We’re starting a new preaching/teaching series today.
If you were here for the Trinity and Creeds sermons, you heard me whining about Wisdom being left out of the divine Being’s three-in-one body. Wisdom should be the Son’s sister, Chokhma in Hebrew, or Sophia in Greek. But that wasn’t the way the patristic world saw things. And since it wasn’t, I am perhaps making the divine siblinghood up. But nevertheless, there is a strong Wisdom tradition throughout both the Hebrew and Christian scriptures, and we’re going to spend a little time there.
A couple years ago we worked through the book of Job. I’m not ready to return to him yet, but Job is one of the wisdom books. The wisdom tradition is strong in much of the gospel of John and in many of the sayings of Jesus in Matthew and the other the gospels of the New Testament.
The three books we will be highlighting in the next four weeks are ancient: Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and the Song of Solomon.
All three books are in the Writings, the part of the Hebrew Bible that is ordered after the Torah and Prophets, that includes, in general, the latest and last-canonized books of the Bible. The actual authors and writing dates are unknown. The language of Ecclesiastes dates (at least this form of it) to between 300 and 200 BCE. Scholars date Proverbs’ various parts from Solomon’s time in the 900’s BCE to its final editing in the 500’s BCE. But the Song of Songs wins. It dates anywhere from the early 13th century BCE in Mesopotamia to its final form in the 300’s BCE. Solomon may very well have contributed to any or all of these writings 3000 years ago.
Besides not knowing the authors or dates, Wisdom is old advice – really old! – and yet she speaks with a surprisingly modern inflection. We will hang with her for a few weeks.
These books don’t get a lot of preaching attention because they tend not to make much mention of God. Pastors like to preach about God. When Wisdom is in focus, the God of power and might and miracles is somewhere in the back 40, or has taken off his toga and slipped on his smoking jacket, sitting in an armchair by the fire with a pipe, giving sage advice, telling stories, sipping milk with honey.
Wisdom is not unique to the Hebrew scripture-tellers. The literary forms are borrowed from Egyptian, Sumerian, and other Aramaic poetry and proverbs. Wisdom was a central idea in Greek philosophy, in Platonic thought, and Gnosticism – all dualistic traditions in which the head rules the heart. For them, Knowledge is the highest virtue; and Wisdom the purest knowledge.
In a nuanced form of this, Orthodox Christianity, and my favorite, Christian mysticism, tended more to the poetic, embodied, experiential form of wisdom grown from different biblical root stock.
Especially from the late Middle Ages onward – with it’s mind over matter, rational-classification-system approach to all things – the Earth Mother goddess image of Wisdom was purified, leaving early biblical references and imagery of Wisdom as the consort to God on the cutting room floor – or at least at the back of the bookshelf and not brought out into polite society for Sunday sermons. She became Hagia Sophia – Christian’s Holy Wisdom. That’s not really the image the Bible paints. But we’ll hear from and about her next week.
In the 12th century, Bernard of Clairvaux wrote 86 sermons on the Song of Solomon – and never got past chapter 3!
In Hebrew understanding, Wisdom is not found in the head as the Greeks would attest, but rather in the heart and the will and in daily life. Hebrew wisdom is not theoretical; it is practical, it’s based on common-sense principles of right and wrong, on beauty and humility and awe. Insights drawn from the natural world are a source of knowledge about human society and revelations encoded within creation. The one who lives with an eye on God’s word, who knows the commands in their heart, and keeps their feet in the earth – this one is considered wise.
Proverbs, as a book to read, is best taken in small doses. With the exception of a few longer narratives, Proverbs is made up of two-liners that, in our day, show up in unfortunate places like roadside church signs. But they cover many topics:
“The poor are disliked even by their neighbors, but the rich have many friends.” 14:20
“Just as water reflects the face, so one human heart reflects another.” 27:19
“Like vinegar to the teeth, and smoke to the eyes, so are the lazy to their employers.” 10:26
“Like a gold ring in a pig’s snout is a beautiful woman without good sense.” 11:22
“Better is a dinner of vegetables where there is love, than a fatted ox and hatred with it.” 15:17
“Do not let her beauty in your heart, and do not let her capture you with her eyelashes; for a seductive woman’s fee is only a loaf of bread, but the wife of another stalks a man’s very life.” 6:25.
Solomon had problems with this last one even though his dad, King David, probably taught that lesson at length. A wanton woman or an adulterous man can bring down kingdoms – nothing much has changed in 3000 years.
The first verses of chapter 31 are unique in that the wise advice to King Lemuel is from his mother. She speaks of leadership qualities that, though ancient, many of us would wish for:
“No, my son! No, son of my womb! No, son of my vows! Do not give your strength to women, your ways to those who destroy kings. It is not for kings, O Lemuel, it is not for kings to drink wine, or for rulers to desire strong drink; or else they will drink and forget what has been decreed, and will pervert the rights of all the afflicted.
Give strong drink to one who is perishing, and wine to those in bitter distress; let them drink and forget their poverty, and remember their misery no more. Speak out for those who cannot speak, for the rights of all the destitute. Speak out, judge righteously, defend the rights of the poor and needy.”
Proverbs is an interesting book when it’s read in short spurts, but it’s not gripping reading. Ecclesiastes – other than the “for everything there is a season” part, is known by its melancholy refrain, “All is vanity, a chasing after the wind, and there is nothing new under the sun.” The Song of Solomon or Song of Songs, is love poetry that one would say might be better suited to a steamy romance novel than to Holy Writ. If you want to get confirmation students to pay attention, I’m told, give them a good battle scene from the book of Kings or have them read the love Song of Solomon. I haven’t tried it, but I think it would be flashlight reading once they caught on.
So, why in the world should we delve into this little backwater section of the Bible?
Well, why not? It is my opinionated belief that the main thing wrong with American Christianity is a complete lack of imagination for God’s character, for the scope and diversity of biblical images for God, and a lack of humility for the mysterium – the holy wonder. Too many people think they know what God is like because they have Jesus in their pocket and verses to quote for every situation.
We might hear something new in these books… you might be tempted to read something you’ve never read before. And that can’t be bad.
Proverbs is not concerned with issues of salvation, but with issues of how to live life in this world of God’s design, to have the good life that God intends for all people. This kind of common-sense wisdom is based not on revelation (there are no burning bushes or heavenly visions) but on experience and everyday observation.
Its task is character formation. Parents, Woman Wisdom … God … exhorts young people to do well by doing good; that is, to have “the good life” by exhibiting the virtues of honesty, hard work, self-control, and above all, the fear of the LORD. Every avenue of everyday life is fair game: economics, friends, family, work, sex, politics. As one commentator puts it, “The proverbs are spiritual guides for ordinary people, on an ordinary day, when water does not pour from rocks and angels do not come to lunch.”1 I really hope angels don’t knock on our door looking for lunch, but that’s my kind of spiritual guide. There is a problem with this innocent wisdom, though – bad things happen to good people. Israel had to deal with this after the Babylonian captivity. Job is the story of that and offers a counterpoint to the traditional view of action=consequence formula.
So, what is the good life?
How do you define it and how close have you come to living it? How big is the gap between your description of the good life and the life you live day to day? Can you bring to mind an image of you living the good life?
My mind immediately goes back to two summer images: One from my childhood of an ordinary summer day spent at our cottage on a small lake 20 miles from our “rest of the year” house. My dad couldn’t get coverage for vacations, so my parents built a summer cottage to help him pretend. I spent as much time as I could every summer reading on the screened porch and playing in and out of the lake. Until my first job, my summer wardrobe consisted of an always damp swimming suit and a sweatshirt. For an introvert at least, the cottage housed a perfect, peaceful, good life.
The other image fast forwards to our first 4 or 5 summers here. I read aloud to the kids every summer night on the porch of the parsonage. The hum of mosquitos, the call of loons, June bugs bouncing off the screens, reading late into the night to the light of dragonfly twinkle lights, the kids snuggled on the floor on cushions from the couch and living room chairs. That was the good life for me.
So, what is it for you? European travel? A little red convertible? Mortgage paid off? Being known, acknowledged in your profession or in an ideal job? A return to something or someone you’ve lost? Someone to love? A big meal with your best friends at the table? The garden in and weeded and a cool one in your hand on the porch?
How big is the gap between your ideal and your day to day? Has it changed in the past 5 years?
Would you say that your job or vocation is satisfying… that you’ve earned enough money to spend, save, and share without staying up too many nights wondering how the bills will get paid? Would you say you have enough possessions, enough food, enough financial security, enough toys, enough tools to succeed?
Would you say you have friends and relationships that you trust, that you take pleasure in, that you feel valued by and have value for?
Would you say you can get the care you need in an emergency or in illness? Would you say you have a sense of personal safety?
Would you say that life is good?
On a day to day basis in the beginning of summer I think most of us here would rate our life satisfaction as pretty high – crops and gardens are in (if never fully weeded), flowers are blooming, birds are singing, the woods smell exotic with honey locust and basswood and pine and fertile earth and the passing of the latest rain shower being drawn up into the sun. The lakes are alluring, golf courses are bright green… It’s hard to set foot outside and not feel a deep sense of contentment bordering on outright happiness.
Do you know how rare that is?
If this describes your feelings, do you know how rare you are?
I listened to On Point on NPR – Whatever Happened To Peace, Love And the American Summer Vacation? or How the US became the no-vacation nation. The program talked about our American workaholic culture where even those who can, don’t take vacations because of fear that someone who doesn’t will get ahead of them. Jobs go to, and stay with, the highest producing, highest pressurized employees who have no interests or time outside of their career. The program could also have looked at families who can’t afford to take a week off – to pay for the gas, the meals, the camping equipment or motel nights. Europeans look at us and shake their heads. They are expected to take a minimum of three weeks off. Everyone knows how unhealthy our system is personally and corporately, and still we play the game, blaming the economy – as year by year we ramp up the costs in depression and anxiety. We are the most medicated, counseled, addicted, escapist generation – ever.
Life is short. How close are you to your version of the good life?
Claire, Jay and I were at Synod Assembly last weekend and the thrust of the event was about growing the church young. Finding/creating new ways to be the church, paying attention to our context and the functional gifts and economics of fellowship and generosity, of reaching out to needs in the community, not just within our local church. Sounds like Wisdom, doesn’t it?
In national surveys, self-serving, narcissistic dissatisfaction seems to be the plight of those who have the means to enjoy the good life, and the the rest are working their fingers to the bone trying to catch up to this ideal. Simplicity and fellowship and transformative relationships may be our goals, but there always is too much to do before we can get there.
The good life is more than the easy cheerful life of nostalgic childhood, it is trust and hope and the observation of small joys and daily beauty even when the rest of your life feels like it’s falling apart. God may not be in the forefront in these stories or in the way we live and think about our lives, but wisdom begins with trusting that God is there, in all circumstances, for all circumstances.
How big is the gap between the life you live and the life you dream of? Whatever your circumstances, whatever your need, whatever your dream, it is perhaps a space God alone can fill.
3:13Happy are those who find wisdom, and those who get understanding, for her income is better than silver, and her revenue better than gold. She is more precious than jewels, and nothing you desire can compare with her. Her ways are ways of pleasantness, and all her paths are peace. She is a tree of life to those who lay hold of her; those who hold Wisdom fast are called happy.”
- Ellen F. Davis, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and the Song of Songs (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2000), p. 12.