Lady Wisdom Speaks

Scripture can be found here

Wisdom is a woman; the bible tells me so.

The book of Proverbs is part of the Bible we call “wisdom literature”; tradition tells us it was written by King Solomon. Tradition also tells us: Solomon wrote the Song of Songs, easily the sexiest book in the bible, when he was a young, hot-blooded man. And as his life drew to a close, when his blood was running cold in his veins, Solomon wrote Ecclesiastes, that book that tells us that all is vanity, and for everything there is a season—even death. 

But it was in midlife, when his blood was temperate and he had some real experience of the world, that Solomon wrote the book of Proverbs—probably for the purpose of educating the young who studied at the Temple. That’s the book we dip into today. And here in the first chapter, straight out of the gate, the King who, legend and scripture tells us, had in excess of 1000 wives, makes his case that wisdom is a woman.

I tried to ponder this week exactly what my earliest ideas about wisdom were. I think I always connected wisdom with quiet, with contemplation. I also connected it with certain spaces—a church, certainly, but also, nature. The depths of the ocean reminded me of wisdom, but also the deep umbrella that is the space under a weeping willow. Also, the summit of a mountain—a place that gives you a broad vista, or, as Anne with an E might say, scope for the imagination.

Woman Wisdom doesn’t seem to share any of these notions. She comes charging at us on a city street… think East Main Street at about 5 in the afternoon, everyone rushing somewhere. She uses her voice to take charge at the gates of the city.

Wisdom, apparently, isn’t something only for quiet and reflective times. Kathleen O’Connor, professor of Old Testament at Columbia Seminary, tells us,  

These are the sites of communal life, of the bustling relationships of daily life. This is where Wisdom demands to be heard, not in the privacy of homes, the sacredness of the Temple, or even the quiet recesses of souls. She calls for allegiance smack in the thick of work and play, at busy intersections where people gather, and at the city gates, where legal and commercial deals take place. Ordinary life with its drama and busy social exchanges, with its joys and disappointments, is Wisdom’s domain. In this … mundane life is the hallowed space, the sacred ground where one may encounter Wisdom itself, if one is attentive.[i]

Mundane life is the hallowed space, the sacred ground where we may encounter Wisdom itself. Or, Herself. 

I also want to say this: Lady Wisdom isn’t much concerned with her manners in this passage. She feels free to resort to name-calling. In fact, Wisdom has many of the characteristics of a prophet. And as a reminder: “Prophets” are not fortune-tellers. Prophets are truth-tellers. We get confused, and think that prophets are fortune-tellers, because sometimes they tell us what is going to happen if we stay on the same course we are presently following. But that’s what prophetic truth-telling does. It assesses the situation, and then tell us what will unfold… unless we heed their warnings.

This is what Wisdom does. She looks at those she calls simple or scoffers—those who don’t or won’t listen to her voice—and she tells them to listen to her voice. If they don’t, she predicts panic coming like a storm, calamity descending like a whirlwind, and distress and anguish overwhelming them. It sounds harsh. When giving words of warning, prophets tend to be harsh, because they are always offering another way, a better way, and they are using everything in their verbal and rhetorical arsenal to persuade their listeners to change, before it’s too late. There is God’s Wisdom, she says, and there is folly. You have to choose.

The tone Wisdom uses here is very similar to Jesus, in this morning’s passage from Mark. In the first part of the passage, Jesus is questioning his disciples… “Who do people say that I am? Who do you say that I am?” And the answer from his followers is, “the Messiah,” God’s anointed one, sent to the descendants of Abraham and Sarah. Jesus doesn’t contradict them, but he does silence them. He tells them, it isn’t quite the right time to say that out loud. Not yet.

And then Peter takes Jesus aside and lambastes him… rebukes him! Peter! Rebukes Jesus! And then… this is the part I’m talking about…where Jesus sounds a lot like Lady Wisdom… the “Get behind me, Satan” part. (For the record: Satan is a Hebrew word that means “tempter.” That’s how Jesus is using it here.) Out of my sight, Tempter, Jesus is saying. You’re ashamed of my words? You rebuke my words? I rebuke you. I’m ashamed of you, and I will be… even when the last scene is unfolding, and I’m returning in glory.

Woman Wisdom takes a strikingly similar tone with those who want none of what she’s offering. Panic, calamity, distress, and anguish will be on their plates, if they refuse the nourishing feast she is serving.

OK. So. We know. Wisdom good, scoffing and willful cluelessness bad.

But what exactly is Wisdom? O’Connor says that Wisdom, “calls everyone to a radical spirituality, to a way of being in the world and in right relationships.”[ii] But that doesn’t quite get at what—or Who—Wisdom is. Oprah Winfrey calls “Wisdom” “life-changing insights.”[iii] Another writer names Wisdom “the ever-searching, ever-calling, ever-challenging Spirit of God.”[iv] Wikipedia defines Wisdom as “the ability to think and act using knowledge, understanding, experience, common sense and insight,” and further states that it’s associated with compassion, experiential self-knowledge, non-attachment and virtues such as ethics and benevolence.”

I’m going to steal a phrase from Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart: We’re not going to further define Wisdom; but we know it when we see it.

Wisdom is knowing what to do no matter what’s just happened. Sometimes that means, doing nothing at all. Sometimes it means getting out the iodine and a box of Band-Aids. Sometimes it means waiting while the other person pours out their heart to you. Sometimes it means holding your beloved while heart beats its last. Sometimes it means saying just enough, and not too much.  

You don’t have to be old to be wise, but it can help. And yet, there’s plenty of evidence of children displaying wisdom. And you can be old as the hills, and not display a lick of sense, as someone once said in a movie. 

But where do we start? How do we begin, if we want to listen? We can start with a phrase we find in our passage—“[The foolish] did not choose the fear of the Lord”—but which gets a better, more thorough introduction in verse 7: “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of Wisdom.”

Now, this is when I would normally downplay that word, “fear,” and emphasize other synonyms. But we, my kin in Christ, are entirely powerless, in the grand scheme of God’s creation. Oh, we take mastery of this or that little bit of terrain, but it’s not long before the dishes in the sink piling up, or the return of the stalks of giant hogweed, or the cranky boss, or the painful alienation from our child, or worse, reminds us: We are powerless. Over most things, if not all of them.

And God, the God we gather to worship this warm fall day, the one whom we call Almighty, and Sovereign, and Creator of all that is, from the trees turning their bodies into pillars of light to the rolling hills they are making so beautiful…. you know where I’m going with this. It’s just good sense to tremble… just a bit…  at the thought of being in the presence of this God. Which we are. Right now. And every minute of every day.

And even though we are convinced that our God is a loving God, that our God is, in fact, love, and also that nothing in all creation can separate us from the love of this God… with all these things in view…

The fear of the Lord seems reasonable. You might even say, wise. 

Wisdom begins with the fear of the Lord. Another way of saying it: Wisdom begins with knowing the relative sizes of the universe and ourselves.

There is a difference between this fear and the fear you get when walking on a street you don’t know at night. O’Connor says,

“Fear of the Lord” does not mean sniveling in terror before God. The phrase is an ancient code for the proper behavior of the religious person in relation to God and creation. It involves awe, respect, and obedience; it summarizes righteous living. People who fear the Lord have their feet planted on the ground, see around them truthfully, and live in harmony with God and the world. The foolish, by contrast, are to be abandoned to “the fruit of their way…”[v]

What Lady Wisdom asks in this passage is that we listen.

We have to listen.

Wisdom grows in the hearts of those who are listening for it. So, we will hear it in the messy melee of everyday life… in the chaos of the grocery store, and the tension of a traffic jam, and the rough-and-tumble of disagreements with people we love. But we will also hear it in the spaces between those moments… when we remember, and evaluate, and say to ourselves, “this, and not that,” and make choices for ourselves. It is these choices choices that will help us to know our feet are firmly planted in on God’s beautiful earth, and our senses are taking in God’s wondrous world accurately, and we are in harmony—with God, with one another, and with ourselves.

Wisdom grows in our hearts when we are listening for it.  

All she asks is that we listen.

Thanks be to God. Amen!

[i] Kathleen M. O’Connor, “Proverbs 1:20-33, Exegetical Perspective,” Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year B, Volume 4, David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, Editors, ouisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 53.

[ii] O’Connor, op. cit., 51.

[iii] Oprah Winfrey, The Wisdom of Sundays: Life-Changing Insights from Super Soul Conversations (New York, NY: Flatiron Books, 2017), 10-11.

[iv] H. James Hopkins, “Proverbs 1:20-33, Homiletical Perspective,” op. cit., 51.

[v] O’Connor, op. cit., 55.