All cultures have wisdom traditions, safeguarded by sages and prophets as well as common sense, household wisdom, and the wisdom of the royal court. We could call this conventional wisdom, which seeks understanding for prudent living in various life situations. Wisdom also offers instruction for the avoiding unnecessary anxiety, living with shrewdness, and understanding amidst the realities of life. There are two main aspects of conventional wisdom: practical and theological. In the Bible, wisdom themes are found extensively, but uniquely, in the books of Proverbs and Ecclesiastes (which we know from its Hebrew name as Qoheleth – one who gathers wisdom). Sometimes readers are unsure why these books are even in the Bible. They are each very practical, but also very different. Proverbs is full of sayings and riddles – short pithy statements in crafted collections that are ancient and frequently amusing. But they are memorable, which is the point; wisdom you can’t remember isn’t much use. Qoheleth appears pessimistic about many things – why?
Underlying the Hebrew wisdom of Proverbs and Qoheleth, is a theological vision: The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom (Proverbs 1:7).This trumps simple pragmatism and sets Israel apart. The expression fear of the Lord does not mean the feeling of actual fear – it means to keep the covenant (of Moses). To do this, one must understand and practice Torah. To live prudently means to keep the faith of Israel. The challenge is to assess how this plays out in real life because the commandments paint with a broad brush, but human life is filled with innumerable details. Thus, the conventional wisdom in Proverbs offers those seeking understanding assured, tested knowledge that stimulates a positive embrace of life and guards the wise person from folly and harm. These are the two imaginary persons in Proverbs – the wise man and the fool (Proverbs 13:20 and many more).
What is the theology of conventional wisdom? The book of Proverbs assumes people know the narratives of the Pentateuch, particularly Genesis and Deuteronomy. Proverbs relies on the creation accounts of Genesis – a material world with interlocking relationships brought into being by God. Though a good place, it is a world whose borders touch on chaos and dislocation, not theoretically but in actual human experience. However, God is not a God of chaos but of order, and so proverbial wisdom seeks an ordered reality and the pursuit of wisdom is the way to do it. Deuteronomy positions this reality between life and death, order and disorder, cause and effect, blessing and curse. In basic terms, if we think properly we will act toward the experience of order, life will unfold as (we think) it should, and we will hold at bay the forces that tend toward death and disorder. Make the right decisions and positive, effective outcomes will follow. Life will come to resemble its intended purposes projected by the first chapters of Genesis. It’s a simple equation – cause and effect, which mirrors so much of life.
Are there deep origins for wisdom? Is it only about the acquisition of practical knowledge? Proverbs thinks such origins are fundamental. Consider Proverbs 3:19–22 and Proverbs 8:22–36 in which wisdom is personified and resides within the Godhead, a theologically crucial idea for wisdom’s appreciation of reality. Wisdom is alive and embodied in divine identity and action. To ignore it places us in an ambiguous relation to ourselves and the created order; even to the extent that we cannot think, act or apprehend beauty. The alert reader of Proverbs 8:22–36 will note the astounding resonance with the beginning of the Gospel of John and perhaps other passages.
Yet there remains a key problem. Conventional wisdom works most of the time, but definitely not all of the time; if it did we would not have Psalms of lament. So, this wisdom is reliable, but not absolutely so.It is ill-suited to advise on life’s core ambiguity: death. On this it is silent; we die, no matter how wise we may have become. For life, as we experience it, is inherently ambiguous. Qoheleth says that all is vanity and a chasing after wind (Ecclesiastes 1:14, 2:11). What he means is that life is ironic and challenges conventional wisdom. He does not reject it, but points to creation’s circularity into which we, even as bearers of God’s image, are caught up; we cannot escape it. No matter what we do, how far we succeed, we die. Not only that, but wise men and fools die the same way (Ecclesiastes 2:15), and what we leave behind is just as likely to be inherited by a fool (Ecclesiastes 2:18–21). Qoheleth observes that all such outcomes lie beyond our control.
What does Qoheleth advise? We should gladly rejoice in life itself, its work, its potential, its gifts, and yet with adjusted horizons for eternity has been placed in our hearts (Ecclesiastes 3:10–15). How we embrace life will always matter because it’s lived before the One who gave it, so a neutral commitment is denied us even if a sort of agnosticism may seem reasonable to our temperament. After his ode to old age (Ecclesiastes 12), Qoheleth takes us as far as he can. His resolution for irony is to live in God’s sight according to Torah, for we must return our “breath” to God who gave it. Yet there is a deeper irony – for Christ came in the greater image of God (Colossians 1:15–20) and in his obedience, even to the irony of death, God has brought resurrection and satisfied our deeper longing for reconciliation, satisfaction, and eternity. Although Qoheleth didn’t know it when he wrote, he certainly understood the problem – we may imagine his joy and wonder at the wisdom of heaven (1 Corinthians 1:18–25) and join with him in worship.
John Stafford is an ordained Anglican clergyman who has served in various parishes in Manitoba. He also served as the Dean of Theology and Chaplain at St. John’s College for 16 years and as an Associate Professor of Biblical Studies at Providence University College, Otterburne, Manitoba.