A Woman's Wisdom
Article byAugust 2012
Lydia Brownback, A Woman's Wisdom: How the book of Proverbs Speaks to Everything, (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2012).
"A woman's wisdom? But Proverbs was written to young men!" God has given us special challenges in the wisdom literature of Scripture, in the puzzles of poetry and artistry these books create. I cringed at the title of this study, at the thought of yet another book that watered down one of these gems, or that diminished the observations and true wisdom in Proverbs to an advice booklet or to a checklist of "How to Become a P31 Woman."
Thankfully, Lydia Brownback's preface and introduction addressed my worries upfront. Indeed, the introduction might suggest that the purpose of her title and "packaging" is to draw in those looking for a Wisdom advice book. She then gently persuades that reader to look more deeply than a fortune-cookie embrace of the pithy and shows us the big picture: "if we approach Proverbs with a quick-fix mind-set, we are going to miss the overarching point of the book: getting to know and learning to love the Author of wisdom. It is only through knowing and loving God--what Proverbs calls 'the fear of the Lord'--that we will understand how to apply its practical how-tos." (16)
Teachers of Proverbs inevitably encounter a difficulty of organization: the book's themes dance in and around each other, often in confusing ways. Brownback uses a topical approach to clarify these themes. The book is divided into three parts: "What is Wisdom and Why Does It Matter?," "Six Things Wise Women Know," and "A Portrait of Wisdom." Part one lays the foundation by defining Wisdom and contrasting it with Folly. Ms. Brownback's explanation of the "fear of the Lord" as the definition of wisdom is insightful. She is careful not to diminish the gravity of fear that man should have in the presence of the God of the universe, while highlighting how God's goodness and kindness provide a balance to this gravity. She makes the reader aware that it is simply right and good for us sinners to be fearful of the Righteous One as we become more aware of our unworthiness in the face of His glory.
Brownback lists and explains many of the attributes of Wisdom found throughout Proverbs: wisdom is clear, near, pleasant, primary, and hospitable. This list contrasts with personified Folly's characteristics: she is enticed by the world, she trusts in riches, she is proud and hates knowledge, she is complacent and lazy and sinfully independent. Wisdom's dinner party of Proverbs 9 becomes the perfect introduction point for a vital message of Brownback's study. She ties Wisdom's invitation to feast to the invitation from Christ, the Wisdom of God himself, in John 6:35: "I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me shall not hunger, and whoever believes in me shall never thirst."
Part two explores the major themes of Proverbs with chapters on the power of words, true friendship, self-control, the balance of thoughts and feelings, financial stewardship, and sexual purity. The study explores these topics with comments of current experience (John Edwards and his public deception) and of some gender-specific examples (anger and hormones, tendencies toward nurture). In a nod to 1 Corinthians 2:14-16, Brownback begins each chapter with two "proverbs" pertaining to the topic at hand: one from a celebrity and/or fashion magazine and the other from the book of Proverbs. Each chapter aims to explain what the wisdom of God teaches in Proverbs (and throughout Scripture) about a topic, while explaining how we as contemporary women would most likely stray from the wise path. Finally, Brownback always points the reader to Christ and our redemption in Him as the only means to getting Wisdom.
Part three speaks of the most beloved (and most envied) "woman" in Scripture: the wife in Proverbs 31. In a rare (but necessary) display of her technical knowledge, Brownback notes the chiastic structure and the acrostic pattern used in the chapter. She mentions these devices to comfort her despairing reader: this perfect wife was not a real person. Rather, this industrious wife is meant to present an ideal woman in poetic form: "The woman here is an illustration of what happens when life is lived out as God intended and as it's revealed throughout the entire book of Proverbs." (166) In explaining the best traits of this superlative woman, the reader is shown how those traits can only be attained through our union with Christ. We are called to become more dependent upon Him as we grow in Wisdom, in "the fear of the Lord."
Brownback's style is comfortable, but is too careful to be deemed merely conversational. She has a sense of what is important for the reader and avoids unnecessary mention of debated translations. There is no chapter about background information, questions of authorship, intended audience. No, Ms. Brownback knows who her readers are, and she speaks to them. She speaks simply but essentially. She provides a good introduction to the themes of Proverbs and gently challenges her readers to seek wisdom.
While there are fewer quotes from the book of Proverbs itself than I expected, I enjoyed Brownback's use of the whole of Scripture and of many and varied Biblical examples. She contrasts the wise words of Esther with the cunning (foolish) words from Delilah, and measures the wisdom of David's grief over Absalom. Using all of the Bible reinforces the unified message of redemptive history, as Brownback puts it, "Wisdom is a person, and wise is what we become through our union with him." (12)
Doug O'Donnell, a pastor from Naperville, IL, writes in his blurb at the front, "halfway through the first chapter, I thought, 'My wife would love this book.' Halfway through the book, I thought, 'I love this book!' ... With wisdom, wit, and carefully crafted sentences, Lydia Brownback's study of Proverbs helps women (and men!) to rest in the source of all wisdom, Jesus."
I heartily agree, but with a caveat. I found myself frustrated while reading, thinking, "Why only for women?!" Most instances where Brownback addresses "women of God" or "Christian women" could easily have been pointed to all Christians, to all seekers of wisdom. If, as the title suggests, the book of Proverbs speaks to everything, why can't this book be addressed to everyone? Perhaps this is a stroke of marketing genius. Nevertheless, Brownback brings the universal truth to a specific audience, and my hope and prayer is that this format can reach a group that might not usually seek a study of this kind.
Readers of either gender could benefit from reading Brownback's study. It is a sound introduction to the book of Proverbs. It is also a good example of how to speak to others on the basics of Proverbs and point them to Christ, the wisdom of God. There is a study guide attached that promises to be a good tool for cementing the main points of each chapter. Whether written to women or men or both, Brownback's study of Proverbs is far better than a typical 'how-to' book, as she points us not to ourselves or our checklists, but to Christ, "in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge" (Col. 2:3).
Becki Whetsel is a graduate of Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia. She and her husband Devin are members of a PCA church and enjoy living in Columbia, a college town in the heart of Missouri.
The German Roots of Nineteenth Century American Theology
Capital in the Twenty-First Century