What is wisdom? There are many answers to that question. I’ve heard it described as knowledge applied to life. I’ve heard it worshiped—under the name Sophia—as a sort of new-age or neo-pagan spirituality. I’ve read it was involved in the creation of the world.
That last one is provocative, and I think Christians tend to gloss over it, ignoring its significance. It’s found in the most known collection of wisdom writing in the Western world—the biblical book simply known as “Proverbs.”
The New English Translation renders the original Hebrew into English as
“By Wisdom the LORD laid the foundation of the earth;
he established the heavens by understanding.
By his knowledge the primordial sea was broken open,
and the clouds drip down dew.”
Of course, we could just understand that as God did it by knowing how, or even that doing it was a wise choice, but that doesn’t quite capture the fullness of the context of Proverbs and how wisdom writing was done in the Hebrew culture.
So what is wisdom? More specifically, what is wisdom writing or wisdom literature? I read recently an article defining it as the parts of Scripture that don’t deal with explicitly spiritual things. I had to fight the urge to do a literal face-palm. It was another continuation of the Western tradition of missing the point.
Part of the problem is that we just don’t operate in the type of language and teaching that wisdom literature represents. Another aspect of that problem is that we divorce the different wisdom writings in the Bible from each other. We treat Ecclesiastes differently than we treat Proverbs than we treat Song of Songs than we treat Job than we treat Esther, etc. Of course, each of them fills a slightly different role, and the mode of writing (sayings, narrative, poetry, etc.) differs between each of them, but the overall purpose is the same.
In my past biblical interpretation training, the positive pieces involved encouragement to pay attention to the genre of whatever book or passage was being studied. My professors tried really hard to be responsible as they taught what to do with Proverbs. I was taught with good reason not to treat Proverbs as a collection of commands from God. Here’s an example of why that doesn’t work:
“Do not answer a fool according to his folly,
lest you yourself also be like him.
Answer a fool according to his folly,
lest he be wise in his own estimation.”
(Proverbs 26:4-5 NET)
If that’s a command, what does God want you to do? Correct idiots or ignore them? How are we supposed to know? You can’t know the rule there because that’s not what it is.
Here’s what I was taught Proverbs was supposed to be instead. I was told it is a collection of practical advice for life, and while based on God’s truth, not explicitly spiritual in nature and could be used by anyone, Christian, Jewish, atheist, or otherwise.
While that is better than thinking it is direct commandments from God, it still isn’t right. It took me a long time to discover that it was wrong, and it wasn’t actually from studying Proverbs or even biblical interpretation that showed me it was missing the mark.
I was once talking to a good friend of mine about theology, the Bible, each of our strengths and calling. I responded to something he said with, “I don’t know what to do with wisdom literature.” He responded immediately with, “I think you do.” I didn’t know what to say, so I left it alone and we moved on.
I started pondering it though, and I started to realize that we were missing a serious clue in the very name “Wisdom.” Wisdom isn’t the same as knowledge or even understanding, though it’s related. It isn’t the same as adherence or even assent to doctrines or teachings. It isn’t having intuition about the best course of action in a given situation.
Wisdom requires being wise (I know, I know. Stay with me). At its core, it requires the ability to ponder difficult ideas. Not difficult like calculus but difficult like knowing yourself like knowing the motivations of the heart and the way people tend to behave and why. It requires the ability to take the time to contemplate the deeper meanings of things and slow down long enough to hold competing and even contradictory ideas together. It requires being willing to let words make you uncomfortable and stay with them until they change you.
Most of us can probably think of a wise person in our lives, but when we think of world-class wisdom, we tend to think of movie scenes involving a long journey to a mountain-top monastery in Asia where we find an elderly, robe-clad figure sitting in a lotus position and offering only riddles as answers to any questions asked.
Honestly, I think that points us in the right direction, at least generally speaking.
All of these ideas crept up in me slowly over the course of years. More recently, though, the rest of my understanding dumped on me all at once.
After I had begun to learn about meditation and contemplative prayer and study them seriously last fall, and I had been practicing meditation myself for several weeks (only a drop in the bucket; I’m definitely no master of meditation) I started to scan the biblical book Ecclesiastes. I started to notice a theme beyond just the existential angst I had been taught about in the past. I started to notice what the contemplative tradition calls detachment. Briefly, it is the value of holding things loosely, including possessions and desires and plans and even your own wellbeing, in favor of accepting whatever life and God brings your way. Richard Rohr talks about it as “the art of letting go.”
The author of Ecclesiastes was describing a quest to find meaning, in which he discovered that allowing himself to attach his hopes for meaning in any of the stuff of this world was pointless. Only by acknowledging the changing nature of life and the inherent impossibility of controlling what comes next and the eventual demise of all earthly pursuits could the author achieve real significance (read: enlightenment) by seeking first God and God’s values and leaving everything else aside.
Ecclesiastes is a book about living contemplation-informed life. It’s an inherently meditative work that teaches the values discovered in prayer and dying to self-interest.
I suddenly realized that is what wisdom literature is supposed to do. It is the biblical source for contemplative spirituality. Reading it any other way will lead to serious problems.
For those who know anything about it, people believe Solomon was the most well-known and revered wisdom teacher. After all, his name is cited at the beginning of Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and Song of Songs. Nevertheless, it’s not true. There is another teacher of wisdom known far more widely: Jesus. Much of the gospels is much more clear to me now that I have realized this.
All of these insights have sparked my interest in plunging deeply into wisdom literature. I have already spent time reflecting on Song of Songs and Esther and posting about them during Advent and Christmas this year. I hope to turn toward Ecclesiastes during this Lenten season. For now, I plan to start a long project of slowly sifting through Proverbs to discover the wisdom hidden there. I have already begun and been excited by what I have found.
I will continue to write about what I discover, and I hope you will benefit from it. I invite you, though, not just to read what I have to say but to spend time reading it slowly and carefully, prayerfully and reflectively, to find what the Spirit speaks to you as you listen.
In the meantime, what has your experience been with Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs, or any of the other books written in the wisdom tradition?