Just read a great article by Ellen Davis called “Surprised by Wisdom.” Here’s a taste:

Anyone attuned to both the [biblical] text and contemporary culture might pause as early as the second line of the book [of Proverbs], where the purpose of “the proverbs of Solomon” is stated thus: “For knowing wisdom and discipline {musar)…” (1:2). Wisdom and discipline belong together, and both are central to the thinking of the Israelite sages, but they are distinctly counter-cultural in our society.

We do not speak much of wisdom in contemporary mass culture. We value people who are “smart,” pursuing prestigious academic degrees for ourselves and high test scores for our children. But that is not the same as valuing wisdom, for intelligence per se is not its chief component…. Wisdom denotes a way of thinking—and equally, of living—that brings us into enduring harmony with family, with neighbors near and far, with our physical environment and ultimately, with the whole created order. That is why the biblical sages represent wisdom as foundational to God’s work of creation:

YHWH by wisdom established the earth,
fixing the heavens by understanding. (Prov 3:19)

Our failure to value wisdom may be the most consequential difference between modern industrialized culture and the culture the Bible seeks to advance, and the difference could be deadly. This may be the most important thing for us to understand and communicate as twenty-first century preachers of Proverbs: we are in a wisdom crisis, a crisis that is unprecedented in character and magnitude.

Obviously, it is not the case that most people in the past were wise; Proverbs repeatedly says that wisdom is more rare than rubies (or “corals,” 3:15, cf. 8:11; 31:10). Nonetheless, no culture has been so burdened and even endangered as ours by the proliferation of knowledge that is not disciplined by the search for wisdom. “All our knowledge,” as T. S. Eliot presciently observed in 1935, only”brings us nearer to our ignorance”; absent wisdom, we are adrift in a malaise of lingering questions.

Where is the Life we have lost in living?
Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge?

Certainly theology and preaching are among the disciplines that even “religious” people in our society often deem irrelevant—personally inspiring, perhaps, but finally unequal to the complexities of “the real world.” This is where Proverbs challenges the preacher to take a stand and say plainly that the exercise of knowledge divorced from wisdom will kill us, because it sets us fundamentally at odds with the structure of the universe: “YHWH by wisdom established the earth.”….

Holy wisdom itself may not be valued in our society, but ironically, there is a form—or parody—of Wisdom literature that is highly developed and well known to all of us, namely the mock-wisdom of Hollywood and Madison Avenue. A few years ago I was invited to lead a day-long workshop at a church in Beverly Hills; to my surprise, the requested topic was Proverbs. It was early autumn, and the day dawned crystal clear and slightly cool, perfect for being in the garden, at the ocean, or on the hiking trail. I therefore expected a small and likely reluctant group to turn out for the workshop: the planning committee and a few loyal friends, perhaps.

Yet surprisingly, the room filled, and people became so engaged with the topic that I had to insist they take a break. “Tell me,” I asked, “where does all this energy come from?” Immediately someone responded: “Oh, most of us work in Hollywood. We write commercials and advertising copy. And when we were in training, they told us to read Proverbs.” She smiled a little self-consciously before continuing: “But now I see that most of what we write is aimed at the people Proverbs calls ‘fools.'”

If more professors of Bible and homiletics had seen what the advertising industry has seen, we would doubtless hear and do more preaching on Proverbs, and it might be some of the most helpful preaching in the church. Both biblical proverbs and advertising slogans are designed to speak directly into the heart of a culture, to ordinary people in their daily lives. With just a few words, they epitomize certain core values, and if they catch on, they become a powerful way of communicating those values. They may be adapted to new con- texts within the culture, some of those quite distant from a given saying’s original Sitz im Leben, its setting in life: “Where’s the beef?”

The most telling point of correspondence between biblical wisdom and the advertising industry is that both are directed toward shaping and stimulating desire: more people should want something they do not yet have, or else want more of what they already possess. So a proverb and a well-crafted advertisement are both forms of the poetry of acquisition. What is crucial for the preacher is that they contrast completely on the nature of the object of desire.

Proverbs such as these make it clear that wisdom was a reasonably hard-sell, even in ancient Israel:

Acquire [or, “Buy”] wisdom; acquire discernment; do not forget…! (Prov 4:5)
The first thing about wisdom: Acquire wisdom!

And in exchange for everything you have acquired, acquire discernment. (Prov 4:7)

Acquiring wisdom—how much better than gold,
and acquiring discernment, choicer than silver! (Prov 16:16)

….The sages of Proverbs are cultivating the desire for more, just as assiduously as does the advertising industry.

Not infrequently, skilled poets of acquisition play on one of the most elemental forms of desire. A Jaguar ad features a photo in which the front section of the “perfectly proportioned high strength aluminum alloy body” and the automatically adjusting head lamps— “beauty and brains”—appear at an angle that mimics a woman’s full breasts and smooth belly. Lest the point be missed, inscribed over the driveshaft are the words, “sin No. 1 LUST.” The caption concludes, “… that’s not love you’re feeling.” Not to be outdone, Cadillac has the beautiful actress Kate Walsh deliver a soliloquy on the features of the car she is driving. She ends with “the real question…, when you turn your car on, does it return the favor?”

Israel’s sages likewise use sexual bait to stimulate desire for a non-sexual object. Some of their sayings would have been devised to amuse adolescent male students and keep them awake at their studies. So, for instance, “Lady” Wisdom declares,

As for me, I love my lovers,
and those who get up early for me willfindme. (Prov 8:17)

And similarly:

For Wisdom is better than rubies,
and all other pleasures do not equal her. (Prov 8:11)

Unlike the sexual ploy of Madison Avenue, however, that of the sages is not entirely empty. For it reflects the important but often overlooked truth that strong desire is never a neutral factor in our religious development and moral character. If a preacher or teacher can awaken a craving for the things of God, and direct it in ways that are genuinely life-giving for the one who desires, then both young and old will grow in ways they never imagined were possible.

David Ford comments perceptively, “Desire is in many ways the embracing mood of a life immersed in history and oriented towards the fulfillment of God’s purposes.” But much desire is unproductive or actively harmful. We waste our wanting on objects that are unworthy of our devotion, of the years we give to pursuing them—let alone of our hearts, which gradually mold themselves to fit the things we desire.

Dr. Jeremy Berg is the founding and Lead Pastor of MainStreet Covenant Church in Minnetonka Beach, MN, where he has served since 2010. He an Adjunct Professor of Theology at North Central University (Minneapolis) and Professor of Bible & Theology at Solid Rock Discipleship School. Jeremy earned a doctorate in New Testament Context under Dr. Scot McKnight at Northern Seminary. He and his wife, Kjerstin, have three kids, Peter, Isaak and Abigail.

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