Sermon Commentary for Sunday, June 16, 2019
Proverbs 8:1-4, 22-31 Commentary
There are better texts for this Trinity Sunday than these words about wisdom in Proverbs. The New Testament readings from John 16:12-15 and Romans 5:1-5 are much more Trinitarian, since they at least mention Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Of course, you will still have to interpret that three-ness/one-ness language. And, if you are willing to do some exegetical gymnastics with Proverbs 8 (as I may try to do at some point), you can get close to the borders Trinitarianism in this Old Testament text. But a straightforward reading of this wisdom text will focus on, well, wisdom. Indeed, it is soaring piece of wisdom literature, bringing to a climax the previous 7 chapters of Proverbs.
Proverbs 8 has two parts (well, three if you sub-divide the first part). Verses 1-21 are all about wisdom and the human race, while verses 22-31 focus on wisdom and God. As I said, you can divide that first part into wisdom’s call to humanity to pay attention to wisdom (verses 1- 11), followed by all the practical reasons wisdom is so desirable (verses 12-21). Then verses 22-31 soar into the stratosphere of the relationship between God and wisdom, which tells us the ultimate reason life in this world only works if we live by wisdom.
It is widely agreed that wisdom is personified here, that is, wisdom speaks and acts as though it were a person: she “calls out, raises her voice, takes her stand….” It’s a way to make wisdom more real, less a concept or a principle, more like a real person, like the adulteress who has whispered her sultry but deadly lies in Proverbs 7. Probably so, but, if we follow the older scholars, what we have here is an actual person speaking, maybe the Third Person of the Trinity, more likely the Second who is spoken of as the wisdom of God in the New Testament (more on that later).
However we understand the personhood of wisdom, it is clear that wisdom calls out to all persons in the first section of our reading today. Unlike the shady lady of Proverbs 7 who slinks and whispers, wisdom stands tall and speaks loudly. There is an urgency to her call, because as verses 12-21 will argue, successful living is at stake in the decision to pursue wisdom. Indeed, the conclusion of this chapter says more than that. “For whoever finds me finds life and receives favor from the Lord. But whoever fails to find me harms himself; all who hate me love death.”
That’s pretty dramatic. Such life and death language might lead us to conclude that wisdom deals only with ultimate things, with metaphysical issues, the kind of things that interest only philosophers and theologians. But our opening verses place wisdom in the hustle and bustle of the marketplace and the courtroom, at crossroads where the masses meet and on the heights that give a panoramic view of human interaction. This wisdom is born not in the classroom or the cloister, but in the busy places where ordinary people live. To one and all, wisdom calls out. “I make a difference where you live!”
You might choose to spend your whole sermon on this part of the text. Given all the folly in the world today, it would be very helpful to lay out the value and advantages of living in wisdom’s way. But it is clear to me that the Lectionary is pointing us in a different direction– to the high flown mystery of the relationship between wisdom and God as poetically described in verses 22-31. This might seem like a homiletically unfruitful direction to take your sermon, unless you can help people to see the practical benefits of such an investigation. Maybe my little summary of the two parts of our text will convince you and your listeners of the value of studying these last verses. Wisdom says, “You’d be a fool not to live wisely. Why, even God needed wisdom.”
Here’s the mystery embedded in these last verses. Is wisdom here merely an attribute of God personified, as most modern scholars assume, or is wisdom a person, a divine person, as older interpreters thought? The problem with the former is that wisdom was “born (verses 24 and 25)” before the world began. That resonates with the Johannine idea of God’s only begotten Son, the eternal Word made flesh. The problem with the latter understanding is that wisdom is also called the first of Yahweh’s works. That sounds like the Arian concept of the Son as the first creation of God– like God, but not God. I know that I’m reading later theological controversies into these words, but one can see how those theological controversies rose out of considerations of these texts.
I don’t think you can solve those controversies in your sermon, but you can show that wisdom predated creation. Before there was anything, back when everything was “without form and void,” wisdom was there with God. “I was there when” God “set the heavens in place… and when he marked out the foundations of the earth.”
In fact, God used his wisdom in creation. Wisdom was “the craftsman” at God’s side when God created the heavens and the earth and everything therein. Though the word “craftsman” is hard to translate, I like the image of God (the Father?) as the architect who designed the universe and wisdom (the Son?) as the builder who actually put it together. This surely fits with the language of John 1:3 and Colossians 1:16 and Hebrews 1:2.
Wisdom was not only instrumental, but even essential in the creation of the world. Wisdom not only shaped the world, but is even woven into the very fabric of reality. Here’s the reason it is so important to live by wisdom’s dictates—wisdom is reality, the way God made things. At the heart of the universe is not Chance, but Wisdom. The wisdom behind and in creation is the wisdom that makes life work.
Thus, Proverbs roots wisdom not in human observation and cogitation, but in the relationship between God and wisdom and the world. Life works best when it moves in the direction God has built into the structure of reality. So, when you don’t live wisely, you are going against the grain of the universe and you will get splinters.
I like that metaphor, but it isn’t the metaphor with which our text ends—not a piece of wood, but a playing child. Hubbard puts it this way: “Like a gleeful kid, wisdom is so excited by the majesty and power of the creation, that she jokes and laughs about it daily with the Creator, who takes exquisite delight in her jollity.” That might be a bit of a stretch, but the text does say that wisdom “was filled with delight day after day, rejoicing in his (God’s) presence, rejoicing in his whole world and delighting in mankind.”
Here’s a great picture of God’s motivation in creating the world and particularly mankind—delight, joy, a deep delight in simply being and a desire to share the joy of existence. Wisdom delights both in God’s presence and in God’s creation. At the heart of God and at the heart of humanity is delight. That’s what God intended.
Sadly, that’s not how things have developed. God’s heart was broken when humans chose the ultimate folly; “you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” The delight God designed for us has been replaced by death in multiple forms. God grieves the loss of delight, but he goes beyond grief. He sent his only begotten Son to save us from folly. Jesus Christ “has become for us wisdom from God—that is, our righteousness, holiness, and redemption (I Cor. 1:30).” Maybe we can’t prove that the wisdom in Proverbs 8 is the only begotten Son of God. But by God’s saving grace, we “know the mystery of God, namely, Christ, in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge (Col. 2:2,3).”
Like an engine without oil, life doesn’t work without wisdom. Like a cellphone underwater, life doesn’t work under the influence of folly.
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