I’ve been thinking a lot about wisdom lately, and as I’ve done so, have come to a fresh appreciation for its centrality in the bible. I’ve been working through the flagship wisdom book, Proverbs, in my personal reading.
It’s a book that, unfortunately, can get largely overlooked by evangelicals, except for a couple of ‘purple passage’ excerpts like Prov 1:1-7, with its famous catch-cry, ‘The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom,’ the Proverbs 31 woman, or random entertaining gems like Prov 21:9, ‘Better to live on a corner of the roof than share a house with a quarrelsome wife.’
There are a few reasons for this neglect of Proverbs. Perhaps most significant in evangelical circles is that it can be very difficult to see any structure, sense, or flow to the book, aside from the first and last few chapters. The proverbs that make up the main part of the book can appear to be random in their arrangement (and sometimes their content!), without any logical connection between them. This makes our usual practice of exegetical sermons, working sequentially through a text, very difficult, as there doesn’t appear to be a theme to follow. The book is also quite large (31 chapters), and forming a coherent teaching series on the whole of Proverbs can seem just too complex to consider. As a result, the book is rarely taught in depth, hence we are not familiar with it.
Compounding this problem, critical academic studies on Proverbs have tended to make suggestions that leave evangelicals even more uncomfortable with it. These studies tended to drive a wedge between wisdom literature and Israel’s ‘salvation history’ literature (upon which Biblical Theology, characteristic of the Sydney Anglican evangelical approach to understanding the Bible is built). Some suggested that wisdom literature originated from pagan sources, and represented ‘natural theology’: human attempts to deduce God from creation, rather than the divine revelation of God characteristic of Israel’s historic, covenantal faith. The parallels between some of Proverbs and other ancient near eastern wisdom sources in parts of the book were often cited as evidence.
In a variation on this, other significant scholars suggested that Proverbs exhibits a simplistic cause-and-effect approach to life and blessing: ‘If you follow these rules, you will be blessed (‘the wise’). If you don’t, you won’t (‘the fool’).’ This view of Proverbs can make it sound like the Prosperity Gospel. In light of all this, it is no wonder that evangelicals might have something of an allergic reaction to the book, or at the least feel the need to ‘correct’ the parts of Proverbs felt to be especially in this vein.
A third branch of study suggests a ‘story’ or downward trajectory to the OT wisdom literature. According to this view, Proverbs sets up a naïve, cause-and-effect wisdom ‘tradition:’ ‘Blessings crown the head of the righteous, but violence overwhelms the wicked’ (Prov 10:3). However, because this didn’t work in the real experience of life, Job was written to question Proverb’s simplistic triumphalism: ‘I cry out to you, God, but you do not answer; I stand up, but you merely look at me.’ Then Ecclesiastes completes the journey of completely collapsing its neat worldview into the Teacher’s, ‘Meaningless! Meaningless! Utterly Meaningless! Everything is meaningless.’ However, this actually sets up the need for Jesus, the true NT wisdom of God, who in 1 Cor 1 renders every worldly wisdom foolish, including that set up by Proverbs.
My own perspective is that this ‘gospel wisdom narrative’ is both unhelpful and inaccurate, not least because a closer reading of Proverbs reveals far more varied perspectives on life than simply ‘do this and life will go well.’ Nevertheless, it is a further reason why Proverbs receives little attention in evangelical teaching and preaching. However, we neglect this book to our great loss. It is one of the great treasures of God’s Word and, for me, the one that has helped me grow most as a Christian in recent times.
The book is obviously about wisdom. But what is wisdom? How do we define it? For many people, the word conjures up an image of someone old, sitting around thinking deep thoughts, and making up deep ways to say it. Needless to say, this is neither particularly relevant nor beneficial for your average person. And it is not what the Bible means by wisdom. One of the best definitions I have heard (in a sermon I was listening to several years ago) is that wisdom is recognising reality, and living in line with it. Or, to put it another way, it is understanding how the world works, so you understand how to live in it, for joy and satisfaction. It is not primarily philosophical, it is practical. It is not just for old people, it is for everyone. It is getting a right perspective on life, so you can make decisions that will lead to that sense of satisfaction and wholeness that we all yearn for.
This is what the book of Proverbs invites us to. It examines the entire created order – all facets of life and experience – and says everything in this world, even the things affected by the fall, testifies powerfully to the glory of God, our deep need to live in him and for him, and the great joy that it is to do so. Although it may initially seem like a jumbled web of stuff, from the right angle you can see that there is in fact a structure and logic, holding it all together beautifully. And right at the heart of the web, holding all its strands together, is Prov 3:3:
Let love and faithfulness never leave you;
Bind them around your neck,
Write them on the tablet of your heart.
Then you will win favour and a good name
In the sight of God and man
This is the theological heart of the book, and its main message in a nutshell. It is what the entire book seeks to build in its readers and hearers. It made me think of a recent occasion, trying to drop one of my kids in his program at a Christian conference. I was carrying him as we walked towards the drop off point. With each step closer, his arms tighten around my neck. By the time we got to the sign-in desk, he was holding on so desperately, it was like I needed a can opener to pry him off me. After the session, I asked him if he had a good time. He replied that he did, but as we left, his arms shot up and latched around my neck again. When I picked him up, he grabbed my chin, looked me square in the eye, and said, ‘Dad, never leave me again.’
Now as it happens, the next day he was absolutely fine going to the program. But our little interchange helped me feel the force of the words in Prov 3:3. There is something we ought to cling to desperately with our whole lives, and never let it leave us: love and faithfulness. This is what Proverbs says we ought to fill our lives with, inside (‘write them on the tablet of your heart’) and out (‘bind them around your neck’). And why are these two characteristics so critical? Because they are what the universe revolves around, and exists to display.
‘Love and faithfulness’ is the Bible’s summary of God’s character and glory (Exod 34:6). And creation was made for the glory of God – that is, to display and testify that its maker is not selfish or capricious, but loving and faithful, merciful and just, gracious and true. But more than that, the world was not made simply to testify to these things in God. The world was also made to work by them. That’s why lovelessness, and faithlessness, are such destructive forces in the world, because they stand at the heart of sin. But it is also why the apostle John, for example, describes Jesus’ coming into the world as ‘full of grace and truth’ (Jn 1:14). The gospel that stands at the heart of all God’s purposes for the world, is the gospel of the love and faithfulness of Jesus. This is especially so in the cross – his death was both the love of God, offering mercy, forgiveness and reconciliation to ruined sinners, and the faithfulness of God, in not ignoring sin or merely sweeping it under the carpet, but judging it properly, so we know we are truly and justly justified. The gospel is the message of God’s love and faithfulness in dealing with sin.
Returning to the message of Proverbs, if wisdom is understanding the world works by love and faithfulness (and breaks down when these are absent), then its observations, reflections and instructions are intended to shape our lives around these characteristics, and bring home to us how vital it is live ‘in tune’ with our maker, so he might give us joy. Every aspect of our lives ought to be an expression of first receiving, then reflecting, and returning God’s love and faithfulness to us.
This may mean, for example, you need to examine how God’s love for you is reflected in your love to others. A little while ago I went through a period of particular pressure, which gave me a new appreciation for Prov 12:25, ‘Anxiety weighs down the heart, but a kind word cheers it up.’ On reflection, God graciously provided many brothers and sisters to speak kind words to me in that time. Some of them are probably unaware of just how important what they said was, but the experience has spurred me to think about how my words to others can be driven more by kindness and consideration in turn.
Or perhaps faithfulness may be your challenge. On this front, I’ve been especially struck by Prov 10:9: ‘Whoever walks in integrity walks securely, but whoever takes crooked paths will be found out.’ As I’ve reflected on this verse, it’s granted a new awareness of the many opportunities to take shortcuts that come across my path, and how how hard fighting the temptation to take them really is. But I’m sure all of us are familiar with the way fear of being exposed can gnaw away at us, and rob us of the joy we imagined would come through the superficial, and very fragile, victory won by deceit.
Whatever the case, once one sees that Proverbs is about this sort of wisdom – shaping our lives around the love and faithfulness of God – it is a wonderful source of energy for the Christian life. The entire creation becomes an illustration of the glorious character of God, as we see again and again that love and faithfulness build and give life, while lovelessness and faithlessness destroy and kill. But this illustration invites not mere observation, but observation that ought to lead to transformation. We should not just give assent that the world works by love and faithfulness – we should grab them tight, look them square in the eye, and say, ‘Never leave me again.’ May God strengthen us to do so.