Regular thoughts on the oft-neglected Old Testament Lectionary passages.
Elsewhere I have written a brief introduction to biblical Wisdom Literature: today we celebrate with God in this hymn of praise to Wisdom, who is here personified as a woman who, in the verses which have been filleted out for us, calls to people to come and learn from her. Wisdom in the biblical sense is best thought of using the French term savoir faire, or ‘knowing what to do’, and Wisdom sets out the justice and purity of her words, and calls those who would hear her to acquire that which is more precious than silver, gold or rubies. To know the wise and prudent way to behave in any situation is worth more than anything else: kings rule with her help, and where there is justice it is because wisdom has been heeded.
But then things get more interesting, as we come to the part of the chapter which our lectionary compilers have graciously allowed us to read. The picture changes and we see wisdom less as a woman but as a figure involved at the creation of the world. The very first thing God did was to create Wisdom, before oceans, mountains, fields or even the heavens. Once brought into being, Wisdom stands beside God and watches him creating everything else, delighting more and more in what is appearing at his words. The climax is the delight of wisdom in the human race. Wisdom is either a ‘master builder’ or a ‘little child’ depending on how you translate the Hebrew of v 30. If you go for ‘master builder’ you see wisdom as the one whose very skill was used in the foundation of all things; if you prefer ‘little child’ you get the sense of sheer fun and delight which comes through in this and the following verse. Therefore, our passage continues, seek wisdom and you will find life and favour from the Lord.
Some have seen here a picture of Christ, present at creation, but this doesn’t quite work, most obviously because he was of course ‘begotten, not created’. It may be rather that we have a personification of God’s delight in his work. It is worth noting that Wisdom is definitely a Tigger and not an Eeyore: hers is not the voice of a prophet condemning the foolishness of the human race, nor calling them to account because of their injustice and cruelty. She has no hint of an apocalyptic voice either: she does not cry out ‘How long, O Lord?’ and call for his sorting out of the problems of the world. She simply celebrates.
I reckon it is pretty easy to divide Christians into two camps: those who believe that the world is essentially good, and therefore needs celebrating, even though it might have a few nasty bits in it for now, and on the other side those who see the world as fundamentally fallen and in need of rescue from itself, even though there might be a few positives round the edges. Churches tend to be either world-affirming or world-hating and –fearing, and this fundamental view colours everything they do. Of course both are true, but we do come at it from one end or the other most of the time. So it is refreshing to read a poem which wholeheartedly celebrates the goodness and creativity of God. Maybe to focus on this, in spite of the world’s problems, is a refreshing tonic as we prepare to enter the austerity of Lent.