Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost

This is the first time that Wisdom, personified as a woman, speaks in the book of Proverbs (see 8:1-36; 9:1-6).

September 13, 2009

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Commentary on Proverbs 1:20-33

This is the first time that Wisdom, personified as a woman, speaks in the book of Proverbs (see 8:1-36; 9:1-6).

As the first speech, it carries particular importance because it sets the stage for what follows. By the end of chapter 1 — after the superscription (1:1), prologue (1:2-6), and motto (1:7) of the book — we have heard from the two main voices that lobby for wise living in Proverbs: the teacher, figured as a father speaking to his son (e.g., 1:8-19; 2:1-22; 3:1-12; etc.), and Wisdom herself, who in the end of the book becomes “incarnate,” as it were, in the poem on the valorous wife and mother (31:10-31). These are the two wise “parents” who give birth to the virtuous person. In this construal, Wisdom is, of course, the mother — the mother of all wisdom!

Wisdom is not just a mother; she is also something of a prophet. Her first speech is nothing if not straightforward, and it is strongly reminiscent of several of the prophets. The opening verses (1:20-21) locate Wisdom in the midst of society’s hustle and bustle. She hawks her wares where everyone can hear — on the busiest corner and at the city gates (which often doubled as the place of justice in ancient Israel).

The irony is that so few people do listen to her voice. We know those who heed Wisdom are few in number because she addresses her audience as “simple ones,” “scoffers,” and “fools,” and describes them as loving and delighting in such behavior while hating knowledge (verse 22). This scenario is no accident. Wisdom’s audience has refused to hear her call and has not heeded her outstretched hand (verse 24). They have ignored all her counsel (verse 25a), and, indeed, would have none of her discipline (verse 25b). How could it be otherwise? Wisdom is, after all, on the busiest corner where everyone can hear. Everyone can, but not everyone will.

The passage takes an even worse turn by describing how Wisdom will laugh when the foolishness of her audience comes back to roost. Such retribution is a hallmark of the traditional pole of Wisdom Literature throughout the ancient Near East and which is represented in the Bible most strongly in Proverbs and certain parts of Job (particularly in the theology of Job’s friends). Bad things result from bad — or, in this case, foolish — behavior. What is striking, if not troubling, is Wisdom’s statement that she will laugh when ill fortune, panic, and anguish come upon her audience (verses 26-27).

A few things should be said about Wisdom’s attitude here, which seems unfeeling and cavalier. The first is that Wisdom not only says she will laugh when this misfortune happens, but also that she will not answer when her audience finally comes to its senses and calls out to her (verse 28a). Indeed, even if they search diligently for her, they will not find her (verse 28b). These sentiments are very similar to those found in the prophets (see Isaiah 1:15; Jeremiah 11:11, 14; Ezekiel 8:18; Amos 5:23; and especially Isaiah 66:4). Wisdom is not alone, that is, in adopting such a firm tone with her recalcitrant audience. She has a host of distinguished predecessors in Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and Amos — not to mention the God in whose name these prophets speak.

Among other things, such statements about not listening or not being findable indicate the severity of the situation: in truth, Wisdom is not simply “hawking a ware”; she is a preacher discussing life-and-death issues (see verse 32; cf. also 1:11-12, 16-19; 3:16, 18; 8:36). These statements also indicate there is a statue of limitations on such important matters. One cannot live foolishly forever without reaping the “benefits.” And when those results come in, it is too late to undo the path that produced them. Wisdom’s laugh, in short, is nothing but an “I-told-you-so” that is well after the fact and well deserved. In the world of wisdom — as in our own — the foolishness of fools and their demise are not without irony and humor.

Second, Wisdom’s statements about laughing (verse 26) and not listening (verse 28) are bracketed by “because-clauses.” Note the structure:

A because I called and you refused… (verse 24)
and because you ignored my counsel… (verse 25)

B I also will laugh…I will mock… (verse 26)
I will not answer… (verse 28)

A’ Because they hated knowledge
and did not choose the fear of the LORD
would have none of my counsel
and despised all my reproof…. (verses 29-30)

This structure indicates that Wisdom’s posture is actually caused by the foolishness of the fools. She is not hoping that they fail so she can laugh. It is their failure to listen to Wisdom that brings about their problems in the first place. That is, the improper behavior in question is not Wisdom’s laughter or mockery, but the audience’s foolishness. Verse 29 underscores this by leaving no doubt that hating knowledge is equivalent to rejecting the fear of the LORD. The matters at hand, therefore, are deeply religious as well as practical. Proverbs conjoins these categories, as do the wisdom psalms (see Psalm 1). Foolish behavior, in the end, is not just foolish, it is irreligious.

Wisdom concludes her speech by reiterating the causal nexus between foolish acts and deleterious results (note “therefore” in verse 31). Her final remarks promise destruction for the simple and for fools (v. 32) but a life of ease for those who listen to her (verse 33). We know life isn’t always so simple; those who composed the Wisdom Literature certainly knew the same (witness Job and Ecclesiastes). But Wisdom is a preacher and she is making her strongest appeal here. Perhaps the wise life isn’t always easy or free from disaster, but Wisdom traffics in probability theory, and it is much more probable that foolishness leads to disaster than that wisdom does. Sure, there are exceptions, but exceptions aren’t the rule. The rule is that Wisdom is life (3:16, 18; 8:35).