Wisdom, Old and New

I have often been struck by the two kinds of wisdom portrayed in Proverbs, both represented in the first chapter.  In vv. 1-19, the writer presents the motif of a parent instructing a child in the principles of right and sensible living, admonishing the child “to receive instruction in wise dealing, in righteousness, justice, and equity” (v.3).  Then, in vv. 20-33, Wisdom is personified, warning those who will not listen to her that she will “laugh at your calamity; I will mock when terror strikes you” (v.26).  Chapter 2 and the first 13 verses of chapter 3 go back to the practical advice to heed the parent’s counsel and live wisely; but 3:14-20 is another rich personification of Wisdom, this time with connections to the very Person of God and the creation of the world.  From there through chapter 9, the speaker alternates between practical advice and the words of personified Wisdom, in addition providing contrast between the idealized femininity of Wisdom and the alluring dangers of the Loose Woman of the flesh.  The book then concludes with the well-known “Worthy Woman” in chapter 31, in whom all of the practical virtues are fully realized, in contrast to the Loose Woman warned against in earlier chapters.

In view of Solomon’s being regarded as the major writer and probably the compiler of Proverbs, the structure of the book may be seen as a reflection of the ironies of his life.  First, the frequency with which sections and individual verses depict a father addressing a son seems not to have been matched in the life of Solomon’s own son, Rheoboam, who turned out to be a fool.  Not only did he ignore his father’s instruction, after Solomon’s death, he was unwilling to listen to the advice of his older counselors and opted instead to do as he was advised by his young companions.  His disastrous reign may well also show that he paid more attention to his father’s apostasy from God in his later life than to his wise teachings in his prime.  Indeed, Solomon didn’t follow his own advice to beware of the lure of godless women, since he allowed his many foreign and pagan wives to turn his heart away from God (I Kings 11:1-8).

The common-sense wisdom Solomon set forth in Proverbs was not reinforced by dedication to the deep Wisdom of God, personified in several places, but particularly and most thoroughly in Prov. 3:13-20 and 8:1 through 9:12.  Solomon reports faithfully what the Lord revealed to him as a result of his early commitment to serving God in humility (I Kings 3:5-14), but he turned out to be the preacher who didn’t live according to his own divinely inspired words.  When he was old, he grew unfaithful to Lady Wisdom and forsook her for the kind of woman described in Prov. 7: 21-23: “With much seductive speech she persuades him; with her smooth talk she compels him.  All at once he follows her, as an ox goes to the slaughter, or a stag is caught fast till an arrow pierces its liver; as a bird rushes into a snare; he does not know that it will cost him his life.”  In the book of Ecclesiastes, we have the voice of the jaded, cynical old King Solomon, who has had everything the heart could desire on earth, but now finds himself saying, “Vanity, vanity, all is vanity!”  His wisdom at this point serves merely to show the shallowness of all he has striven for.

In the New Testament, the humanistic wisdom articulated by Solomon is seen as a potential stumbling block to hearing and accepting the deeper wisdom of God.  Jesus at one point thanks His Father that through his parables heaven’s wisdom has been hidden from the worldly wise and revealed to the simple and unsophisticated (Matt. 11:25).   He also tells parables depicting wise and foolish characters: the wise man builds on a rock, the foolish man on sand; the wise virgins bring enough oil in their lamps, the foolish ones run short; the foolish farmer builds bigger barns, only to die the next day.  But the application Jesus intends is not merely that builders should choose a proper foundation, nor that those keeping night time vigil should make sure their lamps don’t run dry, nor that prosperous farmers should be cautious about building big barns.  Rather, He is teaching the larger, deeper lesson that we must see things from God’s perspective and be attuned to how He wants us to order our lives.

This latter emphasis on the New Covenant understanding of wisdom is articulated most clearly in I Cor. 2 and the Epistle of James.  Paul’s initial words in I Corinthians disavow any interest in worldly wisdom (1:17) and he  goes on to show how the Gospel message embodies truths that fly in the face of human wisdom:

Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, it pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe.  For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles. (1 Cor. 1:20-24)

Here we have a new definition of the relationship between the wisdom of God and the wisdom of man, and a distancing of God’s deep wisdom from mere human wisdom, even the special human wisdom given to Solomon by God.  For wisdom is no longer just following practical common sense, but the full meaning of the deep wisdom presented in Lady Wisdom in Proverbs.  Under the New Covenant, the full experience of God’s deep Wisdom comes through our “life in Christ Jesus, whom God made our wisdom and our righteousness and sanctification and redemption” (I Cor. 1:30).

This is the backdrop of the description of heavenly wisdom given in the Epistle of James:

Who is wise and understanding among you?  By his good conduct let him show his works in the meekness of wisdom.   But if you have bitter jealousy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast and be false to the truth. This is not  the wisdom that comes down from above, but is earthly, unspiritual, demonic.  For where jealousy and selfish ambition exist, there will be disorder and every vile practice.  But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, open to reason,  full of mercy and good fruits, impartial and  sincere. (James 3:13-18)

Thus, with both Paul and James, the contrast is not between earthly wisdom and foolishness, but between earthly wisdom and heavenly wisdom.   In this, they flesh out Jesus’ praise to the Father for using the veil of the parables to reveal His deep truth to people who are not worldly wise.  And the deepest truth of all is that all practical wisdom, even that embodied in the book of Proverbs, is transcended by the “foolish” wisdom of the crucified Christ.


Image: By Luca Giordano - Web Gallery of Art:   Image  Info about artwork, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=15883941


Elton Higgs

Dr. Elton Higgs was a faculty member in the English department of the University of Michigan-Dearborn from 1965-2001. Having retired from UM-D as Prof. of English in 2001, he now lives with his wife and adult daughter in Jackson, MI.. He has published scholarly articles on Chaucer, Langland, the Pearl Poet, Shakespeare, and Milton. His self-published Collected Poems is online at Lulu.com. He also published a couple dozen short articles in religious journals. (Ed.: Dr. Higgs was the most important mentor during undergrad for the creator of this website, and his influence was inestimable; it's thrilling to welcome this dear friend onboard.)