THE FIRST-BORN OF THE CREATOR
"Doth not Wisdom cry?"- Proverbs 8:1
In the last chapter a dark and revolting picture of Vice was drawn. This chapter contains a lovely and living picture of Wisdom. In this contrast, as we have already seen, Vice can be presented as a vicious woman, because it is unhappily only too easy to find such an incarnation in actual experience: Wisdom, on the other hand, cannot be presented as an actual person, but only as a personification, because there was, as yet, no Incarnation of Wisdom; far from it, Solomon, the wisest of men, the framer of many wise proverbs, had been in practical conduct an incarnation of folly rather than of wisdom, had himself become a proverb for a wise and understanding heart in combination with a dark and vicious life. Yet how could the teacher fail to feel that someday there must be an Incarnate Wisdom, a contrast to the Incarnate Vice, a conqueror and destroyer of it? In describing Wisdom personified, and in following out her sweet and high-souled utterance, the teacher unconsciously to himself becomes a prophet, and presents, as we shalt see, a faint and wavering image of Him who of God was to be made unto men Wisdom, of Him who was actually to live a concrete human life embodying the Divine Wisdom as completely as many poor stained human lives have embodied the undivine folly of vice. The description, then, is an adumbration of something as yet not seen or fully understood; we must be careful not to spoil its meaning by representing it as more, and by attempting to press the details in explanation of the being and the work of Christ. We shall do wisely to look at the whole picture as it formed itself before the eye of the writer, and to abstain from introducing into it colors or shades of our own. Our first task must be to follow the movement of the chapter as carefully as possible. Wisdom, unlike the vicious woman who lurks in the twilight at the corner of the street which contains her lair, stands in the open places; she makes herself as manifest as may be by occupying some elevated position, from which her ringing voice may be heard down the streets and up the cross-ways, and may attract the attention of those who are entering the city gates or the doors of the houses. As her voice is strong and clear, so her words are full and rounded; there is no whispering, no muttering, no dark hint, no subtle incitement to secret pleasures; her tone is breezy and stirring as the dawn; there is something about it which makes one involuntarily think of the open air, and the wide sky, and the great works of God. [Proverbs 8:1-6] There is the beauty of goodness in all that she says; there are the charming directness and openness of truth; she abhors tortuous and obscure ways; and if some of her sayings seem paradoxes or enigmas, a little difficult to understand, that is the fault of the hearer; to a tortuous mind straight things appear crooked; to the ignorant and uninstructed mind the eternal laws of God appear foolishness; but all that she says is plain to one who understands, and right to those who find knowledge. [Proverbs 8:7-9] She walks always in a certain and undeviating course-it is the way of righteousness and judgment-and only those who tread the same path can expect to perceive the meaning of what she says, or to appreciate the soundness of all her counsels. [Proverbs 8:20] And now she proclaims the grounds on which she demands the attention of men, in a noble appeal, which rises to a passionate eloquence and deepens in spiritual significance as it advances. Roughly speaking, this appeal seems to fall into two parts: from verse 10 to verse 21 (Proverbs 8:10-21) the obvious advantages of obeying her voice are declared, but at verse 22 (Proverbs 8:22) the discourse reaches a higher level, and she claims obedience because of her essential nature and her eternal place in the universe of created things.
In the first part Wisdom solemnly states her own value, as compared with the valuables which men usually covet-silver, and gold, and precious stones. That she is of more account than these appears from the fact that they are but parts of her gifts. In her train come riches; but they differ from ordinary riches in being durable; her faithful followers obtain substantial wealth, and their treasuries insensibly fill. [Proverbs 8:8-9] To riches she adds honor, a crown which worldly riches seldom bring, and, what is better still, the honor which she confers is associated with righteousness, while the spurious honor which is commonly rendered to riches, being conferred without any moral implication, is devoid of any moral appreciation. [Proverbs 8:18] But after all, she herself is her own best reward; the prosperity which accompanies her seems trivial compared with the desirableness of her own person. Her queenly dwelling is prudence, and at her touch all the charmed regions of knowledge and discovery fly open; they who dwell with her and are admitted to share her secrets find the fruit and the increase of the intellectual life incomparably better than fine gold or choice silver. And that gives to her endowments their peculiar completeness is that she requires a moral culture to go hand in hand with mental development; and leading her disciples to hate evil, and to avoid the arrogance and the pride of the intellect, she rescues knowledge from becoming a mere barren accumulation of facts, and keeps it always in contact with the humanities and with life. Indeed, she finds it one great part of her mighty task to instruct the rulers of men, and to fit them for the fulfillment of their high functions. Her queenly prerogative she shares with all her faithful followers. Since Wisdom is the actual arbiter of human life, the wise man is, as the Stoics would have said, a king: nor can any king be recognized or tolerated who is not wise. [Proverbs 8:10-16]
And all these advantages of wealth and honor, of knowledge, and power, and righteousness, are put within the reach of every one. Wisdom, is no churl in loving: she loves all who love her. She does not seek to withdraw herself from men: rather she chooses the places and the ways in which she can best attract them. Queenly as she is, she condescends to woo them. Her invitations are general, even universal. And therefore if any do not find her, it is because they do not seek her: if any do not share in her rich gifts and graces, it is because they will not take the trouble to claim them. [Proverbs 8:17]
But now we pass on to the second ground of appeal. Wisdom unveils herself, discloses her origin, shows her heart, stands for a moment on her high celestial throne, that she may make her claims upon the sons of men more irresistible. She was the first creation of God. Before the earth issued out of nothingness she was there. In joyous activity, daily full of delight, she was beside God, an architect, in the forming of the world. She saw the great earth shaped and clothed for the first time in the mantle of its floods, and made musical with the sound of its fountains. She saw the mountains and the hills built up from their foundations. She saw the formation of the dry land, and of the atoms of dust which go to make the ground. [Proverbs 8:26] She saw the sky spread out as a firm vault to cover the earth; and she saw God when
"in His hand He took the golden compasses, prepared
In God’s eternal store, to circumscribe
This universe and all created things."
She saw the mighty tides of the ocean restricted to their appointed cisterns, and the firm outlines of the land fixed as their impassable barriers.
And this very Wisdom, who thus presided over the formation of land, and sea, and sky, is she who still sports with God’s fruitful earth-yes, sports, for the great characteristic of Wisdom is her exultant cheerfulness, and it must by no means be supposed that the foolish and the wicked have all the gaiety and mirth as their own. This Wisdom is she who too finds her peculiar delight with the sons of men. [Proverbs 8:23-31]
Is it not obvious, then, that men, who are her sons, ought to give ear to her counsels? What could establish a stronger claim for attention than this ancient origin, this honorable part in laying the very foundations of the earth, and this special interest in human life from the beginning. Raised to this high level, where we command so wide a prospect, are we not forced to see that it is our duty, our interest, our joy, to come as humble suitors to the gates of Wisdom and there to watch, and wait, and seek until we may obtain admission? Must we not search after her, when in finding her we find life and obtain favor of the Lord? Can we not perceive that to miss her is to miss life, to wrong our own souls-to hate her is to love death? Evidently her eagerness to win us is entirely disinterested; though she delights in us, she could easily dispense with us; on the other hand, though we do not delight in her, though we constantly turn a deaf ear to her, and refuse to walk in her ways, she is indispensable to us.
Such a passage as this gives rise to many reflections, and the longer we meditate upon it the more rich and suggestive it appears. Let us try to follow out some of the thoughts which readily present themselves, and especially such as are suggested by the verses which may be described as a poem of creation.
First of all, here is the noble idea which overturns at a touch all mythological speculations about the origin of things-an idea which is in deep harmony with all the best knowledge of our own time-that there is nothing fortuitous in the creation of the world; the Creator is not a blind Force, but an Intelligent Being whose first creation is wisdom. He is the origin of a Law by which He means to bind Himself; arbitrariness finds no place in His counsels; accident has no part in His works; in Wisdom hath He formed them all. In all heathen conceptions of creation caprice is supreme, law has no place, blind force works in this way or that, either by the compulsion of a Necessity which is stronger than the gods, or by freaks and whims of the gods which would be contemptible even in men. But here is the clear recognition of the principle that God’s Law is a law also to Himself, and that His law is wisdom. He creates the world as an outcome of His own wise and holy design, so that "nothing walks with aimless feet." It is on this theological conception that the possibility of science depends. Until the universe is recognized as an ordered and intelligible system the ordered and intelligent study of it cannot begin. As long as the arbitrary and fortuitous are supposed to hold sway inquiry is paralyzed at its starting-point.
It may, however, be suggested that the doctrine of Evolution, which scientific men are almost unanimous in accepting, is inconsistent with this idea of Creation. By this doctrine our attention is directed to the apparently disordered collision of forces, and the struggle for existence out of which the order and progress of life are educed, and it is hastily assumed that a Wise Intelligence would not work in this way, but would exhibit more economy of resources, more simplicity and directness of method, and more inevitableness of result. But may we not say that the apparent fortuitousness with which the results are achieved is the clearest evidence of the wise purpose which orders and directs the process? For about the results there can be no question; order, beauty, fitness everywhere prevail; life emerges from the inorganic, thought from life, morality and religion from thought. The more our attention is called to the apparently accidental steps by which these results are reached, the more persuaded must we become that a great and a wise law was at work, that by the side of the Creator, as a master workman, was Wisdom from the beginning. Such a passage as this, then, prepares the way for all science, and furnishes the true conceptions without which science would be sterile. It takes us at a step out of a pagan into a truly religious mode of thinking; it leads us out of the misty regions of superstition to the luminous threshold of the House of Knowledge. It may be said with truth that many scientific facts which are known to us were not known to the writer; and this may raise a prejudice against our book in those minds which can tolerate no thought except that of the present generation, and appreciate no knowledge which is not, as it were, brought up to date; but the fruitful conception is here, here is the right way of regarding the universe, here the preparation of all science.
And now to advance to another idea which is implied in the passage, the idea that in the very conception of the universe human life was contemplated, and regarded with a peculiar delight by the Wisdom of God. The place which Man occupies in creation has been variously estimated in different religious systems and by different religious thinkers. Sometimes he has been regarded as the center of all things, the creature for whom all things exist. Then a reaction has set in, and he has been treated as a very insignificant and possibly transient phenomenon in the order of things. It is characteristic of the Bible that it presents a balanced view of this question, avoiding extremes in both directions. On the one hand, it very clearly recognizes that man is a part of the creation, that he belongs to it because he springs out of it, and rules over it only in so far as he conforms to it; on the other hand, it clearly insists on that relation between man and his Creator which is hinted at here. Man is always implicitly connected with God by some half-divine mediator. The Wisdom of God watches with an unmoved heart the growth of the physical world, but into her contemplation of mankind there enters a peculiar delight. There is that in man which can listen to her appeals, can listen and respond. He is capable of rising to the point of view from which she looks out upon the world, and can ever see himself in the light in which she sees him. In a word, man, with all his insignificance, has a sublime possibility in him, the possibility of becoming like God; in this he stands quite alone among created things; it is this which gives him his pre-eminence. Thus our passage, while it does not for a moment imply that the material universe was made for the sake of man, or that man in himself can claim a superiority over the other creatures of the earth-and so far takes a view which is very popular with scientific men-yet parts company with the philosophy of materialism in claiming for man a place altogether unique, because he has within him the possibility of being linked to God by means of the Wisdom of God.
And now we may notice another implication of the passage. While Wisdom celebrates her high prerogative as the first-born of the Creator and the instrument of the creation, and urges upon men as parts of the creation the observance of the Moral Law, she is implicitly teaching the great truth which men have been so slow to grasp, that the law of practical righteousness is of a piece with the very laws of creation. To put it in another form, the rules of right conduct are really the rules of the universe applied to human life. Laws of nature, as they are called, and laws of morality have their origin in one and the same Being, and are interpreted to us by one and the same Wisdom. It would be well for us all if we could understand how far-reaching this great truth is, and an intelligent study of this passage certainly helps us to understand it. None of us, in our wildest moments, think of pitting ourselves against the laws of nature. We do not murmur against the law of gravitation; we scrupulously conform to it so far as we can, knowing that if we do not it will be the worse for us. When heavy seas are breaking, and the spirit of the winds is let loose, we do not venture on the waves in a small, open boat, or if we do, we accept the consequences without complaint. But when we come to deal with the moral law we entertain some idea that it is elastic and uncertain, that its requirements may be complied with or not at pleasure, and that we may violate its eternal principles without any serious loss or injury. But the truth is, the Law is one. The only difference arises from the fact that while the natural laws, applying to inanimate objects or to creatures which enjoy no freedom of moral life, are necessarily obeyed, the moral rules apply to conscious reasoning creatures, who, possessed of freedom, are able to choose whether they will obey the law or not. Yes, the Law is one, and breaches of the Law are punished inevitably both in the natural and in the moral sphere. This same Wisdom, to which "wickedness is an abomination," and which therefore exhorts the sons of men to walk in the ways of righteousness, is the great principle which ordered the physical universe and stamped upon it those laws of uniformity and inevitableness which Science delights to record and to illustrate.
But when we notice how the Wisdom who is here speaking is at once the mouthpiece of the laws which underlie the whole creation and of the laws which govern the moral life, it is easy to perceive how this passage becomes a foreshadowing of that wonderful Being who of God is made unto us Wisdom as well as Righteousness. Or, to put it in a slightly different way, we are able to perceive how this passage is a faint and imperfect glimpse into the nature and the work of Him whom in New Testament phraseology we call the Son of God-faint and imperfect, because this Wisdom, although represented as speaking, is still only an abstraction, a personification, and her relation both to God and to man is described in very vague and indefinite language; and yet, though faint and imperfect, very true as far as it goes, for it recognizes with wonderful distinctness the three truths which we have just been considering, truths that have become luminous for us in Christ; it recognizes, firstly, that the world was the creation of Wisdom, of Reason, or, if we may use the New Testament term, of the Word; it recognizes, secondly, that the thought of Man was contained in the very thought of creation, and that man was related in a direct and unique way with the Creator; lastly, it recognizes that goodness lies at the very root of creation, and that therefore natural law when applied to human life is a demand for righteousness.
It is interesting to observe that this glimpse, this adumbration of a great truth, which was only to become quite clear in Christ Jesus our Lord, was advanced a little in clearness and completeness by a book which is not generally considered to be inspired, the so-called book of Wisdom, in a passage which must be quoted. "For she [i.e., Wisdom] is a breath of the power of God, and a pure influence flowing from the glory of the Almighty; therefore can no defiled thing fall into her. For she is the brightness of the everlasting light, the unspotted mirror of the power of God, and the image of His goodness. And being but one, she can do all things; and remaining in herself, she maketh all things new; and in all ages entering into holy souls, she maketh them friends of God and prophets. For God loveth none but him that dwelleth with Wisdom. For she is more beautiful than the sun, and above all the order of stars; being compared with the light, she is found before it."
In this passage Wisdom is still a mere impersonation, but the language employed is evidently very near to that which the New Testament applies to Christ. When Philo came to treat of the idea, and wished to describe this intermediate being between God and man, he employed another term; changing the feminine into the masculine, he spoke of it as the Logos. And this expression is adopted by the Fourth Gospel in describing the Eternal Son before He became flesh; the Word of the fuller revelation is the Wisdom of the Proverbs.
How far Christ recognized in this impersonation of our book a description or representation of Himself it is impossible to say. It is certain that on one occasion, in defending His action against the charges of the Pharisees, He declared, "Wisdom is justified of her children," [Luke 7:35, Matthew 11:19] a defense which can be most simply explained by supposing that Wisdom stands for Himself. It is certain, too, that He spoke of His own preexistence, [John 8:58] and that the Evangelist assigns to Him in that life before the Incarnation a position not unlike that which is attributed to Wisdom in our passage: "All things were made by Him: and without Him was not anything made that hath been made. No man hath seen ‘God at any time; the only begotten Son, which is in the bosom of the Father, He hath declared Him." [John 1:3; John 1:18] But whether our Lord expressly acknowledged the forecast of Himself which is contained in the passage or not, we cannot fail to mark with joy and wonder how strikingly all that is best in the utterance and in the delineation of Wisdom is produced, concrete, tangible, real, in Him.
He, like Wisdom in the book of Proverbs, appears in the busy haunts of man, appeals to them, invites them with large, open-armed generosity, His voice is to the sons of men. He, like Wisdom, can say with absolute truth, "All the words of My mouth are in righteousness; there is nothing crooked or perverse in them." He too could speak of His teaching as "plain and right," and could with simple literalness declare that His words were more precious than gold, while obedience to Him would cause men "to inherit substance." With what force He might claim that even kings rule by Him we shall only know when the kingdoms of the world have become His in their integrity: but we can see at once how appropriate in His lips is the beautiful saying. "I love them that love Me, and those that seek Me early shall find Me."
With equal suitability might He the First-born of all creation, the beginning of the creation of God, use the sublime language which follows. And He too could say that His delight was with the sons of men. Yes, how much that means to us! If His delight had not been with us, how could ours ever have been with Him? What a new meaning irradiates every human being when we realize that with him with her, is the delight of the Son of God! What a revelation lies in the fact, a revelation of what man was by his origin, made in the image of God, and of what he may be in the last event, brought to "the fullness of the measure of the stature of Christ." We must not speak as if He delights in us because He has redeemed us; no, He redeemed us because He delighted in us. Is not this a ground on which He may appeal to us, "Now, therefore, my sons hearken unto Me; for blessed are they that keep My ways?" And can we not say to Him with a fervor which the cold abstraction of Wisdom could not possibly excite. "We would watch daily at Thy gates, waiting at the posts of Thy doors. For when we find Thee we find life and obtain favor of the Lord. When we sin against Thee we wrong our own souls: when we hate Thee we love death?"
Yes, in place of this ancient Wisdom which, stately and lovely as she is, remains always a little intangible and unapproachable, Christ is made unto us Wisdom, and He speaks to us the old words with a deeper meaning, and new words which none but He could ever speak.
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Nicoll, William R. "Commentary on Proverbs 8". "Expositor's Bible Commentary". https://www.studylight.org/
the Second Week after Epiphany