On even the most “ordinary” Sunday it can be difficult to preach and teach from the book of Proverbs. It may seem well nigh impossible to do so on Trinity Sunday. It isn’t just that Proverbs that doesn’t mention the Trinity. After all, the term is found nowhere in the whole Bible. It’s also difficult to use Proverbs 8 on Trinity Sunday because it alludes only to the second person of the Trinity. That may make it no more of an ideal Trinity Sunday passage than any Old Testament text that mentions any person of the Trinity.
In almost 30 years of parish ministry, I’ve never preached on Proverbs 8. I can’t imagine preaching on it in an explicitly doctrinal, topical way, even on Trinity Sunday. After all, as my colleague Scott Hoezee says about this passage, this is not a “straightforward ontological description of God or God’s Son.”
That may make Proverbs 8 a more suitable text for including in the Sunday liturgy, perhaps even as a “psalm” of praise. But if the preacher and teacher are determined to work with Proverbs 8 on this particular Sunday, how might we do so?
Perhaps the wisest (pun intended) way to preach and teach Proverbs 8 is to focus on what it says about wisdom and creation. Verses 1-4 remind readers that wisdom is for all people. Of course, that means we have to sort out just what kind of wisdom we’re talking about. After all, our culture has its own kind of wisdom that’s perhaps best summarized by our advertisements. In order to flourish, they insist, people must look young, smell good, make lots of money and own fancy cars and homes. Proverbs 8’s wise preachers and teachers will look for ways to help listeners explore what constitutes conventional human wisdom.
Biblical wisdom is very different. Scholars have filled libraries trying to describe what wisdom is in the biblical sense. But perhaps the simplest and best definition of it is a way of living, talking and thinking that honors God and blesses people. Genuinely wise people both understand and do what God created people to do.
This offers Proverbs 8’s preachers and teachers an opportunity to explore just how people can gain such wisdom. Of course, the Scriptures come readily to mind as a source of it. Yet sometimes wisdom is needed to address situations the ancient Scriptures don’t anticipate. How, then, can we gain wisdom to address some of the 21st century’s greatest challenges?
Much human wisdom is both young and flawed. Consider the wisdom of our ancestors who assumed the world was flat, the planets revolved around the earth and women are inferior to men. The wisdom of which Proverbs 8 speaks is, by contrast, ancient. In fact, verse 22 suggests it’s the very first thing God created. Verse 30 even suggests wisdom was and is somehow a kind of partner with God in creating everything that was and is created.
This points to another unique aspect of wisdom as the Bible understands it. We often think of wisdom as something humans create by doing things like peering into telescopes and microscopes, as well as analyzing historical trends and Shakespearean sonnets. While those activities certainly have a place in helping society to flourish, people, says Proverbs, doesn’t generate biblical wisdom. True wisdom is a created kind of “being” that is a gracious gift from God.
Proverbs 8 suggests that wisdom includes an understanding of the origin of creation. Human wisdom sees the cosmos as largely the product of chance. True wisdom sees the cosmos as the creation of a loving and caring God. Of course, people may argue about just how God creates everything that is created. But Proverbs 8, even with its ancient language and worldview, reminds us that genuinely wise people profess God somehow both creates and sustains the cosmos and every created thing and person in it.
What’s more, Proverbs 8’s emphasis on wisdom serves to remind readers that when God creates, God does so wisely. God creates in ways that are designed to allow created things and people to flourish. Though sin has made people assume we can create our own wisdom, our own ways of flourishing, the Scriptures offer the only way to act, talk and think that will allow not only people but also all of creation to be that which God created them to be.
Yet Proverbs is, first of all, descriptive rather than proscriptive. While Christians tend to use this as a guide for what to do, we remember that it’s first of all a description of how God has ordered the world and its creatures. So Proverbs preachers and teachers don’t jump straight to telling people like sons, thieves and farmers (cf. Proverbs 10:1-5) what to do. We first examine what such people’s wisest courses of action tell us about the God who creates and sustains everything God creates.
If preachers and teachers don’t plan to do a sermon or lesson series on Proverbs, it might be useful for them to briefly review some of the wisdom the Spirit embeds in the proverbs that follow this Sunday’s lesson. The Spirit packs passages like Proverbs 10 with help understanding and acting in ways that honor God and bless God’s creation and creatures.
Illustration Idea (originally posted by Scott Hoezee on the CEP website in May, 2013)
“As Tom Long once pointed out, most everyone takes their cues from some set of guiding principles that often gets summarized in adages and pithy slogans. Americans are no different, it’s just that our favorite and most-often quoted national proverbs cut against the grain of the biblical Book of Proverbs.
Some while back I read an author who contends that this is the quintessential, the most basic, of American proverbs: ‘Different strokes for different folks.’ But you cannot detect a lot of respect for universally underlying truths of God’s creation design in that proverb. When faced with lifestyles that run the gamut from church-going religious types all the way over to pornography consuming men who cheat on their wives, Americans shrug through their most-loved proverbs. ‘Different strokes for different folks. Live and let live. To each his own. A man’s home is his castle. Don’t rock the boat.’ These are America’s most-loved proverbs. But what they all boil down to is that one-word phrase which, though not a proverb, in many ways spells the doom of all biblical proverbs: the great postmodern verbal shrug of ‘Whatever!’
What American proverbs convey is the notion that when all is said and done, this world’s many jigsaw puzzle pieces cannot, and so will not, be assembled into a single, coherent picture of life. Wisdom in the biblical sense need not be pursued because there’s finally no point to it. Each of us has been handed a little box of puzzles pieces that conveniently snap together in any number of different ways. So if the picture I end up assembling of what I think my life should look like ends up being wildly different from what you piece together, big deal! Different strokes for different folks. Why would anyone even expect that any two puzzles would end up looking similar?
The Book of Proverbs offers a concentrated graduate course in the art of living. It is an education founded on the premise that life adds up to something coherent and good, stable and full of shalom because there is a Creator God who made each person and each thing. Further, God made each person and each thing to work in certain ways (and not in others) so that if everybody functions the way they were made to function, life would get webbed together into a marvelously complex, inter-locking system of mutual affirmation. There simply is a wise way and a foolish way to do most anything.”
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Sermon Commentary for Sunday, May 22, 2016
Proverbs 8:1-4, 22-31 Commentary