by Batanayi I. Manyika

Prologue

The gravel under his dusty shoes crunches in chorus with his shuffling stride. Meandering and undulating, this road has passed through the dark and obscure. Still, he plods on, like a seeker arrested by conviction, navigating his way with fragments of wisdom borrowed from his kin. This road is lonely. The heat is harsh. The taste of salty sweat stings his tongue reminding him of when last he quenched his thirst. His brow gleams under a sun that menacingly scorches his crown as it lounges high in a cloudless sky. He walks alone. Ahead is a fork in the road, to the left, an elaborate dwelling with grand courtyard towering above leafy trees. It voices not but entices the eye. Wealth is written on its gates so tall. Its walls and beams hold a roof so broad, welcoming the stranger to the shade it spreads. Out walks a servant beaming with attractive smile, “Dame Folly is waiting, come and refresh yourself in her company,” she says in an alluring voice as her arms spread as if to embrace. Here, many have visited and ceased to be.[1] Dame Folly is an entertaining host but an awfully bad ‘friend’…

1. Wisdom and the Bible

Proverbs is part of a genre of biblical material called wisdom literature (Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and Job).[2] Like Ecclesiastes and Job, Proverbs treats life’s thorniest questions from a particular vantage point. Where Ecclesiastes introduces us to the concept of hebel (vapour, vanity, or idols)[3] via the words of Qoheleth (the Teacher),[4] and Job introduces us to the complex concepts of suffering and justice, Proverbs foregrounds causality pivoting on the concept of hokmah (wisdom). In Proverbs we are introduced to Wisdom, personified in a Lady who calls to all, inviting us to heed her invitation should we want to live well (Prov 8:1-36). Central to Lady Wisdom’s call is the indispensable premise of “the fear of the Lord.”[5] This healthy fear of Yahweh is the common thread uniting Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and Job. It tells us that when all is considered—whether good or bad—living fruitfully, meaningfully, and hopefully can only be achieved from a posture of humility and a sobering fear of God.

It would be amiss to limit our reflections to the Hebrew Bible. Instead, Lady Wisdom’s call diffuses into the New Testament, informing our understanding of discipleship and community at the most fundamental level. For example, James invites those of us bereft of wisdom to petition God (James 1:5):

If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given him.[6]

Comparably, Paul, in his letter to the Colossians, writes (Colossians 4:5):

Walk in wisdom toward outsiders, making the best use of the time.

Elsewhere, Luke invites early Christ-followers to use wisdom as a criterion for determining qualification for service (Acts 6:3):

Therefore, brothers, pick out from among you seven men of good repute, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we will appoint to this duty.

From these verses we see a thread that transcends time and culture, one in which Wisdom plays an integral role in shaping individuals and the church in our sacred service to God. However, this is not all. Wisdom’s refrain rings loudest and most sharply in the person of Christ. And so, to him we shall now turn.

2. Wisdom and the Christ

Proverbs 8:22-36 has received much scholarly attention and has led to disparate conclusions regarding the personification of Wisdom. Where some ask, “Is this an allusion to the second Person of the Trinity?” others ask, “Is this an attribute of God?” Still, others take the matter farther into the skeptical by asking “Is this a personification of a mythological deity?” To all three camps, we should sound a resounding, “no,” informed by the fact that personification is a common literary device in the Hebrew Bible (cf. Psalm 85:10-13; 89:10; and Ezek 23).[7] Nevertheless, the importance of wisdom for daily living is underscored and should in no way be diminished by discussions about how wisdom is classified—discussions that remain secondary to the call of Wisdom herself.

Speaking to different people, at a different time and occasion, Paul tells us that the Lord Jesus Christ is “the wisdom of God.” He writes (1 Cor 1:23-24);

23 but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, 24 but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.

We may venture as far as saying, the preaching of the cross of Jesus Christ is a refrain from Lady Wisdom’s call. Here, we hear the Gospel that bids us to repent of sin, to confess the Lordship of Christ, and to live in view of God’s mercy. Here, both Jew and Gentile are baptised into a unique epistemology that inverts and destabilizes established understandings of reality. While space does not permit me to speak of Lady Wisdom (Proverbs 8:22-36) and the Logos (John 1:1-18), it would suffice to say, when we heed Lady Wisdom’s call, we hear echoes of the Christ amplified and enshrined in the cross and resurrection.

3. Wisdom and Ministry

In the wake of sin and the abuse of power by high profile leaders in the church, and beyond, hearing Lady Wisdom’s call has never been more necessary. With the minister of the Gospel having to learn new terminology for them to navigate volatile social landscapes, hearing Lady Wisdom’s counsel has become acutely indispensable. Paradoxically, Gospel ministers are both conduits of God’s ministration and constituent members of God’s people. Therefore, how we hear Lady Wisdom should display this blended reality. Like the Gospel, that is both the means of our salvation and maturity in God (Col 1:21-23), Lady Wisdom’s call rings across frequencies to both those who have been brought near and to those still afar off (cf. Eph 2:13). To both camps, the invitation remains, may we hear Lady Wisdom’s call sobered by the fear of the Lord.

Epilogue

Across the road comes a self-assured hum; melodic and purposeful, it grows louder with each note.[8] Closer and sweeter it sounds as it nears the gate, bursting into unexpected staccato as it lowers in decibels. “This is no ordinary song, I have heard it before,” he says to himself.[9] His ears are flooded, his heart strangely warmed, as curiosity is piqued with every refrain. Out of the doorway to Dame Folly’s he walks, leaving the grand behind, declining hospitality as he scatters after the sound. The source—a woman, from across the way.[10] His thoughts settle as he remembers that his father hummed the same.[11] “Excuse me!” he shouts, “Are you Woman Wisdom?” Wearing a smile rich with tenderness and confidence, “I am,” she responds after a moment’s pause. “Yahweh and I have been waiting for you. Please join us for a meal.”[12] Words she says with arms wide open as she welcomes the pilgrim home again.[13]

[1] See Proverbs 1:12, 5:5, 7:27, 9:18.

[2] Although Proverbs, Psalms, and Ecclesiastes are here listed as wisdom sources, there are other types of wisdom sources in the Bible e.g., wisdom Psalms and wisdom snippets in the NT.

[3] Eccl 1:2, 14; 2:1, 11, 15, 17, 19, 21, 23, 26; 3:19; 4:7, 8, 16; 5:7, 10.

[4] Ecclesiastes 1:2.

[5] Proverbs 1:7, 29; 2:5; 8:13; 9:10; 10:27; 14:27; 15:16, 33; 16:6; 19:23; 22:4; 23:17.

[6] All Scripture citations are taken from the English Standard Version.

[7] For a fuller treatment of these debates, see Garrett, D. A. 1993. Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of songs: NAC (Vol. 14) Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, p. 111.

[8] Proverbs 8:4.

[9] Proverbs 9:13-18.

[10] See Proverbs 1:20-33; 8:1-21.

[11] This is an allusion to the phrase ‘my son’ or ‘my child’ seen in Proverbs 1:8, 1:10, 5:20, 31:2.

[12] Cf. Proverbs 9:1-6; 8:22-31.

[13] Cf. Proverbs 31:20.