The Preacher as Sage: Old Testament Wisdom for the Christian Pulpit

Carol Antablin Miles

Wisdom literature (Proverbs, Job, and Ecclesiastes) speaks with a distinctive voice in Scripture. Its accent on human experience has proven enigmatic for any wishing to understand the OT either as a witness to Jesus Christ or a rehearsal of salvation history. Nevertheless, the inclusion of Israelite Wisdom in the Christian canon indicates that its perspective belongs to the fabric of biblical faith.

What problems and possibilities does Wisdom literature present for preachers? What are the distinguishing features of this biblical genre, and how might it function in the Christian pulpit today?

The Character of Wisdom Literature

While other OT traditions emphasize Israel’s unique identity among her neighbors as the people of God, Wisdom tries to blur the distinction. The sages rarely make reference to the particularities of Yahweh’s relationship to the people. Themes such as election, covenant, and torah are set aside in favor of a more universal message grounded in a rich creation theology and focused on what it means to live as human beings in God’s world.

In contrast to the Deuteronomic theologian’s “pan-sacral” view of life (everything that happens may be attributed to God), the sages understand life more in terms of natural causes and consequences. You cannot, for example, light a fire in your lap and not get burned (Prov 6:27). Whoever digs a pit will fall into it (Prov 26:27).

The sages get theological, of course (“the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom,” Prov 9:10), but they do not get too theological too quickly. They warn against adultery, not because it is a violation of the marriage covenant, but because the jealous husband will surely come seeking revenge (Prov 6:32-35). Drunkenness is to be avoided, not because the body is the temple of God, but because of the hangover that awaits in the morning (Prov 23:29-35).

Perhaps the most definitive characteristic of the Wisdom tradition is its reliance upon human experience as a source of theological reflection. The sages assume that divine revelation is mediated not only by the in-breaking of God in human history, but by ordinary human engagement with the world. God’s character and intentions for humanity are reflected in the patterns of the created order, so that is where they begin.

Wisdom literature, as a result, is eminently practical. It focuses attention on the relationship between parents and children, husbands and wives, friends and enemies; the importance of having a good reputation, guarding your tongue, exhibiting table manners, etc. In the process, the sages validate the range of human experience and place it at the center of the human search for God. Their theology is a theology “from below.”

Wisdom is by nature provisional. Proverbs, for example, are best understood as partial generalizations that illumine specific situations in some way. Their truth is always contextual; it is never intended to be universalized. For example, Prov 15:1, “A soft answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger,” is sometimes, but not always, true. Occasionally a harsh word is, in fact, called for. Wisdom is knowing when.

It is this “sometimes, but not always” quality that makes it possible to coin new, and potentially contradictory, proverbs. Consider Prov 26:4-5: “Do not answer fools according to their folly, or you will be a fool yourself.” “Answer fools according to their folly, or they will be wise in their own eyes.” The placement of these proverbs side by side in the canon invites a decision on the part of the wise person: Which is true in this situation?

Problems and Possibilities

On the surface, the universal, secular, experiential, and provisional nature of Wisdom literature hardly seems to serve the aims of Christian proclamation. Yet it may be precisely these features that instill Wisdom with such potential to be heard as word of God in increasingly pluralistic and postmodern congregations.

For instance, Wisdom’s focus on universal human experience simultaneously appeals to religiously tolerant postmoderns and provides an accessible starting place for introducing uniquely Christian themes to those who have not been traditioned in the faith. A sermon on Prov 15:17, “Better is a dinner of vegetables where love is than a fatted ox and hatred with it,” might begin with experiences of life around the family dining table and move to understandings of life around the Lord’s Table for the family of God.

In addition, the provisional nature of proverbs and the inner-wisdom critique of Job and Ecclesiastes keep the Christian tradition from drifting toward a kind of triumphalism that seeks to resolve life’s ambiguities by subsuming all experience under the hegemony of a single plot. Wisdom’s willingness to debate, and even lament, its own testimony makes it eminently trustworthy for any in the pew who have come to doubt the efficacy of a faith tradition that is overly self-assured or tries to claim too much for itself.

Strategies and Considerations for Preaching

The book of Proverbs is a collection of short, concrete, poetic expressions of conventional wisdom that function primarily to describe the way things are. Sermons on biblical proverbs may want to follow one of three main strategies: (1) Preachers invite the congregation to consider the aptness of a wisdom saying by calling to mind occasions in which the insight of the proverb offers an illumining word; (2) Preachers demonstrate the “sometimes, but not always” quality of a proverb by introducing situations in which its word is true, followed by situations in which the its word is inadequate or even damaging; or (3) Preachers introduce a generally received proverb from the culture (“If it feels good, do it”), and then bring in a biblical proverb to subvert it (“Like a city breached, without walls, is one who lacks self-control,” Prov 25:28).

The book of Job is a long and complex hybrid of poetry and prose that presents a host of challenges for the preacher. Because the form and content of the book are inextricably entwined, it is difficult to pare it down into manageable pericopae without skewing the meaning of the whole (as evidenced by the treatment of Job in the Revised Common Lectionary). Furthermore, the theological heart of the book of Job may be found in the poetic section, which, being more difficult to read, is often skipped over entirely.

As an example of “inner-wisdom critique,” Job wrestles with what happens when conventional wisdom breaks down under the weight of lived experience, when the answers traditionally given fail to satisfy the questions life suddenly presents. In the process of drawing us into the struggle, the story of Job offers several insights for pastoral preaching. First, it challenges preachers not to construct theological frameworks their congregations will soon outgrow. Second, it reminds preachers not to treat the question of theodicy in the abstract. It is never “human suffering” that concerns us, but always the suffering of particular persons.

Finally, the book of Job demonstrates for preachers the importance of what Paul Ricoeur calls “naming God” not only in God’s speech, but in God’s silence. While the bulk of biblical material bears witness to the saving activity of God, Job discloses for the community of faith the nature of divine eclipse. It speaks uniquely to the boundary situations of human suffering when God is experienced as hidden, revealed even as God is concealed. Without allowing our congregations to hear this essential testimony from the wisdom of Job, we fail to present them with the fullest-orbed picture of divine reality.

In a frequently quoted taxonomy, Proverbs is understood to be Wisdom for when life is good, Job for when life is bad, and Ecclesiastes for when life no longer makes sense. The narrator of Ecclesiastes, Qoheleth, portrays himself as a philosopher-king who has had every opportunity in life, and achieved every form of worldly success. In his vocation as sage, he has observed countless patterns in the created order, and mastered the rules of the game of life.

He has lived long enough, however, to have seen plenty of exceptions to the rules. The blessings of God seem arbitrary. The righteous have their lives cut short, and the wicked live to a ripe old age (7:15-18). We may toil all our lives, but when we die, someone else reaps what we have sown (2:18-19). Worse yet, years of hard work may make us rich, but everything can be lost in a single business venture (5:13-17).

Qoheleth is frequently portrayed by Christian preachers as cynical and fatalistic. At times this is true, but at times he bursts forth with the clarity and urgency of one who has had a near-death experience. Death, in fact, remains fixed in Qoheleth’s line of sight as he surveys all that is done under the sun. And all that is done under the sun looks different under the specter of death.

Understood this way, Qoheleth’s insights have potential not to drive us to despair, but to free us from all compulsions to control. Life is to be enjoyed. Rather than “toiling” to secure a future for ourselves, we are to live each day as though it were our last. According to Qoheleth, there is no better way to do this than to spend time around the table enjoying good food, good wine, and good conversation, and to take pleasure in the work God has given us to do (2:24).

Taking a leaf from Qoheleth’s notebook, preaching from Wisdom literature will be preaching “from below,” from the vantage point of the human creature. Wise preachers will move through life with their eyes open, paying attention to the details, continuously searching for signs of God’s gracious presence in the patterns of everyday experience. Then they will stand in the assembly of the people and report what they have seen.

Posted Nov 01, 2002