Proverbs: Written to Christ, for Christ
November 24, 2015
Connecting Christ and the Proverbs isn't so easy. How do we read the book of Proverbs as Christians in a way that would distinguish us from how a Jew might read the same book? Also, why then was the book of Proverbs written?
In understanding Christ in relation to Proverbs we need to understand Christ himself. The Christ of the New Testament is both fully God (Jn. 1:1) and fully man (Jn. 1:14). Regarding his divinity he is the all-wise God (Rom. 11:33; 16:27); his understanding has no limit (Ps. 147:5); thus, we are to praise him for his wisdom (Dan. 2:20). If the book of Proverbs is the book of Wisdom - and it is - we are bound to confess as Christians that the Son of God is both Wisdom and the author of wisdom (Prov. 2:6). The Son of God, however, is also the Son of Man. As a man, he is finite; that is, besides being 'very God of very God', Christ is also fully human. And because he is a human, his knowledge and wisdom are limited and capable of increase (Lk. 2:52), though never reaching the same level as that which the Godhead possesses. These points about Christ's person are, I believe, absolutely vital if we are to understand the relation of Christ to the book of Proverbs.
In the third "Servant Song", Isaiah provides an interesting glimpse into the life of Jesus. We are told that Christ receives from his Father "an instructed tongue" so that he may "know the word that sustains the weary" (Isa. 50:4). From his earliest childhood Christ was wakened every morning so that he might be taught by his Father (Isa. 50:4). As a man he read the Word of God - which would have likely included Proverbs - and became aware not only of his own story (Lk. 24:44), but of how he ought to live as the subject of his own story. Luke's account of Jesus as a twelve year old should not surprise us, then. During Christ's conversation with the teachers of the law he "amazed" those who heard him and so Luke records that "Jesus grew in wisdom and stature, and in favor with God and men" (Lk. 2:52).
During the course of Christ's public ministry he taught in parables, both to conceal (Matt. 13:10-17) and reveal (Matt. 13:36-43) the mysteries of the Kingdom. Interestingly, the Greek word for "parable" (parabole) is connected to the Hebrew word for "proverb" (masal). By teaching in parables, Jesus was a teacher of wisdom! Moreover, as we study the details of Christ's life we note that Christ knew how to "answer a fool according to his folly" (compare Prov. 26:5 with Jn. 19:11, Jn. 10:34) and to "not answer a fool according to his folly" (compare Prov. 26:4 with Lk. 23:9, Matt. 22:32). The evidence suggests, then, that Christ not only read the Proverbs, but needed to read the Proverbs in order to live a life pleasing to the Father. Indeed, the book of Proverbs connects wisdom with righteousness (Prov. 10). The context of Proverbs 10 shows that to "do right" often involves depriving oneself for the good or benefit of others (see Prov. 10:5).
Bruce Waltke summarizes this behaviour in Proverbs in the following way: "The wicked advantage themselves by disadvantaging others, but the righteous disadvantage themselves to advantage others." Once seen in this light, how can we not think of Christ who, "though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that you through his poverty might become rich" (2 Cor. 8:9)? Little wonder, then, that Paul should famously declare that Christ is "wisdom from God" (1 Cor. 1:30) and that in him "are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge" (Col. 2:3). Christ truly is the very incarnation of wisdom - wisdom whereby one disadvantages himself for the sake of others!
Proverbs 1-9 commends to its readers the pursuit of wisdom; in fact, wisdom is personified as a noble lady to be pursued (e.g. 1:20-33; 8:1-36). In chapter 8 personification becomes personality. The specific - highly controversial - text that marks this transition in Proverbs is 8:22-31. Some theologians have argued that this section is an explicit reference to Christ, while other scholars have rejected this line of interpretation because they feel this lends itself to a form of Arianism, the idea that the Son was created by the Father. In fact, this was a favourite text of Arius. But many (Reformed) orthodox Christian theologians have nevertheless seen Christ - who as the God-man is the center of God's decrees - as the subject of Proverbs 8. If Christ, as the God-man, is described in Proverbs 8:22-36, and I believe he is (based in part on Paul's way of describing Christ in 1 Cor. 1:30), we have an important clue in how we apply the Proverbs to our lives as Christians.
The Christ who is at the center of God's purposes for the recovery of mankind in Prov. 8:22-31 (especially verse 31) is the same Christ who provides the imperatives for his people in verses 32-36! Christ sets before mankind two different paths, the path of wisdom and the path of folly. To those who choose the former he promises "life and ... favour from the Lord" (Prov. 8:35), but to those who choose the latter he promises "death" (Prov. 8:36). Paul connects the lack of wisdom and how it affects conduct in 1 Corinthians 2:6-8 in the following way: "We do, however, speak a message of wisdom among the mature, but not the wisdom of this age or of the rulers of this age, who are coming to nothing. No, we speak of God's secret wisdom, a wisdom that has been hidden and that God destined for our glory before time began. None of the rulers of this age understood it, for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory." The wisdom that invites us is the Lord of glory; and once we feast on Wisdom himself (Jn. 6:53), we cannot help but live out that Wisdom in our calling to be conformed to the image of Christ (Rom. 8:29).
To live according to wisdom, as the Proverbs instruct us, is to live like Christ himself. And for that reason, "Christ as wisdom from Proverbs" has added significance to those who bear the name Christian. But, as we meditate upon Christ's obedience for us, we may not only look to the gospel accounts of his life, but also to Proverbs as the manual that instructed him how to live the perfect life that we were unable to live. In Gethsemane, when Christ asks three times for the cup of suffering to be removed from him, he submits himself to the will of the Father, which has echoes of Proverbs 16:9. Christ knew that his Father would determine his next steps: the steps that led him to the cross.
In the end, I believe that Proverbs was written to/for Christ (and by Christ); and because we are in him, they are written also for us. This might mean, regrettably for some and happily for others, that Proverbs 31 is not first about our wives, but about the church.