The Delight of Wisdom
by Catherine Thiel Lee
May 26, 2013
Proverbs, let’s just put it out there, is a funny bit of the Bible. I remember liking it when I was younger. It seemed straightforward, if occasionally a little dated or esoteric. My suburban teenage self might not have really been able to relate to, “He who gathers crops in summer is a prudent son, but he who sleeps during harvest is disgraceful ” (Prov 10:5), but still—I felt like I got the gist. Proverbs was practical, understandable, less foreign than all those odd stories and laws, prophecies and prayers. “Better a dry crust with peace and quiet than a house full of feasting with strife” (17:1)… as the proverb tells us.
But the Bible does like to keep us on our toes.
Here, tonight, in the midst of pithy sayings and snippets of practical advice we have—a poem. A long poem with a rather fanciful description of a woman—Wisdom herself—and her call to the people of God. Throughout the chapter she speaks, calling on humanity to listen to her and keep her ways (Prov 8:32).
“Does not wisdom call out? Does not understanding raise her voice? At the highest point along the way, where the paths meet, she takes her stand; beside the gate leading to the city, at the entrance, she cries aloud: ‘To you, O people, I call out…Listen! For I have trustworthy things to say’” (Prov 8:1-4, 6).
And on and on she goes. If a proverb, by definition, is a short truth saying, a brief useful thought, then Proverbs chapter eight could be summed up with the statement, “Listen to wisdom.” But that is not what we get. Wisdom has more to say, and she speaks to us in a different, more meandering way.
Woman Wisdom is a curiosity. It is hard to get a handle on her, even to know who she is. She is bold and loud, calling out, raising her voice in the streets, at the highest point in town, at the major intersection, taking her stand at the gates of the city as people stream into town on their morning commute. She’s like a prophet, shouting at passersby, “Understand shrewdness, you dupes, and fools, make your hearts understand” (Prov 8:5). She is the source of counsel and sound judgment. She has insight and power. Rulers govern by her and she bestows blessing on those who love her. She instructs people, and when they listen to her, they find life (8:14-21).
She is the Wisdom of God. Proverbs eight is a long and detailed exercise in personification, where an abstract thing acts like a human. The proverb is an imagination of one of God’s attributes, one of God’s essential qualities: wisdom. “Wisdom” is an abstraction, an idea, but here it is given voice and lips and legs. “It” becomes “She.”
The Bible is full of personification: “justice leads Israel out of Babylon” (Is 58:4); “kindness and truth meet,” “justice and peace kiss” (Ps 84:11). At one point “wine is [even] arrogant” (Prov 20:1). But the personification of Wisdom in the Bible is unique in its quantity; this is one of several lengthy passages embodying Wisdom. And the quality of Wisdom’s personification, especially here, is rich, theologically ambiguous. Sticky.
Woman Wisdom is hard to pin down. She appears to be created by God, but it’s not entirely clear. She is ancient, formed long ago, before the rest of creation, a fact she repeats no less than six times. The language is strangely ambiguous; she “was given birth” (8:25) and was “brought forth as the first of God’s works” (8:22), but she separates herself from the rest of creation as prior, more elemental. She is close to God, bound up with God. “She seems to be something of God, born of God, in God.”
The chapter has a curious structure: right in the midst of describing her call, Wisdom detours off into an extended description of her presence at creation’s unfolding and her unique relationship with God. The description of creation, a retelling of Genesis, takes up a third of the chapter. It is strange, and beautiful. Wisdom is there for all of it, the separation of the waters, the setting of mountains and fields, the marking of the horizon. The language, again, is amorphous, ambiguous, poetic.
“Then I was a child, constantly at God’s side…rejoicing in [God’s] whole world and delighting in humankind” (8:30-31).
That is the picture where this long description of creation comes to rest: a playful picture of a delighted child at the right hand of God. Like a kid watching a parent make pancakes on Saturday morning: Standing, peering over the back of a turned chair, watching the swirl of ingredients as they layer and combine and change their substance. Marveling at the work of hands swirling coarse milled grain into creamy milk drawn from noble cows. Questioning the mysteries of substances as odd and awe inspiring as baking soda. Pondering the life and death bound up in the pale green shells of orange yoked eggs. Giggling as batter is dribbled in shapes and circles, boundaries set by heat and plan and happenstance. Arm in arm, constantly at one another’s side, God and Wisdom preside together over breakfast.
Wisdom calls out to us, “I was THERE! I was delighted by everything God was doing, and God was delighted by me, and day after day I was jumping up and down (practically falling off my chair) rejoicing that God was there—present—and I was so joyful about everything that was being made—right in front of me! I was rejoicing in the whole world. And those people!—the people were the best” (8:30-31).
It is a picture full of delight and play, a frolicking, poetic exclamation about the sheer wonder and delight of the world. The story of creation is told with such joy. But more than that, Wisdom cannot help but articulate creation except in stories bursting with relationality.
The God of the Bible is never detached. Holy, Other, Different, yes. Often. But never detached or removed. If we are going to talk about God, if it is really the Wisdom of our God, then Wisdom itself can—even must—appear as it does here in Proverbs, not as an “it,” but as a person, (and a prophetic person at that). In Wisdom we do not find a logical-ethical principle for interpreting and ordering the world; we find the self disclosure of God. It’s like she can’t help herself.
God cannot be an abstraction. Even God’s attributes have to be embodied. And once embodied, Woman Wisdom has to relate, to talk, to stand on the street corner and shout. She has to tell us all about how she is so completely in relation with and alongside and from God, how God is so completely in relation with and alongside and towards her and the rest of creation that there is just no other way to describe it all.
And with all this relating of God to Godself and hovering and sharing in and marveling in love over wonder, it is no wonder that we read this Proverb on Trinity Sunday.
Woman Wisdom’s mysterious, amorphous identity has been a theological playground for generations of Christians. We cannot resist the question, “but who is she?” Is this Proverb more than personification?
Is Woman Wisdom Jesus? Is she some sort of veiled description or prefiguring of Christ, with all that language about being brought forth before all of creation, the ambiguity about being of God but distinct from God, and the sitting at God’s right hand (Prov 8:22, 30)? Is Jesus that child who giddily peers over the chair back while God mixes creation and flings the cosmos into the frying pan?
Or is Woman Wisdom the Holy Spirit, the one hanging about while God creates, like the Spirit in Genesis who hovers over the waters (Gen 1:2)? Is she a vision of the Spirit who speaks to us, who offers us instruction and guidance, who admonishes us and invites us, through her call and in our listening, into life? Even, somehow, into the interior life of God?
And if that same Holy Spirit “has been given to us,” the one who pours the love of God into our hearts (Rom 5:5), can we listen to each other for the voice of the Spirit speaking? Does Woman Wisdom call out through us too?
There are lots of difficult theological and Biblical problems bound up in those questions. If Woman Wisdom is a theological playground, she is also a theological minefield. Lord knows talking about the Trinity is bound to lead us into heresy. But the Proverb we are reading together tonight is decidedly, boldy mythological. It is not logical or dogmatic, but rather self-consciously…playful. It is poetic, a riff. A riff on creation and the person of God.
In the spirit of our text, can we riff for a while together tonight? Can we let ourselves be drawn up into the playful action of a God who does not create alone, but instead throws a pancake party?
For in the end, we are invited to join with all things in the Song of Wisdom, the glorification of God: “Then I was daily in God’s delight, rejoicing before God always, rejoicing in God’s inhabited world, and there was delight over me among all humankind” (8:30).
The invitation of Proverbs is to listen to Woman Wisdom. Perhaps she is God or Christ or the Holy Spirit, or all…or none…or all and none at once. But what is clear is that we are always listening for the person of God, who speaks and has voice, who is always full of Words for us, who gave us life and longs for us to have life upon life upon life. All those Words and all that life may be more than we can bear, and the person and persons of God are certainly more than we can fathom. But the invitation stands: God is here, speaking, playing, inviting us to delight in the works of her hands.
 Robert Alter, The Wisdom Books: Job, Proverbs, and Ecclesiastes, A Translation with Commentary, WW Norton & Company, 227.
 “Wisdom in the Old Testament,” Anchor Bible Dictionary, Vol. 6, 926.
 Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, II. 1. 428-429. T & T Clark Study Edition, Vol. 8, 176-177.
 Ellen Davis, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and the Song of Songs, Westminster John Know Press, 2000, 67.
 Jürgen Moltmann, The Trinity and the Kingdom, Fortress Press, 1993, 128.