Grace Presbyterian Church
June 12, 2022, Trinity C
Wisdom and Trinity
It’s an almost stereotypical image, one found in comic strips or editorial cartoons or any number of other visual media. In it you see a lone sojourner, or maybe a pair, hiking or even climbing their way up a mountainside or cliff. When they get to the top, they find a lone figure, typically an elderly man, probably seated with legs crossed, appearing as a guru or sage of some sort prepared to dispense wisdom. [Here’s a recent comic that offers a different spin on that typical image.]
The scene is often used for comic effect, but it trades on something of a traditional image of a seeker of wisdom as being one who is cut off from society, engaged in solitary contemplation in that withdrawn setting. The writer of today’s reading from Proverbs would not necessarily agree with this image of withdrawal in search of wisdom.
Today’s reading is part of a more extended rhapsody (my word) on wisdom, briefly touched on in chapter 7 and then taking up most of chapters 8 and 9. It follows a discourse on a different character, one who would lead astray (in many different ways) the young student to which Proverbs is directed. In this rhapsody Wisdom is personified; most of chapters 8 and 9 are depicted as wisdom speaking to that young student.
Let’s go ahead and make this clear: yes, Wisdom really is personified in this rhapsody as a woman. Take that, guys. In context, the character in the previous discourse who would lead the young student astray is also a woman, so the passage works as a clever literary device to present the two different paths set before the young student. Still, Wisdom (divine wisdom, clearly, as the rest of the discourse makes clear) is personified as female. Right out of the Bible, folks.
The opening four verses of the chapter set the character (sometimes called Woman Wisdom in the scholarly literature) forth, and our author’s depiction of Wisdom at work doesn’t quite square up with the mountaintop guru of comic-strip notoriety. Far from having to be sought out in some isolated place, Wisdom is out in the world, calling to anyone who would listen:
On the heights, beside the way, at the crossroads she takes her stand; besides the gates in front of the town, at the entrance of the portals she cries out…
This isn’t wisdom in hiding or in secret. She’s out there, calling out for all to hear.
“All fine and good,” you may say, while either being excited or offended to see something of the divine being portrayed as a woman. “All fine and good,” you may say, “but what does any of this have to do with Trinity Sunday? Why is this in the readings for today?” That’s where verses 22-31 come in.
That section opens with Wisdom’s declaration that “The Lord created me at the beginning of his work, the first of his acts long ago.” It may surprise you to hear that this description was the subject of heated debate at no less than the Council of Nicaea, the first meeting of which took place way back in the year 325, and which was the initiator of that statement of faith we know as the Nicene Creed (we tend to say it in worship on Sundays when the Lord’s Supper happens). In their extensive and often testy debates over the nature of the Trinity, this passage, with its confusing Hebrew about being “created” or is it being “begotten” or “made” or “born” became a shorthand for discussing whether the second Person of the Trinity – the one we call God the Son, or Jesus – was “created” or “begotten” or “made” or “born” in John 1. Indeed, for some years, this character of Wisdom was sometimes discussed as a foreshadowing of the Son of God (notwithstanding Wisdom being personified as a woman here!) and of that Son’s being “in the beginning with God,” as John 1 says, or being one through whom “all things were made” as the Nicene Creed ends up saying.
If that’s how the second Person of the Trinity is involved here, the largest part of the reading names the first Person of the Trinity as the great Creator of all. Most of the text describes Wisdom’s bearing witness as God engages in the various acts of creation and even being God’s “delight, rejoicing before Him always” and also “delighting in the human race.”
While the third Person of the Trinity is less directly invoked here, it has not escaped notice that the way Wisdom is described in this rhapsody looks and sounds a lot like the way the Holy Spirit gets described in various other corners of scripture. All that business about not being hidden off on some mountaintop but being out in the streets and at the gates of the city is awfully similar to the doings of the Spirit, after Pentecost in particular.
None of this should be taken as a “proof” of anything. Obviously this was written many, many years before the Nativity or Pentecost. What this quite exuberant passage does show us is that God’s people have been, literally for centuries, seeking ways to understand and comprehend how God moves in God’s world. We aren’t the first to struggle with it. The Council of Nicaea wasn’t the first to struggle with it. And no doubt even the writer of Proverbs wasn’t the first either. Outside of the more dramatic interventions revealed in scripture – say, the Exodus, or Pentecost, or the very life of Jesus – God’s people have been challenged by the work of putting together all that we have been shown and instructed in order, if not to have God completely figured out, at least not get God egregiously and harmfully wrong.
In the end, perhaps such words as “wonder,” or even the “delight” that Wisdom herself invokes in today’s reading, might be at the last the last best place to end up in such pursuits. To borrow the Apostle Paul’s words from 1 Corinthians, we are still in that place where we see “in a mirror, dimly“; the time when we “will see face to face” is not yet here. May this age of contemplation be, rather than a source of dispute and anger over the nature of God, be a source of delight, perhaps with the help of good old Woman Wisdom.
For wisdom and her delight, Thanks be to God. Amen.
Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal unless otherwise noted): #1, Holy, Holy, Holy! Lord God Almighty; #—, We sing of God; #2, Come, Thou Almighty King