Commentary on Proverbs 8:1-8, 19-21; 9:4b-6
In the darkest hours of the night, Wisdom’s call sounds!
This oddly divided reading of Proverbs 8–9 (8:1-8, 19-21; 9:4b-6) is the sixth of 12 readings for the Easter Vigil service. In some Christian traditions, the Vigil of Easter is the most significant worship service of the year, taking place in the overnight hours between Holy Saturday and Easter Sunday. The Vigil invites congregants to wait and to pray, to contemplate and to prepare for the joyous mystery of Easter.
Congregations that don’t typically mark in formal (or even informal) worship settings the events of Holy Week may wonder about the meaning of such a vigil. To them, I would contend: in this market-driven world, in which expeditiousness is sometimes lauded over diligence, there is “wisdom” in waiting, in holding the tension a little longer, in being called and drawn into truth, so that when the sun rises on Easter Sunday, the joy may overflow with a ready awareness of resurrection as part of God’s story for the world.
As noted, this reading of Proverbs is one of several choices of Old Testament readings for the moment. As a whole, the readings lead the worshiper through the story of God’s redemption of the world, known as Heilsgeschichte—God’s saving history. Amidst the narratives of creation (Genesis 1:1–2:4a), exodus (Exodus 14), and foretold redemption of the people after exile (Ezekiel 37:1–14), the call of Wisdom from these portions of Proverbs 8–9 invites us all to participate in God’s salvation story and to prepare our hearts, at least for Christians, for its culmination experienced in Jesus’ resurrection.
Though crafted in the context of an Easter Vigil reading, the following commentary may have broader implications, say, for the working preacher not operating in a lectionary-based setting, and who stumbles upon this piece in a scripture search. In any case, may Wisdom’s call invite you in!
Proverbs 8 opens with a bold invitation indeed. The syntax of the two rhetorical questions implies an affirmative answer. In both questions, moreover, the nouns “wisdom” and “understanding” take the emphatic position in relation to the corresponding verbs. The term “wisdom” in Hebrew is ḥokhmah. In the Old Testament, the concept of wisdom takes on a unique dynamic as compared to Greek philosophy. Hebrew ḥokhmah was not theoretical or speculative (in other words, virtues; principles of right and wrong), but took on a practical sense (in other words, moral character and ethical living). In ḥokhmah, God’s revealed will and covenant with the people blends perfectly with humanity’s agency to act and live out that covenant.
Likewise, “understanding” (Hebrew tᵉbunah) has more practical undertones. Related etymologically to a preposition meaning “between,” tᵉbunah connotes a knowledge beyond mere data-gathering—one that has discerned or weighed the options, so to speak. To have tᵉbunah is to know how to use the knowledge you have.
The places from which Wisdom calls are busy thoroughfares, public and important (even holy) meeting spaces where business, politics, and justice took place. The “heights” refers to natural hills or high places within a city, upon which palaces or temples might be built. “Crossroads” can be compared to busy intersections in our day—shopping centers, people spinning signs that advertise the nearest mattress store. The “gates” and “entrance of the portals” refers to the city gates. In the ancient world, the city’s gate was a large entrance. The traffic to and from a city passed through this gate, making it a great place—in an age before text messaging—to gather a needed quorum of elders (see also Ruth 4) or catch someone with whom you have a matter (economic or judicial) to settle (2 Samuel 18:24, 33) or even prophesy to the populace (Amos 5:12, 15).
As Michael Fox puts it, “Wisdom … delivers her message where the competition is fiercest, not competition from other orators but from the everyday distractions of business, politics, and disputes.”1 In the context of the Easter Vigil, Wisdom’s call draws our attention: listen to the stories and block out the distractions so that you move forward with ḥokhmah and tᵉbunah. Even outside of that particular calendrical setting, Wisdom’s calls at the beginning of chapter 8 sounds so that we may respond in kind. At the core of Hebrew wisdom is humanity’s answer to a divine call.
The reading is, as noted, divided in awkward ways. In its current division, the reader focuses on the call itself, her invitation for all people, and the truth inherent in her words.
Verses 4–5 offer a two-fold call, one that narrows from verse 4 to verse 5. All of humanity is called first, and then she turns specifically to those who have presumably rejected her, those who have not yet heeded her call or have ignored her advice. Preachers: be mindful here of how you discuss “simple ones,” “naive ones,” “those lacking intelligence,” “fools,” or “those without sense” (9:4b)—the reference is one who is deliberately ignoring the message, and not a condemnation of immaturity (of age) or intellectual disability in a broader sense.
Verses 6–8, and 19–21 attest to the validity of wisdom. Once again, the syntax of the Hebrew places emphasis on the message: words associated with wisdom—“truth,” “straight,” “righteous,” “upright”—take precedence before their opposites—“wickedness,” “twisted,” “abomination.” The economic imagery of verses 19–21 looks back to the spaces from which wisdom calls, the public centers of the city. This rhetorical strategy allows the recipient of the text (through reading or hearing) to focus first on the positive, to be drawn in to what wisdom desires, and to desire it for one’s self.
For any and all, 9:6 culminates in the call of wisdom. The verbs all have force of the imperative: abandon your simple-mindedness, live, and walk (literally, “go straight”). In Proverbs and wisdom literature more generally, “life” and “living” are more than the avoidance of death, these terms connote a vital condition of the human will to seek goodness, joy, and to make ethical choices.
In the context of the Vigil of Easter, Wisdom’s call prepares our hearts for the culmination of salvation in resurrection. The fact that this call comes from a female persona should also not be overlooked. In Proverbs, we are reminded that women bring truth, understanding, and a good news (or, gospel) message of life and joy. In the context of the Easter story, Wisdom’s call prefigures the apostolic women’s, who announce the resurrection to the disciples.
- Michael V. Fox, Proverbs 1–9, Anchor Bible Commentary 18a (New York: Doubleday, 2000), 267.
April 8, 2023