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The City’s Highest Point

07 Jul

Wisdom has built her house;
she has set up its seven pillars.
She has prepared her meat and mixed her wine;
she has also set her table.
She has sent out her servants, and she calls
from the highest point of the city,
“Let all who are simple come to my house!”
To those who have no sense she says,
“Come, eat my food
and drink the wine I have mixed.
Leave your simple ways and you will live;
walk in the way of insight.”

Whoever corrects a mocker invites insults;
whoever rebukes the wicked incurs abuse.
Do not rebuke mockers or they will hate you;
rebuke the wise and they will love you.
Instruct the wise and they will be wiser still;
teach the righteous and they will add to their learning.

The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom,
and knowledge of the Holy One is understanding.
For through wisdom your days will be many,
and years will be added to your life.
If you are wise, your wisdom will reward you;
if you are a mocker, you alone will suffer.

Folly is an unruly woman;
she is simple and knows nothing.
She sits at the door of her house,
on a seat at the highest point of the city,
calling out to those who pass by,
who go straight on their way,
“Let all who are simple come to my house!”
To those who have no sense she says,
“Stolen water is sweet;
food eaten in secret is delicious!”
But little do they know that the dead are there,
that her guests are deep in the realm of the dead.

That was Chapter 9 from the book of Proverbs (NIV), not including verse markings. I wanted to share it because I think it’s a remarkable part of the book. As a whole, we tend not to study Proverbs as much in our studies – the New Testament sees the Gospels, with the Good News itself, Paul’s epistles, with their deep theology and pastoral care, and other great things; the Old Testament sees the story of Israel, starting with God making the covenant with Abraham, and the many times that Israel turns away from that covenant, and we see the prophecies of the major and minor prophets.

But Proverbs is a different book in its nature and character. Solomon wrote, or contributed, a large part of it; his saying comprise twelve of the twenty-one chapters that make up the bulk of the book. The nine-chapter prologue consists of a series of discourses on the nature of wisdom and folly. The passage above concludes that prologue.

The prologue begins with its own introduction – seven verses:

The proverbs of Solomon son of David, king of Israel:

for attaining wisdom and discipline;
for understanding words of insight;
for acquiring a disciplined and prudent life,
doing what is right and just and fair;
for giving prudence to the simple,
knowledge and discretion to the young –
let the wise listen and add to their learning,
and let the discerning get guidance –
for understanding proverbs and parables,
the sayings and riddles of the wise.

The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge,
but fools despise wisdom and discipline.


The rest of the prologue warns the reader against folly, and exhorts the reader to follow wisdom. It continually emphasises that the wise do not follow their own wisdom, but that of the Lord’s. The form of many of the discourses is of a contrast, to highlight the distance between folly and wisdom.

Chapter 9 is sobering, because up until Chapter 9, the books has said “shun evil, follow the Lord”, in that order; it has said “the adulteress will lead you down the path of death, but wisdom will lead you to life with God”. The Godly aspect has until now been in contrast, in a very positive way, to folly, as if saying “I have shown you what lies down that path – turn instead here“.

The structure of this chapter inverts that theme, beginning with wisdom’s call and ending with the whispers of the adulteress, but it maintains a terrible symmetry.

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Wisdom has built her house;
she has set up its seven pillars.
She has prepared her meat and mixed her wine;
she has also set her table.

She has sent out her servants, and she calls
from the highest point of the city,

“Let all who are simple come to my house!”

To those who have no sense she says,

“Come, eat my food
and drink the wine I have mixed.
Leave your simple ways and you will live;
walk in the way of insight.”

Folly is an unruly woman;
she is simple and knows nothing.

She sits at the door of her house,
on a seat at the highest point of the city,
calling out to those who pass by,
who go straight on their way,

“Let all who are simple come to my house!”

To those who have no sense she says,

Stolen water is sweet;
food eaten in secret is delicious!”
But little do they know that the dead are there,
that her guests are deep in the realm of the dead.

Note the similarities between the two speeches: both are obvious, both have loud voices, both want you to follow them. The character shows an obvious contrast; the wise woman prepares her house, does her work meticulously to prepare for a meal – the adulteress is lazy. But both cry the same thing, their initial exhortations to the passers-by are identical. Wisdom and folly’s voice both ask you to follow them, to let them show you riches and wonder. Wisdom’s guests learn and walk in the way of insight, but folly’s guests do not know that they are deep in the realm of the dead.

The introduction to the book of Proverbs ends with death, the lack of wisdom, and the absence of God. After this follow the proverbs of Solomon, and though there is an overarching structure, it is not nearly as clear as this introduction, which could almost be taken as a book in itself but for its treatise on folly and wisdom. In any case, you could call this book “The Proverbs of Solomon”, and its introduction finishes with the victory of folly and the decay of her guests.

King Solomon was the wisest man who ever lived, but he fell to the gods of his many wives. How could the wisest of us be so vulnerable to a falling away from God? This was the man who could have anything he wanted from God, and he asked for wisdom, which God gave him. Solomon remained wise for many years before he turned away from God, but in the end he failed.

He had wisdom, but in the end he leant on his own understanding and did not trust the Lord his God with all his heart – he broke the very advice he had written. Of all things to learn in the first nine chapter of the book, this is surely it: wisdom is so subject to the fear of God, that even the man who understood this, but in the end did not follow it, fell to sin and idolatry. The man knew that the beginning of wisdom was the fear of the Lord, but in the end he turned into the dark recesses of the house of the adulteress, and thus into the realm of the dead. The message is both ironic and profoundly unironic: the wisest did not follow his own advice, and in so doing proved the point he had made.

Today, this is the strongest message to us to beware of pride and self-trust. We may think we know wisdom, we may think we’re right, even if it’s because we trust God, but the wide road of trusting ourselves rather than God will lead to ruin. It’s said that the wise man learns from his own mistakes; and the clever man learns from others’ mistakes: let us be both these things and Godly, because to follow and seek God is the only way. It’s a narrow way, but it lies straight and true:

I’m pressing on the upward way,
New heights I’m gaining every day;
Still praying as I onward bound,
“Lord, plant my feet on higher ground.”


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Posted by on July 7, 2013 in Uncategorized

 

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