Commentary on Proverbs 8:1-4, 22-31
Where can wisdom be found? Proverbs 8—a text in which wisdom is poetically personified—begins with describing her in all sorts of locations. She is on the heights, where she could see and be seen. She is on a road or street, where people are traveling. She is in the public location of “the gate,” where business is done such as arranging marriages and selling land (see also Ruth 4) and where justice is carried out (see also Deuteronomy 21:19, 2 Samuel 15:1-5, Job 29:7-25; Amos 5:10-15, et cetera). She is in the entrances of doorways, where thresholds are crossed. In all these places, she raises her voice to call and cry out, and her message is inclusive for all humans (Proverbs 8:4). Proverbs 8:1-4 reiterates that it is not hard to find woman Wisdom, nor is it difficult to hear her voice.
From where did wisdom come? The short answer to this question would be, “the LORD,” but the longer answer depends on how one translates the verb (Hebrew, qnh) in verse 22. According to the NRSV, NASB, and the CEB, woman Wisdom proclaims that the LORD “created me”; according to the KJV and the ESV, she says the LORD “possessed me”; and according to the NIV, she states that the LORD “brought me forth.” This same Hebrew root forms Cain’s name, and is also translated in even more various ways in Genesis 4:1: Eve has “produced” (NRSV), “obtained” (NASB), “given life” (CEB), “gotten” (KJV and ESV)), and “brought forth” a child with God’s help. Birth imagery continues in verses 23-24, and the idea that Wisdom is in some way God’s child is one reason why this particular chapter in Proverbs was utilized in the 4th century controversies between orthodox and Arian Christians.
Who (or what) is wisdom? Early Christians identified the description of Wisdom in Proverbs 8 with Jesus, and that identification factored heavily in the implications of translating verse 22. The Arians read verses 22-31 as demonstrating that Jesus was God’s first creation: unique and distinct from other creatures, existing prior to and even on a different level than those other created beings, but ultimately a creation of God. Therefore, they concluded that Jesus, as a created being, was not the same in nature and essence as God.
The orthodox group came to different conclusions by reading the verb in Proverbs 8:22 either as “possessed” (as translated by KJV and ESV), or as meaning “to beget.” Therefore, Jesus was not created, but rather—as affirmed in the Nicene Creed—eternally “begotten, not made.”1 However, it is certainly possible to read connections between Jesus and Wisdom in Proverbs 8 without making a one-to-one correspondence between the two. Additionally, in Proverbs 8:1, the word “wisdom” (Hebrew: ḥokmāh) is placed in parallel with the word “understanding” (Hebrew: tĕbûnāh), suggesting that woman Wisdom is one who brings understanding, analogous to a teacher. Wisdom can also be understood as an attribute of God, a gift from God, or even a lifestyle that begins with the fear of the LORD (Proverbs 1:7).
What does wisdom do? Active verbs describe what Wisdom does in the first four verses: she cries out, shouts, takes her stand. In verses 23-25, the verbs are in the passive form: “I was woven” (verse 23); “I was brought forth” (8:24-25). In verses 30-31, Wisdom is again the subject of the active verb “rejoice” (Hebrew: śḥq): she is rejoicing before God (verse 30) and rejoicing in God’s created earth (verse 31). Not a verb, but a noun in verse 30 also speaks to Wisdom’s role and potential actions. The Hebrew root ʾāmôn has been understood as God’s 1) “little child,”2; 2) “master worker” (NRSV, NASB, ESV); or 3) a tool for artisans, such as a blueprint utilized by architects. One Jewish understanding of this word is that Torah functions as God’s artisan tool3, and thus Wisdom is connected with the Torah.
Why was this text about Wisdom chosen for Holy Trinity Sunday? Without presuming to know all the reasons for the selection of lectionary texts, it seems clear that this pericope has a great deal to say about the triune God.
First, it proclaims that God is the creator of the heavens and the earth. All three realms of creation—sky, waters, land—are identified, for God created the heavens (verse 27) and the clouds above (28), the deep (27-28) and the sea (29), and the earth (29). God’s acts of creation are described in detail, as God not only creates, but also sets boundaries for created things. God “shapes” the mountains and hills (verse 25); “makes” earth, fields, and dust (26); “establishes” the heavens and the springs of the deep (27, 28); “inscribes a circle” on the face of the deep (27); “makes firm” making firm the skies (28); “sets a limit” to the sea (29); and “marks out” the foundations of the earth (29). All this activity of creation, according to Proverbs 8:22-31, is done in the presence of Wisdom.
Second, as noted above, this pericope presents Wisdom as God’s child in ways similar to Jesus, God’s only son. In addition to that, Proverbs 8 affirms Wisdom’s presence with God in the beginning of God’s created world, similar to the description of the incarnate Word of God in John 1:1-3.
Third, Wisdom shares similarities with the Spirit of Truth referenced in John 16:13-14. In John, the Spirit declares what is to come, whereas Wisdom declares what happened in the past when God created the world. But both Wisdom and the Spirit glorify God.
- Athanasius, the champion of the orthodox position, did concede the meaning of the verb could be “to create,” but was careful to specify that it was not Christ who was created, but rather Christ’s position as “the first of [God’s] works” (Proverbs 8:22).
- Michael V. Fox, Proverbs 1-9, New York: Doubleday, 2000, p. 285.
- Cf. Genesis Rabbah 1.1 (https://www.sefaria.org/Bereishit_Rabbah.1.1?vhe=Midrash_Rabbah_–_TE&lang=bi&with=all&lang2=en).