We’re starting a new sermon series today. Over the course of the next few months, we'll be looking at three books in the OT or Hebrew Bible which are classified as Wisdom books: Proverbs, Job, and Ecclesiastes, talking not only about what these books share in common, but also about the unique perspective offered by each.
It’s among my favorite parts of the Bible, but interestingly, biblical Wisdom Literature is not often preached in the average church, perhaps because it stands out in such sharp contrast to the rest of the Scriptures. Wisdom has been called an "orphan" in the canon (Crenshaw), something "alien" to the rest of the Scriptures" (Gese). It has been said that if the rest of the Bible is sacred, wisdom is secular. In one of its more memorable slams, it has even been argued that wisdom literature is "devoid of revelatory content, paganism pure and simple." (Now if that doesn't make you want to go out and read these books, I don't know what will!)
Why use terms such as secular or pagan to describe this portion of the Bible? Simply because many of the more common biblical themes and theologies are absent here. Instead of divine rewards and punishments, wisdom literature spends a lot of time discussing life in the human sphere, maintaining that human actions have human consequences, that we generally reap what we sow. Instead of focusing in particular on the chosen people of Israel, wisdom has a more international flavor. There are many similarities between, for instance, the biblical books of Proverbs and Job and wisdom literature from elsewhere in the Ancient Near East, particularly the literature of Egypt. And while wisdom is not ethnocentric, focused on one particular nation or culture, it is highly anthropocentric--that is, it focuses on human wisdom, human knowledge, the place of humanity in the created order. All of this is strikingly different from much of the rest of the Hebrew Bible, or Old Testament.
But it is precisely the kinds of traits about Wisdom Literature which have sometimes led it to be considered a kind of lesser cousin to other biblical books that can actually make it so fresh and relevant. Wisdom is the epitome of practical theology. It's down to earth. If the ten commandments, the law given by God at Sinai, is wisdom from above, then the books of Proverbs, Job, and Ecclesiastes offer wisdom from below. Human experience, human knowledge, human observation are highly esteemed in Wisdom Literature. So while in the ten commandments, for instance, the dominant notes you’d hear would be "thou shalts" and "thus says the Lords," in the wisdom books we find elders, parents, teachers speaking to their children and students about what they've observed about the world, sharing what they've learned through their own life experience.
Wisdom literature is also in some ways the easiest to translate for those outside the culture of the church. Perhaps more than any other portion of the Old Testament, it is a helpful basis for ecumenical and interfaith dialogue because its focus is less narrowly Israelite. It repeatedly identifies God as Creator of the whole world and is fascinated with all aspects of the created order. It wrestles deeply with universal human questions about the goodness of God in the face of suffering, questions to which we will return in subsequent weeks when we focus on the books of Job and Ecclesiastes. And wisdom literature also deals with other more mundane subjects that we all share in common: how to get along on the job, how to raise our kids, how to respect our parents.
That Proverbs in particular is a practical book is without question, and we’ll see ample evidence of this over the next few weeks. What has not always been appreciated is how deeply theological it is as well--thus all the worry about it being pagan and secular. But in the midst of warnings about peer pressure and instructions for how to behave around court officials is quite a lot of God-talk.
For in Proverbs wisdom isn’t just another word for smarts. Biblical wisdom has as its starting point, its goal, its whole orientation, the fear of the Lord. We just read it– “the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.” It’s a saying that’s turns up quite a lot in Proverbs. “The fear of the Lord is not the fear of imminent punishment,” mind you, but an acknowledgement that God is the source of all things – including all the insights that guide the community. It’s a reminder that for all its down-to-earth practicality the wisdom tradition remains deeply rooted in faith. It’s a reminder that human understanding is limited. It’s a reminder that wisdom is never possible apart from God.
In other words, true wisdom both assumes and requires worship of the living God. And to place that above all else is to be about as consistent with biblical theology as we can be. God as our number one priority. God’s grace and love surpassing every other great, good thing in our lives. Our desire to glorify God being our “chief end” in this world. Insofar as Wisdom is defined as knowing our place before God, understanding God’s power, recognizing God at work in the world—in other words, as the fear of the Lord—then we’re right on target. Nothing we desire could possibly compare with that.
What a healthy reminder. For certainly there are practices in the church that are not consciously theological. And there can be theology which is not particularly practical. But at our best, we should attempt to balance the two. The Wisdom literature of the Hebrew Bible reminds us that our faith is not only about transcendent, other-worldly things, but is also about the practical issues of daily church life. The biblical record not only passes on to us the great events of salvation history but also relates quite directly to this world, to the kinds of issues we deal with everyday. And so the announcements we hear on Sunday mornings, the business addressed in our committees, the content of youth group discussions and congregational meetings--all of this can be understood to be practical theology, the working out of wisdom we've learned from the pages of Scripture, from our elders and parents, and from our own life experience as people of God.
After all, as we page through a church newsletter, sit in on a church meeting, or even carry on conversations at coffee hour, we can see "where the rubber of the church's theology hits the road." (Tom Long)
That even the most practical church matters have value is part of what it means to affirm that the Word became flesh. "The conviction that God refused to float in sublime isolation above time and space, but became Jesus Christ, flesh and blood, sweat and earth, is the doctrine of the incarnation, and what it means, among other things, is that we do not escape the mundane to encounter the living God. Indeed, . . . it is. . .the 'fleshy' details of life, the working and the serving, the community projects and the committee meetings, the being born, the marrying, and the dying, which are the arenas for our encounter with the God-become-flesh in Jesus Christ." (Tom Long)
Even at our most practical, the book of Proverbs reminds us, we can also be deeply theological. For God is with us, not only in our crisis moments and in our times of greatest joy, but also in the most ordinary places and in the most unremarkable moments of our lives. Our faith, like the wisdom of the Old Testament sages, is concrete, real, and practical. In our most routine actions, we can demonstrate that the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom. In our most ordinary tasks we can proclaim the profound truth that God is with us, Emmanuel. Amen.
 Alyce M. McKenzie, “The Character of Preachers,” Journal for Preachers (Pentecost 2001), p. 22.