Finding Christ in Proverbs — Some Mistakes to Avoid

Search the Scriptures;
for in them ye think ye have eternal life:
and they are they which testify of Me.
John 5:39

And beginning at Moses and all the prophets,
He expounded unto them in all the scriptures
the things concerning Himself.
Luke 24:27

But we preach Christ crucified,
unto the Jews a stumblingblock,
and unto the Greeks foolishness;
But unto them which are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God,
and the wisdom of God.
I Corinthians 1:23-24

Jesus said, in the first Scripture above, that the Scriptures (He was talking about the Old Testament, since the New Testament hadn’t been written yet) testify of Him.  If Proverbs is Scripture, and it is, then Proverbs testifies of Christ.

In Luke 24, as Jesus walked on the road from Jerusalem to Emmaus, He explained to two disciples “in all the Scriptures the things concerning Himself.”  That includes Proverbs.  So we can safely conclude there are things in Proverbs concerning Christ.  Where are they?

 The question came up on my last post on Proverbs:

On a little different note, a book on Christian parenting that I am reading encourages readers to look for Christ in the Proverbs. I have heard it said that He is the wisdom, personified; but this author goes on to say He is the wise son. Do you think this is accurate?

To answer the specific question, I would hesitate to make this assertion.  I’ll give just a few reasons.

  • In Proverbs 1, the wise son needs a warning against consenting when sinners entice him.
  • In Proverbs 2, he needs to be warned against an immoral woman.
  • In Proverbs 3, he is told to accept the chastening and correction of the Lord.
  • In Proverbs 4, he is told to accept the teachings of his grandfather which are being passed down to him by his father.
  • In Proverbs 5, he is told to enjoy marital intimacy with his wife as a protection against the temptation to immorality.
  • etc.

I think if we look at the things the wise son is taught in Proverbs, we would find it hard to closely identify the wise son with Christ.  We would see a spiritual connection, in that Christ is a wise and obedient son, and Proverbs teaches wisdom and obedience, but to explicitly identify Christ as the wise son of Proverbs opens up so many cans of worms that we’ll be fishing for the rest of our lives without ever running out of bait.  I don’t think we want to go there.

OK, so where is Christ found in Proverbs?  Lots of people a lot smarter (should we say “wiser”? :)) than me have addressed this topic, and come up with differing answers, which would tell us this isn’t exactly straightforward.  I posted in July on Proverbs 30:4, and stated that I believe it is the most explicitly Christological of the Proverbs.  Yet, as I conceded in that post, even that passage would not be recognised as obviously about Christ if it were not that John 3 clearly connects it to Him.

Michael Barrett, in Beginning at Moses, argues that the portrayal of wisdom as a person in Proverbs 1, 8, and 9 is not personification, but rather a Messianic description of Christ.  Certainly he is not alone in that belief, and while there is a grammatical problem with the fact that wisdom is feminine, as he says in the book (and I remember him saying it in class :)), “Grammar and reality have little to do with each other.”  But while he is not alone in that belief, neither am I alone in being unpersuaded, and I could never say, “Thus saith the Lord…” on the question.  These depictions of wisdom as a person could be intended to portray Christ, but how can we really be sure?  This is poetic literature, after all, where we would expect literary devices like personification.  There is nothing in the New Testament which clearly supports the idea, and a few aspects of the passages don’t seem to fit well.  The best I can say about this is, “Possible, but not proven” — even if it is someone like Dr. Barrett who says it.

Others have said, “Of course Christ is wisdom in Proverbs.  Look at I Corinthians 1:24, where it says Christ is the wisdom of God!”  I believe this is not a good and right treatment of the passage.   It also says “Christ is the power of God,” but we don’t say, every time we see the power of God mentioned in the Old Testament, that it is Christological.  Was it explicitly Christological when the axe head floated (II Kings 6:1-7)?  Why then, when we see wisdom mentioned in the Old Testament, should we assume that is explicitly referring to Christ?  It is a mistake to say “power=Christ” or “Christ=power”.  Christ is much more than power, and not every manifestation of God’s power is explicitly Christological.  Similarly, it is a mistake to say “wisdom=Christ” or “Christ=wisdom”, and thus assume that everything said about wisdom is intended to have direct and explicit application to Christ.

Furthermore, I believe this interpretation of I Corinthians 1:24 doesn’t fit the context.  If we look at the passage, it says that the preaching of Christ crucified is not a stumbling block or foolishness to those who believe, but (again, to those who believe) the power and wisdom of God.  A parallel would be Romans 1:16, which says, “For I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ: for it is the power of God unto salvation to every one that believeth; to the Jew first, and also to the Greek.”

This verse is talking about the impact of the Gospel (the preaching of Christ crucified) on those who believe.  The power and wisdom of God is revealed to them and manifested in their lives.  The context bears out this reading — “But of him are ye in Christ Jesus, who of God is made unto us wisdom, and righteousness, and sanctification, and redemption” (I Corinthians 1:30).  This is not saying that wisdom = Christ, it is saying that through Christ we are given wisdom, righteousness, sanctification, and redemption.  That is very clear in verse 30, and it is the best understanding of verses 23 and 24 as well.  The preaching of Christ is what makes us “wise unto salvation” (see also II Timothy 3:15).

So as we go looking for Christ in Proverbs (which is certainly correct given the two verses with which I started this post), I think there are three things we should avoid.

  1. Explicit identification of Christ with the wise son mentioned in Proverbs is problematic.
  2. The Messianic intent of the “wisdom as a person” passages is unproven, and I would be hesitant to assume that is the most important way Christ is found in Proverbs.
  3. A “wisdom equals Christ” or “Christ equals wisdom” view, based on I Corinthians 24, is flawed.

Lord willing, I’ll post tomorrow on ways that we can say with confidence that Proverbs points to Christ.  We don’t need to rely on disputed interpretations — some things are very clear.

Update:  Followup post on Finding Christ in Proverbs.

About Jon Gleason

Pastor of Free Baptist Church of Glenrothes
This entry was posted in A Proverb for Today and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

9 Responses to Finding Christ in Proverbs — Some Mistakes to Avoid

  1. SPM says:

    Brother Gleason,

    I myself would argue strongly that the personified wisdom (female) of Proverbs is NOT God the Son (male). In fact, shortly after the first passage of personification in Proverbs 1:20-33, Proverbs 2:6-7 reveals three characteristics concerning this wisdom:

    1. Its Source is the Lord — “For the LORD giveth wisdom.”
    2. Its Avenue is the Lord’s Word — “Our of his mouth cometh knowledge and understanding.”
    3. Its Provision is to the righteous — “He layeth up sound wisdom fro the righteous.”

    I believe that this reveals that the personified wisdom of Proverbs is the truth and wisdom of God’s Word. I further believe that this establishes a foundational contextual principle concerning the wisdom mentioned throughout the book of the Proverbs.

    Any thoughts?

    For the Excellency of the Knowledge of Christ Jesus our Lord,
    Abiding in Christ, and Christ in us,
    Pastor Scott Markle

    • Jon Gleason says:

      I’ll give this two comments. First on personified wisdom, especially in Proverbs 8.

      I would agree on personified wisdom not being the Son, though not entirely because of the gender. Dr. Barrett argues rightly that wisdom, as with most abstract words, is a feminine noun, and so the pronouns which refer to it will agree in gender with their antecedent. Therefore, the gender of those pronouns is driven by grammar rather than reality.

      If Dr. Barrett were here, though, I would ask him this: If a sovereign God who created languages wanted to identify wisdom with Messiah the Son, why didn’t He ordain that “wisdom” be a masculine noun? I know of no rules of Hebrew that dictate it would have had to have been feminine. So I do see the feminine gender as problematic to the view, but not necessarily conclusive on its own.

      These grammatical “problems” with an interpretation didn’t just happen. God didn’t have to work within the constraints of a language, because He could have directed the language where He wanted it to go. In fact, I believe that God did exactly this in many cases, including the way “seed” developed in the Hebrew supporting Paul’s reference in Galatians. Language didn’t “happen” to God’s Word, God formed language to reveal His Word. I would be hesitant to say that gender is not an issue in this interpretive question because the language required it.

      Gender is not my greatest objection, though. The biggest problem I have with this view is that I don’t see anything in the New Testament that really points to it. As I said in my previous post, John 3:13 connects Proverbs 30:4 to Christ — at least in some way. I don’t see anything in the NT giving us a clear pointer to Proverbs 8 (particularly) and identifying it in any way with Christ.

      The best case for this that I can see is John 1:1-3, which Dr. Barrett and others have argued is parallel in some ways to Proverbs 8 — there at the beginning, with God, involved in Creation. But while wisdom is spoken of (at least arguably) in eternal terms (before creation), I don’t see any express identification of wisdom as God, which is what we see in John 1:1. If I were arguing their side of the question, I would say, “Of course, this is progressive revelation.” They could be correct, but I am unpersuaded.

      Proverbs is poetry. We expect personifications in poetry. It is a literary device to challenge us to think about wisdom. I don’t believe it is doing justice to the genre to try to treat it like prophecy, and I believe to identify wisdom personified as Christ is the type of thing we would see in prophetic writings, not poetic ones.

      There are a lot of people smarter than me who take the alternate view. In this case, I think they are mistaken.

    • Jon Gleason says:

      Second reply, on personified wisdom being the truth and wisdom of God’s Word. I would say (my opinion here, no “thus saith the Lord”) both “yes and no”.

      I think everyone would agree that wisdom is an attribute of God. Therefore, any revelation of God would be filled with wisdom. This is true of Christ, it is true of the Scriptures (as you have demonstrated), it is true in us through the salvation which is in Christ (I believe that is the primary force of the references in I Corinthians 1), and it is true in Creation (Proverbs 8, Psalm 19, Isaiah 40).

      Wisdom personified may be seen in all of these, but that does not mean wisdom personified should be formally identified with any of them. I believe the personifications of wisdom in Proverbs were meant to broaden our thinking about wisdom, and when we try to make formal identification of these personifications with any particular manifestation of God’s wisdom, we narrow the scope of our thinking instead.

      Disclaimer: there is a little too much “I think” in this answer for me to have any great confidence in it. When I say, “I think this is right,” that is a good description of it. I have thought about it, and this is my conclusions at this point, but it is my thoughts, and I can’t say with great assurance that I know it is God’s thoughts on it.

  2. David says:

    Hey,

    thanks for the post! I remember sitting in seminary being told why Prov. 8 does not personify Christ and then in Bible Conference the very next week I.Paisley getting up in Bible Conference and preaching on Christ personified in Prov. 8. What’s your take on Prov. 8 and what do you think about the “voice changing’ in the passage?

    • Jon Gleason says:

      Chapel messages can be valuable for your spiritual walk, but dangerous to your education. 🙂 I remember walking out of one and into my Systematic Theology class and interrogating my professor about what I’d just heard.

      The best one I remember was in Dr. Custer’s class. He had assigned us a sermon outline on a particular passage on the prior Friday, due the coming Friday. On Wednesday, the chapel speaker spoke on that passage.

      Dr. Custer walks into the class, and gives us a 2-3 minutes spiel about the value of chapel messages, what we were to take from them, etc, etc, and then said this: “But if any of you treat the passage the way today’s speaker treated the passage, you will fail.” 🙂

      Anyway, you get to choose. Will you agree with me and your seminary professor, or will you agree with Dr. Paisley and my seminary professor (Dr. Barrett)? Actually, I got both views in seminary.

      I think you can pretty well see “my take” on Proverbs 8 from my responses to Pastor Markle.

      As to the voice change, I assume you are referring to verse 11, which in the middle of a first person passage refers to wisdom in the third person. Waltke says it is an interpolation, assuming that because verse 10 parallels 3:14, a scribe stuck the content of 3:15 into this passage in error. I can’t accept this for the following reasons:
      1. As far as I know, every manuscript that we have includes this verse, and the doctrine of preservation of Scripture makes the view problematic.
      2. I’m not sure the interpolation view makes sense anyway. Let me explain why.

      The second half of 8:11 is identical to the second half of 3:15 in the Hebrew. (“Unto her” and “unto it” at the end of the verse is supplied by the context.) The first half differs. Now, if I’m a scribe sticking something in that wasn’t there in the first place, I’m likely to do it one of two ways. Either I will quote it verbatim (that didn’t happen) or I will fit it to the context (consciously or unconsciously) — which means I would put it in the first person. It would have required no more violence to the text of 3:15 to put it in the first person, and fit it to the context, than the differences that we actually see.

      Furthermore, the textual critics in this case aren’t very consistent. They argue (wrongly, I believe) that the most difficult reading is usually the best reading. I’m not going to get into the principles of textual criticism here, but obviously, because of the voice change, the presence of verse 11 is the most difficult reading — yet they chuck it out without any manuscript evidence whatever.

      Colour me not persuaded. Verse 11 is part of the original text.

      So why is the voice change there? It didn’t just happen accidentally, if we accept what the Scriptures tell us that all of God’s Word is inspired. Perhaps it is there in part because of the exact thing we’ve been discussing here. Verse 11 is one of the problems with identifying the personification as anything other than simply that, personification of a Divine attribute. It is a reminder that we aren’t talking about a person in chapter 8, we are talking about wisdom.

      That’s my best understanding of it, anyway.

  3. SPM says:

    Brother Gleason,

    After posting the previous reply, I had an additional thought. (Yes, sometimes I have two thoughts in the same day.)

    I believe that 1 Corinthians 2:6-ff would serve as a good NT parallel to Proverbs 2:6-7.

    1. The Source of the wisdom is the Lord — “Howbeit we speak wisdom among them that are perfect [the saved]: yet not the wisdom of this world . . .: but we speak the wisdom of God in a mystery . . . .” (vs. 6-7a)

    2. The Avenue of the wisdom is the words of the Holy Spirit (God’s Word) — “But God hath revealed them unto us by his Spirit . . . .” (v. 10a) “Which things also we speak, not in the words which man’s wisdom teacheth, but which the Holy Ghost teacheth: comparing spiritual things with spriitual.” (v. 13)

    3. The Provision of the wisdom is to the righteous — “. . . The things which God hath prepared for them that love him.” (v. 9c)

    For the Excellency of the Knowledge of Christ Jesus our Lord,
    Abiding in Christ, and Christ in us,
    Pastor Scott Markle

    • Jon Gleason says:

      Perhaps if you keep having thoughts, I’ll let you take over this blog. 🙂 I’ve been working on this discussion of Christ in Proverbs this week, and decided to post it in two parts. The second part: https://mindrenewers.com/2011/09/23/finding-christ-in-proverbs-and-finding-proverbs-in-christ/. In the last main point, it draws on the connection between Proverbs 2:6 and 14:12 on the one hand, and I Corinthians 2 (and other NT passages) on the other hand. I didn’t develop it in quite the same way, nor as extensively, as you have here, but suffice to say I certainly agree that there are extensive parallels.

  4. Diane says:

    it is refreshing to see that I am not the only one with question marks in my little noggin. I have posted a link to this post in the book discussion I told you of, Jon. It has been well-received. I look forward to reading part 2, when I can scrape some moments for thought together this afternoon. 🙂 Thank you!

    • Jon Gleason says:

      I highly doubt that anyone else has question marks in your noggin, those would be all yours. 🙂

      Hope it is helpful. I appreciate the question. I hadn’t really given a lot of thought to the “wise son” idea previously, so it helped me clarify my focus.

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