The Beginning of Wisdom (continued)

Monotheism and the created order

The created order and its workings as described by Biblical proverbial wisdom can also be experienced and observed, and thus recognized, by non-Israelites. For instance, the ancient Egyptians had the concept of ma’at. It is compatible with Biblical wisdom teaching (only) insofar that it is “a divine order, established at the time of creation; this order is manifest in nature in the normalcy of phenomena [governed by physical laws]; it is manifest in society as justice [social laws]; and it is manifest in an individual as truth [moral laws] … and [in] that those who move against it are doomed” (Frankfort 1961: 63, 117). So it is all the more not surprising that an anthology of proverbs in Proverbs (22:17-24:22) seems to have been “modeled on the Egyptian teachings of Amenemope” (Garrett 1993: 193).

Proverbial wisdom, whether it is of the Israelites or the Egyptians, or any other nation, is actually based on the observation and interpretation of the same created order. However, the process of observing and interpreting reality does not happen in a cultural vacuum but is informed and shaped by a presupposed belief-system. Thus, consistent with Egyptian polytheism, ma’at was personified and worshipped as the goddess Ma’at, “who represented the divine harmony and balance of the universe” (Teeter 2001: 319). In contrast, Biblical proverbial wisdom, though personified as Lady Wisdom for a pedagogical purpose (Proverbs 1:20-33; 8:1-36; cf. 9:13-18, where folly is also personified as Lady Folly for the same purpose), is an outright expression of the monotheism revealed to the Israelites at Mount Sinai through Moses, which we saw is unique to the Bible (cf. von Rad 1972: 5).

For Biblical proverbial wisdom is not only informed and shaped, but also supplemented, by Biblical monotheism. For what it teaches clearly “surpasses any objective material knowledge in so far as it is dealing with perceptions which have been acquired in connection with a truth [monotheism] for which one has already decided” (von Rad 1972: 64). Take for instance, “Whoever is gracious to the poor lends to the LORD, and He will repay him for his deed” (Proverbs 19:17; see also 14:31). This proverb clearly surpasses what can be objectively observed. Though it is still based on the observation and interpretation of an act-consequence relationship (people who sow genuine kindness reap what is truly good), the whole process is informed and shaped, and the final product supplemented, by monotheistic revelation.

In fact the proverb, “The eyes of the LORD are everywhere, watching both the evil and the good” (Proverbs 15:3), cannot be based on observation at all. And, “Where there is no (prophetic) vision [divine revelation] the people are unrestraint, but blessed is he who keeps the Law” (Proverbs 29:18), goes so far as to acknowledge that monotheistic revelation is indispensable. This pair of proverbs brings us naturally to the question of why the fear of God is foundational to both wisdom and knowledge.

Fear of God and the created order

A person who fears God is one whose conscience is so disciplined that when he is tempted to do what is wrong, he will feel a force within him restraining him from doing so and constraining him to do otherwise. And he will also obey (yield to) the force and do what is right and not what is wrong, even when no one (except God) is watching or holding him accountable; otherwise he is not really God-fearing. Hence a God-fearing (conscientious) person assumes, whether consciously or unconsciously, that God is “watching both the evil and the good,” which thus empowers him to act wisely. Thus “The fear of the LORD is to hate evil” (Proverbs 8:13), which is wisdom.

The fear of God is also the foundation to knowledge because without it we may even memorize the entire book of Proverbs but do not put it into practice. For what we have thus gained is only information and not knowledge. The information cannot become knowledge until we put it into practice and thus “get to know” (experience) it. And lack of knowledge also means lack of wisdom. In fact when there is no prior commitment to do what is right and not what is wrong due to a lack of the fear of God, we may not even want to know a truth that is starring at us because it requires us to do what we do not want to do. A common strategy to avoid such a truth is to refuse to understand what it really means and then distort it.

Thus, “Evil men do not understand justice, but those who seek the LORD understand it all” (Proverbs 28:5; cf. Psalm 119:97-104), which leads to the instruction, “Do not reprove a scoffer, or he will hate you; reprove a wise man, and he will love you. Instruct a wise man, and he will be wiser still; teach a righteous man, and he will increase in learning” (Proverbs 9:8-9). Jesus puts it more bluntly, “If anyone is willing to do His will, he will know whether the teaching is from God or if I am speaking on My own” (John 7:17).

Therefore, while it is true that, “Without (prophetic) vision [a word from God] the people are unrestraint [from violating the Law],” without the fear of God the people may not even want to recognize that it is a word from God. Biblical wisdom teaching will thus need to address this problem by also seeking to instill the fear of God. While this is more effectively addressed in Ecclesiastes, it is not ignored in Proverbs.

Based on the observation and interpretation of the created order we can rightly conclude that the act-consequence relationship built into the created order has a life of its own. God has “obviously delegated … so much” of the running of this world, including in the realm of politics both national and international (Proverbs 8:15-16; 14:35; 24:6), to the created order (adapted from von Rad 1972: 92). Since the act-consequence relationship is established by God to serve Him, when we fear the consequences of our actions and so do what is right, it is already an (indirect) expression of fearing God. However, since the created order is impersonal, people may decide that they need not fear it when they are certain that no human being is watching and so think they can get away with the wrongdoing.

Instilling the fear of God

To counter this scheme of fallen humanity, Proverbs does not only teach that, “the eyes of the LORD are everywhere,” to help instill the fear of God, it also teaches that the impersonal created order, though having a life of its own, does not function independently of God. This is in line with Biblical monotheism. To begin with, God has to sustain the workings of the created order, which He created “in wisdom,” so that it continues to work as intended (Psalm 104:10-24; cf. Colossians 1:17; Hebrews 1:3).

Hence the eyes of God are also watching over the created order and its workings. And He does not only sustain, but also at times adjust and even supplement, the workings of the created order. In fact, to ensure that “You reap what you sow” works adequately in the context of fallen humanity, God had under the Noahic Covenant made a major adjustment to the created order by instituting formal government to punish evil and praise good (Proverbs 20:26; 24:21-22; 31:1-8).

For, otherwise it cannot be said that, “The LORD has made everything for His purpose, even the wicked for the day of disaster. [And thus,] The LORD will tear down the house of the proud …. But He hears the prayer of the righteous” (Proverbs 16:4; 15:25a, 29b). Paul puts it more bluntly: “Do not be deceived: God is not mocked. For whatever a man sows, that he will also reap” (Galatians 6:7). Furthermore, God not only watches “the ways of a man” but also “directs his steps”; even “The king’s heart is … in the hand of the LORD; He turns it whichever ways He chooses” (Proverb 5:21a; 16:9b; 21:1). So all the more there is reason to fear Him and so be able to “Commit your works to the LORD, and your plans will be established” (Proverbs 16:3; cf. 3:5-7).

How then does God actually work in the world today to fulfill His purposes? Recall how God worked in fulfilling His purpose for Joseph to become the Prime Minister of Egypt. He used ordinary means (through the jealousy of Joseph’s brothers and of Potiphar); extraordinary means (supernatural dreams to the two servants of Pharaoh and then to Pharaoh himself); extraordinary-ordinary means (divinely aligned “coincidences” of ordinary events). Thus God ordinarily works in the world by sustaining “You reap what you sow,” which was built into the created order and later enhanced through the institution of formal government. By making ad-hoc adjustments to the workings of the created order through realigning ordinary events, God can specify exactly what the consequences will be as well as make them happen sooner than they otherwise would.

This is why God could prescribe exactly what would soon happen to David and his household as a consequence of his adultery with Bathsheba even though He would only work through the created order. This case warns believers that, though God will forgive their wrongdoing when they repent in faith and thus their fellowship with God will be restored, they may still have to suffer some painful consequences because “You reap what you sow” is built into the created order. Turning to another case, we have seen how an uncanny chain of “coincidences” of ordinary events in the Book of Esther led to the villain quite literally fulfilling “Whoever digs a (concealed) pit (for others) will (himself) fall into it” (Proverbs 26:27; see Esther 7:10). And, as in the case of Joseph, God may even supplement the workings of the created order with an extraordinary intervention.

This explains why, “The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom, and the knowledge of the Holy One is understanding” (Proverbs 9:10). For since the workings of the created order are not independent of God, and can even be supplemented by Him, there is also the need to know God and how He works, in addition to knowing the created order and how it works. While the Wisdom Books pay special attention to the latter (but does not ignore the former), the Prophetic Books pay special attention to the former (see Jeremiah 9:23-24).

Biblical proverbial wisdom also helps to instill the fear of God by teaching prudence and discretion to prevent us from falling into circumstances where it would become difficult to fear God and keep His commandments. Thus Proverbs addresses seemingly non-moral matters, such as the indiscretion of laziness, which leads to poverty (Proverbs 6:6-11), because they do have outright moral consequences. This is clearly expressed in this prayer: “Give me neither poverty nor wealth; feed me with the food I need, otherwise, I may have too much and deny You and say, ‘Who is the LORD?’ Or I may become poor and steal, and so dishonor the name of my God” (Proverbs 30:8b-9). And so unlike prophetic exhortation, proverbial wisdom addresses not just matters of justice and righteousness, but also those of prudence and discretion.

Hence if we take the created order seriously we will also take prudence and discretion seriously. And since it is God who delegated so much of the running of the world to the created order and will ensure that it fulfills its purpose, faith (in God) and prudence are thus not only compatible but can in fact be complementary. Thus Nehemiah, though he believed that “Our God will fight for us,” responded to the threats of the enemies with prudence by requiring his men to carry weapons while rebuilding the Jerusalem wall (Nehemiah 4:15-20).

So Biblical proverbial wisdom, because it is grounded in Creation and the Noahic Covenant and is thus fundamental to all humanity, was indeed integral to the life of believers under the Mosaic Covenant, and should also be to believers under the New Covenant.

Wisdom and God's commandments

Actually the very statement, “The fear of the LORD is the beginning of knowledge; fools despise wisdom and instruction,” (Proverbs 1:7) already implies that Biblical proverbial wisdom is an expression of Biblical monotheism. For it is the “fear of the LORD,” the God of Biblical monotheism, rather than the generic “fear of God,” that is the foundation of knowledge. Also this statement is placed immediately after the presentation of the purpose and goal of the Book of Proverbs—to teach knowledge and hence wisdom (Proverbs 1:2-6). So it is saying that the fear of the God of Biblical monotheism is needed to learn from the book. Also the very claim that the fear of the LORD is the foundation (starting point) of knowledge implies that monotheism was already, and should be, presupposed as the starting point in the observation and interpretation of the created order. Hence Biblical proverbial wisdom is cast within a monotheistic mold.

Though Biblical proverbial wisdom is thus an expression of the monotheism revealed at Mount Sinai when God gave Israel the Ten Commandments, only the last six commandments are directly referred to in Proverbs: honoring parents (6:20; 15:20); murder (1:10-19); adultery (6:27-35); theft (11:1; 22:22-23); bearing false witness (12:17-22); covetousness (6:25; 12:12).

This is evidently because proverbial wisdom is based on direct observation and interpretation of the created order. Human beings and how they should relate to one another (the last six commandments) are part of Creation and are thus governed by this observable created order. However, references to God and how we should relate to Him (the first three commandments) cannot be made based on direct observation of the created order because God is invisible and transcends Creation. Though the first three commandments are not referred to in Proverbs, they are still relevant to proverbial wisdom since God sustains and governs Creation. We saw that these commandments are given specifically because “I am the LORD your God” (Exodus 20:2; Deuteronomy 5:6). Hence one cannot really fear “the LORD” and break any of these commandments.

As for the Fourth (Sabbath) Commandment, it shows up only indirectly in terms of its observable economic and ecological implications. Commenting on the meaning of Proverbs 27:23-27, Michael Fox (2009: 815) explains: “Providing food is an ongoing task and requires persistence and diligence, but the resources are renewable and the profit is great. This shows an awareness of an ecosystem.” Also insofar as this commandment is intended to curb covetousness, it is also represented in proverbs about greed (3:27-28; 15:27).

In other words, the last seven commandments sum up how we live with the laws built into the created order, and one who disobeys them “runs against the very structure by which the world was made.” The first three commandments sum up how we live with “the LORD,” and thus empower us to obey the last seven. Since the Sabbath Commandment is against exploiting human beings, animals and the earth to the detriment of their ability to sustain a healthy economy, it is also about obeying the physical dimension of the created order (see also Proverbs 3:7-8; 17:22). We have seen how the abuse of science (“knowledge”) and technology (“wisdom”) due to a lack of the fear of God has created the ecological crisis (for a succinct discussion on how the fear of God was foundational to even the birth of modern science, which “arose within a culture saturated with Christian faith,” see Pearcey and Thaxton 1994: 17-42). Hence Biblical proverbial wisdom teaches us how to relate to every dimension of the created order for our own good.

Cultivating knowledge and wisdom

Proverbs teaches us to perceive (get to know) the created order and its laws not only directly, but also indirectly. Proverbs 1-9 and Proverbs 30-31 are a series of lectures expressed through proverbs, and they teach us primarily through the direct means, that is by understanding and practicing the content of the proverbs. It is like learning the vocabulary and grammar of a language by understanding and practicing what the textbook teaches about that language. However Proverbs 10-29 are anthologies of proverbs covering a wide variety of topics, and they teach us primarily through the indirect means. That is, just as a child can learn the vocabulary and grammar of a language indirectly by listening to a sufficient number and variety of sentences in that language, we can also learn the “vocabulary and grammar” of the created order indirectly by reading (with understanding) a sufficient number and variety of proverbs.

For taken together the proverbs “reflect on the anthropocentric [man-centered] and theocentric [God-centered] dimensions of the world to offer a fundamental moral vision that (re)constructs the addressee’s perception of reality and shapes his character” (Ansberry 2010: 188). The indirect means of acquiring this perception is particularly needed because knowledge of the created order and its laws, like our knowledge of the vocabulary and grammar of a language, is essentially “tacit knowledge.” It is knowledge that we may not even be aware of and yet have taken for granted. That is why, “we can know more than we can tell” (Polanyi 2009: 4). Such knowledge cannot be adequately acquired without indirect learning, which also includes associating with people who embody and live out Biblical proverbial wisdom (Proverbs 12:26; 13:20). However the direct means of learning is still needed to ensure accuracy in the indirect learning.

The “vocabulary and grammar” of the created order thus acquired will enable us to keep learning from our own observation and interpretation of the created order and thus be better equipped to handle every situation in life, including those not directly addressed in Proverbs. Wisdom is skill in living in all kinds of situations, including what is unique to us. However all this is possible only when there is the fear of God, the foundation of knowledge. Without the fear of God we may not even learn from our own painful experiences, let alone from observing those of others.

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