Commentary on Proverbs 1:1-7; 3:1-8; 8:22-36; 10:1-12; Ecclesiastes 1:1-18; 2:18—3:8
Wisdom Literature Worship and Preaching Series
Introduction: The following commentary and worship “Wisdom Literature” worship and preaching series is designed for congregations that follow the Narrative Lectionary (NL) during the normal North American congregational program year (September-May). Because the Bible contains many texts and books that are not “narrative texts” or “texts arranged narratively,” the NL delves into some of those non-narrative texts in summer.
Week 1: June 30, 2013
Reading: Proverbs 1:1-7 or 1-19
Gospel: Luke 6:47-49
The first week of this series is a chance to introduce the biblical concept of “wisdom” and “wisdom literature.” Preachers and worship planners can introduce basic concepts such as what wisdom literature is, how wisdom literature speaks for and about God, and how wisdom is a means through which God is known and through which God works.
In the Bible, there are three (perhaps four) books of wisdom. Proverbs is a wisdom book that has a positive, or optimistic view of wisdom. Ecclesiastes and Jobs are wisdom books that take a more pessimistic, questioning, or negative view of wisdom. Because there are wisdom poems in the Book of Psalms, some consider Psalms as a partial wisdom book (see Psalms 1 and 73 as examples).
In this series, we spend four weeks considering the positive outlook of Proverbs and two weeks considering Ecclesiastes.
Like many biblical books, Proverbs opens with a passage that characterizes the message or aim of the book. Proverbs 1 contains two verses that could be understood as theme verses: verse 7 (“the fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge”) and verse 3 (“for gaining instruction in wise dealing, righteousness, justice, and equity”).
These two theme verses cast the purpose of the book as inquiry into the way God’s good creation works — more specifically, this is an inquiry into the way that human existence works. It is a book of practical wisdom about how to live a wise life.
The book states that God has made knowledge of some things available to anyone who studies creation. While this knowledge is not exactly the “natural law” of later Christian tradition, there is some similarity between that later formulation and the view of wisdom in Proverbs. The book values practical wisdom as wise advice for daily living. The book also bears witness to the godly virtues of “righteousness, justice and equity” as qualities that can be accessed — at least to some degree — through human reason.
But there is a caveat! That caveat is that the pursuit of such practical wisdom needs to keep a focus on “the fear of the Lord.” This latter concept is difficult to translate into modern metaphors. For a little context, the reader might take a look at Deuteronomy 14:22-23 or Psalm 130, to get a sense of the range of meaning of the phrase. Perhaps the phrase could be loosely rendered as “true appreciation for the Lord.” The idea is less about the emotion of fear, than it is about a disposition towards God, God’s authority, and God’s goodness.
The book claims that even though much laudable and useful practical wisdom is available by simply studying the world and paying attention to human experience, the place to start to become truly wise is in a right and true appreciation of Israel’s Lord, who “created me and all that exists.”
- “Immortal, Invisible, God Only Wise”
- “This is My Father’s World”
- “Earth and All Stars”
Week 2: July 7, 2013
Reading: Proverbs 3:1-8 or 1-18
Gospel: Luke 12:29-31
One of the themes — or rhetorical conceits — of wisdom literature is that it finds value in framing truth dualistically. That is, it often contrasts virtue-vice pairs: wisdom and foolishness; the wise and the fool; light and darkness; knowledge and ignorance; understanding and vanity; goodness and evil.
One must take great care when approaching these dualistic constructions. There can be a temptation to divide everything too neatly into two, distinct camps. In truth, as the rest of the Bible indicates, reality is more complicated than that. Individual people are mixtures of wisdom and folly, goodness and evil, light and darkness.
What the book of Proverbs does is set up these dualistic pairs as archetypes — generic models that are useful to frame problems and pose questions. And if the reader keeps in mind that these pairs are only types that help frame practical-living problems, then the reader can “grow in wisdom” from these types. But if one pushes these interpretive frames too far (I am reminded of the old joke, “There are two types of people . . . those who divide everything into two types and those who don’t”) then they can be very reductionistic.
The verses for the second Sunday of this wisdom series cast the conversation in terms of a parent’s wise advice to a child: “My child, do not forget my teaching.” At the most simple level, the metaphor of the parent teaching the child reinforces family as the most important building block of every society. Our first teachers are our parents. The love and instruction of father and mother (“Honor your father and your mother,” the commandment goes) are therefore the most important and most basic building block of society. God imparts knowledge and instruction through good parents.
Here, the wise teaching of ideal parents is condensed. The parents teach the child to pursue virtue rather than vice. These virtues — loyalty and faithfulness — are in other parts of Scripture assigned to God. As God’s followers seek to imitate God’s characteristics, we incarnate God’s very character. The text makes a link between “trust in the Lord” and imitating, incarnating God’s characteristic traits.
But perhaps the most important lesson in this week’s assigned text is in the exhortation to “trust in the Lord with all your heart” rather than “relying on your own insight,” or rather than being “wise in your own eyes.” The point is a simple one: The human heart, the human will, the human mind — these are good gifts. But in and of themselves, they are untrustworthy. Do not trust your own heart! It will lead you away from God. Rather, trust God’s word.
This message is profoundly counter-cultural.
In North America, we are always told to “be yourself,” “follow your heart,” “live your dreams.”
But Proverbs knows that the human heart often (not always) sets its desires on the wrong thing. Or, to put it differently, once the human heart sets its desires on something, the human will can often justify cutting corners and committing little sins in order to satisfy those desires.
Desire itself cannot be the ethical standard. Trust in God, the Proverb says. Not yourself.
One is reminded here of the rhetorical conceit of the passage — the instruction of a parent to a child. Do you remember when you were a teenager and thought you knew everything? So does the teacher of Proverbs! And that teacher has learned an awful lot since the day when he or she thought he/she knew everything. And the most important thing learned is this: I don’t know enough to guide my own life. So as for me and my house, we will trust the Lord.
- “Children of the Heavenly Father”
- “Great is Thy Faithfulness”
- “Holy Spirit, Truth Divine”
- “O God our Help in Ages Past”
Week 3: July 14, 2013
Reading: Proverbs 8:22-36
Gospel: Luke 8:22-25
The selected passage for this week’s worship and preaching is a famous passage. It is famous for many reasons. But it is especially famous for casting wisdom as a creature that God created before anything else. “The Lord created me at the beginning of his work, the first of his acts of long ago.”
Also in these opening nine chapters of Proverbs, wisdom is pictured as a woman (“Woman Wisdom”). In contrast, folly is also pictured as a woman (“Woman Folly”).
Some have wondered if this metaphor isn’t a useful counter-image to the Bible’s relentless imaging of God as Father, Warrior, Judge, King, and so on. If so, it is important to recognize that God transcends human gender — both the male gender and the female gender — and to recognize that according to Gen 1:26-28, both “male and female” are equally “in God’s image.”
But there is also another thrilling point in this week’s lection: God has imbued creation itself with wisdom, with order, with logic, with discernible design.
Wisdom is both the means by which God created the good creation and is also the design that God built into creation. God’s creation is trustworthy!
We so often take for granted how genuinely miraculous our trustworthy, ordered creation is. The spinning spaceship that is Planet Earth — a small orb of safety spinning through an unimaginably vast creation — is a miracle of trustworthy love. And it is a sign of God’s love and commitment.
One final note: God, and God’s partner “Wisdom,” rejoice in creation. “I was daily his delight,” Wisdom cries out, “rejoicing before him always, rejoicing in his inhabited world and delighting in the human race.”
God not only created “me and all that exists,” God rejoices in and is irrevocably committed to the beloved creation. God delights in you and me. God rejoices in all things great and small.
- “All Things Bright and Beautiful”
- “How Great Thou Art”
- “Holy, Holy, Holy”
- “Thy Strong Word”
Week 4: July 21, 2013
Reading: Proverbs 10:1-12
Gospel: Luke 6:37-38
The text of the fourth week of the worship and preaching series on biblical wisdom literature contrasts by-now familiar pairs of terms: wise and foolish; wickedness and righteousness; the righteous and the wicked. But some new terms are introduced: poverty and riches; prudence and shame; blessing and violence; and integrity and perverseness.
As in past weeks, the lesson casts the reader as a child who can gain wisdom from an older mentor — perhaps a parent.
Especially important for this week’s reading is the concept of how one gains wealth, and reflection on the practices that one might pursue to accumulate wealth.
A first point is about how one accumulates wealth. The passage urges something like the old Protestant Work Ethic. “A slack hand causes poverty, but the hand of the diligent makes rich. A child who gathers in summer is prudent, but a child who sleeps in harvest brings shame.”
These truisms — because that is what they are — commend the virtue of steady, hard, diligent work.
We should probably admit that there is “truth in these proverbs” rather than trying to assert that these proverbs are always and in every circumstance true.
Any human being can relate an anecdote about when hard work wasn’t enough, or when diligent effort didn’t pay off. And we will see in the next few weeks that the preacher in Ecclesiastes knows that the race isn’t always to the swift nor the victory to the strong.
But one does find in Proverbs at least the seeds of a work ethic. Some have wondered if the Bible contains a work ethic, or a theology of work and vocation. The answer is yes. And that ethic and theology are found in Proverbs. There is value in a job well done. There is pride to be taken in a challenge tackled and accomplished. These are not profound theological truths. But they are the sort of life lessons that will serve one well. Or, to put it conversely, if one fails to learn these lessons, one’s life will be far less rich (pun intended).
A second and related point that the text makes warns against the allure of easy money.
“Treasure gained by wickedness does not profit, but righteousness delivers from death.” The life of one who is forever chasing after the quick buck, the easy victory, and sweatless reward, is a life of disappointment.
Are you counting on winning the lottery to fund your lifestyle into old age? Not a wise choice.
The entire allure of gambling might be called into question by this text. Gambling has been called by one wit a penalty on those who cannot do math. And by another as a voluntary tax on stupidity. But gambling is an allure because it promises not only a quick win, it also gives a rush when the pot is won. Addiction to gambling ruins family, lives, communities.
But the point isn’t just gambling — it is the allure of the easy dollar. That allure leads first to foolish behavior and then can also lead to criminal behavior. The old saying that “crime doesn’t pay” is a faithful translation of this text.
But one more truly profound bit of wisdom is commended by this text. That is the wisdom that helps us to reflect on how much damage we can do with our tongues.
Throughout the book of Proverbs, the teachers are consistently warning against the sins of the tongue, the mouth, and the lips. “The mouth of the righteous is a fountain of life, but the mouth of the wicked conceals violence.” And “lying lips conceal hatred, and whoever utters slander is a fool. When the words are many, transgression is not lacking, but the prudent are restrained in speech.”
No book of the Bible takes the commandment to “not bear false witness against your neighbor” more seriously than Proverbs.
We can do great damage with our words. But we can also do great service. Words hurt, shame, alienate, judge, tear down and damage.
But words also heal, build up, honor, reconcile, and forgive.
Words do not merely signify meaning. Words actually can do things. Think of the power in these direct words of speech, spoken sincerely from one person to another: I love you. I miss you. I forgive you. I promise. I am sorry. Such words do things that need doing.
And one more: “I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.” Now there is a word that saves!
Week 5: July 28, 2013
Reading: Ecclesiastes 1:1-18
Gospel: Luke 12:22-23
The fifth week of this preaching series is marked by a shift — to a new book, with a new tone and a more pessimistic view of wisdom.
As noted in the series introduction, Old Testament wisdom literature has two basically contrasting genres of wisdom literature. The book of Proverbs and the wisdom psalms of the Psalter have a fairly optimistic, positive view of what can be known about wisdom and about the prospects for living a wise life. They represent the student in the front row who is eager and gives it her all: the hand-raiser, the curve-buster, the Hermione Granger in the class.
The books of Ecclesiastes and Job, on the other hand, represent more of a Charlie Brown type of worldview. The authors of these latter two books have seen Lucy snatch the football away one too many times. The worldview here acknowledges that while knowledge and effort and skill are worthy, “the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, nor bread to the wise, nor favor to the skillful; but time and chance happen to them all” (Ecclesiastes 9:11). The town where the authors of Ecclesiastes and Job dwell should not quite be named cynical or jaded, but one can see them from there.
This week’s text features the famous opening verses of the book of Ecclesiastes: “Vanity of vanities, says the Teacher [or “preacher”], vanity of vanities! All is vanity.” The meaning of the Hebrew word hevel, which is translated by the NRSV as “vanity” is much discussed. The base meaning seems to be “vapor” or “smoke.” I once heard an engaging Old Testament scholar on this passage. He reached into his suit pocket, pulled out a cheap cigar and lit it. He blew a long stream of smoke and declared “This is what hevel is.” And the preacher of Ecclesiastes says this also is what life is.
The book explores the limits of what we can know or achieve. The title of Ernest Hemmingway’s novel about the non-love-affair of an impotent wounded soldier and a promiscuous noblewoman — The Sun Also Rises, which is inspired by Ecclesiastes 1:5 — can be taken as a faithful interpretation of the preacher’s viewpoint.
One helpful way to think about the book of Ecclesiastes is to think of it as the memoir of a thinker who adopted and considered a series of what we might call “philosophies” or “lifestyles” — all in search of meaning in life. In the end, the preacher is disappointed by each: all are “vanity.”
The preacher describes how he searched for “wisdom” (1:12-17), only to discover “a chasing after wind.” He tried out hedonism and greatness, making “a test of pleasure” (2:1) and “made great works (2:4), discovering again that “all was vanity” (2:11). So he made a test of “folly” to see if there is value in the opposite, but “the same fate befalls all of them” (2:14). And so on.
All lifestyles, philosophies. All ideologies and passions. All art and achievement are — when measured against the absolute realities of death, (mis)fortune, time, accident, and fate — vanity. Smoke. A chasing after the wind.
So what does a Christian preacher do with what might seem like a downer of a worldview?
First, recognize the power of this outlook to “preach the second (theological) use of the law” — as some in the Lutheran tradition call it. That is, this text offers a penetrating critique of the false gods that we would worship in place of the one true God of the Bible. As Martin Luther had it, whatever we “fear, love and trust” the most — those things are our gods. If we pursue our achievements, or money, or fame, or family, or hobbies, or sex, or youth, or power, those are our gods. And, according to Ecclesiastes, all of those things are “vanity” and a “chasing after the wind.”
My colleague David Lose has taught me that artists are always the best preachers of the law — exposing our desires and delights and telling the truth about our loves and lives. Let the ancient artist know as “the preacher” turn his forensic stare at the “penultimate” things that we set up in our lives and treat as “ultimate.” Let him knock those things — and us — off the throne.
And then reiterate the promise of the Old Testament. “Hear, O Israel: The Lord is our God, the Lord alone” (Deuteronomy 6:4). In Jesus Christ, the God of Israel draws near to us. Taking on flesh and taking up our burdens. Measured against eternity and death, we are but smoke. But Jesus “breathed on them and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit’” (John 20:22).
Living in the Spirit, we are a new creation. Living in Christ, we have life.
- “Lord of All Hopefulness”
- “O Day of Peace that Dimly Shines”
- “Spirit of God, Descend upon My Heart”
- “We Were Baptized in Christ Jesus”
Week 6: August 4, 2013
Reading: Ecclesiastes 2:18–3:8
Gospel: Luke 16:12-21
Last week, the preaching series on wisdom literature took a turn toward pessimism and negativity. Or, some would say, a turn toward realism and the penetrating diagnosis of the law.
In the commentary on last week’s lesson, I suggested that the preacher of Ecclesiastes takes up and tests a series of worldviews, philosophies, or lifestyles. Each of these, the preacher concludes, are “vanity” and “a chasing after wind.”
So is there nothing worth living for? Should we be measured against the compass points of death and eternity and therefore always found wanting and empty? Like Lee Corso analyzing a college football game, the preacher says, “Not so fast, my friend!”
Just because ultimate questions and concerns will always be beyond our grasp, writes the preacher, that does not mean that penultimate conclusions are completely worthless.
In this week’s reading, two such penultimate goods or values are named.
First, there is the good of what we might call the living arts of loving one’s work, one’s family, and one’s food. There is value, the preacher says, in finding joy in the ordinary things of life.
In fact, one of the most important arts of living, the preacher is telling us, is the art of finding joy and love in the ordinary.
“There is nothing better for mortals than to eat and drink, and find enjoyment in their toil. This also, I saw, is from the hand of God; for apart from him who can eat or who can have enjoyment?” (Ecclesiastes 2:24-25).
In this passage, note that the art of finding joy in the ordinary is paired with the art of living in the presence of God. Because God is present, infusing each breath of creation with the renewing power of the Spirit, joy can be found in the most ordinary stuff of daily life.
Similarly, later in the book, the preacher speaks of the value of finding love in friendship and family. “Two are better than one, because they have a good reward for their toil. For if they fall, one will lift up the other. . . . if two lie together, they keep warm. . . And though one might prevail against another, two will withstand one” (4:9-11). And: “Go, eat your bread with enjoyment, and drink your wine. . . Enjoy life with the wife whom you love. . . Whatever your hand finds to do, do with your might” (9:7-10a).
Jesus seemed to make a similar point in his parable about the foolish farmer whose life was required of him the very moment he had finished building and filling his barns.
A second bit of wisdom that the preacher offers is the wisdom that teaches that there are many seasons in human life. The variety of seasons can enrich one’s appreciation for the fullness of life. Or at least the variety of seasons can teach one to find joy in the ordinary moments and seasons. The creation that God has fashioned includes ups and down, sunrises and sunsets, joys and sorrows, life and death:
For everything there is a season,and a time for every matter under heaven:
A time to be born, and a time to die;
A time to plant, and at time to pluck up what is planted;
A time to kill, and a time to heal
A time for love, and a time to hate;
A time for war, and a time for peace.
God has “made everything suitable for its time; moreover he has put a sense of past and future into their minds” (3:11a).
This most famous of the preacher’s wisdom invites us to live life from the perspective of eternity. Recognizing that neither highs nor lows last, that harvest requires sowing, laughter can follow weeping, and silence can lead to speech.
God has created us in time and with a sense of time. St Augustine said that “our hearts are restless until they rest in thee.”
The great poet George Herbert, likened the human sense of time to a pulley that draws us nearer to God. Herbert imagines God pouring blessings into humanity, like water from a glass:
When God at first made man,
Having a glass of blessings standing by;
Let us (said he) poure on him all we can;
Let the worlds riches, which dispersed lie,
Contract into a span.
Herbert continues to narrate the pouring out of God’s blessings on humanity: strength, beauty, wisdom, honor, pleasure. But one blessing God did not grant humanity–the blessing of “rest.”
For if I should (said he)
Bestow this jewell also on my creature,
He would adore my my gifts in stead of me
Yet let him keep the rest,
But keep them with repining restlessnesse:
Let him be rich and wearie, that at least,
If goodnesse leade him not, yet wearinesse
May tosse him to my breast.
“To Every Season (Turn, Turn, Turn)” [Not completely joking]
“Lord Speak to My that I May Speak”
“Have No Fear Little Flock”
“How Small Our Span of Life”