I’ve been reading through the essays in the fine volume edited by Craig G. Bartholomew and David J.H. Beldman entitled Hearing the Old Testament: Listening for God’s Address (Eerdmans, 2012). Bartholomew, who has written extensively on wisdom literature, has a nice chapter entitled “Hearing the Old Testament Wisdom Literature: The Wit of Many and the Wisdom of One.” He concludes his chapter with five observations about how we can follow the “clues” from biblical wisdom literature in our own situations in the present day. Here they are in slightly adapted form:
1. Old Testament wisdom serves as a reminder of the comprehensive scope of what Paul calls the “obedience of faith.”
The range of topics addressed by Old Testament wisdom is remarkable: acquisition of knowledge, epistemology, family, speech, politics, work, business, law, education, government, and so on. Wisdom serves as a reminder that kingdom life embraces every aspect of the creation as God has made it and that Christians are called to serve God in all areas of life, including farming, politics, architecture, winemaking, marriage, eating, etc. The Proverbs 31 woman is exemplary of this kind of embodied wisdom.
2. Old Testament wisdom serves as a reminder of the appropriate limits of Scripture.
Sinai does not provide us with all we need to know, nor does the canon of Scripture. The canon is the field in which we find Christ, and, as Lesslie Newbigin notes, “Christ is the clue to all that is.” But this clue has to be pursued in all areas of life! Wisdom drives a bus through the nature-grace, sacred secular dualism that is so prevalent in too much contemporary Christianity. Proverbs 1-9 in particular serves as a great encouragement to pursue that clue which is the Wisdom Christ in all areas of life, both practical and academic.
3. Old Testament wisdom reminds us of the importance of the ordinary.
The daily stuff of our lives provides the raw materials for our worship, and a Christian spirituality will play itself out amid the day-to-day experiences of life. As with Old Testament wisdom, believers will need to learn to practice wisdom amid the old and new situations that confront them.
4. As followers of the Christ, believers are called to take up their cross and follow him.
If you take up a cross, there is only one destination in view: crucifixion. The age of mission is also one of suffering, and in this context Ecclesiastes and Job will continue to be of inestimable value for believers as they are shaped by the Spirit to become truly wise. Human autonomy is at the heart of modernity, and the decentering that is involved in both Job and Ecclesiastes is highly instructive today.
5. Proverbial wisdom has a contribution to make to us moderns in terms of the primacy of lived experience as opposed to theoretical abstraction being the royal road to truth.
In past ages proverbial wisdom was highly valued for its sense of tradition and local, particular knowledge. A characteristic of modernity is the privileging of abstract theoretical knowledge over lived reality. The result is that proverbial wisdom as practical knowledge is marginalized in Western culture. This is a great loss, and a recovery of contemporary, biblical, proverbial wisdom is one way in which we can recover the primacy of lived experience.
(Adapted from pages. 329-331.)
R. Andrew Compton
Christ Reformed Church (URCNA)