Friday, February 27

Proverbs 8: In this chapter personified Lady Wisdom herself speaks. Like the adulteress in the previous chapter, she too goes seeking the young man in the streets of the city (verse 2). She too appeals to the heart (verse 5). We observe, however, that she does not use flattery. The young man really needs her, and he has nothing to commend him without her.

In the biblical view, God has first loved us, not we God. Man can seek for wisdom, only inasmuch as wisdom seeks for man. And it is all men that she seeks (verse 4), not merely the Jews.

Wisdom teaches truth, the opposite of which is not merely error, but wickedness (verse 7), and truth is identified with righteousness (verse 8). Wisdom is the highest good, the treasure buried in the field, for the sake of which a man will sell all that he has to purchase that field (verses 10-11). Wisdom is the source of order and justice (verses 12-16). Hence, it is exactly what is required for a man to bring his life into a just order. What a man must have in his heart is the “love of wisdom” (verse 17), an expression called philosophia in Greek. All other gifts come from wisdom (verse 18-19).

Wisdom is the creating companion of God (verses 22-29; Sirach 1:4,8; Colossians 1:15). As such, wisdom is older and more substantial than the physical world (Sirach 24:1-21; Wisdom of Solomon 7:22-28). Indeed, wisdom was the Creator’s architect (verses 27-30).

Such is the wisdom concerned in the chapter’s final exhortation (verses 32-36), which is best read as the verso of the exhortation that closed the previous chapter (7:24-27).

Saturday, February 28

Proverbs 9: This chapter illustrates a contrast between two vastly different meals. From the “highest places of the city” (verses 3,14), both wisdom and folly invite “whoever is simple,” the man who “lacks understanding,” to “turn in here” (verses 4,16), which is to say, to their respective “houses” (verses 1,14). Their respective meals are quite different; the meat and wine of wisdom (verse 2) are contrasted with the bread and water of folly (verse 17). The former meal brings nourishment, whereas the latter is lethal (verse 18). (The contrast between the two women, Wisdom and fFolly, in this chapter may be compared with the contrast between the two women, Babylon and Jerusalem, the Whore and the Bride, in the closing chapters of the Book of Revelation.)

If the young man thus admonished is a “scorner,” wisdom’s warning will go unheeded (verse 6), because wisdom is wasted on a fool (cf. Matthew 7:6). Once again, the beginning of wisdom is reverence (verse 10).

The “seven pillars” of the house of wisdom (verse 1) became the trivium (grammar, logic, rhetoric) and quadrivium (arithmetic, music, geometry, astronomy) of the medieval university. Seven, as the number of fullness, was important to the very concept of a university, or house of universal knowledge.

Sunday, March 1

Proverbs 10: We now come to the central core of this book (Chapters 10-22), the 375 aphorisms gathered by Solomon (verse 1). In this respect, it is surely significant that 375 is exactly the numerical value of the Hebrew letters that make up the name “Solomon.”

This central core of Proverbs is divided into two parts, a division based on both literary style and philosophical outlook.

In the first section, Chapters 10 through 15, most of the aphorisms (10:19, for instance, is an exception to this rule) are structured on an antithetical couplet, in which there is a contrast between components in the first and second lines: just/wicked, prudent/foolish, wealth/poverty, accept/refuse, and so forth. In this first section the outlook of the aphorisms is not openly religious, as a rule, but simply “true to life.”

In the second section, Chapters 16 through 22, the couplets are synthetic and complementary, not antithetical, as a rule. In each couplet, rather, the second line completes or extends some component in the first line: the refinement of silver/the testing of souls, loving friend/constant brother, and so on. In this second section, likewise, the outlook or tone is “preachy,” or exhortatory, and more explicitly religious.

Within each section, smaller groups sometimes bind the aphorisms together by either theme or by some rhetorical device. These latter include, for instance, simple expressions common to each maxim, even though the maxims themselves deal with different subjects. An example is 10:16-17.

Considerable stress is lay throughout on the control of the tongue (for instance, verses 19-21,31-32), in terms that will remind us of James 1:9 and 3:2-12.

All through this central core we observe that wisdom is identified with righteousness, suggesting that Solomon would have no trouble with Socrates’ identification of knowledge with virtue. The knowledge itself is moral, the wisdom derived from acting wisely. Folly, likewise, is not a lack of IQ, but a moral failing.

Monday, March 2

Proverbs 11: In the midst of this practical, somewhat secular wisdom, we find some maxims of a religious nature (verse 20; cf. also 10:3,22; 12:2; 15:3,8,33; 16:1-7,9). Because the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, even secular prudence in the Bible has a religious basis (verse 1). Biblical practicality, however, is not the same thing as modern pragmatism, which is intrinsically skeptical and essentially selfish. Skepticism and selfishness are really not very practical.

The wisdom of the Book of Proverbs comes from outside this world, but it is not other-worldly. It is this-worldly, in the sense that God formed the structures in this world, according to which man must live. The divine law is written into the composition of this world, so that those who live in accord with the divine law are the ones who are most in touch with the reality of this world itself. Since the whole world is founded on the wisdom of God, those who live in accord with this wisdom will be the world’s most practical people.

Among the themes touched on in this chapter are commercial honesty (verse 1; cf. 16:11; 20:10; Leviticus 19:35-36; Deuteronomy 25:13-16; Amos 8:5-6; 12:8; Micah 6:10-11), the dangers of pride (verse 2), integrity as a guide (verse 3), the salvific fruit of righteousness (verses 4-9,18-19), control of the tongue (verses 12-13), the importance of a breadth of views (verse 14), and the value of a generous spirit (verses 24-26).

Tuesday, March 3

Proverbs 12: The chapter continues the series of couplets containing contrasts: love/hate (verse 1), good/wicked (verse 2), wickedness/righteousness (verse 3), virtuous wife/shameful wife (verse 4), and so on.

Such sustained emphasis on contrasts and distinctions should put to rest the recent idea that biblical teaching is non-analytical and non-critical. For several generations some of those who dislike classical philosophy have pretended that “Semitic thinking” is unlike “Greek thinking” in this respect. They have told us that the Greeks applied critical distinctions to dissect ideas and look at them in an objective, detached way that separated the knower from the known. On the other hand, the Semites (so the story goes) took a unitive approach to knowledge, in which the knower became identified with what was known.

This version of the matter, however, involves an oversimplification that does justice to neither the Semites nor the Greeks. While it is true that the common Semitic verb for knowing, yada‘, implies union rather than division (as in “Adam knew his wife”), another common Semitic verb for knowing, bin, means knowledge of a discursive, critical sort. Both aspects of knowledge, that is to say, are contained in Semitic epistemology. Similarly, with respect to the Greeks, the application of critical, objective distinctions, of the sort characteristic of dialectics, shou
ld not be taken as the goal of classical Greek philosophy. Dialectics is a means, rather, of arriving at metaphysical contemplation, gnosis (the Sanskrit jnana), in which the knower and the known are united.

In short, the differences between Greek and Semitic approaches to knowledge cannot be reduced to the elementary distinction between analytical and contemplative knowledge. Nor can either approach be reduced to a single, simple description.

Wednesday, March 4

Proverbs 13: Wisdom is not something that a young man can discover on his own. He either has the good sense to receive it as an inheritance or he will simply never have it. He must, therefore, listen and pay attention. It will be difficult, however, to listen and pay attention if he is forever running his mouth (verse 3). Custody of one’s tongue, then, is absolutely required for the attaining of wisdom.

This habit of guarding one’s tongue, in order the better to hear and learn instruction, can become a life-long habit, a distinguishing characteristic of the wise man even when he grows older. We see this phenomenon in a special way in the traditions of ancient Egypt, where the “silent just man” became a moral ideal of Egyptian culture, exemplified in The Instructions of Ani in the second millennium before Christ all the way to the ascetical literature of the Christian monks of the Egyptian desert. The "silent just man” maintained strict control over his tongue, and in order to maintain control over his tongue he was obliged to keep guard also over his emotions. His speech, when he did speak, would bear wise counsel and insight. Such a man could be trusted. To him could be given responsibilities over serious matters, even the destiny of nations.

It was proverbial in antiquity, and not only in Egypt, that no man could safely govern anything outside of himself until he had learned to govern his own soul (16:32). And a man began to learn this discipline in his youth, by not opening his mouth except to ask questions and to seek instruction.

Thursday, March 5

Proverbs 14: Wisdom is the foundation of homes and households (verse 1). This is the inherited wisdom of the ages, conservatively handed down in the tradition of “families and villages” (to borrow Aristotle’s coupling).

Since the experience of family necessarily involves the transmission of identity, the tradition or inherited wisdom is not peripheral to family life. Unassailable tradition, based on perceived absolutes, is not something with which a family can do without. It is of the essence, and it is this sense of tradition’s essential character that injects a note of urgency into the rhetoric of the Book of Proverbs. The exhortations in Proverbs are matters of life or death. Hence, this sense of urgency goes far to account for the toughness of discipline inculcated throughout the book.

Consequently, moral indifference or relativism, based on skepticism and an overly critical spirit, spell the death of wisdom and therefore the death of family life (verse 11). Nowhere does the Bible tolerate the relativism and despair (including a sympathy for suicide) that characterized some primitive writings of Mesopotamia, such as the ancient Dialogue of Pessimism. The latter work, written over three thousand years ago, reads today like a work of recent Existentialism. If such attitudes were characteristic of the philosophy of Mesopotamia, it is no wonder that Abraham insisted that Isaac should not go back there (Genesis 24:5-6).

The Book of Proverbs, in mighty contrast, represents the voice of moral and metaphysical absolutes, a wisdom based on the sense of the scrutiny and presence of God (verses 2,26-27; cf. 13:14; 15:39,11,29).

The Epistle of Jude: The "Jude" who authored this book calls himself the "brother of James," probably to be identified with that James elsewhere known as "the brother of the Lord." If this identification is correct, then Jude himself was among the relatives of Jesus. It is also possible that he is to be identified with that Jude, or Thaddeus, one of the original twelve followers of Jesus. (Verse 17 argues somewhat against this latter identification, nonetheless.) If either of these identifications is correct, the author of this epistle represents Palestinian, pre-Pauline Christianity.

There are reasons for believing that this epistle was composed late in the first century. Verse 3, for instance, speaks of "the faith once delivered to the saints," implicitly making an appeal to an earlier generation of Christians, and verse 17 ("…. remember the words that were spoken before by the apostles of our Lord Jesus Christ") also seems to suppose a period after the lifetime of the original apostles.

In style this epistle resembles other non-Pauline works, notably James and 2 Peter. Its chief preoccupation is the preservation of the inherited Christian faith, then being threatened by heretics. Jude recalls his readers to a faith that they already know (verse 5). He stands staunchly on the side of an inherited Christian tradition.

Friday, March 6

Proverbs 15: This chapter contains several references to the acceptance of correction (verses 5,10,12,31,32). Among a young man’s worst enemies is his innate resistance to correction, a resistance spawned of rebellion and an independent spirit. Giving in to such a spirit generally produces three results, all of them bad: First, it strengthens a man’s spirit of rebellion. (A rebel’s spirit is useful in the face of oppression; otherwise, it is a counterproductive trait in a man. A sustained spirit of rebellion, a spiritual chip on the shoulder, renders a man useless for any purpose.) This leads to hardness of heart and self-absorption.

Second, refusal to accept correction deprives a man of instruction about some point on which at least one other person thinks he needs instruction. Third, it discourages that same person from making some attempt at correction and instruction in the future. Thus, many valuable lessons will be lost if the young man does not early recognize and deal with these inner impulses of rebellion. Following such impulses is not the path to wisdom.

A Christian reading of this theme in Proverbs should see more in the Sacred Text, not less, than a merely Jewish reading of it. Even the simplest, plainest reading of Proverbs, based on the most literal sense of the Text, shows the importance of being open to correction. The Christian reader, however, reading the Scriptures through the lens of Christ, will recognize God the Father as the True Parent who speaks in these lines.

Thus, the submission that all children owe to the discipline of their parents becomes the symbol of a greater docility that God’s children owe to their heavenly Father. That is to say, the Christian reader should see more in the meaning of Proverbs in this regard: “Furthermore, we have had human fathers who corrected us, and we paid them reverence. Shall we not much more readily be in subjection to the Father of spirits and live?” (Hebrews 12:9)