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  • « More On The Gospel of Judas | Main | Free Will, Election & Foreknowledge »

    Wisdom and the Whore in Proverbs 1-9

    The two outstanding characteristics of the Proverbs with which I associate my childhood, neither legitimate but both having a pervasive influence in my surrounding circles, are fragmentation and moralism. The former of which gave rise to the latter: as long as the individual proverbs were seen as disconnected and de-contextualized, that is, as long as they were seen as a series of random thoughts, it was easy to make such character qualities as honesty, industry, and diligence the foundation and fountainhead of the Christian life. When will God be pleased with me? When I am honest and industrious. How do I encounter God’s blessings? By being honest and industrious. And so the reasoning ran. The more foundational question, “How can I, a depraved sinner, hope to become honest and industrious?”, if acknowledged at all, was glibly passed off with an exhortation to try harder. I found all of this exceedingly confusing, as it appeared to contradict everything that was said when one was speaking of the gospel – but considering it a necessary and appropriate shift when dealing with a corpus of “practical” material, I managed by compartmentalizing my conception of Christianity to muddle along without serious reservations, albeit equally without any precision of thought concerning justification, sanctification, and the relationship between the two.

    In more recent readings of the Proverbs, I have been struck with the well-crafted and unified structure of the first nine chapters, together with the contextualizing effects that this foundational introduction must have on the following proverbs compiled in the remainder of the book. A simple recognition of some of the themes which run throughout the whole of this portion will no doubt serve to facilitate both a more accurate conception of the book as a whole, and as well our confidence to understand accurately the individual proverbs to which the remainder of the book is largely given.

    From the outset, a cursory reading of the first nine chapters of the Proverbs will leave us with the impression that more is at stake here than the temporal blessings which will naturally arise from a prudent lifestyle. There are here dealt with two mutually exclusive and utterly opposed classes of men: the wise, who will “inherit glory” (Proverbs 3:35); and the fools, who are under the curse of God (Proverbs 3:33). The path of the wise is initially entered only through trust in the God of Israel (Proverbs 3:5-6); and it is specifically in the context of obedience to the instruction of covenant parents, who are faithful to teach their children the laws of the Lord, that a child is commanded to follow the ways of righteousness and wisdom (Proverbs 1:8; 2:1-6; 3:1-4; 4:1-7; 5:1-2; 7:20-23). The covenant child is constantly exhorted, in these chapters, to follow the paths of righteousness, by trusting the Lord, and in opposition to a great array of deceptive and counterfeit pleasures and temptations. In this context of the all-important struggle to remain faithful to the covenant, through trusting in the Lord and availing oneself of his means of grace, two great characters emerge, a mighty protagonist and a powerfully deceptive antagonist, locked in an intense struggle over the souls of men. However, the protagonist will clearly prevail, favoring with everlasting joy, peace, and fellowship with God those who respond to her call; whereas the antagonist will ultimately perish in hell together with those who have been deceived by her. These two central characters of Proverbs 1-9 are referred to as “Wisdom,” and the “Strange Woman,” that is, the Prostitute.

    How are we to understand, in the first place, this “strange woman”? We see her in 2:16-19 opposing the work of Wisdom by drawing men into paths which forsake the covenant, and lead to death – even eternal death, so that they will never know life again. In 5:3-14, she is again enticing men with deceptive pleasantries; but again, the end of them is eternal death and hell. 6:24-32 finds her in direct opposition to God’s law; so that, if one forsakes the law for her beauty, he will be burned with fire and destroy his own soul. In 7:4-27, she is again described as one opposed to Wisdom, who offers pleasant things to the fools, who do not understand that eternal death is the final outcome of her illicit sweets. Finally, 9:18 finds her lauding the pleasures of stolen bread, and masking the fact that her guests are the inhabitants of hell. Now, I would suggest, for three reasons, that the intention of Solomon here does not extend merely to a prostitute on the streets, but looks beyond that concrete example to embrace the reality that motivates physical prostitution as well as every other deceptive pleasure which sets itself against God’s covenant of grace. First is the pervasiveness of the Strange Woman’s presence. Many other deceitful pleasures surface here and there (pride, greediness, laziness, etc.) throughout this passage, but her presence is constantly recurring, and not just briefly, but with elaborate descriptions of her methodologies and enticements appended. Second is the eternal, reality-embracing settings within which she is portrayed. Whenever she is mentioned, she is said to lead to hell, eternal death, and the point of no return or forgiveness, to have her abode with the dead in hell, and so on. She is portrayed as being on every street corner, enticing foolish men, something which could not properly be said of any single person that Solomon is remembering, or even of the entire collection of the world’s prostitutes as a whole. Third, she is always set off in contrast with Wisdom, in passages in which it is impossible that “wisdom” should be taken in a non-personified sense. In other words, if “Wisdom” is portrayed as a person whose presence pervades the world of mankind, and if the “Strange Woman,” is frequently used as the opposing idea to “Wisdom,” then the “Strange Woman” must similarly be a personification, and not a mere solitary person. At this point it is no large step to see in her the entire world system, in bondage to Satan, opposed to God, and leading men away from God through the offering of deceptive enticements. In summary, the Strange Woman must be the great Whore, elsewhere called Babylon the Great (Revelation 18:1-19:2).

    Now then, how are we to understand this personified “Wisdom”? How we answer this question must ultimately have tremendous impact on how we understand the book of Proverbs. But fortunately, we are not left without further suggestive scriptural witness. If this Wisdom appears to men, calling them after God, and contains in herself the true blessings of the gospel – righteousness, favor with God, etc. – in which light she is indeed portrayed in the introduction to Proverbs; then we must ask, is there any other scripture which views wisdom in this particular manner, and which gives further instruction as to how we might understand the figure? And, having asked that question, we cannot help but be struck by I Corinthians 1:30. Now it is clear in any translation that Christ has become to us wisdom – our first point of correspondence; what some translations obscure, however, is that the first subject in the list, “wisdom,” is set apart by the Greek grammar as the outstanding subject of which the following three are actually explications: a good translation might read something like, “But of [God] you are in Christ Jesus, who became wisdom to us from God – even righteousness and sanctification and redemption.” Now, this is exactly the portrayal of the Proverbs personification – Wisdom from God who contains in herself the true blessings of the gospel. Is this not Christ?

    Furthermore, the longer descriptions of the Wisdom are saturated with characteristics that are elsewhere in scriptures attributed to Christ: Wisdom, as Christ, is pictured as standing in the streets calling out to sinners to come and be saved; and to those who respond, the gift of the Spirit is promised (Proverbs 1:20-23; John 7:37-39). Wisdom, as Christ, is seen laughing at the destruction of her enemies (Proverbs 1:25-28; Psalm 2:1-12). Wisdom, as Christ, is pictured as being the “sister” (in the appropriate gender for the feminine noun personified) or kinsman/brother of the true people of God (Proverbs 7:4; Hebrews 2:11-12); Wisdom, as Christ, is said to have prepared a feast for the people of God (Proverbs 9:2-6; Revelation 19:6-9); and to have prepared for them a perfect dwelling place (Proverbs 9:1; John 14:1-3). In sum, the similarity between the attributes of Christ and the Wisdom of Proverbs is striking, to say the least.

    Even beyond this striking coincidence of description, Wisdom is also pictured in the introduction to Proverbs as doing things and being things which are ultimately impossible of anyone other than Christ. Some of the descriptions of her simply could not have been appropriately attached to a personification of a mere abstraction of wisdom; and hence the personification must be none other than Christ himself. Some of these things are as follows: Wisdom is said to give eternal peace, grace, glory, and the rewards of righteousness (Proverbs 3:16-17; 4:9; 8:20-21); she is said to be the underlying power back of all earthly rulers (Proverbs 8:15-16); she is said to be the eternal delight of the Father (Proverbs 8:30); the co-Creator of the world (Proverbs 8:27-31); eternally existent and eternally fathered by God (Proverbs 8:22-26); the one who is the Tree of Life to those who possess her (Proverbs 3:18); and in fact Life itself (Proverbs 4:13)! In short, the personification of “Wisdom” in Proverbs 1-9 must hold forth to us the person of Christ and no one else. He is the mighty protagonist who is deceitfully opposed by the great Whore, known here as the “Strange Woman.”

    Hence, the beginning, foundational chapters of Proverbs lay out a scenario that must inform all of our subsequent interpretations of the Proverbs. In this all-clarifying scenario we see Christ calling out to the fools to place their trust in him, which is the foundational act which constitutes one as part of the set of the righteous, and is the beginning of the life which ends in eternal joy and peace with God. The evil protagonist lauds the immediate gratification of the deceptive, sinful pleasures of rebellion, which are opposed to faith in Christ, covenant faithfulness, and a life which will be blessed by God, and which will issue forth in eternal destruction. In the end, all who are seduced by this evil, yet seductively beautiful whore, will know the destruction and wrath of God, and Christ will laugh at them; but all those who have chosen him instead he will satisfy with eternal feasting and joy in the presence of God.

    The remainder of the book of Proverbs, seen in this light, is vested with the sobering reality of eternal destiny. Faith in God is declared as the first and fundamental means of appropriating the Wisdom from God and becoming righteous. And subsequently, a life of perseverance in true wisdom, righteousness, and godliness is enjoined. There are many deceptive pleasures, which seek to make shipwreck of those having professed faith in God; Solomon lays out many of these earthly deceptions – pride, self-reliance, a quick temper, laziness, gluttony, excessive love of wine, love of money, and so on – together with a description of their ultimate end, and exhorts the people of God to follow the ways of Wisdom, that is, the ways of Christ, instead. Hence, the book of Proverbs is a profoundly helpful and practical book. It gives us clear instruction on what the life of wisdom and righteousness – what the Christ-life – looks like in day-to-day living; and it gives intense motivation to pursue the Christ-life, persevering in true faith, by laying out the ultimate destinies of these two utterly opposed classes of people: the wicked, lovers of the Strange Woman; and the righteous, lovers of Christ, who has become to us Wisdom from God.

    Posted by Nathan on April 18, 2006 08:36 PM

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    » The Redemptive Historical Hermeneutical Approach to the Book of Proverbs from Fundamentally Reformed
    I just finished reading another excellent post on redemptive historical hermeneutics by my friend Nathan Pitchford. He has written an excellent article dealing with the interpretation of the book of Proverbs for Reformation Theology Blog. In the post, ... [Read More]

    Comments

    Excellent post Nathan.

    My one caution concerns attributing the wisdom spoken of in Proverbs as a direct reference to Christ. The cults (especially the Jehovah's Witnesses) have heard us Christians say these exact things and then use Proverbs 8:22-25 to teach the false doctrine that the Lord Jesus Christ was therefore a created being. Just something to be aware of.

    Nathan,

    Very persuasive, but the personification of wisdom in Proverbs may simply suggest that wisdom and God are coextensive in thought and action, rather than the same person. I recently posted on the subject:

    "While it is not uncommon to see wisdom and folly personified in Scripture, Proverbs chapter 8 is somewhat unique. In this passage, Solomon praises divine wisdom, a wisdom that partakes in creation, speaks truth, and offers life. The same can be said of Jesus. So is wisdom simply one of many divine attributes or is wisdom the divine person herself?

    "The dilemma is quite apparent. Wisdom is personified in the feminine [fn. omitted]. In the ancient world, it was not uncommon for wisdom to be personified in the feminine and even worshipped as a goddess. The Greeks worshipped Athena and the Egyptians worshipped their goddess Iris.

    "But, in a monotheistic culture, the praise of wisdom as divine is peculiar. In Hebrew, wisdom (“hokmah”) is a feminine noun. It can refer to both human and divine wisdom. The term can be defined as aptitude, skill, experience, and good sense. (Holladay Lexicon)

    "After examining Proverbs 8, some commentators, including Matthew Henry, conclude that wisdom refers to the Second Trinitarian Person. Matthew Henry writes: 'That it is an intelligent and divine person that here speaks seems very plain, and that it is not meant of a mere essential property of the divine nature, for Wisdom here has personal properties and actions; and that intelligent divine person can be no other than the Son of God himself, to whom the principal things here spoken of wisdom are attributed in other scriptures, and we must explain scripture by itself.'

    "I tend to agree, however, with commentators who reject this interpretation. Jamieson, Faussett, & Brown, for instance, explain that Proverbs 8 is the personification of wisdom, but not the description of a person. JF&B note that Solomon’s use of personification is entirely consistent with the literary style of the book. They also note that, while the Bible may use a masculine pronoun for a nonmasculine noun when referring to God (for example, spirit (gender neutral) takes on the masculine pronoun 'he' when referring to the Holy Spirit), the Bible consistently uses feminine pronouns in referring to wisdom. In other words, God knows how to adjust the language when speaking of Himself, but the fact that He does not do this in Proverbs 8 strongly suggests that wisdom is an attribute and not a person.

    "The lexicographers seem to agree. Although they recognize the personification of wisdom, they maintain that wisdom is not a divine person. Whitaker’s lexicon instead describes wisdom as 'a divine attribute or energy.' The Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament states: 'Wisdom should not be regarded as God but it does belong to God; it is one of his attributes. Wisdom has a personal existence in the living word of the NT, but wisdom is not the Logos herself.' (TWOT provides an extensive bibliography on the subject for anyone who is interested.)

    "In addition to the problems associated with the use of the feminine pronoun, the interpretation of wisdom as Christ creates other problems. Apart from the few statements that suggest deity (for instance, being the 'master workman' who was present at creation), the rest of Proverbs 8 speaks of wisdom simply as a divine attribute and even lists wisdom among other characteristics—are we to deify them as well?

    "The better explanation (one that is consistent with the use of the feminine pronouns and the text as a whole) is that wisdom is one of God’s attributes. God applied divine wisdom in creating the heavens and the earth. She was, therefore, with Him in the beginning of His way. And along every step of the way, wisdom played a key role. In the context of creation, we can say that divine wisdom is intelligent design. Wisdom is not, however, the intelligent designer.

    "Some divine attributes so captures the essence of God that the attribute and the subject seem to be indistinguishable (e.g., God is love). God in all of His fullness, however, cannot be contained in a single attribute. Christ is referred to as the wisdom of God. But He also is referred to as the power of God and, according to some translations, the righteousness of God (1 Cor. 1:24, 30). Christ may be all of these things to us, but one trait is insufficient to encapsulate the fullness of who He is.

    "God is perfect in wisdom. His thoughts and actions are coextensive with wisdom. In other words, there is wisdom in all that He thinks and all that He does. His wisdom, therefore, plays a role in every thought and action. In Solomon’s praise of divine wisdom, He recognizes this as He speaks of wisdom uttering truth, creating the world, and offering life."

    Shalom,
    Chong

    I appreciate the cautions and concerns -- I certainly do not want to set forth any interpretation which might be used as an occasion for the promotion of heretical views of Christ. However, I am equally concerned that we do not miss anything that we may legitimately and appropriately learn of Christ in this passage. While I do concede that this personification of Wisdom may not be properly thought of as an entirely exhaustive personal representation of Christ; nor perhaps may the personification itself be made to refer exculsively to Christ (in other words, all that Christ is cannot be summed up in the title "Wisdom," and all that may be said of "Wisdom" personified may [perhaps] not be written directly of Christ) -- nevertheless, I do think that this description of Wisdom looks ahead to Christ in an intentional and meaningful way. I think that it is probably not too much to say, with Matthew Henry, that Solomon is referring to Christ under the appellative, "Wisdom"; although, granted, it is but one appellative among many that might be ascribed to him.

    Your [Chong's] observation that Christ is called, not only the wisdom of God, but also the power of God, the righteousness of God, etc., is helpful -- but I don't know if it excludes the legitimacy of one (or, more appropriately, all) of them to be thought of as a name. "Jehovah-Jireh," "El-Elyon," etc., do not capture the entire extent of God's essence, but they are nonetheless names of God, referring to Him in all of his Person, and emphasizing one facet of that illimitable personality. So "Wisdom," may at least potentially be thought of as a name referring to Christ in all his essence, but highlighting one particular facet of his inexhaustible personality.

    Your [John's] concern about Arian heretics using this exegesis to spread unorthodox views about Christ is a very weighty issue -- but I tend to think that any outcome of the sort is based, not on the faultiness of identifying "Wisdom" with Christ, but on the flawed exegesis of Proverbs 8:22-26; Many of those expressions (e.g. "Before the beginning of the earth," etc., are common Hebraisms that are typically used to refer to past eternity, not merely some past existence that had a point of origin before the world was made -- similarly, the expression "unto the age(s)", both in Hebrew and Greek, while literally referring to a specific point of cessation in relation to the created world, is in many cases certainly referring figuratively to a state of existence that has no end at all. This is such a common Biblical mode of expression (used frequently of God himself), that no one will deny at least the reality that those expressions in Proverbs 8 are used at times to indicate eternal existence. It is mere theological bias that drives the Jehovah's Witnesses to interpret this specific example differently.

    Also, your [Chong's] point about feminine pronoun reference should perhaps be taken with a grain of salt. God may use masculine pronoun reference in relation to names for God that are in a different gender -- but in some cases, he may not. The word for Holy Spirit is neuter in the Greek; John often uses masculine pronouns to refer to the Spirit, but Paul generally uses neuter pronouns (e.g. Romans 8:16, where he uses "auto," neuter, in reference to the Spirit); not because he did not think of the Holy Spirit as a masculine being, but because he understood that the rules of gender, in languages so constructed as Greek and Hebrew, have no real bearing on the essential gender of the referent.

    I previously conceded at least the certainty of my conviction that "Wisdom" is used in Proverbs 1-9 exclusively as a name (one of many) for Christ. I still tend to think so, but I recognize that the case is not incontrovertible. But I am certain that, no matter how we view that particular question, we ought to let these chapters instruct us of Christ. Solomon here declares that God's "Wisdom" brings salvation, life, peace, blessings, etc.; all of these things can come only with the coming of Christ. This "Wisdom" is not a neutral intelligence, or even a moralistic understanding of the proper way of conducting one's life -- it is peculiarly redemptive in its nature. We can know nothing of God's "wisdom" in the abstract sense, which leads unto salvation, unless we know of God's "Wisdom" in the personal sense (i.e., in reference to Christ). In other words, be convinced that this personification is merely to be understood of "Wisdom" in the abstract, and I will have no quarrel with you. But do recognize that this wisdom is redemptive wisdom; that this wisdom is revealed only by Christ; and that, therefore, this wisdom was only apprehended by Solomon and the faithful Jews whom he instructed in proportion as they looked to Christ for salvation.

    Christ was the Person through whom God's word, "let there be light" took effect. He is the person through whom God's word, "I will have mercy" took effect. Therefore, he is called by the name, the "Word". Likewise, he is the person through whom God's wisdom had creative efficacy; and he is the person through whom God's wise plan of salvation bore fruit. Is it too much, therefore, to suggest that he may likewise be called by the name "Wisdom"?

    Excellent article, Pitchford. My wife and I were discussing the fact that too often in evangelical and fundamental circles, children are raised to "be good," which would include teaching them the proverbs in a rather godless manner.

    I think I agree with your interpretation (and defense thereof).

    Nathan,

    I totally agree that wisdom here is redemptive in nature. It speaks of God’s wisdom that gives life—-which is only possible in Christ.

    Shalom,
    Chong

    Chong,

    I love your perspective. The fact that this "Wisdom" is eminently redemptive is the chief point for which I want to argue. Whether the personification is ultimately of Christ or not will have little bearing, I suspect, on how we view the proverbs, as long as we keep this truth in mind: "It speaks of God's wisdom that gives life--which is only possible in Christ."

    Thanks for the interaction. Many blessings in Christ.

    Nathan

    Beautiful post Nathan. It has been a tremendous blessing and help to me.

    Nathan,

    I am sorry I waited so long to read this article. It has really blessed me and opened my eyes to beautiful things in Proverbs. It is yet another reminder that modern literal, grammatical and yet not Christocentric hermeneutics misses so much goodness God intends for us in the OT Scriptures.

    A few further thoughts about Proverbs, if you don't mind. I think your emphasis on the two "women" in chapters 1-9 also stresses something else. It stresses the people responding to the women. The righteous respond to Wisdom and fools respond to the Strange Wisdom.

    The opening seven verses of the book are instructive in this regard, I think. Especially verse seven. The fear of the Lord imparts knowledge but fools despise wisdom/instruction. I think the introduction as well as the fact that the theme of fools versus the righteous extends well beyond the first nine chapters argue for your interpretation.

    One last thought from the personification of Wisdom. I think the value of Wisdom is more than merely the matter of escaping Hell. I know you would agree, but over and over again wisdom is presented as more valuable than wealth and rubies. I think it is not an either/or so much as it is a description of just as wealth and rubies are actually desirable, so is Wisdom--and not just for a distant future blessing but a present experiential blessing. Prv. 9:1-4 mentions the feast Wisdom prepares for us. And just like the Strange Woman attracts men with real pleasures, so Wisdom/Christ attracts us with real pleasure. There is delight and abundant true life in Christ--now. And forever. Praise be to the Lord!

    Thanks again for your post, Nathan. God bless.

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