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10.08.2017

Wisdom for Life | Long Read

‘Where is the Life we have lost in living?

Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge?

Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?’

Those lines from T.S. Eliot’s The Rock (1934) sound almost prescient, given where we currently stand in the digital revolution. We have more knowledge than ever before, available literally at our fingertips, so we must be more enlightened. Yes? Better able to make good things of the world and live peaceably with fellow human beings. Right? Alas, the question, ‘Where can wisdom be found?’ (Job 28:12), seems as real and urgent as ever. And thankfully, the answer still rings out across the ages:

‘Where then does wisdom come from?

Where does understanding dwell?…

God understands the way to it

and he alone knows where it dwells,

for he views the ends of the earth

and sees everything under the heavens…

And he said to the human race,

‘The fear of the Lord – that is wisdom,

and to shun evil is understanding.’ (Job 28:20, 23-24, 28)

This is also made clear in the opening of the book of Proverbs, where it is said that ‘the fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge, but fools despise wisdom and instruction’ (1:7). If biblical wisdom literature is concerned with living wisely in God’s world, then fear of the Lord is the first principle of such a life, where wisdom does not begin in human autonomy, but in covenant relationship with, and deep reverence for, the Lord God; where wisdom is not merely intellectual capacity, but linked with discipline and discernment, shrewdness, and skill; where wisdom produces a certain kind of character and demonstrates itself in particular sorts of actions.

We see this worked out in the book of Proverbs.

A wisdom that calls

Throughout Proverbs 1-9, a ‘son’ is encouraged to follow the advice of his parents. Drawing on the metaphors of two ways, two houses, and two women, the young man is required to choose – as he sets out on the journey of life – between wisdom and folly.

Representing two ways to live, wisdom and folly are portrayed as women calling out to all who will listen (men and women alike) to walk in their ways, to live in their houses (1:20-33; 2:12-19; 4:4-9; 7:6-27; 8:1-36; 9:1-6, 13-18). It’s perhaps significant that they call out in public places, where the hustle and bustle of life takes place, reminding us that wisdom embraces not just private concerns but social activities connected with family, work, and community. Proverbs 1-9 thus instructs its readers about the nature of wisdom, providing a lens through which the later chapters, with their individual proverbial sayings, are to be understood.

And it’s a call that’s intensely concerned with ordinary, everyday life. Wisdom literature should lay to rest once and for all any notion that getting on with the day-by-day routine of living in the world has nothing to do with serving God. Proverbs is concerned with the whole of life and its various dimensions – how I do my job, speak about others, bring up my children, conduct my finances, treat my spouse, and so on.

A wisdom that builds

It sometimes comes as a surprise for readers of Scripture to learn that the book of Proverbs hardly ever refers to major themes of the Bible such as covenant, redemption, law, kingship, and temple. As it turns out, wisdom is rooted further back – in creation – grounded in the orderly regulation of the world by the creator God, even while acknowledging (as Job and Ecclesiastes do in different ways) that there are great mysteries woven into the fabric of life in God’s world.

So, wisdom is equated with the tree of life in Proverbs 3:18, echoing the early chapters of Genesis. Through wisdom God founded the world:

‘By wisdom the Lord laid the earth’s foundations,

by understanding he set the heavens in place;

by his knowledge the watery depths were divided,

and the clouds let drop the dew.’ (Proverbs 3:19-20; cf. 8:22-31)

In using the verbs ‘laid’ and ‘set in place’, Proverbs 3:19 portrays God as an architect and builder who establishes a strong foundation and secures in place a building’s walls or columns. And he constructs this cosmic house by his wisdom, understanding, and knowledge (3:20). Incidentally, these are the same sort of qualities of those involved in the building of the tabernacle (Exodus 31:1-3; 35:30–36:7) and the temple (1 Kings 7:14) – themselves microcosms of God’s creation, built with wisdom, understanding, and knowledge.

But then, wonderfully, Proverbs 24:3-4, using the same words, tells us that we too build in harmony with God’s own work, in God’s own way.

‘By wisdom a house is built,

and through understanding it is established;

through knowledge its rooms are filled

with rare and beautiful treasures.’ (Proverbs 23:3-4)

The wisdom used by God in building and sustaining the house of creation is the same wisdom now given to his people, to be eagerly desired by his people, in order to live wisely in his world.

Then, as the rest of the book demonstrates, the call to wisdom is applicable in different spheres of life – at the city gates and in the market squares, in our homes and in our workplaces, in our bedrooms and in our boardrooms – where God’s people are called to wise ‘building’ in God’s house of creation. Far from being removed from the rhythms of our everyday life, such ‘building’ embraces a range of skills and practices, worked out concretely in the kitchen, on the field, at the desk, in the classroom, wherever God has called us, and where the model for such activities is God’s own wise work.

We see this, especially, in the final chapter of the book.

A wisdom that works

Significantly, we reach the end of the book of Proverbs and discover that the model to emulate is not a religious ‘professional’, like a priest or a prophet or a scribe, but a woman whose faith is shown in her daily life (31:10-31). In fact, this remarkable portrayal is the Bible’s fullest description of the regular activity of an ‘ordinary’ individual – a woman who ‘fears the Lord’ (31:30), whose wisdom is demonstrated in her everyday activities of being a wife to her husband, a mother to her children, providing for her family, managing her household, engaging in international trade in cloths and textiles, negotiating the purchase of fields, looking out for the poor, and more besides!

Several scholars argue the passage draws on motifs from so-called ‘heroic’ poetry which described the mighty deeds of warriors or heroes. Verse 10 of the NIV calls her ‘a wife of noble character’; it could be translated ‘a woman of strength’, or ‘excellence’, but the word can also carry military connotations, suggesting she is to be understood as ‘a valiant woman’ or ‘a woman of valour’. The woman’s activities are thus celebrated in heroic terms. Here is a composition akin to a heroic poem about someone engaged in everyday labour! So far as we know, there is nothing like it in the ancient world.

Furthermore, in a book which begins with a portrayal of wisdom as a woman inviting people to come to her to receive insight and understanding from God, the woman of Proverbs 31:10-31 is arguably a picture of wisdom itself – and so is applicable to men as much as to women. It applies to all because it sets out the ideal of practical wisdom, involving words and deeds, operating in every sphere of life, embracing the daily rhythms of eating, drinking, working, sleeping. The book which begins with ‘the fear of the Lord’ as the beginning of wisdom (1:7) concludes with a demonstration of what it means to fear the Lord in everyday life.

Even this, though, is not the end of the story. If biblical wisdom looks back to creation, it also looks forward to Christ. In several cases, New Testament writers link ‘wisdom’ and Jesus. The opening of John’s Gospel, for instance, assigns to the logos (the ‘Word’), some of the attributes of wisdom highlighted in Proverbs 8 – describing the logos in personalised terms, as existing with God before all things, and as being God’s agent in creation. Then, in 1 Corinthians 1-2, Paul writes about the wisdom of the cross confounding the wisdom of the world, and about Christ being the ‘wisdom of God’ (1:24), ‘who has become for us wisdom from God’ (1:30). Elsewhere in his letters – in the great ‘hymns’ of Philippians 2:5-11 and Colossians 1:15-20 – Paul arguably uses wisdom theology to show that all the blessings of God’s wisdom are now mediated through Jesus, the wisdom of God. He is the one ‘in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge’ (Colossians 2:3).

Thus, as we explore biblical wisdom, we do so with the confidence that it will provide a way of orienting our everyday lives to God’s good creation and to his Son, our Lord Jesus Christ.

Author

Antony Billington