Week 4 Wisdom Literature

An Empirical Method: Proverbs 3:19–6:35; 10:1–15:33

By Dr. Rick Steele
Seattle Pacific University Professor of Moral and Historical Theology

Read this week’s Scripture: Proverbs 3:19–6:35; 10:1–15:33


Week 4
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We’ve seen that the sages of Israel believed that the universe, being the creation of a just and all-wise God, was morally ordered, and that God’s revealed laws mapped out the general features of this moral order. For human beings, righteousness consists in obedience to divine law — but this just means attuning oneself to the way God’s world works. This takes self-discipline and sacrifice, and plenty of mistakes are made along the way! But, in the end, righteousness is generally rewarded with health, prosperity, and success.

Conversely, unrighteousness consists in disobedience to divine law — that is, in living at odds with the nature of the universe, and suffering the predictably dire consequences. Thus, it is “wise” to be righteous, and “foolish” to be unrighteous, precisely because righteousness accords with our own best interests and unrighteousness is self-defeating. Reality itself provides the motivation for virtue, and “wisdom optimism” turns out to be the highest form of moral realism. Today we address the question of the “empirical method” by which one attains this salutary and uplifting attitude.

An “Empirical Method”

The word “method” comes from two Greek words, meta, meaning “after” [Author’s Note 1], and hodos, meaning “way” or “road.” When put together, these words mean “pursuit of a goal” or “forward movement along a path.” Similarly, the word “empirical” comes from the Greek word empeiria, meaning “experience.” So an “empirical method,” as I’m using the term here, means the habit of learning from experience how to make one’s way successfully through the bewildering complexities and befuddling ambiguities of human life.

The early Israelite sages worked out just such a method for their own lives, took pride in the worldly success it brought them, and inculcated it to the younger generation. Reduced to its simplest terms, their method consisted in three things: noticing the obvious, delighting in the ordinary, and learning from their mistakes. It seems simple, but so often human beings seem to ignore the obvious, dote on the unusual, and repeat the same blunders over and over. The sages tell us that wisdom comes from letting our experience of everyday life, and the experience of other people, speak to us.

Today’s readings show how this method is applied to several areas of daily life, and a good way of seeing how the method works is to contrast what it says about those matters with what the Law of Moses says about them. The Ten Commandments are divinely revealed and therefore non-negotiable. They make no allowances for exceptional situations or extenuating circumstances. No reasons are given to legitimize them, for they possess divine authority and are therefore to be obeyed unquestioningly [Author’s Note 2]. But when we move from the Ten Commandments to the Book of Proverbs, we see a very different way of instructing people — not different in content, but different in form and rationale. Let us look at how this works out with respect to two crucial domains of human life: money and sex.

Labor and Wealth (Proverbs 6:6–11; 10:2–6)

The Eighth Commandment states, “You shall not steal” (Exodus 20:15), and the Tenth states, “You shall not covet your neighbor’s house; you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or male or female slave, or ox, or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor” (20:17). We are not told why God prohibits theft and covetousness, only that he does. We are given no theory of the inviolability of private property, but simply told not to take things that don’t belong to us, and not even to contemplate doing so. In contrast, the sages of Israel sought to instill a strong work ethic in their pupils, knowing that people who earned their bread by the sweat of their own brow were apt not only to value what is theirs, but also to respect the belongings of others.

Consider Proverbs 6:6–11 and 10:2–6, two short passages devoted to the promotion of this work ethic. Neither passage explicitly invokes the two Mosaic commandments pertaining to respect for other people’s belongings, but there are subtle hints that these are in the background. For example, the first passage lampoons the drowsy sluggard for failing to earn his own keep — and is told that because of his laziness he will, in effect, bring grief upon himself for violating he Eighth Commandment: “A little sleep, a little slumber, a little folding of the hands to rest, and poverty will come upon you like a robber, and want, like an armed warrior” (6:10–11).

And the second passage obliquely refers to the Tenth Commandment, not by repeating Moses’ prohibition against covetousness, but by underscoring God’s favor on those who, in the literal sense of the term, mind their own business: “The Lord does not let the righteous go hungry, but he thwarts the craving of the wicked. A slack hand causes poverty, but the hand of the diligent makes rich” (10:3–4).

Thus, although these passages refer only indirectly to the Mosaic property laws, they presume them and illustrate the value of obeying them. People who learn the value of a shekel through their own toil don’t need to covet or steal, and generally aren’t prone to. Of course, the Mosaic commandments are valid, not because they are borne out by human experience, but because they are divinely decreed. But a God of wisdom decrees only laws that match up with the nature of those whom they are intended to govern.

Thus, the fact that those who break God’s law eventually break themselves against it, while those who faithfully obey God’s law usually reap benefits from doing so, shows that God’s law is not intended merely to bind our conscience; it is intended also to promote our well-being. It is not merely an exercise of God’s will; it is also an expression of God’s providence.

Sexuality (Proverbs 5:1–23; 7:1–27)

Another domain of human life in which daily experience confirms divine law is sexuality. The Seventh Commandment states, “You shall not commit adultery” (Exodus 20:14). The sages demonstrate the wisdom of this curt prohibition by showing that the lustful fantasies that drive people to commit adultery are the result of grotesque self-deception, and by encouraging their pupils to learn the fine art of loving and delighting in their own spouses. Chapters 5 and 7 of the Book of Proverbs are devoted entirely to a very frank and thorough discussion of sexual ethics.

Modern readers, however, may find themselves more offended than edified by these chapters. Two things are especially vexing. First, the instructions are directed specifically to young men, and, second, the instructions seem to blame young men’s proneness to sexual misconduct on the allurements of “loose women” (Proverbs 5:3; 7:5), rather than their own lack of decency and self-control. No moral guidance is offered to young women in these chapters — unless one supposes that wives are expected to infer from them that they should try to maximize their own sex appeal in order to prevent their husbands from straying. To contemporary egalitarian sensibilities, these two things seem appallingly sexist.

It may help to bear three points in mind.

  • First, it can’t fairly be said that the sages lacked respect for women. The so-called Ode to the Capable Wife (31:10–31) proves otherwise. But the wifely virtues listed there are mainly those associated with prudent household management, a fact that reflects the patriarchy of ancient Israelite society, and doesn’t take us very far in the direction of gender equality.
  • Second, there are places in the Book of Proverbs where women (specifically mothers) play the role of sages (1:8b; 6:20; 31:1–2), and where God’s own creativity and providence are depicted in explicitly feminine terms (see Week 3).
  • Third, the fact that the Book of Proverbs in general, and particularly the two chapters currently under consideration, are addressed to adolescent men does not prevent us from applying most of what is said there to young people of both sexes. Good advice about sex need not, and should not, be irksomely gendered.

What, then, does “experience” teach about sex? It teaches, to borrow a Latin proverb, “the corruption of the best is the worst.” Sexual desire wouldn’t cause people such trouble if they didn’t confuse its proper satisfaction with its urgent satisfaction. The problem is not that sexual satisfaction is shameful in and of itself. The problem is, first, that the ways in which we seek sexual satisfaction are often reckless, and, second, that the significance of actually attaining it is somewhat less than young people (and foolish older people) often suppose.

This is the real point of Proverbs 5 and 7: fantasies that exaggerate the power of sexual satisfaction to confer genuine happiness prevent us from properly “disciplining” our sexual appetite (5:12, 23), and thereby lead us into liaisons that compromise our health, our fortune, and our reputation.

But when properly set within the wider context of marriage, sex is a wonderful blessing, in which both partners may delight. Parents and teachers should inform the young that the marital covenant is actually the protector of lastingly satisfying eroticism, even if that point may seem counter-intuitive to those tempted to sew their wild oats (see 5:15–19). Wisdom consists in seeing that what the law prohibits is not the pleasures of sex, but the bewitchments of promiscuity, which begins in unbridled lust and ends in sorrow, loneliness, frustration, and misery.

We saw earlier that the sages’ empirical method consisted in noticing the obvious, delighting in the ordinary, and learning from their mistakes. That Proverbs 5 and 7 bear out the first two elements of this method should be obvious from what has already been said. And it is hard not to suspect that they bear out the third element, too. The poignant account of the ruination of those who “hate discipline” when it comes to sex (5:7–14), and the lurid description of sexual seduction (7:10–20), have the ring of sad personal experience.

Yet, even here, the “optimism” of the sages (see Week 3) comes into play. For they know that, although mistakes are inevitable, and sometimes tragic, those mistakes can become learning experiences and even, as Christians might say, occasions on which grace may abound.

Appendix: Wisdom as Preservative against Legalism

Before concluding, I’d like to say a few words about the function of the Wisdom Literature within the canon of Scripture. I want to suggest that the “prudentialism,” “optimism,” and “empiricism” that mark this literature can protect us against a serious spiritual aberration to which Jews and Christians are sometimes prone. Suppose, for a moment, that the Old Testament included the Law and the Prophets, but not the Wisdom Writings. In that case, the way would be open to legalism. Readers might suppose that righteousness consisted in scrupulous obedience to arbitrarily imposed rules and dour oracular utterances. Please note: I’m by no means suggesting that the Law and the Prophets are intended to turn us into legalists. No, they are intended to protect us from anarchy and immorality — and they do that consummately.

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But there’s more to the life of faith than obeying laws and avoiding sins. That “more” is what legalism overlooks, and if the Old Testament consisted only in the legal and prophetic writings, it would be perilously easy for readers to suppose that it was sponsoring a narrow, joyless existence, involving little more than thin-lipped, white-knuckled dutifulness — righteousness with a cramp.

Wisdom comes in to relieve the cramp. Wisdom rescues us from misreading the Law and the Prophets in a legalistic and literalistic fashion. It enables us to take them in the right spirit — namely, as instructions for human flourishing, given the kind of universe we inhabit and the kind of beings we are. The sages of Israel certainly believed that the universe was morally ordered, such that the key to success in human life is to align ourselves with that order.

But they also recognized that the universe was unimaginably complex, that there was plenty of moral dis-order in society and in our own hearts, and therefore that there was more to genuine righteousness than straight-laced lawfulness. The map is not the territory — and there’s more to knowing the territory than memorizing the map. The menu is not the meal — and there’s more to enjoying the meal than scanning the menu. The rule book is not the game — and there’s more to playing the game than following the rules. Now wisdom is precisely that set of life skills and shrewd insights into the ways of the world that let us move from map to territory, from menu to meal, from rule book to the play of the game; that let us become “savvy travelers” in God’s world, connoisseurs in the feast of life, well-trained spiritual athletes.

Questions for Further Reflection

  1. The writer argues that the sages of Israel used an “empirical method” to attain wisdom. What does he mean by this, and why does he think the sages used it? What potential benefits and possible drawbacks might there be for contemporary Christians in using such a method?
  2. To illustrate how the sages’ empirical method works, the writer examines what the sages say about money and sex in the readings for today. Look through the Book of Proverbs for passages that apply this method to other domains of human life. Pay particular attention to verses that seem to allude to one or more of the Mosaic commandments. Do these passages bear out the writer’s claim that divine law is “not merely an exercise of God’s will; it is also an expression of God’s providence”?
  3. One sometimes hears it said that the New Testament rescues Old Testament religion from legalism. There is some truth to that, as we can see in Jesus’ criticisms of the Pharisees (especially Matthew 23:1–39) and Paul’s attack on the so-called Judaizers (Galatians 2:14). But the Lectio writer suggests that the Old Testament includes its own “preservative against legalism” — namely, the Wisdom Literature. Summarize and evaluate his arguments for this claim.

Author’s Notes

Author’s Note 1

In point of fact, the Greek preposition meta has numerous meanings, and the precise sense of any given use depends on the case of the object it takes and the context in which it is used. I am here following the definitions of meta and methodos given in H.G. Liddell and Robert Scott, An Intermediate Greek Lexicon (Clarendon, 1968).


Author’s Note 2

For more on the Mosaic Law, see Sara Koenig, Lectio: Selections from Israel’s Story, Week 2, “The Ten Words.”

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