Sunday, July 23, 2023

Sermon: "Word & Wisdom", Proverbs 8:12-31 (July 23, 2023)

Human beings seem to have a near-universal desire to share wisdom with each other. Every major life event is marked with an avalanche of advice, from high school graduation to a new job to marriage to buying a house to retirement. Such wisdom-sharing can be informal, offered as an off-handed comment over coffee or an axiom accompanied by a knowing glance, or it can take a more ritualistic form, as a party game at a wedding shower or a formalized Ethical Will. These insights might not always be received gratefully, but nevertheless, we insist on offering them at every opportunity.

The drive to share wisdom is so entrenched in human nature that an entire genre of writing developed during the 3rd century BCE in response – Wisdom Literature. The ancient Hebrews, like many of their near eastern peers, wrote Wisdom Literature of their own. Fragments belonging to this particular genre can be found throughout the Bible, but there are four canonical books that are generally considered Wisdom Texts in their entirety: Proverbs, Job, Song of Solomon, and Ecclesiastes. Over the next four weeks, we’ll be exploring each of these in turn to learn more about this genre and discover what it has to teach us.

But before we discover what we can learn from biblical Wisdom literature, we first have to figure out what Wisdom actually is and why we feel so compelled to share it. Fortunately, while the majority of the book of Proverbs is made up of…well…proverbs…it also contains some rich descriptions that offer insights about Wisdom from the Hebrew perspective. UNfortunately, it doesn’t just come right out and TELL us what Wisdom is; it sprinkles hints throughout the book like a poetic scavenger hunt. So let’s do some digging into the text to see what we can discover…

The first half of today’s reading gives us a list of Wisdom’s usual companions – essentially, what you can expect when you hang out with her. “I dwell with prudence,” she says, “I have found knowledge and discretion…I have advice and ability, as well as understanding and strength.” Okay, so Wisdom isn’t the SAME as any of these things, but there’s some sort of relationship there. She continues: “I hate pride and arrogance, the path of evil and corrupt speech…” On the other hand, “I walk on the way of righteousness, on the paths of justice.” Wisdom is oriented away from the self and towards the values of Israel’s God. Nothing especially unexpected so far – but also, nothing particularly insightful.

But then we get to the second half of the reading, and things get interesting. Personified Wisdom recounts, in her own words, her “origin” and her role in creation. “I was formed in ancient times, at the beginning, before the earth was,” she proclaims. “I was beside [God] as a master of crafts. I was having fun, smiling before God all the time, frolicking with [God’s] inhabited earth, and delighting in the human race.” The most common interpretation of this passage is that Wisdom is the “firstborn of all creation”: an instrument invented by God through which the world and everything in it would be made.

But it turns out that there’s a lot of ambiguity in these verses. The meaning of the words translated here as “created”, “formed”, and “brought forth” aren’t clear at all in the original language, so every translator has to make a choice. Each possible choice leads to a dramatically different – and occasionally misleading – theological interpretation. For example, the word translated as “created” here is entirely different than the one used to describe God’s acts in Genesis’ creation stories: “qana” as opposed to “bara”. So the very first thing Wisdom tells us about herself is that she has an entirely different relationship with God than creation does.

While “created”, “formed”, and “brought forth” ARE valid translations for the words used to describe Wisdom here, their other meanings (like “possessed”, “begotten”, “established”, or “poured out”) convey very different things. There are other Hebrew words that would have expressed these ideas much more definitively. [1] If it was the writer’s intention to describe Wisdom as something created by God, why not use those?

And then there’s the Hebrew word for Wisdom itself – Hokmah. Hokmah is almost always translated as “wisdom” in the First Testament, but, like so many other words in this passage, it has multiple dimensions of meaning. It can also mean “skill” or “mastery”, implying both an element of deep understanding and utter control in the act of creation. When thinking about Hokmah in this passage, we shouldn’t just be thinking about its primary meaning; we should be imagining how its various other meanings interact with one another and what that can tell us about Hokmah’s role in creation. Can you think of any other terms in scripture that we approach in this same way?

What if I were to say, “In the beginning was the WORD, and the WORD was with God, and the WORD was God…”?

As Christians, we’re used to thinking about the Greek word “logos” in this same way. Its most common meaning is “word”, but it also suggests “order”, “logic”, “reason”, or “mandate”, among MANY other things. And thanks to John’s gospel, we also readily associate “logos” with the second person of the Trinity without a second thought – “The Word was with God in the beginning. Everything came into being through the Word, and without the Word, nothing came into being.” The Word isn’t JUST a description of God’s nature here; the Word IS Godself!

Over the centuries, the idea of Wisdom being the first of God’s creation has come to be the Church’s standard understanding, but this hasn’t always been the case. Early Christians actually considered the incarnation to be of God’s HOKMAH, long before they began to associate Christ with God’s LOGOS. It makes sense: Jesus told stories and taught just as much, if not more often, than he talked about order and law. Once you dig more deeply into these scriptures, it becomes harder not to see Wisdom, just like John’s Logos, as an active participant in creation:

“The Word was with God in the beginning;/I was there when the Lord established the heavens…” “Everything came into being through the Word/I was beside the Lord as a master of crafts…” These two texts, written a thousand years apart, seem to be communicating the same message: just as the Word somehow IS God, so, too, is Wisdom![2]

It turns out that Wisdom isn’t something we can possess at all; Wisdom is a way that we encounter God. And not just an ASPECT of God, but GODSELF! Just as God is found in Love, and so we cannot love apart from God, just as God is found in the Order of the universe, and so we cannot understand that order apart from God, God is found in Wisdom, and so we cannot act in wisdom apart from God. When we embrace wisdom, we embrace God; when we reject wisdom, we reject God.

It’s important to understand, of course, that not everything that we might call “wisdom” is actually of God, just as not every word we utter has God as its origin. There are times that we might share information out of a sense of superiority or in the hopes of proving someone else wrong. But while we might think of it as wisdom, that doesn’t make it so. Remember, Wisdom hates pride and arrogance; she rejects the path of evil and corrupt speech. True wisdom is always shared out of love and a desire to improve another person’s life – that’s what makes it an encounter with the divine. Wisdom is never an opportunity for self-aggrandizement; it’s actually an unassuming act of evangelism.

So, whether we realize it or not, we’ve arrived at an explanation as to why human beings are so eager to share wisdom with one another: we aren’t meant to keep God to ourselves. We somehow know, deep in our hearts, that Wisdom hoarded is Wisdom wasted. And so, its sharing becomes, like the sharing of God’s Word, a mandate for those of us who are called to love both our neighbor and our enemy. Wisdom necessarily compels us to do something with it – good stewardship of that small piece of the divine which has been entrusted to us.

When we approach the sharing of Wisdom with an attitude of responsibility, humility, and love, miracles can happen. When we share the Wisdom we’ve been given about caring for the Earth, we can help it heal. When we share the Wisdom we’ve been given about the value of each person, we can defeat fascism. When we share the Wisdom we’ve been given about the breadth of God’s kindom, we can feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and welcome the stranger. When we share – and live – divine Wisdom, we ensure that God is known throughout the world, and that God’s will IS done on earth as it is in heaven.

In a few minutes, it’ll be time for the offering. This week, as we use this time to consider what God may be calling us to give back, of our financial resources or otherwise, I want you to also consider what Wisdom God may be calling you to share. There should be several pieces of paper in each row – take a moment to write down the piece of Wisdom that you most cherish, the one that’s most significantly changed your life for the better. Then, during the offertory, you can bring them forward and put them in the offering plate (along with your offering, if you wish). I’ll read them aloud during the prayers of the people as a way for us to invoke and share God’s presence in our lives with one another.

As we continue reading wisdom literature over the next few weeks, let’s work to reframe the way we imagine Wisdom. Don’t think about it as something to be accumulated for yourself, but as God giving of God’s very self for you, so that you might pass it on to others. God’s giving of Holy Wisdom is a sacrificial gift just as surely as both the Word and the Cross, and we should honor it as such. May Holy Mother Wisdom guide us as we share these gifts for her – that is, God’s – greater glory. Amen.


[1] Christine Roy Yoder, “Proverbs”, Women’s Bible Commentary (Third Edition), p. 236.

[2] It's worth noting that this isn’t, of course, how the ancient Hebrews would have understood this passage of Proverbs at all. This interpretation never would have occurred to them. The idea of the Trinity was developed over several centuries, and it wasn’t established as Church Doctrine until 325 CE. This isn’t THE way to understand this passage, just A way. But we each bring our own understanding to how we interpret the text, and OUR understanding is deeply informed by the New Testament. And you have to admit that the parallels are striking.

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