand Rapids: Baker, 2018], 245). Dryden here does not simply add to “knowledge” the adjective “practical,” as many popular treatments of wisdom are wont to do (which, in fact, doesn’t really move us out of the realm of ratiocination and the intellect, but simply specifies the content of our rational knowing to be supposedly “practical” matters). Rather, he underlines the fulsomeness of wisdom, touching, certainly, on rationality and understanding, as well as concreteness and practicalities proper (skillfulness—or “practical knowledge” on the register less of cognitive knowing and more of embodied/enacted knowing, hence skill; on the related categories of “erotic comprehension” and “bodily know-how,” see James K. A. Smith, Imagining the Kingdom: How Worship Works [Grand Rapids: Baker, 2013), while also extending into the ethical, volitional, affective, evaluative (judgment-making, both moral and aesthetic—perhaps the proper banner under which to situate the rational), and the fittingly improvisational manner of being-in-the-world.
[iv] What we are really asking here is, “Why does Proverbs personify wisdom as a woman?” There are certainly several distinct and vigorously argued answers to that question in the secondary literature! For three different approaches, see Clifford, Proverbs, 23–28; Fox, Proverbs 1–9, 331–45; and Waltke, Proverbs, 1:83–87, also 1:126–33. There are, in fact, three matters that may merge here, but which should be conceptually distinguished. (1) What kind of woman is Woman Wisdom? On this matter, Fox aptly comments, “It would be wrong to say that Lady Wisdom is a mother figure or is a lover figure. She has features of both, in different passages, according to their needs and messages. Instead, Lady Wisdom is an agglomeration of roles and activities, some of them found among human women” (Fox, Proverbs 1–9, 339, emphasis original). (2) What background, if any, is discernible for the portrayal of Woman Wisdom in Proverbs? Clifford reads Woman Wisdom against the backdrop of ANE mythology (Proverbs, 23–28). I suspect that ANE portrayals of cosmically important female figures aren’t really a universal shaping force on Proverbs’ presentation, but instead, points of contact are discernible in limited details; the “use” or “response” to ANE mythology in Proverbs is more ad hoc and occasional than constitutive of the aim and overall content. In any case, however much Woman Wisdom may be appropriately read against the backdrop of ANE female figures, it must be admitted that Proverbs has radically reshaped and reoriented the portrayal of the Woman to be lauded. And (3) is Woman Wisdom in any way of prefigurement or type of Christ? On this matter, see the discussion in Waltke, and also in the notes below.
[v] It is no accident that the book would stir readers’ affections toward Woman Wisdom, given that the book is framed as instruction for a son. Neither is it coincidence that Proverbs has much to say about finding a good wife; indeed, the book ends as a whole with an ode to the wise and worthy wife (31:10–31), completing the “narrative arc,” as it were, of the son who after ch. 9 is left with open-ended (i.e., as yet unanswered) invitations from Woman Wisdom and Woman Folly. Acquiring a worthy wife becomes, in Proverbs, not just loosely associated and analogous to acquiring Wisdom, but is one of the main ways in which pursuing, acquiring, growing in, and demonstrating Wisdom will likely become embodied for “the son.” (Christologically, Christ is not only one who may be called “wisdom incarnate,” but he demonstrates wisdom by being an obedient son who pursues a worthy bride, even as his wisdom is what forms and transforms that bride into her worthiness.) Wisdom is, then, not just “metaphorically erotic” but irreducibly erotic: where and how our eros is enacted is both an demonstration/enactment of wisdom (or foolishness) and will contribute to our growth in and free us for a life of wisdom (or foolishness). In this respect, as Peter Leithart has noted in various contexts, it is fitting that the Song of Solomon is part of the Wisdom Literature.
[vi] “Common to all three pictures [in Interludes A, D, and E] is a surprising facet of Wisdom’s personality: She wants human attention” (Fox, Proverbs 1–9, 357, emphasis original).
[vii] Cf. ibid., 47.
[viii] Curiously, Fox rejects the belief that Wisdom played an active, instrumental role in creation; rather, she is depicted as merely observing, even at play, during God’s work of creation (see Proverbs 1–9, 353–55; also 287–89). It seems Fox can only make such an assertion by quarantining ch. 8 from 3:19–20, which clearly identifies Wisdom as God’s instrument in creation. Admittedly, the portrayal of Wisdom in ch. 8 itself is certainly less “active” than it is in ch. 3; in ch. 8, Wisdom is indeed more of an observer, part of the point being that what qualifies Wisdom to be a wise builder/teacher is her apprenticeship under God (cf. Waltke, Proverbs, 1:407). (Or we could say differently, what forms Wisdom into a wise builder/teacher is the activity of worship, inasmuch as her role in Prov 8:30–31 is that of a delight-filled celebrant and worshiper of God [see ibid., 1:407, 411–12]. Worship is formation unto wisdom.) But that contextual point in ch. 8 should not be isolated from the assertions about Wisdom in 3:19–20. God created by Wisdom. At the same time, as Waltke well notes, being wielded as an instrument falls short of being active as an agent (ibid., 1:417).
The larger question at this point is the nature of Woman Wisdom in Prov 8 (and Prov 3) vis-à-vis the person and nature of God, and also necessarily the relation of that question’s answer to Christology. See Fox, Proverbs 1–9, 353, for discussion and critique of the notion that Woman Wisdom is a hypostasis of divine wisdom per se. We may be justified in perceiving in the presentation of Wisdom in Proverbs more than a mere ad hoc literary device. Fox himself is unwilling to settle for that lowest common denominator, but identifies Wisdom as a platonic universal (ibid., 355–36). But the platonic categories Fox appeals to seem foreign Proverbs. We may agree, with Fox, that there is a disciplined restraint in fully identifying Wisdom with God-self (or God-stuff?) or making Wisdom a full-fledged hypostasis of some attribute of deity (much less can we propose that Proverbs offers incipient trinitarianism). Nevertheless, there may be other avenues for tying Wisdom more closely to God so that acquiring Wisdom is, in fact, to engage with God himself and not simply with an intermediate realm of Ideas/Universals. To wit, perhaps it may be fruitful to think of Wisdom in terms not of God’s essence but of his energies. Wisdom is not some “inside God,” but is God’s word enacted skillfully. See, somewhat similarly, Waltke, Proverbs, 1:83–87, who identifies Wisdom with the (inscripturated) Proverbs of Solomon (Waltke also makes the interesting observation that “The prophetic, sapient, and divine components of her characterization so interpenetrate one another that she emerges as a unique personality whose only peer is Jesus Christ” [ibid., 1:85]; in this light, it may be significant that Wisdom is unabashedly self-exalting in the interludes); cf. also the notable characterization of Wisdom as energy by Fox, Proverbs 1–9, 294. This is my best effort to try to steer a middle way between the simple assertion that Wisdom is the pre-incarnate Christ, and that Woman Wisdom has no connection to the person of Christ (or is a loose analogy of Christ perhaps, but no more). There is enough ambiguity in Proverbs to cause me to reserve judgment in either direction. Differently, see the careful, if brief, discussion of Richard Bauckham, God Crucified: Monotheism and Christology in the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998), 20–22; Bauckham seeks to find a middle way with the category of “divine identity” (itself not free of ambiguity).
An added and thorny layer of complexity arises in the question of the sense of the hotly debated קָנָנִי in 8:22. For discussion, see the treatments in loc. in Fox, Proverbs 1–9, and Waltke, Proverbs.
[ix] Cf. Waltke, Proverbs, 1:263.
[x] It is tempting to point to אָמוֹן in 8:30 and claim that God is expressly called a master builder/artisan, but the point is highly disputed. It is slightly preferable to follow Waltke in understanding the word as a reference to Wisdom’s faithfully being present, in line with her being “daily” at God’s side and celebrating “at all times” in the following to lines of the triplet (see Waltke, Proverbs, 1:417–20).
[xi] It is perhaps significant that God’s work in creation (by Wisdom in ch. 3, and observed by Wisdom in ch. 8), portrayed in building terms (note also 3:19–20; cf. 24:3–4, and see Fox, Proverbs 1–9, 160, for comment), is followed up with the assertion in 9:1 that “Wisdom has built her house” (cf. 8:34). As the Lord in creation built by Wisdom a house, Wisdom herself is building a “house,” a new creation, into which we are invited for feasting. It is intriguing, in this respect, that what is offered to us in this “house,” this “new creation,” is bread and wine (לֶחֶם and יַיִן in 9:5). Might we say that, for us today, accepting Wisdom’s invitation (walking the way of Wisdom) involves entering into the “house” that the Lord by Wisdom is building, the “new creation” which is the church, and there sharing bread and wine? Alternatively, we might think of the “house” Wisdom builds as the book of Proverbs itself or Prov 1–9 (see Patrick W. Skehan, “The Seven Columns of Wisdom’s House in Proverbs 1–9,” CBQ 9 : 190–98; quite differently, but building with the same generic metaphor, Phyllis Trible, “Wisdom Builds a Poem: The Architecture of Proverbs 1:20–33,” JBL 94 : 509–18). Such a thought might not be entirely inappropriate if, as Waltke suggests, Wisdom is to be identified with the book of Proverbs itself (Proverbs, 1:83–87).
[xii] Eve’s temptation with respect to the world’s beauty notwithstanding, the plain fact of the biblical narrative is that what God created “was a delight to the eyes” (Gen 3:6). The glory and beauty of God’s creation is more positively extolled in several psalms (see, e.g., Pss 8 and 104; cf. Ps 19), and the enjoyment of that beauty is the point of God’s royal Sabbath rest and celebration (Gen 2:1–3).
[xiii] Fox, Proverbs 1–9, 281–82. Cf. Waltke, Proverbs, 1:406–7, who observes that the chronological ordering of 8:22–31 also is conformed to a chiasm: A: Wisdom’s origins (vv. 22–23); B: before creation (vv. 24–26); Bʹ: during/after creation (vv. 27–29); Aʹ: humanity’s origins (vv. 30–31). As in the Genesis creation account, the creation of humanity is (or is near) the goal and climax of God’s creative activity.
[xiv] Note that Wisdom “rejoices” or delights in the world God creates (8:31), and so, too, do all those who have eyes to see it in focus. Part of the good order and beauty of creation is owing to the boundaries and limits that God in wisdom set in place (note, e.g., 8:29; and see Fox, Proverbs 1–9, 284; Waltke, Proverbs, 1:416).
[xv] Waltke would separate the content and focus of vv. 17–21 from that of vv. 12–16, owing to the repetition of אֲנִי in vv. 12 and 17 (which he takes as a signal of a break), and to the framing of vv. 17–21 with reference to “those who love me” marking these verses off from the preceding (see Proverbs, 1:400, 403–4). However, the concern for “justice” sets a frame around vv. 17–19 (note √צדק in vv. 15–16 and 20, as well as the closely related מִשְׁפָּט in v. 20) and is, in fact, the context in which the prosperity spoken of in vv. 17–19 can be most fully realized. Likewise, the “hate” of v. 13 is to be paired with the “love” of vv. 17, 21, as its expected converse. The content in vv. 12–16 is, therefore, to be tightly bound to that of vv. 17–21. In any case, אֲנִי appears not only in vv. 12 and 17, which Waltke supposes to be division markers, but also in v. 14b. Indeed, all of vv. 12–17 is marked, and linked together, by a pronominal fronting of Wisdom (אֲנִי in 12; לִי in 14a; אֲנִי in 14bα; לִי in 14bβ; בִּי in 15; בִּי in 16; אֲנִי in 17).
[xvi] As Waltke well notes, for the argument of 3:14–15 and 8:18–19 to work, the assumption must be shared that silver and gold (material prosperity) are “an essential part of the full life” (Proverbs, 1:257). Far from denigrating wealth and material prosperity, Proverbs, as creational wisdom, upholds its value while properly relativizing or properly situating it in the larger context of reality.
[xvii] The convergence of wisdom, kingship, and Adamic commission in the biblical storyline is present in Genesis (note, e.g., the subject matter of the woman’s temptation which has to do with “knowledge of good and evil” and “wisdom” in Gen 3:5–6; note also the royal responsibility of naming the world aright, or wisely, given to the man in Gen 2:19–20). The convergence is even more clear from the narratives of Solomon’s early reign (see esp. 1 Kgs 3–9; for discussion, see Peter J. Leithart, 1 and 2 Kings, BTCB [Grand Rapids: Brazos, 2006], 44–45, 48–52; Stephen G. Dempster, Dominion and Dynasty: A Theology of the Hebrew Bible, NSBT 15 [Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2003], 147–48). It carries on into the prophetic messianic hope, as Isa 11:2 makes clear (cf. Fox, Proverbs 1–9, 273). In any case, the connection of wisdom and kingship should be abundantly clear from the opening declaration that Proverbs offers the wisdom of King Solomon (Prov 1:1). In terms of biblical history and canonics, it is not surprising that the era of Wisdom writings begins with the rise of the monarchy and the reigns of David and Solomon. We have moved out of the priestly (Mosaic) era of history, and into a new kingly era; thus we find that added to the Pentateuchal Scriptures is the Wisdom Literature.
Fox minimizes the royal context or social location envisioned by Proverbs preferring a more egalitarian and democratic function: “With the exception of a few passages, it treats everyday life, not the grand affairs of state, history, cult, or law” (Proverbs 1–9, 7; but note ibid., 9–10). I think, however, that the royal concerns and the implied royal/courtly social location of the book, and the book’s concern to prepare the reader for faithful fulfilling of responsibilities in the royal court, are tipped off especially by the opening Solomonic identification (for a fuller defense of this readerly inclination toward Proverbs, see Christopher B. Ansberry, Be Wise, My Son, and Make My Heart Glad: An Exploration of the Courtly Nature of the Book of Proverbs, BZAW 422 [Berlin: de Gruyter, 2011]). There may be reason to “democratize” the message of Proverbs, but the way toward that end is not one of denying the royal subject matter and concern but one that involves situating the subject matter and concern of the book into the larger canonical and theological drama.
[xviii] This is precisely how Daniel Block speaks of the portrayal of the Worthy Woman of Prov 31. Her responsibility, her sacred trust, is the cultivation and care and glorification of her household, her “microcosm of Eden.” And the worthy woman is one who “serves and guards her piece of Eden well.” See Daniel I. Block, “Marriage and Family in Ancient Israel,” in Marriage and Family in the Biblical World, ed. K. M. Campbell (Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 2003), 33–102, at 73–74.
[xix] Waltke, too, emphasizes the democratic nature of Wisdom’s address: while ostensibly focusing on kings and leaders, nevertheless, “What success princes have in their good governement Wisdom promises mutatis mutandis to all her lovers” (Proverbs, 1:402, emphasis original). To Waltke’s assertion should be added the biblical and theological foundations for it, as I have tried to touch upon in skeletal form above (see also Dempster, Dominion and Dynasty, 202).
[xx] Fox believes that “In Proverbs, the tree of life is devoid of mythological significance and serves only as a figure for vitality and healing” (Proverbs 1–9, 159). Given the clear and direct association between Wisdom and the work of creation, which cannot but recall the primeval (“mythic”) history, I suspect that the linkage of Wisdom and the “tree of life” in ch. 3 is not a mere “figure for vitality and healing” (though it is not less than that) but has a broader biblical theological significance. Indeed, as Fox himself notes, in the interlude in ch. 3 (vv. 19–20) blessing comes from both above and below (i.e., in all directions), in a veritable new creation wrought by Wisdom: “Though the welling up of springs and the descent of dew were events in the original creation, these processes continue as ongoing providential deeds that recall and renew creation” (ibid., 160). See also, and more in line with how I take 3:18, Clifford, Proverbs, 54–55; Waltke, Proverbs, 1–259–60.
[xxi] To say it differently, each of us by Wisdom can navigate the post-Edenic world in a worthy and redemptive manner. As we enter by way of the city gates (note the location in 8:1 where Wisdom chooses to raise her cries) in order, as we must, “to buy and sell, to settle disputes, and to transact politics” (Waltke, Proverbs, 1:395), if we first lay hold of Wisdom and heed her call, we will be able to undertake these human endeavors with godly, life-giving order rather the typical post-Edenic chaos unto death.
[xxii] So also 8:34. On the “macarisms” in the interludes, see Fox, Proverbs 1–9, 161. If the interludes on Wisdom are tapping into the creational purposes and designs of God for humanity, it may not be insignificant that both 3:13 and 8:34 speak of the blessedness of the “man,” the adam (אָדָם).
[xxiii] In this, Wisdom’s first soliloquy matches the father’s first lecture: “As Ramaq observed the [preceding] lecture’s warning against yielding to the summons of criminals is matched by the interlude’s warning against rebuffing the call of Wisdom” (Fox, Proverbs 1–9, 329).
[xxiv] “Other interludes will emphasize the right stance [toward wisdom]; this one seeks to scare us away from the wrong one” (Fox, Proverbs 1–9, 105).
[xxv] Wisdom’s first speech, with its imagery and violent emotion, recalls prophetic denunciations and exasperated pleas, particularly those of Jeremiah in Jer 7 and 20 (see Fox, Proverbs 1–9, 104–5, for discussion).
[xxvi] Clifford speaks of “poetic justice” (Proverbs, 43); cf. Waltke’s reference to the lex talionis (Proverbs, 1:201, 209). The גַּם of 1:26 functions to underline the corresponding nature of the retribution (see BDB).
[xxvii] In Proverbs, we can say that the judgment on those who choose to eat Woman Folly’s fare (9:13–18) is precisely to be “filled up” with what they “eat” (1:31). It may go down smoothly at first, but it is precisely the fare itself that will prove to be the serpent’s bite (see 23:29–35).
[xxviii] Note, e.g., the deception of the Canaanites by Rahab in Josh 2, and the deception of Sisera by Jael in Judg 4. Not insignificantly, in both of these instances it is a (seed of the) woman who defeats, by deception, serpentine figures.
[xxix] See, e.g., Ps 115; cf. Isa 6:9–10.
[xxx] As Jesus says, “From the one who does not have, even what he does have shall be taken away” (Matt 25:39).
[xxxi] See Ps 7:16.
[xxxii] See Prov 11:6.
[xxxiii] Wisdom’s faithful and courageous friendship is underlined all the more by the potentially compromising setting she enters into for the sake of her loved ones. With respect to the opening setting of the city gate and square (1:21), where characteristically male activities took place and where prostitutes often frequented (cf. Ezek 16:25), Fox comments, “It is, to say the least, incongruous and daring for the dignified Lady Wisdom to be frequenting such places and calling to men” (Proverbs 1–9, 98; cf. 8:1–3). Additionally, “Wisdom, as McKane notes, delivers her message where the competition is fiercest, not competition from other orators but from the everyday distractions of business, politics, and disputes. Far from being esoteric and academic, Wisdom plunges into the midst of this hustle and bustle to reach people where they are” (ibid., 267, emphasis original).
[xxxiv] Flannery O’Connor, “The Fiction Writer and His Country,” in Mystery and Manners: Occasional Prose, ed. S. Fitzgerald and R. Fitzgerald (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1969), 33–34.
[xxxv] Waltke speaks of Wisdom as using “shock tactics” that “aim to persuade the young to turn to her” (Proverbs, 1:207).
[xxxvi] Jesus himself is clear about this in Matt 7:26.
[xxxvii] Similarly, Fox comments, “one who is truly impudent or stupid is unlikely to realize that he is, so no reader would identify himself as one of the ostensive addressees” (Fox, Proverbs 1–9, 98). Again, “Real fools do not believe that they are repudiating wisdom” (ibid., 102). See also Waltke, Proverbs, 1:204, who points to Prov 26:5, 12 (cf. Job 11:12). This raises a crucial literary-theological question: does Wisdom hold out hope for her addressees in ch. 1, and if so, why? For Fox, the answer is negative; rather, the real intended audience of Wisdom’s cries proves to be the reader not the fool in the city square: “The reader overhears a condemnation of categories of people in which he does not want to be included. If he is guilty of foolish acts, he can choose to repent of his folly and so avoid joining the wisdom-haters and earning Wisdom’s aspersions and threats” (ibid., 98; cf. Clifford, Proverbs, 41–42, who comes to his conclusions through the help of emendation). I suspect that Wisdom holds out more hope than this based on a sequential reading of Prov 1–9, in which Wisdom is still (and now more evidently hopefully) calling out to the simple and foolish in ch. 8. What is most unlikely, as Waltke points out, is that Wisdom expects her discourse audience to reject her pleas, offering them only cynically and ironically (see Waltke, Proverbs, 1:205).
[xxxviii] To decide against the way of the Lord and the Lord’s wisdom (or to obliviously wander from it) is necessarily to “sanction other lifestyles” (Waltke, Proverbs, 1:210). There is no middle or neutral way. Hence, life is always a matter of the seeking out and following of some “wisdom,” and the confrontation with Proverbs necessitates a crisis of decision between “wisdoms.”
[xxxix] The “mocking” (μυκτηρίζω) of Wisdom which will, Wisdom promises, lead to a retributive mocking in the judgment (LXX Prov 1:30) corresponds directly to the “mocking” (ἐκμυκτηρίζω) that Jesus was subjected to during his Passion (see Luke 23:35).
[xl] Note Dryden’s argument in A Hermeneutic of Wisdom that Scripture as a whole is a “wisdom book.”