The lectionary is currently providing selections of Hebrew Scripture texts which focus on Wisdom. This focus started some weeks back, with the account, in 1 Kings 3:9–12, of Solomon praying for wisdom and discernment, and God responding by promising to deliver this gift.
After then recounting the prayer of Solomon at the opening of the Temple (1 Kings 8:22–43), we were offered a small section (2:8–13) from the Song of Songs. This work is attributed to King Solomon 1:1), but most likely it was not actually written by him. (It is also known as the Song of Solomon).
The following three Sundays provide selections from Proverbs, another work attributed to Solomon (Prov 1:1; 10:1; 25:1)—although, once again, most likely not written or compiled by him. The book contains a series of short, pithy proverbs (thus, its name), an example of which is provided in the excerpts from chapter 22 (verses 1–2, 8–9, 22–23; a most curious collection of unrelated sayings!).
Wisdom accosts her audience as “simple ones” (1:22, 32) and accuses them of ignoring all that she offers (1:24–25, 30). Wisdom therefore mocks the panic-stricken and laughs at the calamities they experience (1:26), “because they hated knowledge and did not choose the fear of the Lord” (1:29). This is full-on rhetoric, uncompromising speech, from a very feisty female character.
The figure of Wisdom is described in some detail in the passage that is offered this Sunday, in which Wisdom is portrayed in dramatic fashion. She “cries out in the street; in the squares she raises her voice; at the busiest corner she cries out; at the entrance of the city gates, she speaks” (Prov 1:20–21). The city gates, of course, is the place where the (male) elders of the town would sit, to receive matters for judgement, to apply the details of the Law, day after day.
She accosts her audience as “simple ones” (1:22, 32) and accuses them of ignoring all that she offers (1:24–25, 30). Wisdom therefore mocks the panic-stricken and laughs at the calamities they experience (1:26), “because they hated knowledge and did not choose the fear of the Lord” (1:29). This is full-on rhetoric, uncompromising speech, from a very feisty female character.
The lectionary also provides the full section of text from the last chapter of Proverbs (31:10–(31), where the eshet hayil (the woman of valour) is praised. While “her husband is known in the city gates, taking his seat among the elders of the land” (31:23)—to spend hours each day, no doubt, debating the finer points of the Law—this woman is energetically running her household, undertaking multiple daily tasks (spinning, making clothing, preparing meals), as well as overseeing the vineyard and the animals, assisting the poor and needy, running a successful merchandise business, undertaking commercial transactions—and, apparently, keeping her husband happy. “Many women have done excellently, but you surpass them all”, he says, admiringly (31:29).
There is more to her than is revealed in this initial portrayal, however. Wisdom is highlighted in Proverbs 8, which affirms that Wisdom was present with God at creation. In a clear retelling of the creation narrative of Genesis 1, Wisdom declares, “the Lord created me at the beginning of his work, the first of his acts of long ago … when he established the heavens, I was there … when he marked out the foundations of the earth, then I was beside him, like a master worker; and I was daily his delight, rejoicing before him always, rejoicing in his inhabited world and delighting in the human race” (Prov 8:22–31). Wisdom was the key creative force at work beside God, in conjunction with God, in creation the world.
The woman of valour is to be praised, for she is “a woman who fears the Lord” (31:30). And in the midst of all of this, “she opens her mouth with wisdom, and the teaching of kindness is on her tongue” (31:26).
“The fear of the Lord”, of course, is the central feature of the teachings of Wisdom, both in Proverbs (1:7, 29; 2:5; 9:10; 14:26–27; 15:33; 19:23; 23:17), and also in other works of wisdom literature (Eccles 5:7; 8:12–13; Job 28:28; 37:23–24; Sir 1:11–20, 27; 19:20; 21:11).
The lectionary continues on with further works drawn from the wisdom literature, part of the third main section of Hebrew Scripture (what the Jews call Kethuvim, or “the writings”). There are excerpts from Esther, Job, and Ruth over the ensuing seven Sundays.
Wisdom plays a key role in two further works, not included in the Protestant canon, but recognised as scripture within Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches. Wisdom appears in the book of Sirach, attributed to one Jesus, son of Eleanor, son of Sirach, of Jerusalem (50:27). In this book, Wisdom gives knowledge, makes demands of those seeking instruction from her, imposes her yoke and fetters on her students, and then offers rest.
Early in the book, the invitation is extended to engage with Wisdom. “Put your feet into her fetters, and your neck into her collar. Bend your shoulders and carry her, and do not fret under her bonds. Come to her with all your soul, and keep her ways with all your might. Search out and seek, and she will become known to you; and when you get hold of her, do not let her go. For at last you will find the rest she gives, and she will be changed into joy for you.” (Sir 6:24–28).
At the very end of the book, Wisdom extends her invitation: “Draw near to me, you who are uneducated, and lodge in the house of instruction. Why do you say you are lacking in these things, and why do you endure such great thirst? I opened my mouth and said, ‘Acquire wisdom for yourselves without money. Put your neck under her yoke, and let your souls receive instruction; it is to be found close by’.” (Sir 51:23–26).
In Sirach 24, Wisdom is portrayed as the intermediary assisting God at creation and throughout salvation history. “Wisdom praises herself, and tells of her glory in the midst of her people. In the assembly of the Most High she opens her mouth, and in the presence of his hosts she tells of her glory: ‘I came forth from the mouth of the Most High, and covered the earth like a mist. I dwelt in the highest heavens, and my throne was in a pillar of cloud. Alone I compassed the vault of heaven and traversed the depths of the abyss” (Sir 24:1–4). Wisdom played a crucial role in creation, surveying the whole scope of the created order for God.
She continues with a description of how she became connected specifically with Israel. “Then the Creator of all things gave me a command, and my Creator chose the place for my tent. He said, ‘Make your dwelling in Jacob, and in Israel receive your inheritance.’” (Sir 24:1–8). He link with the chosen people was secured.
Another document which highlights the role of Wisdom is the work known as the Wisdom of Solomon—a work which the anonymous author tells of his own search for Wisdom. “I prayed, and understanding was given me; I called on God, and the spirit of wisdom came to me”, the author declares (Wis Sol 7:7), a passage which echoes the plea of King Solomon, “Give your servant therefore an understanding mind to govern your people, able to discern between good and evil; for who can govern this your great peoples” (1 Kings 3:9).
The description of Wisdom that is given in this book is more philosophical than biblical; it owes much to the developing middle platonic philosophy of the late Hellenistic period. Wisdom is described as being “more mobile than any motion, because of her pureness she pervades and penetrates all things” (7:24).
Furthermore, it is said that “she is a breath of the power of God, and a pure emanation of the glory of the Almighty” (7:25). She reflects a most dazzling sequence of attributes: “there is in her a spirit that is intelligent, holy, unique, manifold, subtle, mobile, clear, unpolluted, distinct, invulnerable, loving the good, keen, irresistible, beneficent, humane, steadfast, sure, free from anxiety, all-powerful, overseeing all, and penetrating through all spirits that are intelligent, pure, and altogether subtle” (Wis Sol 7:22–24). The work continues for chapter upon chapter, extolling the virtues of Wisdom, praising her glory and insight and knowledge.
The book ends with an extended recitation of the role that Wisdom played in the mighty acts of God, beginning with Adam (10:1-2), and moving through Noah (10:4), Moses and the Exodus (10:15), across the Red Sea. Through Wisdom, God has “exalted and glorified your people, and you have not neglected to help them at all times and in all places” (19:22).
And, of course, Wisdom, the teacher of understanding and the co-worker of God in creation, appears in another form in the New Testament: in the figure of Jesus, Teacher supreme, Word of God present and active from the very moment of creation. She is an important figure to understand.