Opening The Old Testament
The Eternal Search for Wisdom: Reflections on Proverbs 1:20-33
September 16, 2012
Proverbs is a most peculiar book of our Bible. It is filled with very practical advice about community living; e.g. "A soft answer turns away wrath, while a harsh word stirs up anger" (Prov. 15:1). In addition it has a vast array of theological/philosophical reflections revolving around the twinned questions of wisdom and foolishness; e.g. "The mind of one who has understanding seeks knowledge, but the mouths of fools feed on folly" (Prov. 15:14). Someone has termed such sayings "freeze-dried knowledge." In other words, once one thaws out these phrases, multiple possibilities lie in the puddles that remain.
Is it always true that "a soft answer turns away wrath"? Hardly! Consider Neville Chamberlain's announcement of "peace in our time," after he had answered a belligerent Adolf Hitler with several kinds of soft words; far from turning the wrath, they merely energized the dictator to further horrifying anger. As for the second example above, the definitions of the words "understanding, knowledge, and folly" are deeply contested in any era, and thus are no guarantees of right choices for right living.
What the authors of Proverbs were after appeared to be maxims and sayings that can serve us as reflections on life that may lead to richer and fuller living. Some of them were steeped in the theology of Israel, while others appear to be wholly secular. However, it is important to note just how the book was organized by its compilers. The early chapters provide an overtly theological context for those later sayings that, while they may seem to be secular advice only or available at any Rotary Club meeting, are in fact maxims offered under the umbrella of a very clear worldview that can never be forgotten.
And that worldview is summarized best in Proverbs 1:7: "The fear of YHWH is the beginning of knowledge; fools despise wisdom and instruction." The first part of this sentence is crucial. The word "fear" may also be translated "awe" or even on occasion "worship." Hence, what the poet suggests is that all knowledge, all searches for understanding and right thinking, must begin with the proper relationship to YHWH, a relationship that places YHWH at the top of the pyramid while we are found below the peak, adoring and worshipping the God who transcends all.
If knowledge is pursued apart from this proper relationship to the One who gave the knowledge, the result, as Genesis 3 so hilariously puts is, is fig leaf clothes—scratchy, unsatisfactory coverings for those who would seek the knowledge only God possesses. This, of course, does not at all mean that we humans should give up the search for knowledge; we cannot do such a thing, since our big brains drive us ever forward to new and exciting frontiers of understanding. But when we seek knowledge apart from God, we run the dangerous risk of making the search only for ourselves, for our own benefits, forgetting the demands of YHWH for justice for all.
When we do not seek knowledge in the light of God, we in fact become fools who despise both "wisdom and understanding." "Wisdom" is a crucial word in the world of the Proverbs. In Hebrew it is chocmah, and its definition is notoriously slippery. I would propose that the best metaphor for the word may be the glue that holds everything together. Like the older Egyptian word, ma'at, chocmah is the very foundation stone of all that is. To search for Wisdom is to search for the central meaning and purpose for life and living. Thus, to despise Wisdom is the essence of foolishness, the refusal to look deeply into the heart of things in order to discover what YHWH has done to create the world and to order it for the benefit of all of God's creatures. Once one has despised Wisdom, one has then completely cut oneself off from any true understanding, for no genuine understanding is possible apart from the "fear of YHWH."
John C. Holbert is the Lois Craddock Perkins Professor Emeritus of Homiletics at Perkins School of Theology in Dallas, TX.