Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Chapter 2: Wisdom of Proverbs 8

Week 2

Please read again Ecclesiastes 2 plus contemplate on the whole rest of the book. Find the places in almost every chapter where Solomon refers to "under the sun" which he uses as a point or demarcation for the reader to focus their lens of understanding on.

Read Proverbs 8. If you would, read 1-9, for it is all an overarching theme of wisdom as a 'women'. Then read, below, "Who is Wisdom"

Terms to look up: figurative language, literary genre, personification, encomium, proposition, humanism, idealism, Epicureanism, hedonistic, materialist, empiricist


I’m an enthusiast for "the Bible as literature." There are, of course, liabilities to this popularized label since in some circles it runs the risk of implying that the Bible is only literature and therefore devoid of the special authority that Christians ascribe to it as a religious book.

No less a literary giant than C. S. Lewis expressed that same reservation when he accused those who read the Bible "as literature" of reading the Bible "without attending to the main thing it is about." Two sentences later, however, Lewis asserted unequivocally, "There is a saner sense in which the Bible, since it is after all literature, cannot properly be read except as literature; and the different parts of it as the different sorts of literature they are." What Lewis meant is that the Bible is composed of different kinds (genres) of literature — narrative, poetry, prophecy, epistle (authoritative teaching in the form of a letter), and so on — and each part of the Bible must be read according to the kind of literature it is. It is this principle I propose to explain: literary genre should influence our interpretations, and an awareness of literary genre can spare us from misreading of the Bible (though that is not its only usefulness).

How to Misread Proverbs 8.

One biblical text that illustrates this principle is a famous poem that praises wisdom (Prov. 8:22–31). Here are the first five verses of the poem:
The Lord possessed me at the beginning of his work, the first of his acts of old.
Ages ago I was set up, at the first, before the beginning of the earth.
When there were no depths I was brought forth, when there were no springs abounding with water.
Before the mountains had been shaped, before the hills, I was brought forth,
before he had made the earth with its fields, or the first of the dust of the world. (ESV)

Who is speaking here? The lead-in to the speech answers the question: "Does not wisdom call?" (v. 1); and in verse 12, we read, "I, wisdom, dwell with prudence." The repeated first-person references (my lips, my mouth, etc.), therefore, are to wisdom.

How to Recognize Personification.

As I said earlier, I will make the case for literary genre as an effective way to spare us from misreading the Bible. We noted that wisdom is the speaker in Proverbs 8. Wisdom, someone might protest, cannot speak. Well, yes she can if she is a personification of an abstract concept.

Poets have always used personification, and biblical writers did as well. Just recall some famous examples: "

  • Sin is crouching at the door" (Gen. 4:7 ESV).
  • "Mercy and truth are met together; righteousness and peace have kissed each other" (Ps. 85:10 KJV). "
  • Then desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin, and sin when it is fully grown brings forth death" (James 1:15 ESV).
  • My personal favorite is Zechariah’s vision of a woman named Wickedness sitting inside a cereal container (Zech. 5:6–8).

How can you know when a writer-poet has used personification?

It is not complicated: whenever a poet attributes human qualities to some- thing inanimate, often an abstraction, he or she has used personification.

This takes us back to Proverbs 8. The main subject of Proverbs chapters 1–9 is wisdom, which is an abstract quality or character trait rather than a person, but wisdom is treated as a woman from the first chapter right through chapter 9. Wisdom is portrayed as:

  • a woman of dazzling attractiveness and virtue, who teaches in the marketplace of the town (1:20),
  • who is romantically embraced (4:8–9),
  • who can be addressed as "my sister" (7:4),
  • who utters a long speech commending herself to the public (chap. 8),
  • and who builds a house and invites people to an alluring banquet (9:1–6).

Is Proverbs 8 Literal Fact or Literary Fiction?

We would make so much more sense of biblical poetry if we would simply acknowledge that poetry is a form of fiction and quite often of fantasy. In its usual pose, it asserts something that we know to be literally untrue and often openly fantastic. Surely personification illustrates this in its pure form. We all know that blood does not literally cry from the ground (Gen. 4:10) and that light and truth are not literally travel guides to Jerusalem (Ps. 43:3). Similarly, in Proverbs 1–9, wisdom is not literally a woman who speaks eloquently about herself and prepares a banquet. Wisdom is a quality of the soul.

The purpose of the entire eighth chapter is to praise and exalt wisdom. In conducting this praise, the writer invents a fictional creation story in which wisdom, as an attribute of God, was actually present at creation. Proverbs 3:19 tells us propositionally that "the Lord by wisdom founded the earth." Proverbs 8 turns that statement into a fictional narrative in which a personified wisdom was present at the creation of the world. It is as simple as that.

Proverbs 8 as an Encomium.

A proper understanding of Proverbs 8 does not absolutely depend on viewing the poem as an encomium, but the dynamics of the passage will fall even more into place if we do so. The encomium, one of the most beautiful and exalted types of literature used in the Bible, is a composition in praise of either an abstract quality or a general character type.

First Corinthians 13 is an encomium in praise of love,
Hebrews 11 in praise of faith,
and Proverbs 31:10–31 in praise of the virtuous wife.

The writer of an encomium conducts the praise by using a standard set of literary motifs (elements):

(1) introduction to the subject, (2) the distinguished and ancient ancestry of the subject, (3) a list of the praiseworthy acts and qualities of the subject, (4) the indispensable and/or superior nature of the subject, and (5) a conclusion urging the reader to emulate the subject. Proverbs 8 has all of these familiar motifs. In verses 22–31, we find the motif of the ancient and distinguished ancestry of wisdom, which was present from the beginning and even participated in the creation of the world.

All Literature Requires Interpretation.

I can imagine some readers questioning whether what I have said in this article introduces an element of subjectivity into the interpretation of the Bible. After all, whether the speaker in Proverbs 8 is a personified wisdom and whether the passage is an encomium are decisions that the interpreter makes. Yes, they are, but two things need to be asserted in regard to this.

First, all texts require interpretive decisions, and the more literary and more ancient the text, the more interpretive decisions are potentially required.

Second, all interpretive decisions involve an element of subjectivity. To decide that a statement in the Bible is figurative is no more subjective than to decide that it is literal. This element of subjectivity, moreover, does not mean that all interpretive decisions are entirely subjective. With practice we can learn to recognize what kind of literature we are reading and let that influence our interpretation. We can get a sense of the meaning that was intended in the original autographs.

1. Leland Ryken,
2. C. S. Lewis, Reflections on the Psalms (New York: Harcourt, Brace and World, 1958), 3.
3. R.C. Sproul
4. F.F. Bruce, Kaiser and …
5. Gleason Archer

Ecclesiastes 2:25-26

I also used to blame this book, unworthily, for what I regarded it as saying, that it was similar to the philosophy of Epicureanism. The frame of mind to eat, drink and be merry for we only go around once.
But this charge I held is false on several counts.

I found that the text is not translated correctly.
I missed the point that death is not the natural sequel to eating and drinking.

The translation issue is corrected by it reading, "There is not a good {inherent} in a person that he or she should be able to eat, drink or get satisfaction from his {or her} work. Even this, I realized, was from the hand {or 'the power' of God."} This translation avoids the phrase "there is nothing better." Even though such a comparative form does exist in somewhat similar formula in Ec. 3:12 and 8:15, it does not appear in the context. Furthermore, the writer is not saying at the point that no other options exist for the race other than to try calmly to enjoy the present. This would, like I thought, be hedonistic and materialistic philosophy of life that would effectively cut God off from any kind of consideration.

The Qoleheth's point is not one of despair--"There's nothing left for us to do than the basically physical acts of feeding one's face and trying to get as many kicks out of life as we can." Rather, his point is that whatever good or value is to be found, its worth cannot be determined merely be being part of the human race.
We mortals must realize that if we are to achieve satisfaction and pleasure from anything in life, even things as base and mundane as eating and drinking, we must realize that it all comes from the hand of God. The source of pleasure, joy and goodness does not reside in the human person, and humanism or idealism would want us to believe. This has been something quite difficult for me to shed.

  • Ec. 2:25 is more adamant on this point. Who will be able to find any enjoyment unless they first find the living God who is the only true source of all joy, satisfaction and pleasure? The text assures us that "without Him" such satisfaction is a lost search.
  • Ec. 2:26 carefully sets forth the distribution of joy. It is a matter of pleasing God first. The opposite of pleasing God is "one who continues to live in sin." This same contrast between pleasing god and being a sinner is found in Ec. 7:26 and 8;12-13. Another way to define the one continually choosing sin is "one who does not fear god."

God will grant three gifts to those, according to Ecclesiastes, who please him: wisdom, knowledge and joy. but to the ‘marred focused sinner’ who persists in trying to remake God's world, there is also an outcome: "a chasing after the wind." This reference to the chasing of wind is to the frustrating activity in which the person works night and day to heap things up only to find in the end that he must, and as a matter of fact does, turn them over to the one who pleases God.

So when Solomon says, “Eat, drink, and be merry.” Is he presenting a
nihilist, hedonist world view, like the beer commercial, “You only go around
once in life, so go for all the gusto you can get”?

No, if you read Ecclesiastes, you will see that he spends all of Chapter 2
on the stupidity of pleasure-seeking. He got all the gusto he could get, and
was empty. What he says in Ecclesiastes is to work and to do good, and to
enjoy the fruits of our labor. This is a consistent theme in the Bible, that we
are to work, and we are to rest and to enjoy the fruits of our labor. This is
what the Sabbath is all about. God rested and enjoyed the fruit of His labor,
and we are to also. Solomon says, in Ec 6:3, that there is no tragedy greater
than a person who works his whole life and never enjoys the fruit of his labor. The person who heaps things up in this life, beyond what he can really use or enjoy in this life, is a fool. Solomon is perfectly consistent with Paul, who said, “I have found the secret of contentment in every situation,” (Phil 4:12),

  • “Godliness with contentment is great gain, for we brought nothing into this world, and we can take nothing out of it,” and also “Make it your aim to work with your hands,” (1 Thess 4:11) and
  • “Whatever you do, do it with all your might, as unto the Lord.” (Col 3:23)
Compare this with Solomon, who said,
  • “Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with all your might,” (Ec 9:10), “When God gives any man wealth and possessions, and enables him to enjoy them, to accept his lot and be happy in his work– this is a gift of God,” (Ec 5:19)
  • and “I know there is nothing better for men than to be happy and do good while they live.” (Ecc 3:12)
Solomon is not encouraging great self-indulgence, but rather, enjoying the simple things of life, neither being lazy and wallowing in pleasure, nor working endlessly without ever enjoying ourselves. This is quite different from the type of “eating and drinking” which Paul condemns in 1 Corinthians 15:32, when he quotes Isaiah 22:13. Isaiah 22:13 speaks of the “revelry” of the people at a time when they should have turned to the Lord in repentance.

5 types of Biblical writings

Each type of writing has its own special considerations for biblical interpretation.
The author's intent is somewhat implied by the type of literature.

A. Historical narrative (55% OT, 66% NT)

Matt: Written with the Jews in mind; starts with a genealogy, presents Jesus as King
Mark: Written with the Romans in mind; presents Jesus as Servant
Luke: Written with the Greeks in mind; presents Jesus as perfect Man
John: The gospel of belief unto eternal life; presents Jesus as Son of God
Acts: The early church in transition

Much of the Old Testament

B. Wisdom literature


C. Poetic literature

Song of Solomon

D. Epistles

Written to:
Individual people: Titus, Timothy
Specific churches: Ephesus, Philippi, Corinth
Regions: Galatians
Groups of people: Hebrews, Romans

Generally for the purpose of:
Solving a problems or...
Instructing in proper conduct for Christians and Christian workers.

E. Prophecy

Major & minor prophets
Book of Revelation

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