January 24, 2021

Wisdom Week: Proverbs – Life’s Baseline

God_the_GeometerWhen most people think of “wisdom” with regard to the Bible, the Book of Proverbs comes to mind. Proverbs contains observations and instructions about life at its “baseline.” It sets forth general standards of life and living well. Eugene Peterson describes its sapiential message in these terms: “Wisdom is the art of living skillfully in whatever actual conditions we find ourselves.”

Most of Proverbs is faithful to that description, particularly chapters 10-29. Scholars have noted that much of its teaching is characteristic of other general life-instruction given throughout the Ancient Near East and is not particularly religious in nature nor unique to Israel. King Solomon, who is traditionally linked with the book, is said to have been a leading sage in an international context of those who sought wisdom. The more “secular” character of much of this book may also be attributed to its composition and editing in the exilic and post-exilic periods, when Israel was learning to practice and expound her faith “among the nations.”

However, the book of Proverbs is more than just general sapiential teaching. It has been shaped theologically (especially in its extended introduction: chapters 1-9) to reflect Israel’s belief in Yahweh, the world’s good and wise Creator. The fundamental word of this book is: “The fear of the LORD is the beginning of knowledge,” and Proverbs also gives this explicit confession:

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. (Prov. 3:19-20)

It is Yahweh as Creator that forms the basis of the book’s wisdom: “…the God of Proverbs is the Creator God who in hidden ways has ordered the world and presides over that order” (Bostrom, quoted by Brueggemann, Intro to OT). Wisdom involves learning how to live consistently within that order, or as Peterson puts it, to practice “holy obedience to the ordinary.”

That is, the particular observations in the Proverbs are aimed at discerning the connections between matters that are intractably given in the nature of things, the “nature of things” being understood as the ordering of reality toward life, the disregard of which leads to death. The reasoning of the wisdom teachers is characteristically inductive, so that they reason case-by-case and eventually generalize about inescapable connections, for example between idleness and laziness, or between foolishness and poverty, or between righteousness and well-being. Eventually such convictions become established consensus opinions. They are, however, based in the evidence of facts on the ground and are subject to revision as new, concrete data occurs. Thus there is an empirical basis to this “creation theology” that is quite in contrast to the revelatory “top-down” mode of disclosure known at Mt. Sinai. The fact that the teaching is inductive and established case by case, however, makes the teaching no less formidable theologically, because wisdom asserts that the God who decrees and maintains a particular ordering of reality toward life is a sovereign beyond challenge whose will, purpose, and order cannot be defied or circumvented with impunity.

• Walter Brueggemann, An Introduction to the Old Testament: The Canon and Christian Imagination

Proverbs, then, does not fall into the category of divine “law” or “rules” but is something more than good “advice” or “counsel.” It represents the traditional, seasoned perspectives of faithful people who have paid attention to life and marked its patterns. It communicates the conventional wisdom of the community, an established way of sane, moral, and, one might say, “successful” living. God called creation “good,” and Proverbs presents snapshots of activities, habits, and ways of relating that characterize a “good life.” It also warns us against those attitudes and behaviors that have been shown to lead to trouble, ruin, and death. In Proverbs, you reap what you sow.

This is the “conventional wisdom” of “traditional morality” that most of us are familiar with, many of us feel comfortable with, and which is being lamented as lost in our society by many people of faith. Common sense, God-based, responsible day-to-day living.

I don’t want to downplay the importance of this, but canonically, we must note that this only represents one voice of wisdom in the Hebrew Bible. If this is the baseline, the conventional wisdom, it is vital to note that it has its limits.

Actually, the Book of Proverbs notes some of those limits in its own pages. Brueggemann cites von Rad, who identified six proverbs that go beyond the typical “reap what you sow” pattern and stress the “inscrutable freedom of Yahweh.”

  • Prov 16:9: The human mind plans the way, but the Lord directs the steps.
  • Prov. 19:21: The human mind may devise many plans, but it is the purpose of the Lord that will be established.
  • Prov 16:2: All one’s ways may be pure in one’s own eyes, but the Lord weighs the spirit. [Prov 21:2: All deeds are right in the sight of the doer, but the Lord weighs the heart.]
  • Prov 20:24: All our steps are ordered by the Lordhow then can we understand our own ways?
  • Prov 21:30-31: No wisdom, no understanding, no counsel, can avail against the LordThe horse is made ready for the day of battle, but the victory belongs to the Lord.

In other words, Proverbs supplies its own caveat: one can’t guarantee success just by doing wise things and making good preparations. We don’t trust in wisdom but in the Lord of wisdom, who may indeed follow courses of action that are beyond our ability to explain.

And then we must take into account the testimony which is near the conclusion of the book, “The words of Agur son of Jakeh. An oracle” (30:1) —

 Thus says the man: I am weary, O God,
    I am weary, O God. How can I prevail?
Surely I am too stupid to be human;
    I do not have human understanding.
I have not learned wisdom,
    nor have I knowledge of the holy ones.
Who has ascended to heaven and come down?
    Who has gathered the wind in the hollow of the hand?
Who has wrapped up the waters in a garment?
    Who has established all the ends of the earth?
What is the person’s name?
    And what is the name of the person’s child?
    Surely you know!

With allusions to Deuteronomy (30:12) and the personification of Wisdom in Proverbs 8 (27-30) and sounding like the great prophet Isaiah (40:12-31), Agur’s “oracle” foreshadows other wisdom teachings such as God’s words to Job from the whirlwind and the pessimism of the Preacher in Ecclesiastes. Some, like my seminary professor John Sailhamer, even see a glimpse of Messianic hope in these words (Who has ascended to heaven and come down?” — see Romans 10:6). The overall point is that wisdom is beyond Agur and he knows it. The answer to his riddle is “blowin’ in the wind,” is, in fact, holding the wind in his hands!

And so, the great debates about wisdom in the Hebrew Bible have their roots even in its most conventional collection of wisdom sayings, the Book of Proverbs.


  1. Daniel Jepsen says

    Mike, good stuff. The older I get, and the more I study the Word, the more I agree when you say the form of the Old Testament is deliberately shaped by wisdom writers.

    I can’t wait till you get to Job.

    • ” . . . the form of the Old Testament is deliberately shaped by wisdom writers.”

      I am interested in the difference between the order of the Hebrew scriptures in the Jewish canon and the Christian. I don’t know enough of the history to make an intelligent comment about it, but there it is and I believe it involves the Septuagint translation. Where along the way did the wisdom writers and editors leave their mark on that order? Did the early church pick up on that mark or did they lose the trail early on? Certainly the Jewish grouping of “Writings” puts a different spin on things than our own Christian arrangement[s].

      • Charles, I’m not sure how much of a hand the wisdom teachers had in putting together the actual shape of the canon, which is three-fold: Torah, Prophets, Writings. The Torah is foundational. The Early Prophets (historical books minus Ruth, Chronicles and the post-exilic books) are also known as the “Deuteronomic History” because they show how God’s word in the Law came to pass in the life of the nation. The Latter Prophets (Isaiah-Malachi) are obviously a collection of prophetic voices which spoke to that same period of history. The Writings are a much looser collection of books and the actual contents and order of this part of the Hebrew Bible was debated for a long time and was therefore naturally put at the back of the book.

        I do think, however, that the order is significant, and we lose some genuine insights by changing it to the more “historical” order of the Septuagint. That order likely prevailed in the early Church because it was in Greek and the Bible the early Christians were familiar with.

        You might want to go back and read a couple of earlier posts: The Purpose of the First Testament, First Things First, The Big Picture of the Torah, and The Book of the Early Prophets. These are a few posts where I deal with some things related to the order of the books and the purpose of the larger sections of the Hebrew Bible.

  2. Very telling that wisdom is referred to in the feminine. Wisdom is not the ability to recite scripture from memorization and elaborate upon doctrine. That’s all sort of masculine. Wisdom is all of the in between stuff. The shading, the nuance. It’s the silence in between. It is the apperception of will, desire, fear. No amount of memorization creates wisdom. It doesn’t hurt but wisdom is not rote knowledge of data. It is the bringing of life to the world. It’s not the ability to create a match or even to use that match to create a fire. It is the use of that fire to sustain life by warming a home and cooking a meal. Wisdom is subtlety and finesse that enjoins darkness and transforms it to light. Blessed are the peacemakers.

  3. Very interesting essay, Chaplain Mike. Thank you.

    I guess, to sum up Proverbs in the words of one who didn’t: “The best thing is to work hard and play by the rules.” But, as Proverbs also says and you point out: Even then, you’re not guaranteed success.

    Back sometime in the last century, I taught a class on The Bible as Literature. I don’t know if my students learned much, but I did, and was fascinated by it. One thing I learned (and I’m sure you already know) was that there is a tension in the Old Testament between the Wisdom Literature (‘work hard and play by the rules’) and the Prophetic Literature. The prophets were not as concerned with playing by the rules, as they were with having the right spirit toward God. Sometimes the prophets were just angry about the Hebrews’ propensity for idol worship, but other prophets, such as Amos, were angry about the people wealthy (who presumably had played by the rules) and were ignoring the poor and selling out “justice.”

    More later, maybe. But I found that insight and that tension very interesting, and I understand why other religions such as Islam and Bahai see Jesus as a prophet.

    Good stuff.

    • I don’t understand how another religion can view Jesus as a prophet and ignore His claims of deity. But I digress…

      • There were actually early Christians who considered Jesus as a righteous prophet and not divine. For example, the Ebionites and the Theodotians. There was much diversity of thought about who Jesus was early on.

  4. I’ve considered Proverbs 30:2 my life verse for quite some time now.

  5. “In other words, Proverbs supplies its own caveat: one can’t guarantee success just by doing wise things and making good preparations.”

    Couldn’t the opposite also be true thanks to Jesus? In other words, we can live a life without wisdom and making foolish decisions and end up in the same place as those with wisdom.

    As Matt B. Redmond puts it:

    “The gospel is simple enough for a child to believe. And enough for a criminal in his final moments.”

    This is why your next sentence sums things up so well:

    ” We don’t trust in wisdom but in the Lord of wisdom, who may indeed follow courses of action that are beyond our ability to explain.”

    This is a wonderful thing. Thanks be to Jesus.

  6. “Couldn’t the opposite also be true thanks to Jesus? In other words, we can live a life without wisdom and making foolish decisions and end up in the same place as those with wisdom.”

    Oh my goodness, I hope so! I was only half kidding about Proverbs 30:2 being my life verse; I’ve made so many foolish decisions and choices in my life that I often despair of ever getting it right. I suppose it is why I am so drawn to writers such as Brennan Manning and others of his ilk. He writes in the intro to “The Ragamuffin Gospel” that it is written:

    “…for the bedraggled, beat up, and burnt-out. It is for the sorely burdened who are still shifting the heavy suitcase from one hand to the other. It is for the wobbly and weak-kneed who know they don’t have it all together and are too proud to accept the handout of amazing grace. It is for inconsistent, unsteady disciples whose cheese is falling off their cracker. It is for poor, weak, sinful men and women with hereditary faults and limited talents. It is for earthen vessels who shuffle along on feet of clay. It is for the bent and the bruised who feel that their lives are a grave disappointment to God. It is for smart people who know they are stupid and honest disciples who admit they are scalawags. [It is for] anyone who has grown weary and discouraged along the Way.”

    That paragraph describes me to a tee; thanks be to God that “we don’t trust in wisdom but in the Lord of wisdom.”

    Thanks for pointing that out, Joel.

  7. “Scholars have noted that much of its teaching is characteristic of other general life-instruction given throughout the Ancient Near East and is not particularly religious in nature nor unique to Israel.”

    Nor is Proverbs teaching unique to the ANE or Israel; its lessons are basic life lessons we still try to instill in our young: choose your friends wisely, get a good education, work hard, be smart about your finances, enjoy your friends and family. These principles are still appropriate to living a “good life”.

    Where we tend to go off the rails in the teaching and preaching of Proverbs (and other wisdom literature) is that by behaving in these ways we earn God’s favor and the flip side, if we don’t earn his favor we suffer his wrath, or at the least, his displeasure and “discipline”.

  8. In my view it would be a mistake to take away from today’s post the idea that the Wisdom tradition is sort of like your granny telling you to work hard and follow the rules and all will be well. Yes, some of Proverbs says this, but it’s all thru the Torah as well and elsewhere, along with observations that apparently this just doesn’t always work. Another part of the Wisdom tradition tells you to eat, drink, and be merry because we’re all going to die anyway. Perhaps the ultimate for us is the idea that Jesus himself personified Wisdom in a much more real way than metaphor. I’m guessing CM has a lot more in store for us here the next several days.

    • Perhaps the ultimate for us is the idea that Jesus himself personified Wisdom in a much more real way than metaphor.

      Jesus personified how Wisdom gets you crucified at 33.

  9. I love this proverb:

    If the fool would persist in his folly he would become wise.

    I can’t give you chapter and verse, because it’s not biblical.

    There is another that is like unto it:

    The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom

    And another:

    A cut worm forgives the plough

  10. In the block quote from Brueggemann I was struck by the phase “The reasoning of the wisdom teachers is characteristically inductive”. Science, well done, is also based on inductive reasoning. It may – more accurately usually – be written up as deductive reasoning, but to learn something new inductive reasoning is needed. While the core logic of the wisdom authors may be inductive, proverbs doesn’t get stated inductively. We get the conclusions without the reasoning that led to them.

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