Tuesday, 8 May 2012

Towards a ‘biblical theology’ of Wisdom

Biblical theology “follows the movement and process of God’s revelation in the Bible ... by which revelation unfolds and moves toward the goal which is God’s final revelation of his purposes in Jesus Christ” (Graeme Goldsworthy, Gospel and Kingdom: A Christian Interpretation of the Old Testament [Exeter: Paternoster Press, 1981] 40).
This approach means that in studying a passage in its context, we include not only the literary setting, but the salvation-historical. And this has potentially interesting implications when it comes to the ‘Wisdom’ literature.
Whatever view one comes to regarding questions of authorship (and the authorship of Job, for example, is likely to remain unknown), the biblical text firmly identifies the reign of Solomon as the era of ‘Wisdom’ par excellence.
We see this particularly at the beginning of 1 Kings. After describing in chapters 1-3 the brief, but bloody, power-struggle that led to Solomon’s establishment on the throne of David, the next two chapters stress two crucial features of his reign: the peace and prosperity that accompanied it, and the source and greatness of his wisdom.
Furthermore, both these features are reemphasised in chapters 9-10, together with the second appearance of the Lord to Solomon, following the narrative of the building of the House of the Lord in chapters 6-8.
1 Kings 4:29 sums it up:
God gave Solomon wisdom and very great insight, and a breadth of understanding as measureless as the sand on the seashore.
When it comes to Solomon and his reign, the message of the opening ten chapters of Kings is that wisdom is ‘of the essence’, alongside the peace and prosperity that together represent a ‘golden age’, described in phraseology that compares with the expansiveness of Solomon’s own wisdom:
The people of Judah and Israel were as numerous as the sand on the seashore; they ate, they drank and they were happy. (1 Kings 4:20, NIV)
Yet once Solomon’s reign comes to an end, the term ‘wisdom’ (chokmah) disappears entirely from the narrative.
And this surely ought to raise questions in our minds. Much is made of wisdom in the opening chapters. Solomon is the ‘wise man’ of his generation (cf 1 Ki 4:31). Moreover, this wisdom is a gift from God himself (see chapter 3). If we were reading Kings for the first time, we would surely be saying to ourselves that wisdom is clearly of the utmost importance. And yet after Solomon, there is no more wisdom.
The answer is surely not that wisdom is an unrepeatable blessing. On the contrary, though Solomon is depicted as the wisest man of his time, yet others are also wise — including foreigners. As a further reminder of this, consider that one section of Proverbs (22:17-24:22) contains material generally agreed to be from an earlier Egyptian source, The Sayings of Amenemope.
In any case, one of the avowed aims of Proverbs is to make a person wise and to encourage them to seek out wisdom. All this, and more, makes it quite clear that you don’t have to be Solomon, or to have had Solomon’s divine ‘gifting’ to be wise as such.
Yet as far as the narrative of Kings (and Chronicles) is concerned, the words of Job 12:2 seem to be true: “Doubtless you are the people, and wisdom will die with you!”
The more I have pondered this recently, the less plausible it seems to me that this is just an ‘accident’ of the narrative — that Solomon just happened to request a particularly handy gift, and that therefore it was necessary to tell a couple of stories just to give a proper ‘character portrait’.

Let us consider the biblical theological context.
From the time of the promise to Abram in Genesis 12:1-3, the narrative of Scripture has been moving towards ‘rest in the land’ (see D J Clines, The Theme of the Pentateuch). And now, as the reign of Solomon begins, that goal has been largely achieved. This is the point being made in 1 Kings 4:
For he ruled over all the kingdoms west of the River, from Tiphsah to Gaza, and had peace on all sides. During Solomon’s lifetime Judah and Israel, from Dan to Beersheba, lived in safety, each man under his own vine and fig tree. (1 Kings 4:24-25, NIV)
In ‘salvation historical’ terms, the promise to Abraham has virtually been fulfilled, even down to descendants “as the sand on the seashore” (Gen 22:17).
And it is in this context that Solomon asks God for “understanding heart to judge Your people, that I may discern between good and evil” (1 Ki 3:9, NKJV). And in a moment we are back in Genesis 3, where the human race first came to know good and evil in a way comparable to God’s own knowledge (cf Gen 3:22).
As the journey begun with the expulsion from Eden draws near to its apparent end with the ascension of Solomon to the throne (finally ending, properly speaking, when the ark reaches its own resting place in God’s ‘palace’, see 2 Chron 6:41), so we reach not just the conclusion of one era, but the beginning of another.
Therefore it is entirely appropriate for Solomon to address the issue of understanding ‘good and evil’, for since the time of Eden this is an unresolved problem. We have the ‘knowledge’ of good and evil — we just don’t know what to do with it.
Yet the people of Israel were not without guidance. On the contrary, they had the Law of Moses. And from the time of Solomon onwards, the Law achieves increasing prominence in Israel’s life. Indeed, it could be argued that the more things decline following Solomon’s death, the more important the Law becomes. Thus by the time of Christ, it is the definitive feature of being an ‘Israelite’. And in the life of the early Church, working out the relationship between ‘Law’ and ‘Gospel’ as it affects Jew and Gentile becomes a key issue.
From the vantage point of Genesis 12, however, the beginning of Solomon’s reign is would not be seen as the precursor to political decline and national decay but as the culmination of Israel’s hope. In the narrative of salvation history, we might expect that 1 Kings 10 would be followed by a yet brighter and better future.
And it is this which gives the narrative of these early chapters their unique theological significance, for what they show is that whilst the Law is necessary, it is not sufficient. The Law will, as it were, get you so far. It will give you an identity and a framework, but for the ‘big issues’ of life you need Wisdom.
Indeed, you need Wisdom (and not just Law) to administer justice, as 1 Kings 3:16-28 immediately illustrates, with the famous story of the two prostitutes and Solomon’s ‘verdict’ that the disputed child should be cut in two. The ‘punch line’ in v 28 is there for our consideration, not just as a description of a nostalgic past:
When all Israel heard the verdict the king had given, they held the king in awe, because they saw that he had wisdom from God to administer justice. (NIV)
One cannot help wondering what the lawyers would have made of this. Yet justice was undoubtedly done. And here the narrative presents not just a conundrum but a challenge.
Christians are accustomed to saying, in various ways and to varying degrees, that Christ is the fulfilment of the Law. What the narrative of 1 Kings shows, however, is that the fulfilment of the Law received an earlier anticipation in the person of Solomon — an individual who, in biblical-theological terms, is also a precursor of Christ in his act of ‘temple building’.
By stressing Solomon’s wisdom, the opening chapters of 1 Kings hint at an age to come where the great challenges of human existence will be addressed more effectively than hitherto. And this includes, though it is by no means confined to, issues of justice where we will move from a mechanistic law-based moral economy to a fluid wisdom-based approach.
And just as the beginning of Wisdom under the Old Covenant is found in a right relationship with God, so Wisdom under the New is found in a right response to Christ crucified, “the power of God and the wisdom of God” (1 Cor 1:24).
This time, the wisdom of God finally transcends the Law, which was only ever a stop-gap “until the Seed to whom the promise referred had come” (Gal 3:19).
We cannot stop, however, at merely acknowledging this as a theological intellectual curiosity! On the contrary, it ought to challenge our entire perception of human society, for if the Law must give way to Wisdom in the flow of biblical theology, we must similarly assert that ‘law’ is no substitute for ‘wisdom’ generally.
As one looks at current trends, Western society is increasingly law-based. And yet it is equally clear that the law neither reliably delivers justice nor functions in ways that can be described as wise.
Take, for instance, the proposed deportation of Abu Qatada. There is room, of course, for debate over what constitutes ‘justice’ in this particular instance, but the point at which, in the words of the Shadow Home Secretary, “chaos ... turned into farce” was when the lawyers could not agree over the definition of ‘three months’.
We may sympathize with the need for laws to be clear and the rights of individuals to be protected. But there comes a point where one has to say that given a choice between wisdom and law, one would prefer more of the former and less of the latter.
Yet this message is not being heard. On the contrary, even ‘rights’ have now become the subject of laws, and the interpretation of those rights the subject of even more laws.
And whilst there is a great opportunity here for the Church, the opportunity is being missed because the Church (at least here in the West) is itself bound up in our culture’s addiction to the law.
Of course there will be those — not least the lawmakers and governors — who will say this is necessary for our protection and that therefore this is the best way.
According to God and the gospel, however, it is not.

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  1. Hi John,
    Graham Goldsworthy's Gospel and Wisdom is a helpful resource on this, although I suspect that was required reading at Moore :) It focuses a bit too closely on 1 Corinthians 1 and could do with a broader NT perspective, but plenty of good stuff. Do you think we can apply the wisdom triumphs law principle straight across to the state like that? NT believers still lived in societies with legal and justice systems. Jesus fulfilled the OT law, but did not overthrow the civil system of law. His kingdom was not of this world. He encouraged his followers to submit to injustice and forgive their opressors, rather than insist on their legal rights, because that is how his kingdom would advance. So, we still should have just and righteous laws, but put the values of God's kingdom as greater than our legal rights.

  2. Hi Andrew,

    Thanks for the reminder, though I don't think I ever actually read 'Gospel and Wisdom'. I may be able to track it down.

    I'd like to see a debate around these issues, which might make a change from some of the other debates going on. I like Luther's approach - which he details in his treatise on Good Works. What you're saying is very much the same.

    My problem right now is sheer lack of time to engage!

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  4. Looks like eBay is the only place you can get Gospel and Wisdom. They only sell the entire trilogy (Kingdom, Wisdom, Revelation) as a single book these days.