As we’ve just wrapped up a sermon series in Proverbs at my church, I’ve been reflecting on the value of wisdom literature to the Christian. Many struggle with the genre, with seems somehow less ‘Christian’ than most of the rest of the Old Testament due to the fact that it’s hard to see much fulfilment in Jesus, and so try their best to take the top tips, ignore the weird bits, and Christianise it to the best of their ability.
I’m not proposing anything remotely comprehensive in terms of understanding wisdom literature, but would like to offer a few thoughts on how the wisdom literature may help our approach to Christian life and spirituality.
Wisdom literature provides a robust defence against spirituality becoming superstition
Superstition is the attempt to control that which is under the control of God, and to escape the restraints of creaturely living to wield a greater influence over our lives than God has given. This is obvious in what we would usually think of as superstition, throwing salt over one’s shoulder, avoiding walking under ladders, etc., but can also be found having snuck into Christian thought as attempts to twist God’s arm into blessing. At its most obvious and crass, it is the prosperity gospel of the white-toothed American televangelists, but I contend that it exists in a milder form in my more respectable British middle-class context. Here, it often takes the form of a kind of perfectionism that expects that if one only makes all of the right spiritual choices, the results will all be obvious blessing here and now. Make right and godly decisions about the big three things — spouse, career, location — and all will be blessed and well. It’s all very simple. Do x, get y.
Now this is not to say that obedience to God is not the best and wisest option at all points, but it is to challenge a way of thinking and an approach to decision making that is overly optimistic about our ability to control the outcomes. As a friend of mine shrewdly pointed out on this subject, ‘Only one person made every decision perfectly, and he ended up crucified.’
Biblical wisdom literature responds with a flat rejection of such simple answers. Life after the fall is a complex and frustrating thing. Obedience is always wise, but its results are not always predictable.
Wisdom literature gives us a vision of what Christian maturity looks like
The Proverbs offers an invitation and appeal along with its instructions. Written to a son who would be King, the invitation is to grow up. The invitation comes again to all of us in Christ from St Paul, that for this reason we were given teachers, in order that ‘we will no longer be infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of people in their deceitful scheming.’ (Eph. 4:14)
This is where the wisdom literature is so invaluable in setting expectations for the Christian life and helping believers to understand what Christian maturity looks like. To people who want right and wrong options in all circumstances, and clear and predictable results to all actions, the wisdom literature gives a rebuke of realism: not every choice is black or white, not everything has an obvious point, and bad things often happen to good people. Hard and fast rules for every situation are in the spiritual life are a lot like hard and fast rules in the rest of life: acceptable, indeed necessary, for children, but unbecoming for adults. The invitation of the wisdom literature is to grow up into what humans were always supposed to be — wise vice-regents of God on earth.
The Biblical wisdom literature shapes our expectations of how long this will take. The Proverbs are clear: generally speaking, it’s old people who are wise, not young people (Prov. 16v31, 20v29). And there are no shortcuts to wisdom. You can help yourself by listening to the wise, but the information cannot be downloaded and mastered in a few weeks or months. The wisdom literature ought to make us humble and patient as we mature. The happy flip side to not expecting too much too young, however, is that we ought to expect that we’ll still be growing up in Christ in our sixties, seventies, eighties, and beyond.
The Proverbs help us understand discipleship holistically
In our teaching and discipleship, helping people to become ‘better Christians’ is far too small a goal. We are not trying to produce complete Christians, but complete people. We just think that being a Christian is pretty much the best and only way of being a complete person. This is not just blurring the lines between the sacred and secular — it is rejecting the distinction in its entirety. God is beginning the new creation in Christians now, and is not so much interested in a flourishing spiritual life as a body and soul transformation. He bought the whole person, and so following Jesus must include every aspect of that person’s life. Enter the Proverbs — no spiritual gimmicks, no how-to tricks, no Christian life-hacks or listicles, rather the whole self in body and soul reoriented in light of the fear of the LORD.
An interpretative question comes into play here as well — we sometimes struggle with the Proverbs and the wisdom literature because we don’t know how to ‘transpose it into a New Testament key.’ In this, the New Testament writers are little help, giving us virtually no interpretation of the wisdom writings. But what if that’s because they didn’t think it needed any changing? (I like Peter Leithart’s remark at the beginning of his commentary on the books of Samuel: ‘I make no effort to “Christianize” because I reject the assumption that Samuel is a “non-Christian” text.’) The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom. Nothing has changed there, we just have a better idea of who the LORD is as he is revealed to us in the Son and present with us by his Spirit. The Proverbs don’t tell us much about the mechanics of our redemption, but they give us a pretty good idea of what we were redeemed for — complete maturity in Christ.
The promise of wisdom in Scripture is always to the patient. In a post-microwave society, we who are young will often be more interested in quick fixes, firm rules, and a clear end goal. We will be disappointed if we think we think that because Christ’s righteousness is imparted to us, his wisdom will be as well. The wisdom literature is not a shortcut to a destination, but some pointers from those a little further down the road than us. It’s imitations — whether superstition or thin discipleship — can offer a few easy answers but no depth. If we reject wisdom’s imitations, we may find that we feel further from our destination than we were before, but we will be starting to grow up.
No doubt I could say much more about specific books — I mostly have Proverbs and Job in view underneath this post, and I may expand on some of the thoughts here in the future. As always, feedback, questions, and comments appreciated.