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The Book of Proverbs: The Pursuit of Wisdom, and the Fear of YHWH

This paper will assess the tension that exists between a pursuit of wisdom and the fear of Yahweh found in Proverbs chapter 1-9. We will first examine the nature of the wisdom that is presented in the book, then look at the nature of the ‘fear’. By establishing that the ‘fear’ in Proverbs should be considered in the same context as the ‘fear’ presented in Deuteronomy, it will propose a manner in which the tension between wisdom and fear can be held together in a reading of the text.

 

1.The Nature of Wisdom


Michael Fox provides a full survey of the spectrum of vocabulary employed in the Book of Proverbs; these are used to convey the concept of wisdom.[1] There remains no definitive definition of what wisdom is: it conveys not only notions of intellectual fortitude, but also emotional intelligence; in the case of the Hebraic worldview, it also implies skill in craftmanship or labour. T. Longman suggests that the wisdom offered by the sagely redactor of the Book of Proverbs is found on three levels: practical, ethical, and theological.[2] This is a useful sub-division to explore the tension.


1.1 Practical Level of Wisdom


Although the instruction in wisdom on a practical level becomes more apparent in the collection of Solomonic Proverbs, even from chapter 1 (particularly the first 6 verses) the reader is introduced to the notion that possession of wisdom entails the very practical skills of prudent behaviour, discretion, and discernment. These themes are advocated throughout the book as good examples of emotional intelligence that can potentially set up an individual for a successful life. However, these aspects seem at first view to be divorced from any connection to the divine, being as they are, firmly rooted in the secular realm: prudent behaviour, discretion, and discernment can all be learned within an anthropological framework; they are relativised by cultural and geographical boundaries. If we take for example ‘prudent behaviour’: the prudent way of splitting a restaurant bill between parents and adult children varies considerably between the western world and East Asia; so too does prudent behaviour regarding tipping a server in London compared to New York.[3] Practical wisdom, if it contains ‘prudent behaviour’, cannot be universal, being as it is relativised by the social register of any culture. Furthermore, the vocabulary used in verses 1-6 has associations with learning, understanding, and gaining knowledge of such skills, indicating that such skills are gained in time and through human endeavour; Roland Murphy writes that these words all ‘combine to spell out the riches of wisdom’.[4] The first 6 verses could easily affirm a secular feel to the book given that they are, in Murphy’s words, ‘intellectual characteristics tied to the practical aspects of human conduct’.[5] Walter Brueggeman is more strident in his summary of the secular nature of wisdom teachings in general. He writes:

Wisdom teaching is profoundly secular in that it presents life and history as a human enterprise…[Wisdom] consistently places stress on human freedom, accountability, the importance of making decisions…[wisdom] is concerned with freedom, power, and responsibility of man to manage his world.[6]


Herein lies the tension: the pursuit of wisdom appears to be entirely conducted by human inquiry. But as John Kekes notes, not all human wisdom requires great works. Sometimes it just means to live life quietly and reflectively.[7] This begs the question: if one is to live reflectively, what should one reflect upon? Verse 7 of the prologue provides the answer to this question: the fear of YHWH. In a manner, this also deals with the difficulties of relativised and geographically limited wisdom. The wisdom espoused in Proverbs is not secular, nor was it ever intended to be universal: it is particular to Israel and more inclined towards the theological than the practical.[8] Murphy posits that the author of verse 7 does not distinguish between ‘secular’ and ‘religious’ in the way that the modern reader might; they are aiming to provide ‘training in wisdom that is essentially religious.’[9] The practical element of wisdom in the Book of Proverbs is not intended to be reflected upon in an anthropological framework; the framework of inquiry must be either grounded or orientated towards YHWH; prudent behaviour, discretion, and discernment are made practical but are also limited by becoming subordinate, or subject to, the command of YHWH. The omnipotence and omnipresence of YHWH, within the Israelite psyche, becomes not only an instructional focal point, but a simultaneous boundary marker to the limited potentiality of human wisdom; the paradoxical effect is that man can only be wise by gaining an understanding of what he cannot know. Being wise is only made possible when reverence and trust are ceded to YHWH; wisdom is the gifted result: if it is the quest of man alone, it is a futile quest. Proverbs 2:3-6 indicates that a truly devoted quest for insight and understanding will ultimately lead to the ‘knowledge of God’, but that this is given from God’s own mouth.


1.2 Ethical Level of Wisdom


The practical dimension of wisdom has been explored above, but the author of Pr 1:3 also highlights an ethical component; Longman notes that the purpose of proverbs goes beyond making someone emotionally intelligent, it seeks to make a person good too.[10] Fox points out that this aligns with Socrates principle that ‘virtue is knowledge’. He writes that Socrates ‘teaches that the knowledge of the good is both a necessary and sufficient condition to being good and doing good’.[11] The ethical basis of Israelite religion stems from the Ten Commandments; we read in scripture, that at the giving of the commandments themes of fear of YHWH are closely incorporated into the enterprise. Henri Blocher equates ‘sacred fear’ to moral obedience.[12] In Ex 20:20 we read how Moses explains that ‘the fear of Him remains with you, so that you will not sin’. Longman also notes that the vocabulary regularly associated with the law (Tora, Miswa) is continually used in the teachings of the father and Woman Wisdom.[13] He also created an illuminating table highlighting the parallels between the commandments and proverbs.[14] Fox asserts that ethics and wisdom are inextricably linked in Pr 1-9; all virtues are learned in the same way and by the same wisdom, all of which is possessed by Lady Wisdom. He writes ‘there is no righteousness without wisdom, or wisdom without generosity, or generosity without honesty.’[15] He does however state that despite knowledge being a sufficient precondition for virtue the behavioural guide in Proverbs is extolled without recourse to divine Torah.[16] Although he differs from the view of the Law that Longman holds, he conclude that in fact ‘fear of Yahweh and trust in him are sufficient to motivate the search for wisdom and the avoidance of sin’.[17] Perhaps the link between law of YHWH and fear of YHWH is not as explicit as the extra canonical work of Ben Sira; however, Longman’s work is strong enough to express the ethical component to wisdom, and the expected human response to divine instruction. Even if Torah is not vital to wisdom, although our investigation above seems to demonstrate that it is, the correct attitude towards God is a prerequisite for wisdom. It is expressed as ‘fear’ which we will explore, but by bringing God into the wisdom equation it is made obvious there is a theological angle to wisdom instruction.


1.3 Theological Level of Wisdom


The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom, is the phrase which appears several times in the book of Proverbs, although sometimes the syntax varies the sentiment is also paralleled elsewhere: Job 28:28; Ecc 12:13; Pss 111:10. Although the use of the phrase in the single book perhaps does not necessarily present a strong case for the theological nature of wisdom, its use, or variants thereof, elsewhere, help illuminate the importance of the idea in Israelite thought; the scope of this paper does not include discussion of the psalms or of other wisdom literature, but it helps to build the case to note the inclusion. Each book alludes that true wisdom first requires a relationship with God. Joseph Blenkinsopp affirms the connection between the law and knowledge, but goes on to further express that ‘there is a hidden wisdom, an esoteric knowledge, which God has not chosen to reveal’.[18] He writes that the law although an expression of divine wisdom is not the entirety of wisdom: ‘true wisdom is a divine prerogative which is available to humankind only as God choses to reveal it’.[19] The instructional sections of Pr 1-9 introduce us to Woman Wisdom; she becomes a personification of this hidden wisdom, endowed with positive attributes. For Blenkinsopp, she not only speaks for herself, but she also speaks for Yahweh; much of the exhortations from ‘the father’ of Proverbs is to choose her, seek out a relationship with her, and by extension a relationship with Yahweh.[20] Lady Wisdom makes herself publicly available, so in some sense, free to all who chose to be in relationship with her; when we read this as metaphorical we find Yahweh reaching out his hand too. Equal space is provided for Woman Folly, is she representative of deity too? Longman believes so, stating she ‘stands for the false god and goddesses that rival Yahweh for the affections of the Israelites’.[21] Longman spells out the crucial choice: dine with Woman Wisdom and you’ve chosen Yahweh, dine with Woman Folly and you worship a false deity;[22] it is this stark choice that shows the theological underpinnings to the book of Proverbs and wisdom in general.


The Nature of the Fear of YHWH


We have so far explored the many ways in which wisdom can be defined; we now move to the various ways in which fear of YHWH is defined. Elisabeth Wagner-Durand writes of fear in the wider context of contemporary Israelite Mesopotamia:

While in the western thinking fear is (mistakenly) seen as negative, Mesopotamian fear is the basis for religio and can be linked to wisdom. Thus, fear of the gods leads to service of the gods.[23]


Matthew O’Kelly writes it can be defined as ‘that which contains in a nutshell the whole Israelite theory of knowledge (quoting Von Rad), to more general senses of obedience and allegiance, along with affective connotations of reverence, humility and wonder.’[24] O’Kelly looks into the application of fear of YHWH in the book of Deuteronomy and notes strong parallels in the way it is used in Proverbs 1-9; arguing the case well, he concludes that fear of YHWH in Pr 1-9 ought to be read ‘in the light of its use in Deuteronomy, denoting allegiance to YHWH’.[25] Following his argument logically, and the placing of Proverbs 1-9 into an early post-exilic context (as he posits), O’Kelly then writes that ‘the community was seeking to reconstitute and safeguard their identity as YHWH’s covenant people’.[26] Suggesting that to socially cohere the people in what was a tumultuous time, it was therefore wise for them to declare that allegiance and thus mark themselves out. This would however mean that wisdom is prior to fear of YHWH, which accurately reflects O’Kelly’s conclusion.[27] This does not so much highlight a tension between the pursuit of wisdom and the fear of YHWH, more so it asks of fear and wisdom, which one comes first? There is a tension here; the writer of the prologue to Proverbs lays out the purpose and theme of their wisdom instruction and indicates that what follows remains valid for the already wise and discerning;[28] are we to assume, then, that they already have the fear of YHWH? Is verse 7 an instruction to allegiance or a reminder of allegiance? This tension cannot be resolved fully, but it indicates that both wisdom and fear of YHWH are not only affective they become incumbent upon mankind: if fear means allegiance to Yahweh, as O’Kelly demonstrated, then it too must be sought. This is how we can hold the two things together in the reading of the text. It isn’t fully clear which one gives rise to the other, but both become imperative to a successful life. YHWH provides the opportunity, and the wise man takes it; wisdom becomes a result of grace.


Conclusion


This paper discussed the component parts of wisdom presented in the book of proverbs; it considered how the pursuit of wisdom in the book was of a specifically religious nature; the nature of which is either grounded or orientated towards Yahweh. Although it appears to be initially a quest of mankind, the resulting prize is held by Yahweh himself and bestowed as a gift. The essay showed how the fear of Yahweh is an expression of allegiance, this too is something that must be sought and begins with human activity; true wisdom is found by inclining towards a relationship with Him. This is how the tension between the two pursuits is resolved, each seek Yahweh and end with Him.

 

 

Bibliography

Blenkinsopp, Joseph, Wisdom, and Law in the Old Testament: The Ordering of Life in Israel and Early Judaism (Oxford University Press, 1995) <https://doi.org/10.1093/acprof:oso/9780198755036.001.0001>

Blocher, Henri, ‘The Fear of the Lord as the “Principle” of Wisdom’, Tyndale Bulletin, 28.1 (1977), 3–28 <https://doi.org/10.53751/001c.30613>

Brueggemann, Walter, In Man We Trust: The Neglected Side of Biblical Faith (Richmond, Va.: John Knox Press, 1973) <http://archive.org/details/inmanwetrustnegl0000brue> [accessed 28 February 2024]

Fox, Michael V., ‘Ethics and Wisdom in the Book of Proverbs’, Hebrew Studies, 48 (2007), 75–88

Han, Shihui, ‘Understanding Cultural Differences in Human Behavior: A Cultural Neuroscience Approach’, Current Opinion in Behavioral Sciences, Social behavior, 3 (2015), 68–72 <https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cobeha.2015.01.013>

Kekes, John, ‘Human Wisdom: Initial Conception’, in Wisdom: A Humanistic Conception, ed. by John Kekes (Oxford University Press, 2020), p. 0 <https://doi.org/10.1093/oso/9780197514047.003.0002>

Longman, Tremper, The Fear of the Lord Is Wisdom: A Theological Introduction to Wisdom in Israel (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2017) <http://archive.org/details/fearoflordiswisd0000long> [accessed 27 February 2024]

Murphy, Roland E. (Roland Edmund), The Tree of Life: An Exploration of Biblical Wisdom Literature (Grand Rapids, Mich.: William B. Eerdmans Pub., 1996) <http://archive.org/details/treeoflifeexplor0000murp> [accessed 28 February 2024]

O’Kelly, Matthew A, ‘Wisdom and the Fear of YHWH: Rethinking Their Relationship in Proverbs 1–9’, Journal for the Study of the Old Testament, 47.1 (2022), 98–113 <https://doi.org/10.1177/03090892221116913>

Wagner-Durand, Elisabeth, ‘Beyond Texts?: Potentials and Limitations of a Holistic Approach to Collective Fear in Mesopotamia/ANE’, Die Welt Des Orients, 51.1 (2021), 10–27

 


[1] Michael, V. Fox, Proverbs 1-9: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary (London: Yale University Press,1940) p 29-40

[2] Tremper Longman, The Fear of the Lord Is Wisdom : A Theological Introduction to Wisdom in Israel (Grand Rapids : Baker Academic, 2017) p8-13 <http://archive.org/details/fearoflordiswisd0000long> [accessed 27 February 2024]. 

[3] the example given is provided within the following academic paper, Shihui Han, ‘Understanding Cultural Differences in Human Behavior: A Cultural Neuroscience Approach’, Current Opinion in Behavioral Sciences, Social behavior, 3 (2015), 68–72 <https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cobeha.2015.01.013>.

[4] Roland E. (Roland Edmund) Murphy, The Tree of Life: An Exploration of Biblical Wisdom Literature (Grand Rapids, Mich.: William B. Eerdmans Pub., 1996) <http://archive.org/details/treeoflifeexplor0000murp> [accessed 28 February 2024].

[5] Roland E. (Roland Edmund) Murphy, The Tree of Life: An Exploration of Biblical Wisdom Literature (Grand Rapids, Mich.: William B. Eerdmans Pub., 1996) p16 <http://archive.org/details/treeoflifeexplor0000murp> [accessed 28 February 2024].

[6] Walter Brueggemann, In Man We Trust: The Neglected Side of Biblical Faith (Richmond, Va. : John Knox Press, 1973) p82 <http://archive.org/details/inmanwetrustnegl0000brue> [accessed 28 February 2024].

[7] John Kekes, ‘Human Wisdom: Initial Conception’, in Wisdom: A Humanistic Conception, ed. by John Kekes (Oxford University Press, 2020), p. 0 <https://doi.org/10.1093/oso/9780197514047.003.0002>.

[8] Longman. P25

[9] Murphy. P16

[10] Longman, p. 10.

[11] Michael V. Fox, ‘Ethics and Wisdom in the Book of Proverbs’, Hebrew Studies, 48 (2007), 75–88.

[12] Henri Blocher, ‘The Fear of the Lord as the “Principle” of Wisdom’, Tyndale Bulletin, 28.1 (1977), 3–28 <https://doi.org/10.53751/001c.30613>.

[13] Longman, p. 10.


[15] Fox, p. 86.

[16] Fox, p. 88.

[17] Fox, p. 88.

[18] Joseph Blenkinsopp, Wisdom and Law in the Old Testament: The Ordering of Life in Israel and Early Judaism (Oxford University Press, 1995) p.152 <https://doi.org/10.1093/acprof:oso/9780198755036.001.0001>.

[19] Blenkinsopp, p. 153.

[20] Blenkinsopp, p. 159.

[21] Longman, p. 24.

[22] Longman, p. 24.

[23] Elisabeth Wagner-Durand, ‘Beyond Texts?: Potentials and Limitations of a Holistic Approach to Collective Fear in Mesopotamia/ANE’, Die Welt Des Orients, 51.1 (2021), 10–27 (p. 19).

[24] Matthew A O’Kelly, ‘Wisdom and the Fear of YHWH: Rethinking Their Relationship in Proverbs 1–9’, Journal for the Study of the Old Testament, 47.1 (2022), 98–113 (p. 99) <https://doi.org/10.1177/03090892221116913>.

[25] O’Kelly, p. 106.

[26] O’Kelly, p. 110.

[27] O’Kelly, p. 110.

[28] Proverbs 1-5 Let the wise listen and add to their learning, and let the discerning get guidance (NIV)

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