The Paths of Life
The Wisdom Tradition in an Information Age (Part 1)
King Solomon in Old Age, by Gustave Doré, 1866.
The celebrated ode to wisdom in the middle of the book of Job repeatedly asks:
Where can wisdom be found?
Where does understanding dwell?
For many of us, however, a better first question might be why is wisdom to be found? In an age when our phones, TVs, and even fridges are “smart,” do we really need wisdom? What does “wisdom” even mean, and mean for us?
In the Bible, while intelligence and knowledge are certainly closely-related concepts, someone need not have (formally) studied a single day to possess hokhmah, the main Hebrew word for wisdom. In Exodus 31, a certain Bezalel is said to possess great hokhmah, along with understanding and knowledge, in his ability to work with metal, wood, and stone. Here, to be wise is to be skilled with one’s hands as well as mind. In this same sense, when Moses invites all the Israelites to help in making the Tabernacle in whatever way they are able, we read:
Every skilled [wise] woman spun with her hands and brought what she had spun—blue, purple or scarlet yarn or fine linen. And all the women who were willing and had the skill [hokhmah] spun the goat hair. (Ex 35:25-26)
The same goes for other skills, such as seafaring, farming, or the ordering of one’s household. Far more than book-smarts or theoretical reasoning, wisdom in the Bible is a kind of practical skill. In its broadest sense, to be wise is to be skilful at living itself. Essentially, biblical wisdom means understanding how the real world really works: if you are a sailor, it means understanding winds and tides; if you are a king, it means understanding the ways of the court and politics; if you are a parent, it means understanding children. This becomes particularly relevant when we come across a proverb like this one:
A bribe is a charm to the one who gives it;
Wherever he turns, he succeeds. (Prov 17:8)
Is this an endorsement or recommendation of bribery? What about:
The rich rule over the poor,
And the borrower is the servant to the lender (22:7)?
Does this imply the rich and those who lend are right to lord it over the needy? Or does the wise person simply observe that this is the way things so often go? Certainly, careful observation is central to biblical wisdom: it is no accident the wise tend to be those who are able to accurately discern a pattern to life. That there is such an ordered pattern to the cosmos is a foundational axiom of the book of Proverbs; it rests firmly on the belief in a creator God who makes and maintains it. The world itself therefore becomes a source of wisdom and true knowledge of God, a place where even little creatures like ants, rock badgers, locusts, and lizards are named ‘the wisest of the wise’ (Prov 30:24) from whom we should learn.
|'Do not forsake wisdom, and she will protect you; love her, and she will watch over you' (Prov 4:6). Detail from Wisdom Defending Youth from the Arrows of Love, by Charles Meynier, 1810.|
The wise life
Careful observation leads the sages of Proverbs to speak as if there were a “grain” to the universe just like the grain of wood such that, as one scholar puts it, ‘those who go against the grain get splinters’. We live in a world where
as churning the milk produces butter,
and as twisting the nose produces blood,
so stirring up anger produces strife. (Prov 30:33)
Things follow a certain pattern. Wisdom is the art of seeing this and ordering one’s life accordingly. Proverbs, in particular, is at pains to stress this point, personifying the path of wisdom and the path of folly as the choice between two women living entirely different lives. Again and again, we are urged to pursue “Lady Wisdom” at all costs, not to let sound judgement and discernment out of our sight, and to flee from the crafty and seductive “Dame Folly”, whose ways may seem good for a time, but ultimately
her house leads down to death…
None who go to her return
Or attain the paths of life. (Prov 2:18-19)
Importantly, ‘the paths of life’ in Proverbs are thoroughly grounded in this life, here and now. The sages are not counselling that we ought to be wise and do right, despite setbacks and sacrifices, only because we can expect a reward after death. Far from it. Rather, they firmly believe that to ignore the way of wisdom and righteousness is to miss out on life now in a world where what is good for others is also good for us. That is, because of the way the world is made and maintained by a good and wise God, the life of wisdom is not a life of restriction but one of fullness. Whether it comes in the form of divine judgement or simply “what goes around comes around”, Proverbs repeatedly suggests that to be a fool or to do evil (which are almost synonymous) is a form of self-sabotage: it is swimming against the current of the cosmos—against the divinely established way of things. Many proverbs admit such a course may bring success in the short term, whereas an upright person certainly can face much hardship; but even in such cases, the book maintains that it is better to be poor with wisdom and righteousness than to be wealthy and committing injustice, and
better to be lowly in spirit and among the oppressed
than to share in plunder with the proud. (Prov 16:19)
Proverbs like these hint that, despite divine order, things are not always as they should be: the fact is that bribes often work and the rich routinely deny the poor justice. After all, proverbs are not promises: ‘All hard work brings profit’ (14:23) is not a maths formula. Such maxims ought to be taken in the spirit they are given: rules of thumb to be applied judiciously—generalities rather than automatic laws. In general, things like diligence, honesty, and care for others often bring benefit, while laziness and arrogant or idle talk regularly bring ruin, but not always.
Chaos and control
What happens if we forget there are exceptions to these “rules”? We risk ending up like Job and his friends, locked in deep and agonising debate over false premises. The book of Job portrays its human characters, each in their own way, all falling into the same error: they reason that since God upholds justice, rewarding the righteous and punishing the wicked (which is true), this means all suffering must be due to sin (which is false). Their faulty logic leads them to take the pattern as law.
While the three friends see Job’s suffering as proof he must have sinned in some way, Job’s wife suggests he should abandon the God who has repaid his upright conduct with calamity. Job refuses both these options: he clings to his righteousness and to his God, craving an explanation. But when God finally appears, no explanation is given. In fact, Job never finds out why he suffered so much. Rather, even though he manages to fend off the pious-sounding but over-confident verdicts of his friends, Job still insists his suffering means God must be in the wrong. His own faulty logic still needs correction.
|Behemoth and Leviathan, by William Blake, 1825.|
Yet correction comes in a form we may not expect, as the divine speeches at the end of the book seem to completely ignore the flawed assumptions of the human debate. Instead, they are designed to broaden Job’s view of God’s sovereignty and his incontestable right to manage the world as he sees fit. While some people read the flurry of rhetorical questions levelled at Job simply as an attempt to bludgeon him into submission, this view misses the great invitation being made here. God is offering Job a cosmic tour of the universe, showing him the depth and breadth of divine government: it extends from the turning of the stars and the foundations of the Earth down to the intimate details of a doe’s pregnancy and the flight paths of eagles. Notably, the speeches show very little interest in human affairs or God’s role in judging them. Instead, we find God revelling at length in the beauty and wildness of untamed creatures and unpeopled places. Tellingly, we learn God not only ‘sends rain on the just and unjust alike’ (Matt. 5:45) but also
to water a land where no human being lives,
a desert with no-one in it,
to satisfy a desolate wasteland
and make it sprout with grass. (Job 38:26-27)
The biblical God has far more on his mind than simply the rightness or wrongness of human actions, and far more in his care than human persons alone.
Even more curiously, God seems content—even delighted—to allow Leviathan a place in his world: a fearsome sea creature reminiscent of the chaos dragon of Canaanite myth of whom even gods and heroes are afraid, yet the Lord can pull him in with a fishhook and put him on a leash like a pet if he chooses. Scholars debate the exact nature of Behemoth and Leviathan, but at least one part of their meaning is clear: both beasts exist beyond all hope of human control, yet nothing in the world is too dangerous or threatening for God. The book of Job therefore suggests that mystery remains at the heart of God’s orderly world: we are not in control, God is; his purposes go far beyond human affairs and no calculus can hope to capture him.
'Who cuts a channel for the torrents of rain, and a path for the thunderstorm, to water a land where no man lives, a desert with no-one in it...?' (Job 38:25-26).
So how ought we to live?
No wisdom book engages with this puzzling side of life more directly than Ecclesiastes. Famously, the main Teacher figure recounts how he spent a great deal of time, money, and effort in the attempt ‘to see what is good for humankind to do under heaven during the few days of their lives’ (Ecc 2:3). Along the way, he interrogates riches, status, hard work, bodily pleasures, and even wisdom itself to see what, if anything, is to be gained by this life under the sun. He discovers each has its limitations: a fool may inherit and squander all your hard work when you die (so why work yourself to death?), while ‘whoever loves money never has enough’ (5:10; and what is it for anyway?), pleasures, while good, lead nowhere in themselves, and even though ‘wisdom is better than folly’, still, ‘like the fool, the wise person too must die’ and neither will be long remembered (2:12-16). After a thorough investigation, he decides
no-one can comprehend what goes on under the sun. However much they may toil in seeking, they will not find it out. (Ecc 8:17)
Yet this life is not “meaningless” as many translations have it. Rather, it remains ungraspable like smoke; enigmatic like a veiling mist. In the end, the Teacher does not throw his hands up in despair: he holds his hands out in trust. He affirms the goodness of creation and the many joys to be had in life, but does not shy from acknowledging it is full of difficulty, too. The twin realities of death and God serve to contextualise and clarify the rest of life: we are not (and can never be) the makers or the masters of our destiny. This is a key reason why ‘the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom’ (Prov 9:10): the skilfully-lived life is founded on the worshipful acknowledgement of our finite and dependant creaturehood before our creator. True wisdom therefore cannot be separated from relationship with God who is at the centre of the cosmos, and not, as we habitually assume, ourselves. Such a relation to the Creator flows into every aspect of our lives, from sharing our bread ‘with the fatherless’ and not denying justice or ‘the desires of the poor’ (Job 31), to recognising that the value of non-human creation resides not primarily in the use we can make of it (as mere “natural resources” or “ecosystem services”), but because God made it, delights in it, and cares for it.
The wisdom literature is unwavering in its conviction that if we try to seek our own gain against the created order, attempting to exploit the world and other people for our own ends, all that ultimately awaits us are grief and frustration. As Old Testament scholar Iain Provan says,
each one of us will, sooner or later, come face to face with reality: the reality that God has created human beings in his image to love and honor him, to love and respect their neighbors, and to look after the planet on his behalf. That is just how the universe is.
Provan also warns against a particular risk for Christians today. He argues that if, contrary to the wisdom outlook, we narrow our view of the religious life to the mere salvation of our souls, we will inevitably fall prey to western consumer visions of life, falsely assured we have ‘an insurance policy for the next life in [our] back pockets’. In doing so, even while professing Christian faith, the self can easily remain the centre (my happiness now, my salvation later) with almost no meaningful difference between the way we live and that of others around us. By contrast, the biblical sages saw salvation as something that contains our whole lives: every day we have the opportunity to acknowledge and live in line with created reality as it truly is—a wild, mysterious, moral universe, abundant in life for those who humbly seek God—or to chart our own course, seeking what seems good ‘in our own eyes’ (Prov 12:5), fruitlessly chasing our own gain. In the next edition, we will explore further the implications of a wisdom disposition toward the stuff of daily life: things like money, possessions, and care for our neighbour.
Perception and reality
It is a common feeling that the right thing to do is rarely the thing we actually want to do. The example of the wise woman of Prov 31 who ‘opens her arms to the poor and extends her hands to the needy’ can feel like a burden: real hospitality and generosity take both time and energy. The biblical sages are under no illusions here. However, they hold that this is a problem far more with perception than with reality. They maintain that if we truly understood how the world works, and if we really knew what was good for us—that is, if we actually possessed “an accurate grasp of the whole of reality that is wisdom”, as one scholar puts it—then the perceived dichotomy begins to break down, and way of wisdom becomes our delight. Not that any of us fully attain it, of course; the sages never claim wisdom can be wholly ours. Instead, to the question
Where can wisdom be found?
Where does understanding dwell?
Comes the only possible answer:
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God understands the way to it
And he alone knows where it dwells.