Knowing Wisdom, Knowing Jesus
Mistaken Attitudes to Proverbs
Last year I was surprised to discover that my youth group's favourite Bible book was Proverbs. I asked the teenagers why this was so. The reason turned out to be that, ‘Proverbs is easier to read than the others, it is more relevant to normal life.' Rather than ponderous theology and obscure names, Proverbs ‘just tells me what to do.'
Many people harbour similar attitudes to Proverbs. The book is seen to be a collection of advice to follow. As such it is easy to apply - just do what it says! On this view Proverbs sits rather loose to salvation history and is a bit of a spiritual squatter in the home of Bible Overviews. Proverbs may seem to offer immediate and easy application to eager readers, but the application is done in a way that leads to godliness being created through some method other than the Gospel logic that we know permeates the rest of Scripture.
The Difference Biblical Theology makes
By discerning the shape of the entire Bible story, Biblical Theology helps us see what the emphasis of the whole Bible is. If this is done, one of the first and most obvious emphases in the Bible is the emphasis on God. The book is about God. It tells us about God's character, actions and plans. Certainly, it is a book written to people, but a grasp of Biblical Theology should make it clear that while it is written to us it is not about us. God's plans involve and concern us- but they are uncompromisingly God's plans and not ours!
Much of modern Christianity is man-centred rather than God-centred, and this affects Bible reading. Bits of the Bible are selected and read in a way that makes people the main players in the story- when in actual fact God is the star. If we select an individual passage and read it in isolation from the rest of Scripture, it may appear as if God is not the central character. Biblical Theology is then crucial, as it guards us from being led by appearances in a single instance, which can make us interpret a passage in a way that runs against the emphasis of the whole Bible. Reflecting on Biblical Theology thus led me to question popular attitudes to Proverbs. Is it likely that there is a book in the Bible that focuses on human behaviour and gives guidelines for living that in some way are more direct than the usual approach of the rest of Scripture? The grid of ‘advice for living sensibly' is really a human centred method of reading Proverbs that does not sit well with the emphasis of the rest of Scripture.
Thinking along these lines made me read through Proverbs searching for any clues to the aim of the book. Proverbs 22:17-19 was a key find-
"Incline your ear, and hear the words of the wise, and apply your heart to knowledge, for it will be pleasant if you keep them within you, if all of them are ready on your lips. That your trust may be in the LORD, I have made them known to you today, even to you."
These verses are important as they state that the purpose of knowing Proverbs is not to provide advice for day to day living, but rather so that one may trust in the LORD. Like the rest of Scripture, Proverbs reveals the personal God and calls on us to trust in Him. God invites us to enjoy a personal relationship with Him. Living in relationship with God has very practical effects in our daily living. Proverbs does have a distinctive practical focus on daily life, but this teaching must be understood in the context of a Wisdom book that aims to call us into relationship with God. The proverbs make practical demands on our living, but they do so using the relational ‘gospel logic' that permeates the rest of Scripture.
Excursus: Gospel Logic
(By Gospel logic I mean the idea that the Gospel is presented in both Old and New Testaments, but in the former is done so in the form of types, promises, shadows and events. In the latter it is revealed clearly in the person and work of Jesus and the Word of His apostles. The actual Gospel that is presented is the same in the essential components or logic, but the form of proclamation varies. There is much more that could be said on this- introducing the factors of progressive revelation and the interlocking nature of the old and new covenants makes the situation more complex. However I have found that thinking of an essential ‘Gospel logic' that undergirds the entire Bible, very helpful in working out how to begin preaching Biblical Theology. In essence I am advocating an application of reformed covenantal theology to preaching individual texts. In the past I suspect it has been used more in the construction of dogmatics, rather than the handling of texts in preaching. See the bibliography for details of the section of Calvin's Institutes that prompted this line of thought to me.)
Our desire to quickly leap to practical application is often an approach that short circuits Biblical Theology. Proverbs is a book especially prone to this reading. Biblical Theology helps us understand Proverbs as a book that while distinctive, shares with the rest of Scripture a focus on calling people into relationship with God. This thesis could be defended further by thinking about the personal nature of the ‘Fear of God' (c.f. ‘Fear of Christ' mentioned only once in the New Testament but obscured by most English translations; Eph. 5:21), the nature of Solomon's Kingship and the rule of Jesus Christ our Wisdom (1 Cor. 1:30). However for our purposes it will be enough to say that Biblical Theology forces us to read individual proverbs in the context of the book Proverbs, and Proverbs in the light of the whole Bible story. As I have done this in my personal reading, I have rediscovered Proverbs as a book that stirs up trust in the God who is Wisdom, deepening love, fear and knowledge of Jesus, who has become our Wisdom.
I felt that a good way to help people read Proverbs as a book about having a relationship with God would be to preach one of the passages that introduces us to the person of Wisdom, with whom we are invited to have a relationship.
Sermon Shape and Outline
The structure I used for Proverbs 1:20-33 was:
1. Wisdom shouts out v 20-23
2.Suicide of the simple v 21-32
3. Safety of the Listener v33
The passage presents the woman Wisdom calling out to people demanding that they listen to her. In the introduction to the sermon I used the idea of voices calling to us in the city as a bridge to the present culture of postmodernism-
"The city is such a noisy place, so many people seeking our attention. Advertisers, films and friends. Lots of voices with advice on how we must live. How to be popular, how to get the right job, how to make money, how to look good. So many voices the noise can be deafening. It is the same in the area of religion- go into the bookshop and you see all the options, Buddhism, Christianity, Islam, New Age, Scientology, or a mixture of them all? So many choices, so many options. It is no surprise that lots of people are fooled into thinking there is no one right way to live. Above all the noise of the city, above all the lifestyle options and advice, above all that, the voice of a woman is shouting at us tonight. She claims to know the only way we can truly live. The woman is called Wisdom. Look at what she is doing- (Read v20-21)"
This introduction suggested to the listener that the common idea of many paths to God is not correct- but does so in a way that reflects the feel and texture of Proverbs 1. Throughout the sermon I am attempting to present the person of Wisdom. If Proverbs encourages us to trust in God, in the form of Wisdom, then the conviction and passion of her speech will stir up a personal faith in Wisdom.
Wisdom Shouts Out! v20-23
I drew attention to the descriptions of what the woman Wisdom is doing- crying out, raising her voice, shouting and speaking. Then I asked the listeners where they would expect God's Wisdom to be found- religious places perhaps? Cathedrals and churches, amongst the ministers and monks? The surprise is that God's Wisdom comes down to the places of commerce and business- the markets, noisy streets and city gates. In other words God comes looking for us and gets involved in the ordinary things of our lives.
Up to this point I have endeavoured to present Wisdom in a very positive light- her attitude and actions thus far are compelling, so the following came as an intriguing twist to the congregation-
"It is very strange, but this woman Wisdom is confused! She is God's Wisdom and yet she is confused. Have you noticed what she is confused about? She can't understand why people ignore her! Look at v22...Do you hear her confusion ‘How long, How long' she cries!"
At this stage in the sermon it was necessary to explain that the ‘fool' in Proverbs is a moral rebel against God and not somebody who lacks brains. (Derek Kidner gives an excellent study of the term in his commentary.)
I resisted the temptation to jump to the New Testament to show people that Jesus is God's Wisdom. Before I made that link I wanted to have thoroughly presented Wisdom on Proverbs' terms. The detail of Proverbs 1 expands our vision of Jesus. Too often preachers think the power of Bi blical Theology preaching lies in the fact that Jesus fulfils the OT. I am of the opinion that the power lies in the way Jesus fulfils the OT, and the way the OT points to Jesus. If I leap to the Jesus fulfilment too quickly, I will not spend enough time exploring the texture and detail of the OT text. To the extent that I fail to grasp the wonder of the Proverbs presentation of Wisdom, I will fail to see the wonder of how Jesus comes to us as Wisdom fulfilled and incarnate. Thus my views on Biblical Theology are actually forcing me to spend more time on the OT text and making me hold back from exposing the redemptive historical framework too early!
People often complain that Biblical Theological preaching is repetitive and always ends up saying the same thing- ‘Look Jesus fulfils the OT so we can trust him.' Some preachers do preach like this- and it is boring after you have heard it a few times. The solution is not less Biblical Theology but better Biblical Theology, that makes us see in the detail of the OT fresh perspectives on Jesus who fulfils it.
While I stayed in the OT text, I did make some other Biblical Theology links to help people see some of the ways Proverbs fits the rest of Scripture. So I pointed out that in v23 listening to Wisdom results in having her Spirit poured out on us and her Words made known to us. This is new covenant language- more commonly noticed in Jer 31 and Ezk 36.
By this point in the sermon people have been introduced to the person of Wisdom and understand what she is doing. Before moving on to look at exactly what she is saying I made a pastoral application of what has been said thus far-
"People reject God's Wisdom for all kinds of reasons. We know friends who are able to ignore God so easily. Perhaps they refuse to come to a meeting with you or refuse to read a book you offer them. Proverbs 1 lets us see how the heart of God views people ignoring Him. We are watching a tragic movie scene. The beautiful woman in the busy city street. She is calling out to passers by, begging them to listen to her. Grasping at their coats and shouting after them as they walk on. She has such vital things to say- but nobody cares. They are just too busy; work, family and things to do. The pain and frustration this woman feels is the pain and frustration of the God who begs people to listen to Him. Understand that the heart of God is pained by people ignoring Him."
Suicide of the Fool v24-32
I wanted people to see the futility and foolishness of the people who ignore Wisdom's call. To help do this I asked people to pick out the words that describe people's response- ‘refused to listen', ‘ignored', ‘have none of' it. Grasping the sheer pathetic pathos of the situation is important in order to enter into the mindset of the passage, so I took the time to include an illustration on the point-
"When I was a child I refused to learn my times tables. I told my parents that I knew all the maths I needed- I thought I was so clever. I remember sitting in the kitchen with folded arms- I did not care that I was punished by not being allowed to go on holiday. I did not care what anybody said to me- I would not listen. As I look back on that scene I have to say that what I see is a pathetic little boy. And as we look at the woman Wisdom in the street- the passers by think she is so pathetic, but who is really the pathetic one in this scene?"
v26-28 shows us Wisdom's response to people's rejection of her. I found these verses great for dealing with popular misconceptions of how God treats our ignoring of Him. The thing that amazed me as I studied these verses was how ‘preachable' they are! To make it live you just need to highlight the actual words-
"We think we will be safe for ever- but there is a ‘terror' coming. It will come upon us like a ‘whirlwind' and a ‘storm' that causes ‘anguish.' People think God will let us off in the end- He won't! In fact it is time we bin the idea that God is a benign old man who would not hurt a fly- when the ‘anguish' comes upon us what will He do? ‘Laugh' at and ‘mock' those who mocked His Wisdom."
If Wisdom has been introduced in a powerful way from v1-25 and people's ignoring of her has been revealed for the foolishness it is, then Wisdom's mocking comes across to people as just and fair. People who ignore God are not morally neutral- they make a ‘choice' and they ‘hate knowledge of God' (v29). We need to address these issues of eternal destiny and God's response to rebellion, as they are softened so much in our postmodern generation. The story of Wisdom in Proverbs 1 gives us a picture that preaches the Gospel in a fresh way.
I concluded the section as follows-
"Well, the woman has made a depressing speech. It is a tragedy. The tragedy is that people will not listen to her! I guess that by v32 she is exhausted. All her energy spent shouting at the business people in the street. They just don't care! Perhaps she leans against the wall of the city bank. Maybe she just slumps by the side of the road. She sums up the sheer stupidity of the passers by who ignored her words- ‘The simple are killed by their turning away, and the complacency of fools destroys them.' Do you get the shock of it? People kill themselves by being complacent. By not bothering to make the effort to listen to God's Wisdom we commit suicide. The irony is biting; we think we will enjoy life by grasping at pleasure and we leave God out of the picture. In reality our foolish ignoring of God's Wisdom is the suicide of a fool."
Safety of the Listener v33
There are nine verses on the suicide of the fool. There is only one verse on the alternative. The other option is this- Listen and live! The simplicity and brevity of v33 compared to the lengthy speech that precedes it can be used to emphasise the appeal-
"Only one verse on how to avoid the suicide. Look at it carefully! What does it say? One thing, such an easy thing- Listen!"
Throughout the sermon I have assumed the Biblical Theology structure that leads us to see that Jesus is God's Wisdom in fulfilment and perfection. It was present in my own study and reading, but not shown in a pointed way to the congregation during the bulk of the sermon. In this concluding section I turned to Matthew 11:19 to show that Jesus is God's Wisdom. I encouraged people to listen to Jesus- God's Wisdom who keeps safe from the coming disaster all who listen to Him.
The power of the sermon lies not in the fact that I can flip to a verse in the New Testament and show that Jesus is Wisdom, rather it lies in the way Proverbs 1 fills out our understanding of Jesus. Jesus searches for the lost in the normal places of daily life, Jesus repeatedly calls on people to listen to his warning of coming disaster. Jesus is patient and generous, but one day his patience will run out and he will mock those who mocked Him. Listening to Jesus, being rescued from a fearsome fate, the moral foolishness of rebellion and the wonderful safety of whoever comes to Him- Is this not the same Gospel as we know from places such as John 3:16, presented to us in the language of Proverbs?
Is Biblical Theology Boring and Repetitive?
This is the most common accusation against the type of preaching being advocated here- People say that every sermon will end up being the same message. In response I would say that POOR Biblical Theology Preaching is boring! What we need is better Biblical Theology, not less.
I suspect that the thing that makes for poor and boring Biblical Theology Preaching is the idea that what makes the sermon ‘tick' is the turning of pages to the New Testament. The preacher imagines that people will be excited to hear, ‘Look- on p192 we see that the Old Testament passage is really about Jesus!' When this approach is taken people are waiting for the jump to the New Testament, and the Old Testament passage is simply being used as a spring board to jump off into the fulfilment.
In this sermon on Proverbs I have tried to show that as the Gospel Logic is present in the Old Testament, we can preach the Gospel from anywhere in the Bible, so long as we see what ‘clothes' a passage has dressed the Gospel up in. Here the Gospel is presented as Wisdom. In other places it is presented in the form of a battle, a struggle for Kingship etc. This means that the preacher should be focusing on the detail of the Old Testament passage. The detail is what makes the passage unique, and if the Gospel can be preached from the original text there is no need to feel one must pass over the detail to jump to a fulfilment passage. Thus were I to preach a series on Proverbs, each sermon would be different due to the differences between the passages in Proverbs- not because I jumped to various different verses in the New Testament. The preacher is freed to enjoy the Old Testament as he sees the Gospel presented there in many interesting and engaging ways. If you are not convinced that the Gospel is revealed in the Old Testament, do meditate on Gal 3:8, Heb 4:2 and have a look at the section of Calvin's Institutes mentioned in the Bibliography.
How Biblical Theology challenges popular views of Wisdom
Ours is a pragmatic age. People want to know if something works, not if it is true. It is often thought that for Christians ‘Wisdom' means either pragmatism or something sensible. The former is clearly refuted by the above writing- Biblical Wisdom involves being caught up into a relationship with the God who is Wisdom. That is not something that a person can work out by pragmatism, it must be a response to the words God speaks.
What about the other common view of Wisdom- that it is something sensible, something that is not quite sin but will have undesirable consequences? For example it is sometimes said that for a Christian to do something that is not explicitly forbidden in Scripture is not a sin, but it is unwise. Doing the unwise thing may have undesirable consequences but it cannot be viewed as serious as actual sin. A good example of a decision classed as ‘unwise' in this manner is marrying somebody who is a Christian but is not as mature or enthusiastic in the living out of their faith as they could be. The Bible does not forbid marrying such a person- therefore (it is said) it cannot be sin, even if it may be unwise.
I would suggest that this approach has weakened our understanding of what Biblical Wisdom is. Biblical Wisdom is a Gospel category- it is about relating to God rightly. To be wise is to love the things God loves, to make decisions with His priorities and concerns. To be unwise is to fail to relate to God the way we ought- in other words it is to sin. A person who acts unwisely is sinning- and we need to take that into account in our pastoral advice.
Obviously we will all continue to sin all of our lives. The wisdom of God's Spirit dwells in us but the false wisdom of our flesh and the world continue to drag us into sinful patterns of behaviour. Acting in a way that goes against the Wisdom of God does not necessarily mean we are not Christians- it just means we are people this side of heaven who have to battle with sin. However, the person who makes an unwise decision, as in the above situation, would be helped if they asked themselves what it is they are loving more than God's priorities. If I am a person in relationship with the one who is Wisdom- I need to give all of my strength to living wisely; reflecting Jesus' wisdom and knowing that He is concerned with all aspects of my life.
Biblical Theology presents Wisdom as something more than sensible advice; a Gospel category which should shape the Gospel life. Wisdom is the word from the all Wise God by which He graciously helps us live in relationship with Jesus. As we reflect on God's Wisdom the details of our unwise lives are challenged, and Jesus promises us, "If you turn at my reproof, I will pour out my Spirit on you and make my words known to you." (Proverbs 1:23)
The Tree of Life. Reading Proverbs Today, Graeme Goldsworthy, AIO, 1993
Gospel and Wisdom, Graeme Goldsworthy, Paternoster Press
Both of these books are essential reading for thinking about Proverbs from a Biblical Theology perspective. ‘Tree of Life' has some excellent sections that suggest ways the text links to Jesus, and the motif of Jesus as ‘Wise Israelite' is a helpful addition to more commonly known motifs such as ‘Prophet'.
‘Gospel and Wisdom' looks at each of the Wisdom books in turn. I think the great strength of this book is that it helps the reader see the distinctive contribution of each Wisdom book. Academic scholarship still has the habit of pitting the wisdom books against each other and imagining that in so doing something clever and interesting has been achieved! Goldsworthy is a welcome antidote.
Proverbs. An Introduction and Commentary, Derek Kidner, IVP, 1964
Kidner often has useful cross references and is good on the detail of Hebrew words in individual verses. Very good introduction that includes an over view of the ‘characters' you will meet in Proverbs.
John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, 1559, II . ix-xi
One of Calvin's key contributions to Theology was his work on the relationships between the Word and listener, and between the Old Testament and New Testament. Luther had established that the true meaning in a text was the literal meaning rather than an allegorical meaning, but it was Calvin who took the argument on to show that the literal meaning was the Gospel. The covenantal structure of the Bible meant that the Gospel could be reached via literal exegesis that took note of the Biblical Theological structure of the Bible- rather than via fanciful allegory. The section of short chapters need to be read as a whole- each is one part of a balanced theology and we must be careful not to play one chapter off against the other.
- 1 Corinthians
- 1 John
- 1 Samuel
- 1 Timothy
- 2 John
- 2 Kings
- 2 Samuel
- 3 John
- Biblical Theology
- New Testament
- Old Testament
- Old Testament Theology
- Song of Songs
- Wisdom Literature