It is a sign of the times we live in that elements of the opening ceremony of the Paralympic games could be described as a service and a sermon, neither of which was what you could call ‘religious’.
The service element was a praise session, dedicated to the human spirit. The sermon was delivered by one of our most outstanding scientists and called on us to discover the meaning of life — to look up at the stars and ask why we’re here.
This is not to knock either the human spirit or the natural sciences. In fact, in urging us to inquire about the meaning of life, the sermon was spot on. The question is whether we are going to find the right answers.
People have been looking up and asking why we’re here for thousands of years. The difference is that in the past people looked through the eyes of religion. The constellations and planets are named after the Greek and Roman gods, and many of the stars bear Arabic names from the golden age of Islam.
And here in this church tonight, presumably we think religion has something to say about these big questions. Yet there often seems to be a disconnection between our faith and daily life. We don’t always apply our religion very well to living.
The age of Wisdom
And I think part of the reason for this is that we ignore a whole segment of the Bible known as the ‘wisdom literature’ — Ecclesiastes, Job, the Song of Songs and, tonight’s subject, Proverbs. But to understand these books, we have to do a bit of Bible history.
The Old Testament reaches its ‘Golden Age’ in the reign of Solomon, about 900 bc. Solomon’s reign is the most peaceful and prosperous of all the kings. But it is also significant for the role played by wisdom — which I think is generally overlooked.
In chapter 3 of 1 Kings, God appears to Solomon in a dream and offers to grant him anything he asks for. Solomon replies in v 9:
... give your servant a discerning heart to govern your people and to distinguish between right and wrong.
And so God gives him wisdom. Then immediately after this, in 3:16-27, we see Solomon’s wisdom in action, in the case of two women claiming the same child, after which we have this comment (3:28):
28 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.
That is what Solomon had asked for, and that is what he had got.
The Scope of Wisdom
Then at the end of chapter 4, we get this long comment on Solomon’s wisdom:
29 God gave Solomon wisdom and very great insight, and a breadth of understanding as measureless as the sand on the seashore. 30 Solomon’s wisdom was greater than the wisdom of all the men of the East, and greater than all the wisdom of Egypt. 31 He was wiser than any other man, including Ethan the Ezrahite—wiser than Heman, Calcol and Darda, the sons of Mahol. And his fame spread to all the surrounding nations. 32 He spoke three thousand proverbs and his songs numbered a thousand and five. 33 He described plant life, from the cedar of Lebanon to the hyssop that grows out of walls. He also taught about animals and birds, reptiles and fish. 34 Men of all nations came to listen to Solomon’s wisdom, sent by all the kings of the world, who had heard of his wisdom.
Notice here the scope of Solomon’s wisdom. It doesn’t just allow him to govern the people, it includes the natural world — Solomon is a biologist: he can hold forth about all kinds of plants and animals (4:33).
Yet once the reign of Solomon comes to an end in chapter 11, wisdom is not mentioned again in the whole of 1 and 2 Kings. Not one single king is described as ‘wise’ or as acting wisely.
Law and Justice
Now this is surely significant theologically. We tend to look back on the Old Testament as the period when Israel was governed by God’s law. But in the golden age of Solomon, what actually governs the people is wisdom.
So the first example of Solomon exercising wisdom is a court case where the law can’t help. Two women claim the same baby. Neither can prove they are the real mother, so Solomon says cut it in two and give them half each. At that point, one of the women says “Fair enough”, whilst the other says “No, let the other woman keep it”. And so the true mother is revealed — the one who would give her child up to let it live.
There is no law to govern such cases. You can’t make a legal precedent out of it. But justice is done.
And here is the first lesson for us about wisdom, which is that administering justice is ultimately a matter of wisdom, not law. Turn now to Proverbs 8:15. The NIV translation says this:
15 By me [ie by Wisdom] kings reign and rulers make laws that are just; 16 by me princes govern, and all nobles who rule on earth.
A better translation would be, “By me kings reign, and princes decree justice.” And that is important, because justice here comes from wise people, not fixed laws.
Jesus, Law and Justice
A key feature of modern life is that we are increasingly governed by laws. But we need to be quite clear that law is not justice. Laws are aimed at producing justice, but laws can be unjust, and the application of the law can actually lead to injustice.
Take the example of Daniel in the lions’ den. Why was Daniel thrown into the lions’ den when he was the friend of the king? The reason is that the king had passed a law, and when he tried to go back on it, Daniel’s enemies pointed out that he couldn’t:
“Remember, O king, that according to the law of the Medes and Persians no decree or edict that the king issues can be changed.” (Dan 6:15)
The fixed, unchangeable law meant that a godly man was thrown to the lions.
And Christians especially should be aware of the limitations of the law. Jesus challenged the Sabbath laws on the basis of justice. The law of the Sabbath said people with a disability should be healed on another day. Jesus healed on the Sabbath because that produced true justice, which again isn’t just ‘keeping the law’ but putting things right.
The Personal Source of Wisdom
The theological point Proverbs makes, therefore, is that true justice has a personal source because it is based in Wisdom, and Wisdom is personal. In Proverbs 8:12. Wisdom speaks, and says,
I, wisdom, dwell together with prudence; I possess knowledge and discretion.
Notice, Wisdom is an ‘I’, not an ‘it’. But the law is an ‘it’, not an ‘I’. And the law binds us, whereas a wise person can set us free.
The Nature of Wisdom
And understanding this helps us understand what is wisdom. Wisdom is not just being clever or smart! There are plenty of clever people around who lack wisdom.
From a biblical point of view, Wisdom can be described as the outworking of the character of God in its application to the world.
The most famous thing Proverbs says about Wisdom is found in 9:10:
The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, and knowledge of the Holy One is understanding.
For us, then, Wisdom is not just personal — it is not just something we possess — it is relational. It something that can only be had fully in a right relationship with God. A person can be wise, but true wisdom begins with the fear of the Lord.
The Range of Wisdom
However — and this is another important point — it does not stop there. First of all, Wisdom is not just a matter of faith. In fact, you can have a degree of wisdom without faith. Proverbs 4:31 says
Solomon’s wisdom was greater than the wisdom of all the men of the East, and greater than all the wisdom of Egypt.
Solomon was wiser than other people, but the point is they weren’t stupid. Wisdom is not exclusive to believers. Indeed, it possible to have faith and not be wise — wisdom is something we develop.
And secondly, as we saw in the case of Solomon, Wisdom includes the natural world — it isn’t confined to religious matters or even to human affairs. It includes the natural sciences. And this is because the whole world itself is founded on the basis of Wisdom.
In Proverbs 8:22-31, we have a ‘hymn’ about wisdom and creation. Look especially at vv 27-30:
27 I was there [says Wisdom] when [God] set the heavens in place, when he marked out the horizon on the face of the deep, 28 when he established the clouds above and fixed securely the fountains of the deep, 29 when he gave the sea its boundary so the waters would not overstep his command, and when he marked out the foundations of the earth. 30 Then I was the craftsman at his side. I was filled with delight day after day, rejoicing always in his presence, 31 rejoicing in his whole world and delighting in mankind.
Wisdom and Modern Materialism
And you see here is another difference between our own culture and biblical Wisdom.
At its most extreme, scientific materialism treats personhood as an accidental irrelevance. In some areas of neuroscience, the brain is treated as if it was somehow an entity in itself. The other morning on the radio, I heard a neuroscientist getting very excited about how brains interact with other brains.
Fortunately there was a woman philosopher in the studio with him and she was saying don’t be ridiculous — brains don’t interact with brains, its people who interact with people.
But this sort of materialism treats persons as almost an illusion — we think we are people, but actually we are just brains. And brains like ours are a late development in the universe, and in any case are just the result of blind physical forces.
But then someone like the astronomer Brian Cox talks about the amazing nature of the universe, forgetting it is only amazing because we are here to be amazed by it. Without persons to observe it, the universe is neither amazing nor indeed very old, because ‘age’ is a concept based on the experience of time and memory.
And Stephen Hawking telling us to look up and wonder about why we are here is talking about persons. The stars don’t look down and wonder why we are here — you need personality to do that.
So when Proverbs says Wisdom is fundamental to the universe it is telling us something we need to hear: the universe is deeply personal.
Wisdom and Culture
But at the same time that our scientists are telling us that persons and personhood isn’t really that important, our opinion makers and politicians are telling us we are so important that our survival as a species and our happiness as individuals are really the things that matter.
And so there is a conflict in our culture between our understanding of reality — material things are the only things that exist, personality and experience are kind of tricks played on us by our brains; and our concerns about life — human happiness and fulfilment should be the focus of our energies.
And then Stephen Hawking tells us we should spend huge amounts of time, effort and money discovering why we’re here.
Wisdom and Christianity
This is an open goal for Christians to kick a few balls into — but we don’t because we have neglected Wisdom.
We treat the world as an irrelevance, and we drive a wedge between faith and daily life. And then we wonder why the world thinks we have so little to say. Too often it feels like we come to Christ and leave behind our understanding, and then we go into the world and leave behind Christ.
The Bible, by contrast, promises great blessing to those who fear God and seek Wisdom. Look again at these verses from Proverbs 8. Wisdom says,
17 I love those who love me, and those who seek me find me. 18 With me are riches and honour, enduring wealth and prosperity. 19 My fruit is better than fine gold; what I yield surpasses choice silver. 20 I walk in the way of righteousness, along the paths of justice, 21 bestowing wealth on those who love me and making their treasuries full.
The fear of the Lord is indeed the beginning of Wisdom, but there is so much more Wisdom available and necessary in the world God has made. Let us seek to be people of Wisdom for the rewards that Wisdom brings to all.