Making Sense of the Proverbs, or, What it Means to be Wise

In reading Making Sense of the Old Testament by Tremper Longman (what a name! Tremper Longman!), I stumbled across this bit on the Proverbs and I thought it the best summary of how the book works. Helpful, because often we think it’s a book of randomly assorted proverbial statements when really there’s more going on under the surface. Below that, I’ve add some comments about wisdom itself. First, make way for Tremper:

In a nutshell, the discourses of Proverbs 1–9 create a context in which to understand the pithy proverbs of 10–31. The discourses present a series of metaphors which climax in chapters 8 and 9. The basic metaphor is the image of life as a path. The reader, who in the book’s ancient context is male, is walking the path of life. He encounters various helps and hindrances along the way. His father-teacher warns him, for instance, of the possibility of ambush (Prov 1:11, 18). He is told that he will encounter temptations that will lure him off the path. The prime temptation is the strange woman, the adulteress, who will try to seduce him to his great harm (Prov 5 and 7). But there is another woman, Wisdom herself, who urges the reader to follow her on the path.

The two women are most fully described in the climactic chapters. Wisdom (Prov 8:1–9:6) is a woman characterized by righteousness, truth, justice, prudence, and many other virtues. On the other hand, Folly (Prov 9:13–18) is a woman who is brash, ignorant, and deceptive. Each woman calls out to the reader, the man on the path, to come join her for dinner and a serious relationship (cf. Prov 9:4–6 and Prov 9:16–17). 

Who are these women? They both live on a hill (Prov 9:3, 14). This is the clue we need to solve the riddle of their identity. In the ancient Near East the only building on the high point of a city was its temple. Thus Lady Wisdom is a metaphor for the true God himself; Folly, on the contrary, represents all the spurious gods and goddesses that tempted the Israelites into false religion.

That Proverbs 10:1 is a deeply religious verse can be seen only in context. Wise children bring joy to their parents. That means they have joined themselves with Lady Wisdom; they follow the true God—they worship Yahweh. But foolish children bring grief to their parents by worshipping idols. The implications are unmistakable: those who embrace Wisdom find knowledge and life (Prov 9:6), while those who follow Folly will end up in the grave (Prov 9:18).[1]

The entire book of Proverbs is tied together by these two metaphorical women. Lady Wisdom and Lady Folly are the two voices of the world, calling for our devotion. They are the two forces in our hearts, striving for victory. They are the cartoon angels on your shoulders, pointing you in opposite directions.

And we know that ultimately there are only two ways in life (Psalm 1; Matt 7:13–29). While we get the basic good vs evil thing, what the Proverbs do is help us to understand each of those ways, to see them in more detail and develop a narrative for each one so that as we make decisions, we are able to see in more clarity and detail which way each decision will lead us.

Wisdom Personified

But all this got me thinking of the logical endpoint of wisdom. What I mean is, Lady Wisdom isn’t just a literary metaphor; she is also a He, a man. John tells us that Jesus became a man and embodied that wisdom as the True light on the hill, “enlightening every man” (John 1:9). He Himself enacted the Proverbs and became a living, breathing proverb for us to see and understand (and follow).

Which got me thinking, Where do we get wisdom? Paul says that Jesus “became to us the wisdom from God” (1 Cor 1:30), and James, the brother of Jesus, says this wisdom comes down “from above” (Jam 3:17) from the same place as our new birth (John 3:3 [“born again” is a pun that also means “born from above” but Nicodemus didn’t pick that up]). And what is it that both James and Paul apply this wisdom to? Not foolishness, but boasting (James 3:5 and 1 Cor 1:31), all in the greater context of trials and temptations. The point is, we think we are strong when wisdom allows us to overcome, and that leads us to a boasting heart, but that heart isn’t truly wise; it’s just applied wise principles to good effect. Wisdom instructs us to see that all we have we have received, freely (Matt 10:8). Wisdom bears the fruit of righteousness because it is sown in peace (not boasting) by them that make peace (James 3:18).

Which made me realize that the fruit of wisdom is this: boast-free Love. A pure love for God and neighbor, a love that looks like Christ, that looks like the Proverbs 31 personification of Lady Wisdom. A love that dies for others with no reward or recognition for its service. A self-sacrificing love. 

Which brings us full-circle. "The word of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but us who are being saved it is the power of God” (1 Cor 1:18). Wisdom isn’t just love, but it’s nothing less. Without wisdom there would be no love, for Lady Folly doesn’t know love because she doesn’t know God. The definition of wisdom is in seeing and knowing the Truth and applying it in True ways. The perfect test for wisdom is the Gospel.

Because at the core of the Gospel is Love, a self-sacrificing Love. To Lady Folly, self-sacrificing love is defeat, because there is no purpose outside of self-service. But to Lady Wisdom, self-sacrifice is victory, because the ultimate purpose for Life and Reality is the service of God and his mission, and at the center of His mission is a man, conquering the world by dying for it.

Just think of it, think of the wisdom of God. What is more powerful than self-sacrificial love? Who can defeat it? What can you threaten a man with who lays down his life willingly? It’s incomprehensible how God would set a narrative in motion that would center all of history on the redeeming work of His own Son—a redemption which sets the entire world to rights, not through more powerful armies or more persuasive politics, but through the very thing we humans run away from, the very thing we fight to cheat, delay, or reverse. Jesus won because He defeated death, and in so doing freed us from it.

How can you imagine a more perfect story, a more foolproof redemption? This is what led the apostle Paul to his glorious doxology in Romans 8: “But in all these things we overwhelming conquer through Him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor any other created thing, will be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

  1. Tremper Longman, Making Sense of the Old Testament, pg. 39–40.  ↩