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We Need This Book

We Need This Book September 6, 2017

ben-white-148430The word “book” in the post’s title is an intentional double entendre and a confusing one at that: we need the Book of Proverbs (that book) but as a book it represents the larger tradition of wisdom, and the other meaning of “book” is Tremper Longman’s new fantastic The Fear of the Lord is Wisdom.

The two scholars of my age to whom I go when it comes to wisdom literature are Tremper Longman and Peter Enns. Longman’s written a commentary on the core books of the wisdom tradition and so this introduction is a fitting summary of a career in wisdom.

Here’s why we need this book of wisdom and this book about wisdom: because those books sitting in the middle of our Old Testaments are ignored in “histories” of Israel and narrative approaches to the Bible and in theologies in general.

Here’s another reason:  because our society is bereft of wisdom voices as it clamors after the voices of revolution, after voices of the-new-is-always-better, and after the Me-Knows-Better-than-the-Past.

The result of a generation or more of departing from a wisdom culture is a devaluing of the grey heads in our churches. Longman is a good place to start, not because he is new but because he is putting together the wisdom of the wise on the wisdom concept in the Bible.

What is wisdom? Longman’s major themes from Proverbs, the fountain of biblical wisdom, show that wisdom is a skill in living, it is a moral life of obedience, and it begins in piety and is shaped by piety.

No one can be truly wise unless one is wise practically, ethically, and theologically.

1. The Skill of Living: The Practical Level
2. The Wise Person as a Good Person: The Ethical Level
3. Fearing God: The Theological Level

The most arresting images of the Proverbs are those of Woman Wisdom and Woman Folly, which Longman treats extensively and then shows the Proverbs presents its readers/hearers with The Choice of Life.

Now that we have considered the main texts that inform us about Woman Wisdom and Woman Folly, we should feel the burden of choice. With whom will we dine? Whom will we make an integral part of our life? This is the most fundamental decision we can make. But who are these women? What or whom do they represent?

Their names make it obvious that they are personifications of wisdom and folly, respectively. Indeed, Woman Wisdom, who is the more fully developed figure, embodies all the virtues associated with wisdom. She speaks truth and avoids lies. She hates arrogance. She is industrious, not lazy. The brief description of Woman Folly correlates with the vices associated with foolishness. She is secretive, a thief, and a liar.

So certainly Woman Wisdom and Woman Folly represent wisdom and folly. However, the location of their houses allows us to go further. Their houses are on the heights, and Woman Wisdom often speaks from the heights. When one asks whose house occupies the highest place in an ancient Israelite, or for that matter ancient Near Eastern, city, the answer is the deity.

Thus, we may go further and say that Woman Wisdom is not simply a personification of God’s wisdom but actually represents Yahweh himself. But if that is true, what about Woman Folly? Her house is also on the heights. Woman Folly also represents deity. In her case, she stands for the false gods and goddesses that rival Yahweh for the affection of the Israelites.

The choice is clear. Do we, the readers, choose to dine with Woman Wisdom, who represents Yahweh? Or do we choose to dine with Woman Folly and thus worship a false deity? In this way the book of Proverbs shows that it understands that wisdom and folly are theological categories.

So many today think wisdom is purely practical, purely pragmatic, secular, and universal. Not so, says Longman. Without theology wisdom is not biblical wisdom.

Thus, Proverbs makes it clear that wisdom is neither secular nor universal, but rather theological and particular to Israel.

The problem I perceive with those who go to the Wisdom literature in the Bible is the development of an automatic theory of life: do good, be blessed; do bad, you deserve what you get. This is directly countered by both Ecclesiastes and Job.

Longman shows there are two voices in Ecclesiastes: 1:3-11 plus 12:8-12 are the father and the Preacher’s “under the sun” theory of life is found in the heart of the book. Furthermore, Longman has this:

First of all, his final instruction is brief and to the point. He packs a lot of instruction into a verse and a half. His admonition to “fear God” teaches us to establish a right relationship with God characterized by fear. The son/we (the readers) are to “keep his [God’s] commands” and so are to maintain that relationship through obedience. Finally, the reader is to live in light of the future judgment. If we were to use anachronistic theological categories, we would say that we have justification, sanctification, and eschatology in a verse and a half. …

“Fear God” makes one think of the Ketubim [Writings]; “keep the commandments” evokes the Torah [Law]; and to live in light of the future judgment makes one think of the Nebi’im [Prophets]. If this is correct, then the father is telling the son and subsequent readers to adopt an “above the sun” perspective by turning to the Tanak, God’s revelation to his people.

Qohelet’s wisdom is thus minimized. Human wisdom, or “under the sun” wisdom, has limits. One must have a more robust theological vision.

Which is what we learn in Job: wisdom comes from God, not ourselves. The proper response is to submit to or obey God. Wisdom, then, as in Ecclesiastes and Proverbs, begins and is insufficient without a relationship with God.

The prototypes of wisdom — both good and bad — in the Old Testament are Joseph, Daniel, Adam and Solomon.

We need this book!


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