20 Wisdom shouts in the street; in the public square she raises her voice. 21 Above the noisy crowd, she calls out. At the entrances of the city gates, she has her say: 22 “How long will you clueless people love your naïveté, mockers hold their mocking dear, and fools hate knowledge? 23 You should respond when I correct you. Look, I’ll pour out my spirit on you. I’ll reveal my words to you. 24 I invited you, but you rejected me; I stretched out my hand to you, but you paid no attention. 25 You ignored all my advice, and you didn’t want me to correct you. 26 So I’ll laugh at your disaster; I’ll make fun of you when dread comes over you, 27 when terror hits you like a hurricane, and your disaster comes in like a tornado, when distress and oppression overcome you. 28 Then they will call me, but I won’t answer; they will seek me, but won’t find me 29 because they hated knowledge and didn’t choose the fear of the LORD. 30 They didn’t want my advice; they rejected all my corrections. 31 They will eat from the fruit of their way, and they’ll be full of their own schemes. 32 The immature will die because they turn away; smugness will destroy fools. 33 Those who obey me will dwell securely, untroubled by the dread of harm.” (CEB)
After reading this passage from Proverbs at Bible study on Tuesday, the comment was made that I was going to get myself into trouble with this text. That might be true. Especially because, in places, the tone of the text, itself, is a little troubling. It almost comes across as arrogant and vindictive. But I think that’s how I usually hear those who are trying to correct me or get me to see something straight. My own arrogance and pride can cause me to hear such correction as arrogance on the part of the corrector, even when they’re meaning it lovingly. It’s too easy for me to think, who are you to tell me anything? Then again, there are those whose wise counsel I have sought, and those who have given it without my solicitation. Trust, in such moments, matters a great deal.
Sometimes I wonder where wisdom has gone. It seems that, within our culture, wisdom is sidelined in favor of more lucrative things and personal gains. Wisdom is a topic that’s largely ignored in the church, too. The Revised Common Lectionary provides readings from Proverbs on only 5 Sundays of the three-year cycle. Our Protestant Bibles cut two works of Wisdom Literature from the canon of Scripture: The Wisdom of Solomon and Sirach, (though you can find them in the Apocrypha if your Bible includes it).
Many voices in our culture clamor for our attention. The voice of the church is merely one of many, and even the church’s voice is plural, not singular. How do the claims of God and the call of wisdom find a hearing when there are so many other voices out there, enticing us to seek the good life, to seek power, to seek notoriety, to seek wealth, and to chase the illusion of a life of ease? Where do we find wisdom amid the noise and attractions of culture?
Contrary to pop culture, wisdom is not found at the feet of a lonely male guru on top of a mountain. Instead, the writer of Proverbs presents a scene we can envision: a woman standing in the middle of the busiest places of our cities who calls out over the noisy crowd, trying to get people’s attention. Wisdom shouts in the streets, raises her voice in the public squares, speaks at the entrances to the city gates. In the ancient world, these were the places where people bumped into each other, where business and trade happened, where legal cases were heard, and where judgments were made. These were the crowded places of life and community. Wisdom, then, vies for our attention amid the mundane, every-day, humdrum of life.
Wisdom, personified as a woman, demands to know how long we’ll keep this up: how long we’ll prefer naïveté, mocking, and foolishness to her correction. The woman, Wisdom, tells us that she invited us and stretched out her hand to us, but we rejected her, paid no attention to her, ignored her, and didn’t want her correction. (The women in Bible study particularly enjoyed this, by the way. They sighed and said, if men would just listen).
Then, the woman Wisdom: her tone turns harsh. She almost sounds vindictive and cruel. She says she’ll laugh at the disaster that comes over those who rejected her. She’ll make fun of the dread that comes over those who paid no attention to her invitation. She won’t answer those who call out to her after terror hits us like a hurricane and disaster comes tearing through their lives like a tornado, when distress and oppression overcome them because they paid no attention to her, they ignored her before these things happened.
They’ll call to Wisdom from the eye of the storm, but she won’t answer. They’ll seek Wisdom from the upheaval of disaster, but they won’t find her. It sounds harsh because it is harsh. But it’s also reality, isn’t it? When anyone refuses wisdom’s counsel, there comes a point in their life when the stupid things they’ve done catch up with them. We’re told over and over in the Scriptures that we will reap what we sow (c.f. Proverbs 11:18, 22:8; Hosea 8:7, 10:12; Sirach 7:3; 2 Corinthians 9:6). How we judge is how we will be judged, and the measure we give is the measure we’ll get. * Or, as the woman Wisdom tells us, “They will eat the fruit of their way, and they’ll be full of their own schemes” (Proverbs 1:31 CEB).
When our own bad choices catch up with us, when living contrary to the way of God finally comes to a head, what can Wisdom do then? Wisdom is about preventive maintenance, not emergency repair. The woman Wisdom is crying out in the streets, trying to get our attention, now, so that we don’t end up in a mess later.
But how do we listen to wisdom? How do we accept her correction and respond appropriately to it? She tells us that when we respond she’ll pour out her spirit on us and reveal her wise words to us. So, how do we even begin to listen and respond?
Earlier in the chapter we’re told this: “Wisdom begins with the fear of the LORD, but fools despise wisdom and instruction” (Proverbs 1:7 CEB).
Wisdom begins with the fear of the Lord. We’ve probably all heard that before. Sometimes it’s stated the other way around, “The Fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom…” (Psalm 111:10 NRSV). Yet, that word fear is a little jarring to us. I remember talking to one of my fraternity brothers in college about fearing God, and his response was that he didn’t believe we’re supposed to be afraid of God. And he was right, to a degree, but it was a misunderstanding of the word fear as I was using it that made him say that. He was right in that our relationship with God isn’t supposed to be sniveling, trembling terror before the Lord (though some people certainly have their moments).
But the word fear, in this sense, means to have reverent respect for God, to be in awe of God, and to live obediently to God. Fear of the Lord is an ancient way of saying a person is living rightly and righteously. People who fear the Lord understand that God loves us, and we can only be in awe that the creator of heaven and earth, the God who made the Pleiades and Orion, and hung the stars in their places would deign to care for each of us so intimately that God knows the number of hairs on our head. (For some of us, it’s an easier count than others). To fear the Lord means to stand amazed at the profundity of God’s mercy and care for us. To fear the Lord means that we respond to God’s loving-kindness by offering our loving-kindness to those whom we encounter every day.
Those who fear the Lord do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly. Those who fear the Lord turn their belief in God into faithful actions for the world. Those who fear the Lord seek God’s kingdom first in their lives.
Those who fear the Lord sing a different song that often becomes a refrain of resistance against the bellowing discord of our culture and society. When the choruses of our society tell us who to hate, the sweet overtones of God tell those who fear of the Lord whom we need to love. When society’s songs tell us who to blame, those who fear the Lord sing a harmony of hope because we know who to accept. When the jingles of culture tell us who to despise, those who fear the Lord croon a lullaby because we know who to seek out and invite into communion with us. How do we listen to wisdom? We start by fearing the Lord and walking in the ways of our God.
The text admits that Wisdom can sometimes be difficult to hear, especially in a culture that values power, wealth, fame, and control. Yet, Wisdom raises her voice above the noisy crowd. We can hear her even through the clamor. We don’t really have an excuse for ignoring her.
The thing is, Wisdom is not some esoteric, unreachable thing that only those lonely gurus can find in meditation on mountain tops. Wisdom is found in community. Wisdom meets us in the busiest places of lives. Wisdom calls to us where we interact with each other every day. Wisdom comes to us, Where Cross the Crowded Ways of Life (U.M. Hymnal #427) because wisdom is about how we relate to others. It’s about how we live in community with others. Wisdom is how we interact and love and give and serve. Wisdom is righteous living, life lived for God and for each other.
And that leads to the last verse of this passage: “Those who obey me will dwell securely, untroubled by the dread of harm” (Proverbs 1:33 CEB). It’s quite a promise. But I don’t think it means that nothing bad will ever happen to us. We know that’s not true because good things happen to good and bad people, and bad things happen to good and bad people. The promise isn’t that nothing bad will ever happen, it’s that we’ll “dwell securely, untroubled by the dread of harm.” You see, the church is a community. When trouble comes our way, as it inevitably does, we have each other. We surround each other. We pray for each other and visit each other.
Yet, for those who fear the Lord, our care and concern never stop at the edge of our church community. It extends to the broader communities in which we live, even to the ends of the earth. Wisdom calls to us in our workplaces, in our grocery stores, in our courthouses, and along our sidewalks.
When we listen to Wisdom, when we respond to her correction and amend our way of life to something that is lifegiving for others, she’ll pour out her sweet spirit upon us, and teach us her words. When we listen to wisdom, when we fear the Lord, that’s when we’re striving for God’s kingdom. Wisdom is calling. She’s been calling to the human race from the beginning, and she has called to each of us from our first breath till now. I implore us to listen and listen well, lest we eat the wayward fruit of our way rather than the sweet, life-giving fruit of the Spirit.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen!
Rev. Christopher Millay
*(c.f. Matthew 3:10, 7:1-2, 7:19, 12:36-37, 16:27, 25:31-46; Romans 2:6-8; 2 Corinthians 5:10; James 2:12-13; 1 Peter 1:17; Revelation 2:23, 2:26, 14:13, 16:11, 18:6, 20:12, 20:13, 22:12).