Wisdom and the Dignity of Vocation
|"Solomon" by Gustave Dore'|
In an effort to not love the evil of the world (1 Jn. 2: 15-17) Christians have admirably sought distance from its vice. Unfortunately, Christians have gone so far as to be living life in a dualistic state. This dualism is seen in divorcing the physical and the spiritual with the physical being subjugated to the spiritual. The best activities are those that belong to the higher, spiritual realm. All activity is split between the sacred and the secular. So worship is seen as higher than recreation, reading the Bible as more dignified than sex, and being a pastor more noble than being a lawyer. The highest calling for Christians, then, is full time vocational service. Secular employment exists only for the good of the church. Because this kind of thinking is so widespread many Christians who are not called to full time vocational service feel less. They feel as though their significance to the Kingdom is less than the noble Christian worker. This dualistic, platonic, worldview is not Christian, coming from the ideal forms philosophy of Plato and Plotinus and not from Scripture.
Scripture gives us a corrective to this platonic, dualistic Christianity. This corrective is found in an unexpected place: Old Testament Wisdom.
In order to understand wisdom we must first consider its relationship to creation. Through wisdom, Yahweh founded the earth (Prov. 3:16). Wisdom herself tell us about her presence at the world's forming:
She tells us she witnessed the emptiness before and God’s amazing work during creation (8:23-26). We also read that she saw God’s establishment of the heavens, drawing a circle on the face of the deep (Prov. 8:27); His establishment of fountains of the deep (Prov. 8:28); His assigning the sea’s limits, and marking of the earth’s foundations (Prov. 8:29). She was present in the very shaping of existence. She intimately knows its pattern. She wants to guide us in this journey of life. She knows the way. That’s why she cries out:The LORD possessed me at the beginning of his work, the first of his acts of old. Ages ago I was set up, at the first, before the beginning of the earth. When there were no depths I was brought forth, when there were no springs abounding with water. Before the mountains had been shaped, before the hills, I was brought forth, before he had made the earth with its fields, or the first of the dust of the world. When he established the heavens, I was there; when he drew a circle on the face of the deep, when he made firm the skies above, when he established the fountains of the deep, when he assigned to the sea its limit, so that the waters might not transgress his command, when he marked out the foundations of the earth, then I was beside him, like a master workman, and I was daily his delight, rejoicing before him always, rejoicing in his inhabited world and delighting in the children of man (Proverbs 8:22-31)
What, then, is wisdom? Wisdom is the ability to successfully navigate the course of this complex world. It is rooted in God’s created order. As such, wisdom pertains to all of life.“And now, O sons, listen to me: blessed are those who keep my ways. Hear instruction and be wise, and do not neglect it. Blessed is the one who listens to me, watching daily at my gates, waiting beside my doors. For whoever finds me finds life and obtains favor from the LORD, but he who fails to find me injures himself; all who hate me love death.” (Proverbs 8:32-26)
The foundational book of wisdom is Proverbs. Here, we are exposed to an elementary course in wisdom. Job and Ecclesiastes provide further, more in depth courses in wisdom. All of them affirm that Wisdom’s origin is the fear of Yahweh (Prov. 1:7; Job 28:28; Eccles. 12:13). In brief, fearing Yahweh is devoted reverence to God(Ex. 20:20) and obedience to Him (Eccles. 12:13). There is a relationship component to wisdom. Proverbs begins by praising wisdom’s benefits. If wisdom is concerned with successfully navigating this complex world, her value is indeed above riches (8:10-11). This first collection of Proverbs spans from chapter one through nine. It teaches us the basics of wisdom. Chapters eleven through twenty nine are collections of wise sayings. They provide a framework for fitting wisdom to diverse situations. Chapters thirty and thirty one end the book. Chapter thirty one closes this foundation wisdom book with a heroic hymn to the virtuous woman.
Wisdom begins in the fear of Yahweh (Prov. 1:7). Wisdom promises to give understanding (Prov. 1:2), instruction in righteousness, justice and equity (Prov. 1:3); prudence, knowledge and discretion (Prov. 1:4); and an increase in learning and guidance (Prov. 1:5). In a way reminiscent of Psalm 1, wisdom teaches us to avoid the company of the violently wicked (1:9-19). It warns us to avoid the adulteress, adultery (Prov. 2:16-22; 5; 6:24-29) and indulge in marital bliss of our wife (Prov. 5:15-20, 18:22). It covers familial relationships (Prov. 4:3-4; 20:7; 30:17). It teaches about alcohol consumption (Prov. 20:1; 23:19-21). Wisdom gives us life guidance (Prov. 2:1-15, 3:1-12). It teaches principles about business practice (Prov. 6:1-5; 11:1) and work ethic (Prov. 6:6-11; 26:13-16). Wisdom discusses government (Prov. 8:15-16; 20:8, 26). It has instruction concerning our communication: it forbids lying (Prov. 6:16-19; 12:22; 24:28-39) and foolish speaking in rumor, gossip and slander (Prov. 25:8-10; 30:10), it encompasses prayers and vows (Prov. 3:9; 7:14-15). It discusses listening (Prov. 8:6-9). It even talks about emotional expression (Prov. 12:16; 14:29-30; 17:27). Clearly, Wisdom is concerned with all life has to offer. It is not restricted to the "sacred" realm. Instead, it teaches us that the whole of life is sacred.
What we’ve covered in our survey is only a taste of wisdom’s basics from Proverbs. We haven’t covered wisdom’s riches in Job, Ecclesiastes and Song of Songs. What then should be gleaned from this brief study? In wisdom we see that there is no dualism in God’s ordering of life. There is no divorce of the physical and the spiritual, the secular and the sacred. All of life lies under God’s reign. In the Old Testament, the people of God submitted to the Yahweh’s lordship as their King. His presence was seen in His tabernacle and subsequent temple. Law and worship, service and recreation, His rule pervaded all of their lives. In our New Testament Christianity, the people of God enter into relationship with the King by submission to His lordship through repentance and faith. The lordship of Christ over all of life, even vocation, is something we desperately need to grasp. Wisdom cries out for it.
Wisdom scholar Raymond C. Van Leeuwen writes, “Wisdom is difficult to define because it is a totality concept. That is, the idea is as broad as reality and constitutes a culturally articulated way of relating to the entire world. The absence of wisdom is 'folly,' which like 'wisdom' is expressed in a variety of Hebrew terms…Thus, in the OT good sailors, metalworkers, weavers, counselors, scribes and builders—all may be described as 'wise'." 1 Craig Bartholomew and Ryan O’Dowd agree with Van Leeuwen’s description of wisdom. They write that “wisdom is not just about activities like sewing, farming, building or reasoning on their own. It is about how all such activities find their meaning in the whole of God’s created order. Mending a garment, cooking a meal and plowing a field are wise when they are in harmony with God’s order for the world.”2
|"Wisdom" (Hebrew, hokma)|
The last chapter of Proverbs is most understood as a separate, unattached poem celebrating the virtuous woman. This understanding, while certainly not wrong, is incomplete. Proverbs 31 is not an unconnected poem of praise, but a closing heroic hymn demonstrating what a life of wisdom looks like in the every day. Whereas Woman Folly (Prov. 8:13-18 ) is fleshed out in the Adulteress Woman (Prov. 5; 6:20-7:27), Lady Wisdom is fleshed out in the Virtuous Woman (Proverbs 31:10-31). This is a woman who lives wisely in the fear of Yahweh. She is a woman we are called to emulate.
She is more precious than jewels (Prov. 31:10). Her husband entrusts his entire being to her, she fights for her family, bringing them good (Prov. 31:11-12, 28-29). She is a craftsman (Prov. 31: 13, 24), and a hard worker (Prov. 31:14-15, 27). She is a strong business woman ( Prov. 31: 16-19). She is charitable, caring for the poor (Prov. 31:20). She provides warm clothing for her family (Prov. 31:21). She enjoys the good things in life and rightfully indulges in them(Prov. 31:22). Her renown is well known, she uplifts her husband (Prov. 31:23). She is strong, honorable, and pious (Prov. 31:25). Her speech is filled with wisdom (Prov. 31:26). All she does she does because she fears Yahweh (Prov. 31:30) and she is worthy of praise (Prov. 31:31).
Earlier we saw that wisdom covers all of life because all of life is under Christ’s lordship. In Proverbs 31 we see what wisdom looks like in the everyday. This woman is the very picture of wisdom. Wisdom is entirely pervasive: business, family, pleasure. She shows us that there is no sacred/secular divide. All of her life is lived as a holy calling. Obviously, this has some huge implications for our discussion. If all of life, lived in fear of Yahweh, is a holy order then for the Christian all of life is the Lord's work, even vocation.
Unfortunately, God's good created order in vocation can be abused. A word about this must be said. Bartholomew and O’Dowd write, “The cultural background of the song reminds us that good callings often go wrong: artists who produce pornography, athletes and businesses dominated by greed, and politicians motivated by narcissism and power. Today, humanist and individualist ideals are often cherished over values like justice, humility, peace and service. But like the resurrected Christ, this woman calls us into our broken cultures to pursue a renewed order in the world where all of God’s creatures are freed to flourish and develop their own creativity.”3
The Proverbs 31 Woman lives a life of wisdom. All she does is wise because she lives in the fear of Yahweh. She teaches us that there is a wise way for every aspect of life, even its menial tasks. This woman’s renown was well known. She stood out as hard working, kind, charitable, and a lover of good. Undoubtedly the wine of her vineyard was the finest. Surely this kind of wise living is the kind of life that causes others to ask of the hope that lies within (1 Pet. 3:15). This kind of wisdom life is intrinsically missional.
What, then, does wisdom teach us about vocation and its dignity? In our brief study we learned that the secular/sacred dualism that is rampant in Christianity is unwarranted. Christ’s lordship is over every area of life. Wisdom demonstrates this entirety, whether it be worship or relaxation, Bible reading or sex, full time ministerial vocation or having a law firm. If there is not a divorce between the sacred and secular, then all vocation is “sacred.” All vocation, lived in wisdom, is noble. It’s dignified. The Proverbs 31 Woman, wisdom in flesh, demonstrates to us what wisdom looks like in the various, even menial details of life. The fast food worker or the the oil field worker, then, need not feel inferior to a pastor or missionary or Christian school teacher. One vocation is no higher calling than the other. For the Christian, every occupation is the Lord’s Work, every calling a high calling, every life a holy order.
1. Raymond C. Van Leeuwen, "Wisdom Literature," in Dictionary for Theological Interpretation of the Bible, ed. Kevin J. Vanhoozer (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2005), 848.
2. Craig G. Bartholomew and Ryan P. O'Dowd, Old Testament Wisdom Literature: A Theological Introduction (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2011), 24.
3. Ibid., 124.