Rev. Hanko is pastor of the Protestant Reformed Church of Lynden, Washington. Previous article in this series: February 15, 2009, p. 226.
Wisdom as “She”
That wisdom in Proverbs is identified with Christ is something not at all difficult to prove. One objection to that identification might be that wisdom is also repeatedly described as “she” or “her” in the book (Prov. 1:20, 21; Prov. 2:4; Prov. 3:15, 16, 17, 18; Prov. 4:6, 8, 9; Prov. 8:1, 2, 3;Prov. 9:1, 2, 3, 4, etc.), and is even referred to as a sister and a kinswoman (Prov. 7:4). There are several reasons for this, and the feminine reference must not take away from the important truth that wisdom is Christ.
The immediate reason for these references is that the word wisdom in Hebrew is a feminine word. It is difficult to appreciate that in English, for we have few such words in our language, but many words that refer to inanimate things are masculine or feminine in Hebrew. The closest we come to that in English is in referring to an automobile or ship as “she.” Because the word is feminine in Hebrew, anyone who was talking about wisdom in that language would automatically refer to it as “she.” In most passages that refer to wisdom, therefore, the word she could be replaced in English by it or hewithout changing the meaning.
That wisdom is a feminine word in Hebrew is not a complete explanation, however, for there are some passages in Proverbs where wisdom is actually characterized as a woman. In Proverbs 7:4 wisdom is called the sister and kinswoman to whom we must be married. In Proverbs 5:15-19 we read,
Drink waters out of thine own cistern, and running waters out of thine own well.
Let thy fountains be dispersed abroad, and rivers of waters in the streets.
Let them be only thine own, and not strangers’ with thee.
Let thy fountain be blessed: and rejoice with the wife of thy youth.
Let her be as the loving hind and pleasant roe; let her breasts satisfy thee at all times; and be thou ravished always with her love.
These words can and ought to be taken as a reference to godly marriage and to faithfulness in marriage, but the wife to whom we must be faithful is first of all wisdom. That verses 15-19 are speaking of wisdom is suggested in verses 1 and 2 of the chapter,
My son, attend unto my wisdom, and bow thine ear to my understanding:
That thou mayest regard discretion, and that thy lips may keep knowledge.
It is even clearer from the comparison that is made in the chapter between the wife to whom we must remain married and the strange woman, who represents not only the sin of adultery, but all sin.
Sinful folly in the first nine chapters of Proverbs is warned against under the figure of a foolish and clamorous and promiscuous woman whom we must avoid for the safety of our souls (Prov. 2:16-19; cf. alsoProv. 5:20-23; Prov. 7:5-27):
To deliver thee from the strange woman, even from the stranger which flattereth with her words;
Which forsaketh the guide of her youth, and forgetteth the covenant of her God.
For her house inclineth unto death, and her paths unto the dead.
None that go unto her return again, neither take they hold of the paths of life.
This comparison between sin and the foolish woman invites a similar comparison between wisdom and the godly woman. The first nine chapters of Proverbs are built around that comparison.
The two women, the foolish and whorish woman and the wise and virtuous woman, represent sin and grace, Belial and Christ, the flesh and the Spirit, wickedness and holiness. We must avoid the one and seek the other. We must have the closest possible relationship with the one and no relationship with the other: that is the message of Proverbs.
That wisdom is represented by a virtuous woman and folly by an adulterous woman does not mean that the passages that exhort us to seek and marry the virtuous woman and avoid the whorish woman have nothing to do with actual marriage and the actual sin of adultery. Much of the fatherly advice in chapters 1-9 of Proverbs concerns these two women, and that advice can and ought to be taken in a literal sense. There is no more graphic and straightforward description of the blessedness of Christian marriage to be found anywhere in Scripture than the description found in Proverbs 2:15-19.
Yet there must be more, for Proverbs clearly speaks of a higher relationship than that of marriage, that is, of our relationship to God in Christ and of the necessity of avoiding all sin in our relationship to God. In fact, our relationship to God and the marriage relationship are connected. Marriage is a reflection of our relationship to God, as Ephesians 5:22-33teaches, where Paul, having spoken at length of marriage, adds: “I speak concerning Christ and the church.”
For this same reason sin is described as spiritual adultery because it involves unfaithfulness to God. Jeremiah describes Judah’s idolatry as adultery inJeremiah 3:9:
And it came to pass through the lightness of her whoredom, that she defiled the land, and committed adultery with stones and with stocks.
This close relation between physical and spiritual unfaithfulness means that sexual sin and unfaithfulness to God’s command regarding marriage are the inevitable result of spiritual unfaithfulness. Romans 1 makes that point when it shows how God gives over to all sorts of sexual uncleanness, including homosexuality, those who are unfaithful to Him.
Proverbs 6:37-45 demonstrates the same truth by pointing out the unique character of sexual sin. There can be a reason for theft if a man is hungry, but there is never a reason for adultery, for “whoso commiteth adultery with a woman lacketh understanding.” The only explanation for such sins is that man in his unfaithfulness to God will always be unfaithful in his earthly relationships as well. And these earthly relationships will always fail, as we see happening all around us, when we are unfaithful to God.
By the same token, faithfulness to God leads to faithfulness in marriage and is the foundation for faithfulness in marriage. True love for one’s spouse is love for God. John makes that point repeatedly in his first epistle. A person cannot love others if he does not love God:
If a man say, I love God, and hateth his brother, he is a liar: for he that loveth not his brother whom he hath seen, how can he love God whom he hath not seen?
The parallel between our relationship to one another in marriage and our relationship to wisdom (which is really our relationship to God) is central to an understanding of the first nine chapters of Proverbs. We may learn about marriage and about the sins that destroy marriage in Proverbs, but the first concern of the book is not our relationship to one another, but our relationship to God in Christ. This makes Proverbs the gospel and the wise counsel of Proverbs more than mere moralism. At the same time, having understood that our relationship to wisdom must be as close as possible, we find the application of that truth in what Proverbs says about marriage and about every other human relationship.
Wisdom as Christ
All this comes down to three important truths that are woven into the first nine chapters of the book. The first and most important truth is that wisdom is Christ, shown most clearly in Proverbs 8:22-36. The second, that He is the only-begotten and eternal Son who came in our flesh. This is taught in every passage in which the Father speaks to His Son, and again in the description of wisdom that is found in the last part of chapter 8. The third truth is that wisdom is also the wise woman to whom we must be faithful and who is the opposite of the foolish and clamorous woman who represents sin and who must always be avoided. This third truth is stated most plainly in Proverbs 7:4: “Say unto wisdom, Thou art my sister; and call understanding thy kinswoman.”
This is somewhat confusing at first. That wisdom is Christ and that He is the Son of God is plain and easy to understand, but when wisdom is further portrayed as a wise woman whom we must court and to whom we must be married, then the matter becomes somewhat confusing. How can wisdom be all of these?
In reading these first nine chapters and the comparison between the wise and the foolish woman, we must to some extent ignore the fact that wisdom is presented as a woman. Certainly it must not suggest that Christ is anything but the most masculine of men. He is eternally the head of the church and of all things. He is the eternal Son of God. He is the bridegroom of the church and king of the nations. The feminine portrayal of wisdom, who is Christ, in Proverbs, must therefore, to some extent, be set aside as the book is read, and the truth that we are required to have the closest possible relationship to Him as wisdom must stand out.
That is the point of the picture that is drawn in the wise woman. We must have as close a relationship to Him as the living wisdom of God as in any marriage relationship. Our relationship to Him must be intimate, it must be permanent, it must be joyful, and it must be governed by the Word of God, just as is every true marriage. What seems a confusing mix of genders must not obscure the fact that Proverbs is all about our relationship to Him and that this relationship governs every other earthly relationship—between husband and wife, between father and son, between man and man.
We must be always
holding the Head, from which all the body by joints and bands having nourishment ministered, and knit together, increaseth with the increase of God,
Our confession must be that of Paul in Philippians 3:8-10:
Yea doubtless, and I count all things but loss for the excellency of the knowledge of Christ Jesus my Lord: for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and do count them but dung, that I may win Christ,
And be found in him, not having mine own righteousness, which is of the law, but that which is through the faith of Christ, the righteousness which is of God by faith:
That I may know him, and the power of his resurrection, and the fellowship of his sufferings, being made conformable unto his death….
Then we have the kind of relationship to wisdom that is recommended in Proverbs.