The Problem with Wisdom, Part One

The Problem with Wisdom, Part One August 17, 2023

In much wisdom there is much grief, and he who increases knowledge increases sorrow. Ecclesiastes 1:18

The last time I was lector at church, the reading from the Jewish scriptures was a very cool passage from the book of Proverbs. Wisdom is introduced at the beginning of the reading from chapter 8: “At the crossroads she takes her stand . . . at the entrance of the portals she cries out.” Who is Wisdom, and what does she have to say?

Wisdom describes herself as present with God before the earth was formed, created by God “at the beginning of his works . . . Ages ago I was set up, before the beginning of the earth.” She was present when God throughout the events described in Genesis 1, as God established the heavens, separated the heavens from the earth, and “marked out the foundations of the earth.” Wisdom seems to have been God’s sidekick and assistant, “beside him, like a master worker,” ultimately “rejoicing in his inhabited world and delighting in the human race.” Wisdom sounds like a great person.

But who exactly is she? Given her review of God’s creative activity in Proverbs, it is easy to return to the second verse of the Bible in which “the Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters” before God says “Let there be light” in the very next verse. Is Wisdom the third member of the Trinity? I’ll let the theologians fight over that one, but I would like to think so. I’ve thought that the Holy Spirit is female for a long time.

I was particularly pleased that I got to read from Proverbs because although it is not one of the books of the Bible that I’ve spent a ton of time in over the years, my summer reading has recently and unexpectedly plopped me into Proverbs. Quite the coincidenceBut over the past decade or so, I have become far more aware of the importance of what I used to dismiss as “coincidence.” When the same person, idea, or text unexpectedly keeps popping up, I’ve learned after a half century or so of ignoring to actually pay attention.

Over the past months I have read several books by Peter Enns, a professor of Biblical Studies at Eastern University in Pennsylvania; he is also the cohost of The Bible for Normal People, “the only God-ordained podcast on the internet.” In his 2014 book The Bible Tells Me So, as well as differently in his 2016 book The Sin of Certainty, Enns makes the extended argument that understanding and interpreting the Bible begins with recognizing both the context in which the various books were written and the people for whom the texts were intended. Despite the tendency of many Christians to treat their sacred text as an authoritative rule-book for a God-pleasing life, a text that is both perfect and unchanging as the product of divine dictation to human scribes, in fact—as William James once wrote— “The trail of the human serpent is over everything” in the Bible. It is a mistake to suppose that a text written for specific purposes for particular people three thousand years ago has content and a message that can speak directly without significant work and interpretation to contemporary people.

Although it surprises and offends many Christians to hear that their sacred text, the purported “Word of God,” is locked both into context and time in ways that cannot be ignored, this shouldn’t surprise Christians. If we believe that God’s signature move in relating to human beings is to become one of them, then we should expect that “God’s word” in textual form will also be messy, contextual, and written in a way that reflects the time and place of those who first wrote and received it. Enns argues that the Bible, as reflective of the humanity that God created and loves, does not rise above the messy and inconvenient ups and downs of life. A scripture that rose pristinely with certainty above the embeddedness of human life would be contrary to the divine who is “God with us.”

That is how Christians believe God showed up—in-fleshed in humility, in culture, in the human story, a peasant who fit right into the day-to-day world of the first century and then suffered the humiliation of execution. No entourage, no special treatment, no red carpet, no clout among the power brokers. If Christians are right and this is the ultimate way God showed up, we shouldn’t expect anything else from the Bible . . . The Bible looks the way it does because like Jesus, when God shows up, it’s in the thick of things.

Enns uses numerous scriptures to illustrate his interpretive strategy—one of the most compelling is from that Sunday’s lectionary text—the book of Proverbs. Proverbs is best known as largely a collection of “wise sayings,” pithy aphorisms and bits of advice that are easily adaptable in the present day to memes and bumper stickers. Here, in back-to-back verses from late in Proverbs, are two of them:

Do not answer a fool according to his folly, lest you also be like him. Proverbs 26:4

Answer a fool according to his folly, lest he be wise in his own eyes. Proverbs 26:5

I could have used some advice the other day when a person whom I had branded as an idiotwas spewing his foolishness in a string of comments on my blog’s Facebook site. Reworded, here’s Proverbs’ advice:

Don’t engage with argumentative fools, or you will be reducing yourself to their level. Proverbs 26:4

Engage with argumentative fools on their own terms in order to put them in their place Proverbs 26:5

Perhaps you have noticed that these back-to-back verses give advice for dealing with fools that is entirely contradictory. So which is it, Proverbs? Engage or not? Help me out here! I thought that the Bible was supposed to be a road map or guidebook for life, and it can’t even tell me how to deal with a fool without immediately contradicting itself! And such contradictions are rampant throughout Proverbs.

It doesn’t take much life experience to realize what’s going on here. Whatever wisdom is, whether I have any or not, I at least know that wisdom isn’t found in a rule book in which one looks up one’s problem in the index, turns to the appropriate page, then finds an answer that fits all situations and circumstances. Life isn’t like that. Wisdom isn’t like that. I’m reminded of how Aristotle described the process of a virtuous person making wise decisions. He wrote this in his major work on ethics around the same time that scholars say the book of Proverbs was compiled.

It is a hard task to be good . . . Anyone can get angry—that is easy—or can give away money or spend it; but to do all this to the right person, to the right extent, at the right time, for the right reason, and in the right way is no longer something easy that anyone can do. It is for this reason that good conduct is rare, praiseworthy, and noble.

With regard to the person on my blog’s Facebook site, both of the pieces of advice from Proverbs are worth considering; either one of them might be the wise choice in the moment. To engage or not to engage? That depends on a whole of factors, none of which can be reduced to rules and all of which need to be considered if I want to make a wise rather than a knee-jerk decision.

Also included in the “wisdom books” of the Jewish scriptures is Ecclesiastes, the book that follows Proverbs in the Old Testament. The author of Proverbs brings the reader to the conclusion that wisdom, although contextual, is beautiful and effective. The author of Ecclesiastes? Not so much. Qoheleth, translated variously as the “Preacher” or the “Teacher,” has set his mind “to seek and search out by wisdom concerning all that is done under heaven,” and comes to a shocking conclusion.

I set my heart to know wisdom and to know madness and folly. I perceived that this is grasping for the wind. For in much wisdom is much grief, and he who increases knowledge increases sorrow.

According to Qoheleth, “all is vanity,” and “there is nothing new under the sun.” Ecclesiastes is the darkest text in the Bible, arguing that life is absurd, we have no control over our fates, and we all die. “Life’s a bitch and then you die” is hardly an attractive message—there’s a reason why Ecclesiastes only appears once per year in the common lectionary—it’s message is anything but good news. Why is it in the Bible? Why did the compilers of scripture choose to keep this dark, depressing text in the sacred text? Stay tuned—we’ll return to Ecclesiastes next week.

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