Commentary on Proverbs 1:20-33
The pericope introduces the enigmatic Woman Wisdom, a figure who is — at the least — a literary personification of a wisdom that permeates the creation.
We also encounter her in chapter 8 where she declares herself the first of the LORD’s creation and present before the cosmos itself (Proverbs 8:22-31). In chapter 9, she summons the simple to her banquet with the remarkable promise that her meal leads to life (Proverbs 9:1-6, 11).
Scholars have spilled much ink over the origin and character of Woman Wisdom.1 Richard J. Clifford argues convincingly that personified Wisdom in Proverbs is derived from mythical bringers of culture in Mesopotamian mythology but, alas (and to bend a phrase), such excellent scholarship will not likely play — or preach — in Peoria.2
The structure of the poem is chiastic, i.e., words, lines of poetry, or even clusters of lines repeat in discernible patterns. Milton P. Horne,3 locates the center of the chiasm in verses 26-28, the “announcement of divine judgment.” On the other hand, Woman Wisdom’s summons and the rejection of her council (vv. 24-24) reappear in verses 28-30. The chiastic center of the poem, therefore, is the description of calamity in verses 26-27:
24 Because I have called (qara’thi < qara) and you refused,
have stretched out my hand and no one heeded,
25 and because you have ignored all my counsel (`atsathi)
and would have none of (‘abithem < ‘abah) my reproof (thokhahti),
26 I also will laugh at your calamity; I will mock when panic strikes you,
27 when panic strikes you like a storm, and your calamity comes like a whirlwind, when distress and anguish come upon you.
28 Then they will call upon me (yiqra’uneni < qara) but I will not answer;
they will seek me diligently, but will not find me.
29 Because they hated knowledge and did not choose the fear of the LORD,
30 would have none of (‘abu < ‘abah) my counsel (`atsathi),
and despised all my reproof (thokhahti),
The message of the poem is transparent. Woman Wisdom is publically accessible throughout the city (Proverbs 1:20-21; see 8:1-3). From every quarter she calls and yet she is frustrated by the fact that the wisdom she offers finds no reception among the simpletons and fools who hear her.
The sages believed that a rejection of wisdom was the same as the rejection of the LORD and of God’s ways.4 Had they the proper insight, those who refuse wisdom’s summons might anticipate that, eventually, they would experience their comeuppance, for God had so ordered the world. Woman Wisdom declares that when that inevitable disaster begins, she will laugh derisively and mock their panic.
Note well that neither Woman Wisdom nor the LORD initiate the simpleton’s calamity. The inseparable suffixes in the Hebrew (“your calamity,” “your panic”) in both vv. 26-27 underscore the conviction that the burden for calamity, panic, storm, and tempest rest on the shoulders of those who failed to heed Woman Wisdom’s summons. They will finally call upon her but, she declares, at that point it will be too late for them (vv. 28-30). The simpletons and fools will literally eat their own ‘just deserts:’ “therefore they shall eat the fruit of their way and be sated with their own devices” (v. 31).
The poem presents a challenge for preachers. For one thing, most of us are not as sanguine as were the sages about the orderliness of the world. We are even more suspicious about their notion that God has imbedded a sort of primal retributive justice in the creation. Wise and worthy people become mortally ill or perish in some accident while people who are self-centered, greedy, and yes, fools, enjoy long and luxurious days with no sign of this poem’s promised storms on the horizon.
If our worldview is less robustly optimistic than the wise of ancient Israel, the preacher could do worse than to consider these two points,
First, wisdom is its own reward. Woman wisdom summons us all to a live of reverent awe of the LORD so that we eschew foolish behavior that may shorten our lives and lead us to suffer unduly. Once one has found wisdom, a comprehension of “righteousness and justice and equity, every good path” will follow “for wisdom will come into your heart, and knowledge will be pleasant to your soul” (Proverbs 2:9-10). It is simply better and more satisfying for us to live wisely in awe of the LORD than to live as though we were not creatures of a living God. That last proposition cannot be defended against a cynic, of course, but people who have encountered the God in Jesus Christ nonetheless know it to be true.
Second, as people of faith, we live in the conviction that — eventually — God’s reign will come on earth as it is already in heaven. If I do not actively wish for a tempestuous storm to blow away the fools and scoffers that pester me and that seem to make the world a worse place (and most days, I do not), then I do hope for a few more signs of God’s reign in my life and in the world. Woman Wisdom and the sages of ancient Israel suggest that those who listen to her will see such signs in as much as they “will be secure and will live at ease, without dread of disaster” (Proverbs 1:33).
Will they really?
At first blush, it might not seem like it. In today’s Gospel reading Jesus declares, “For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it” (Mark 8:35).
That does not sound like security, ease, or a life without dread of disaster.
In light of the resurrection, however, the two claims are not inimical. As the Apostle Paul put it, in any and all adversity, “ … we are more than conquerors through him who loved us” (Romans 8:37). On the strength of that resurrection promise, even in adversity we might truly live “without dread of disaster,” come what may. Wise men and women remain more than conquerors.
1 See Carol R Fontaine, “The Personification of Wisdom,” in Harper’s Bible Commentary, (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1988): 501-503; Richard J. Clifford, Proverbs: A Commentary, (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1999): 23-28.
2 Clifford, Proverbs, pp. 24-7. Clifford’s explanation of the origins of Woman Wisdom also offers a solution to the problem of Proverbs 8:30a, where the Hebrew ‘amôn is translated as “master worker” by the NRSV and interpreted as “little child” by others. Clifford writes, “The word seems to have been misunderstood by early scribes and misvocalized by the Masoretes. It is actually a loanword from the Akkadian ummanu and should be vocalized ‘omman or the like in Hebrew. The proper translation is “I was at his side as a (heavenly) sage,” that is, as a heavenly figure mediating to humans the knowledge of God they need to be good and blessed servants of God” (p, 26).
3 See Milton P. Horne, Proverbs-Eccesiastes, SHBC 12 (Macon, GA: Smyth-Helwys, 2003): 38. Horne cites both Duane A. Garret, Proverbs and Ecclesiastes, NAC 14 (Nashville: Broadman, 1984): 71, and Phyllis Trible, “Wisdom Builds a Poem: The Architecture of Proverbs 1:20-33,” JBL 94 (1975): 509-18.
4 Proverbs 1:30; see 1:7; 9:10; 10:27; 14:27; 15:33: 19:23; 22:4.