20 Wisdom cries out in the street; in the squares she raises her voice. 21 At the busiest corner she cries out; at the entrance of the city gates she speaks: 22 “How long, O simple ones, will you love being simple? How long will scoffers delight in their scoffing and fools hate knowledge? 23 Give heed to my reproof; I will pour out my thoughts to you; I will make my words known to you. 24 Because I have called and you refused, have stretched out my hand and no one heeded, 25 and because you have ignored all my counsel and would have none of my reproof, 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, 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 my counsel, and despised all my reproof, 31 therefore they shall eat the fruit of their way and be sated with their own devices. 32 For waywardness kills the simple, and the complacency of fools destroys them; 33 but those who listen to me will be secure and will live at ease, without dread of disaster.” (NRSV)
The Call of Wisdom
I’ve never excelled at math. In fact, it was probably my weakest subject in school. I did okay with the basic stuff, but when it came to algebra, I simply didn’t understand it. People would tell me, “Algebra’s easy. Whatever you do to one side of the equation, you do to the other side, and you’re good.” But all I could do is raise my hands in exasperation and say, “I have no idea what that means!” I really, truly, did not understand.
If only my algebra teachers had presented algebra the way Proverbs presents wisdom: as a beautiful yet elusive woman. If only they had said, “Seek after Lady Algebra. She is beautiful and desirable, yet elusive. Those who find her will be happy, for they will never fail to understand “x.” Those who make algebra their own will always comprehend “y.” But I could never figure out x or y, and I always heard Lady Algebra mocking my folly, laughing at my choice to ignore her existence. And that’s essentially what I had chosen to do.
Joy, on the other hand, is a math wiz. She’s brilliant at it. She was a math tutor in college. When I designed and built a fort and swing set for our kids, Joy did the trigonometry to calculate how long the slide needed to be so the angle of descent met safety standards. And to make sure we didn’t launch our children into the corn field behind our house.
She always said she could teach me algebra. I only needed someone to explain it in a way I could understand. For over thirteen years, I scoffed at the idea.
Then, when Joy and I were driving from Fort Wayne to Mount Vernon for our move here, we were both tired from days of packing and little sleep. I needed to stay awake, so I asked her to teach me algebra. I figured the higher brain functions required to do math would keep me from nodding off. So she did. She explained it in a way I could understand. Once I learned, I was spouting the solutions to every equation she gave me, doing the math in my head. Who knew algebra was that easy?
In Old Testament thought, Wisdom can be a technical skill, experience. shrewdness, the worldly wisdom of other peoples (such as the Egyptians, Greeks, & Babylonians), the pious wisdom of Israel, God’s wisdom, or wisdom personified as a woman. There are several texts in the Old Testament that describe Wisdom in personal feminine language as though she is a living, breathing, beautiful woman. In Proverbs 1, Lady Wisdom makes a personal appearance.
The presentation of Wisdom as a woman stems, in part, from the fact that the Hebrew word itself (חָכְמָה) is feminine. The Greek word has even become a woman’s name in languages across Western culture, σοφία (Sophia). It probably would’ve appealed to an audience of young men learning from their teachers. If the teachers described Wisdom as desirable yet elusive, the allusions to a beautiful woman would have been a shrewd—wise—way of getting the young men interested. The listeners are urged to seek Wisdom, to find her and make her their own as if she were a potential wife who already loves them and wants them to take notice of her. In fact, the references to the desirable woman and ideal wife in Proverbs are, in many ways, symbolic of the desirability of Lady Wisdom herself.
In Proverbs 1, the first of Lady Wisdom’s three personal appearances in the book, she is depicted as an angry prophetess. It makes me wonder if this text was a source for William Congreve’s famous line, “Heav’n has no Rage, like Love to Hatred turn’d, Nor Hell a Fury, like a Woman scorn’d.” It’s the origin of that old line, “Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned,” and it comes from his play The Mourning Bride. One interesting thing about this depiction is that Wisdom speaks on her own authority. She doesn’t begin her prophetic utterance with the typical prophetic words, “Thus says the Lord.” Instead, Lady Wisdom proclaims her own power. She can reveal herself to those who seek her, or hide from those who seek her too late.
To seek Wisdom is to seek God. Neglecting wisdom is neglecting God. Wisdom cries out in the street, raises her voice in the squares, and calls out from the busiest corner. But Wisdom only spends a few verses on those who listen to her. Most of her words are about her response to those who refuse to listen. And her words are disconcerting.
It sounds like the mockery of Lady Wisdom—which is also God’s mockery—is somehow out of place or ill-suited to a gracious God. Wisdom will laugh at calamity? Wisdom will mock when panic, distress, and anguish strike? It sounds cruel and insensitive. But it isn’t suggesting God has it out for us. It’s actually somewhat apocalyptic in nature, and by that I don’t mean frightening end-of-the-world stuff. Apocalyptic literature, like Revelation, actually underscores God’s love and immense patience with our human stupidity and our refusal to accept God’s rule and reign, but most importantly, our refusal to accept God’s healing grace and love.
One of the features of apocalyptic literature is the cycle of seven. In Revelation, you have seven churches, seven seals, seven trumpets, seven thunders, and seven bowls. As people’s rebellion and disobedience continue, more and more calamity befalls them until it seems like God is ready to wipe the floor with them. But then, God holds back. God allows people more time to repent. But eventually, after time and time again, God’s patience runs out. Like any parent with a child who refuses to listen, when calamity comes the parent can do little more than throw up their arms and say, I told you this would happen! There’s nothing more I can do. You’re responsible for the consequences of your actions.
When people walk a path of foolishness, as it’s described in Proverbs, they’ll end up destroying themselves by reaping what they’ve sown, eating the fruit of their way, being sated with their own devices. The mockery is, in essence, God’s judgment. But here, it serves as a warning. The judgment hasn’t been made yet. There’s still time to repent. The callousness of wisdom is actually God’s love. Through wisdom, God is calling to us, God is begging us, God is screaming at us, to turn to God. But our hearts don’t always hear. In our arrogance, we can refuse.
The reality is, when people have no use for God during times of prosperity, we’ll have no idea how to turn to God in times of need. It sounds unsympathetic. But the thing is, fools don’t become wise through sympathy. It takes conversion. It takes new creation. It takes grace. Wisdom requires what only God can give—what God freely offers—yet we must receive the renewing grace God is trying to shove into our heart, mind, body, and soul.
How, then, do we make the right choice? How do we seek after and find Wisdom? There is a hint in verse 29. It says, “Because they hated knowledge and did not choose the fear of the Lord.” Listen to that again, “Because they hated knowledge and did not choose the fear of the Lord.”
There are seven places in the Old Testament which connect wisdom to “the fear of the Lord.” And fear in this sense doesn’t necessarily mean terror. Fear means giving God the reverence, honor, and the respect God deserves, in part, by listening to what God says and obeying. The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom. Honoring God is the beginning of wisdom. Respecting God is the beginning of wisdom. Obeying God is the beginning of wisdom. Wisdom comes from God. Wisdom is a gift that only God can give. We can’t have wisdom apart from God. Even the wisdom of Greece, Egypt, Babylon, and Persia came to those peoples as a gift from God, even if they didn’t recognize the giver.
Jesus Christ has been called The Wisdom of God. In the Gospel of John, the masculine Greek word λόγος, which means word or principle, was used instead of the feminine Greek word σοφία in order to describe Jesus Christ. But the feminine word didn’t stop Paul from calling Christ θεοῦ σοφίαν the wisdom of God (1Cor. 1:24). Christ is God’s wisdom.
It’s appropriate for us to read this text and hear it as a call to turn (or re-turn) to Christ as the wisdom of God. The Gospel text for this week is from Mark 8 where Jesus says, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. 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.”
Being a Christian is no lackadaisical endeavor or half-hearted enterprise. It’s serious stuff. It requires us to consider the fact that what we want, what we’re comfortable with, are not always in line with what the gospel requires. What the gospel requires is wisdom.
There is a wise way to navigate this and every troubled time, and that is to honor God with our life. We can honor God with how we live. We can honor God in everything we do and say. We can live each moment as though God is walking alongside us, because you know what? God is. We can honor God in our choices. A choice that does not honor God is never the wise choice. We come to God by believing in and following Jesus Christ, the Word, Principle, and Wisdom of God. It’s through Jesus that we come to God and are saved.
But long before that, we can hear Wisdom’s call. We can hear the whispered echoes of God’s grace being offered to us in every moment of our lives.
Waywardness and complacency kill simpletons and fools whose hearts are too calloused to even comprehend God’s wisdom and truths. Those who are alert and seeking, and listening to the message of Lady Wisdom will be secure, live at ease, and won’t dread disaster.
As nice as that might sound, it doesn’t mean we’ll never face struggles. It doesn’t mean we’ll never experience difficult times. I’m a thirty-nine year old pastor, and I’ve faced plenty. My mother-in-law was just diagnosed with stage-4 cancer. It’s a difficult, heart-broken time for my family right now. And I fully expect to face plenty more difficulty in the future.
What this does mean is that, in the midst of those excruciating moments, in the middle of those dark times when we’re feeling pain and brokenness because of what life throws at us, we’ll be able to rely on God’s sustaining grace. God is with us. God loves us. And God’s grace fills us in ways we can scarcely imagine. When we seek the wisdom of God, we receive the gift of God’s grace.
We can choose wisdom or we can choose folly. I don’t know about you, but to me, it seems like Wisdom is the better way to go.
In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit, Amen!
(Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version [NRSV] unless noted as [CEB] for the Common English Bible).