Amy Plantinga Pauw is the Henry P. Mobley, Jr., Professor of Doctrinal Theology at Louisville Presbyterian Seminary. She is the general editor of the 36-volume theological commentary series Belief (Westminster John Knox), for which she wrote a commentary on Proverbs and Ecclesiastes (2015). Betsy Johnson-Miller interviewed her about her work on those two wisdom books.
While many of us could give decent definitions of intelligence and reason, wisdom seems fuzzier. How would you define wisdom? And why is wisdom necessary for human flourishing?
Intelligence and reason can be brought to bear on any area of human endeavor, from curing cancer to robbing a bank. Wisdom, by contrast, is practical know-how, aimed at human flourishing. It is “slow knowledge,” accumulated communally over time. All cultures seek and pass down wisdom. Proverbs and Ecclesiastes insist that the human wisdom we need to live well has its source in God’s wisdom. To be wise is to live according to the grain of God’s universe.
Why does Proverbs focus so strongly on the relationship between wisdom and community?
Wisdom is about following a life-giving path; we depend on those who have walked ahead of us, and our attempts to stay on the path of wisdom guide those who will come after us. Yet Proverbs knows that some paths are wicked and deadly. Choosing the right path and staying on it requires imagination and discernment.
The proverbial form is itself a good example of this relationship between wisdom and community. Proverbs are a communal genre, the verbal distillation of common experience. But knowing the “word fitly spoken” (Prov. 25: 11) for a particular situation requires discernment. Do you say, “Too many cooks spoil the broth” or “Many hands make light work”? The challenge of staying on the path of wisdom is ongoing.
We often think of wisdom as something that comes with age or something that shows up in the political realm—Solomon as a wise king, Lincoln as a wise president. However, both Proverbs and Ecclesiastes focus significantly on the ordinary and the daily. Why?
Wisdom is about negotiating ordinary human life, so all people need wisdom to live well. Wisdom’s traditional associations with wealth, age, and social standing reflect the reality that people with large amounts of social capital are in special need of wisdom. Their wisdom is important because what they do has such a big effect on others. But Ecclesiastes is quick to puncture the illusion that wisdom and power always go together: “Better is a poor but wise youth than an old but foolish king, who will no longer take advice” (Eccl. 4:13).
Many readers probably know that Woman Wisdom—Wisdom personified as a woman—appears in Proverbs. Why is this figure important and what is essential for us to know about her?
Most of Proverbs consists of concrete advice about everyday matters such as relationships, money, sex, alcohol, and work. But in the first nine chapters there is a larger-than-life female figure who personifies God’s wisdom. She was present with God at the creation of the world, and all our earthly efforts to be wise are to be guided by her. Proverbs accords her cosmic power and authority. As she proclaims, “by me kings reign and rulers decree what is just” (Prov. 8:15).
She is also portrayed as more valuable and beautiful than anything else we seek. “Nothing you desire can compare with her” (Prov. 3:15). Staying close to Woman Wisdom is not a burdensome duty but the gateway to joy and abundant life.
Given the exalted depictions of Woman Wisdom in Proverbs and elsewhere, it is no surprise that the earliest Christians made connections between her and Jesus. Being with God at the beginning, communicating revelation or divine knowledge, offering spiritual food, being accepted by some and rejected by others—these attributes of the figure of Woman Wisdom in the first nine chapters of Proverbs all resonate with Christian affirmations about Jesus.
You note that there is an “intellectual ecumenism” to Proverbs. Can you expand on that idea?
Carole Fontaine uses this phrase to describe the willingness of Israel’s sages to share wisdom across boundaries of culture and religion. Egypt and Mesopotamia were the motherlands of wisdom in the ancient Near East, and there is general agreement that Israel borrowed wisdom teachings from its neighbors. For example, in the “Words to the Wise” section of Proverbs (Prov. 22:17-24:34), scholars have discovered direct literary dependence on a much older Egyptian wisdom text known as Instruction of Amenemope. While the biblical prophets call Israel to separate itself from and reject the ways of its neighbors, the wisdom books model a critical acceptance of the insights and teachings of others.
How do Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and Job force us to “wrestle with the ambiguities of human experience”?
The horizon of the biblical wisdom books is creaturely existence. Earthly problems have to be dealt with here, not deferred to some life in heaven. The sages of Proverbs think that wisdom, hard work, and righteousness are conducive to human flourishing. But they acknowledge that these things do not always seem to “pay off.” Those who work hard sometimes go hungry; the wicked and foolish sometimes get rich. “The field of the poor may yield much food, but it is swept away through injustice” (Prov. 13:23). Ecclesiastes and Job are even more skeptical about the earthly fruits of wisdom and righteousness. They are excellent guides when life on the ground stops making sense.
Ecclesiastes often presents a bleak view of the world and humanity. In the face of that kind of a world view, how does Qohelet, the author of Ecclesiastes, recommend we find hope? Where can we find joy?
The word hebel, often translated as “vanity,” occurs a remarkable thirty-eight times in Ecclesiastes. By the time Qohelet is done, almost everything that human beings strive for and seek meaning in will be declared hebel—empty, futile, fleeting. So Qohelet definitely calls into question “purpose-driven” human lives—lives that are always on task, always in pursuit of some overarching goal. We are not our own makers and keepers, and we cannot use fame, wealth, or earthly accomplishment to bestow ultimate meaning on our lives. The best we can do is to acknowledge our limits and live each day to the fullest. God’s gifts of food, family, and work are given for us to enjoy. Qohelet is agnostic about what we can ultimately hope for, but there is meaning and joy in the rhythms of ordinary life.