In the last few years the significance and importance of sages in Israel and earliest Christianity have impressed themselves upon me. The value of sages cannot be overestimated in our culture. More of that some day, but not today.
A good question might be asked what difference they make? What is the sage? What does the sage provide?
In Glenn Pembertson’s new and wise book on wisdom, A Life That Is Good, three classes or groups of leaders and speakers and Word-of-God communicators are sketched: Priests, prophets and sages.
A must-have for every pastor.
A summary conclusion:
Prophets and priests often spoke about Israel, God’s chosen people, the covenants, and the history of God’s relationship to Israel. Priests also spoke about holiness, purity, and worship, while prophets also spoke about love for God, the rights of the oppressed, and broken covenants. The sages, however, rarely if ever spoke about these topics. Nor did they appeal to the Torah for information or authority, like the priests. And they did not claim to have direct revelation through visions or words God spoke to them, like the prophets. Sages do not say, “Thus says the Lord” or “The Law of Moses says.” This does not mean that the sages disagreed with the prophets or priests, or thought their witness less important. The sages simply operated from a different outlook on life from a source other than Torah or the prophets. …
So, where do they get their knowledge?
What is the source of a sage’s wisdom? Unlike prophets or priests, sages derive their understanding of God and life with God from what they see or experience, as well as what others have seen and experienced. They accept these insights as normative or God-given, just as a prophet regards a vision or a priest regards Torah to be God’s message.
If all priests are males and most prophets are males, Sages are otherwise:
The nature of a sage’s insight opens the door for anyone to become a sage, or as we will see, anyone may walk in the path of wisdom: male, female, old, young, rich, poor, royalty, or servant (Prov. 1:20-21; 8:1-5; 9:1-6). Because wisdom is a matter of human observation, wisdom also stretches across national boundaries to include non-Israelites (see 30:1; 31:1). And in harmony with this source of knowledge and understanding, the object of concern for a sage, as opposed to prophets and priests, is common life-daily living when we are away from worship and life beyond or outside the guidance of the covenant.… all aspects of daily life lived before God or, in other words, how to live a life that is good.
Wisdom (hokmah) is both a skill in a common practice but also a specialized skill in knowing a life that is good (Prov 2:9-11).
This wisdom is a gift of God (2:6-7), given to those who ask for and strenuously seek wisdom (2:1-5) and who retain this gift only through constant attentiveness (8:32-36). The book of Proverbs also describes wisdom as a path or trail on which we walk (2:9,20; 4:11), rather than a destination to which we arrive and proclaim ourselves wise, which is an act of pride (3:7; 11:2). Others may lead us onto this path, helping us learn how to walk in the way of wisdom (4:10-12).
A brief sketch of the Sage:
For now we can say that those who walk the path of wisdom live a self-reflective lifestyle, attentive to the insights they gain from experience (16:21), receptive to advice (12:15; 13:10; 20:18), and open to the wisdom of others (25:12).
Glenn connects wisdom today to counselors and therapists, who through the experience of listening gain great experience, and to scientists, who through observation over time according to rigorous methods learn a science. I was so glad to see these connections — I have learned from Kris how therapists grow through listening and from scientists who build up a fund of knowledge through experimentation.
One has to wonder if the Sage is not a justification for “experience” or “tradition” in the so-called Wesleyan quadrilateral.
An issue arises: sometimes the prophet and the priest resist the wisdom of the sage, the way Job’s friends resisted growth from the raw experience of Job himself. Good point, Glenn.
Simply put, inviting sages to the discussion table may frighten the wisdom out of us, at least until we begin to understand the sages and grow comfortable with their perspective.
The prophets, priests, and sages of Israel all served the same God. The Lord simply used them to provide a more robust theology, a fuller picture of the life of faith, and a sharper image of the God who is larger than any one portrait.