The Portrait of a Lady (Wisdom): How to Find and Keep Up with a Complicated Woman
The book of Proverbs provides a vivid portrait of a lady, Wisdom personified. In Proverbs 1–9 she makes a number of appearances, portrayed as the life of the party, as someone who is out there, accessible to all, and a desired companion with lots to offer. Lady Wisdom offers many good things (life and blessing, insight and understanding, long life and prosperity) to those who take her hand and allow her to guide them through the winding paths of life.
However, Wisdom is a complicated woman. We will see this already in Proverbs where at points she appears indistinguishable from Lady Folly (her doppelganger of sorts). Moreover, Lady Wisdom makes cameo appearances in Job and Ecclesiastes, and in these books, Wisdom’s complexity becomes even more obvious.
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Lady Wisdom’s portrayal in Job and Ecclesiastes shows that in extreme circumstances—intense personal suffering (Job) and intense intellectual turmoil (Ecclesiastes)—wisdom can be elusive, difficult to find and hold onto. This can be a powerful reminder for those who are suffering and unable to see their way through it. Wisdom is absolutely indispensable for navigating our times—she’s worth pursuing—but we should not be surprised that she can be hard to discover.
The Portrait of Lady Wisdom: A Public Figure (Proverbs 1–9)
Lady Wisdom and Lady Folly are prominent personifications throughout Scripture. Personification is one of the most delightful and thought-provoking literary features in the Hebrew Bible. Personification is when non-human things are given human characteristics, attributes and actions. The biblical authors inspire us to imagine, for example, mountains and hills breaking into song and trees giving a round of applause in response to God (Isaiah 55:12). Waters are afraid and tremble (Psalm 77:16), the voice of blood cries out from the ground (Genesis 4:10), sin crouches at the door, ready to pounce (Genesis 4:7), death is a shepherd, leading the foolish to Sheol (Psalm 49:14), mercy and goodness relentlessly chase after the Psalmist (Psalm 23:6), steadfast love and faithfulness hook up, and righteousness and peace are not embarrassed by public displays of affection (Psalm 87:10). And wisdom in Scripture is frequently portrayed as a complicated, sometimes downright difficult woman.
The composite portrait of Lady Wisdom appears in several passages in Proverbs 1–9 (Prov. 1:20–33; 3:13–20; 8:1–36; 9:1–12). A quick glance through these passages indicates that Wisdom holds out the possibility of a full and prosperous existence for any and all who follow her. Although these passages indicate that her companionship and guidance are the most precious things the world has to offer, more importantly, the possession of Wisdom herself far surpasses any of these things.
According to the composite portrait of wisdom, the intimate connection between Lady Wisdom and God is unmistakable. Often people regard the wisdom of Proverbs as something like “secular” advice for a successful life. This could not be further from what Proverbs teaches. Wisdom’s association with “the fear of the Lord” (that is, awe and trust in, loyalty and commitment to, and love and desire for God) is often repeated and appears at strategic points throughout Proverbs, demonstrating the profound importance of this connection. The proper starting point for following wisdom in the world is an intimate relationship with God, and this kind of relationship with God puts us in a right relationship with the world, a necessary starting point for understanding the world and our place in it.
This is reinforced in the passages in which wisdom is personified, especially 3:19–20 and 8:22–31, which describe wisdom as the handmaiden of God in creating the world and establishing the world’s order. Because Lady Wisdom is God’s master craftsperson, creating and order the universe, humans will find in her a vital companion and guide for living well within the boundaries of that order before the face of God.
Finally, the portrait in these passages highlights that Lady Wisdom is public, conspicuous, and accessible. With her clear summons, Wisdom turns up in the most public places of society: the streets, the marketplaces, the noisy thoroughfares, and the entrance of city gates (1:20–21), on the heights beside the way, at the crossroads, beside the gates, in front of the town, and at the entrance of the portals (8:2–3), and at the highest places of the town (9:3). In the ancient context, these are central places of commerce, legal proceedings, social life, intellectual discourse, politics, the arts—in other words the gambit of cultural activity happens in these locations. Lady Wisdom calls out from these places and invites humans to follow her into these places, conducting themselves with integrity in every realm in devotion to God. It is as if wherever we find ourselves, Lady Wisdom is there with an open, outstretched hand, encouraging us to take it, follow her, and see what is possible!
Wisdom’s Doppelganger: Distinguishing Lady Wisdom from Lady Folly (Proverbs 9)
From this portrait of Lady Wisdom alone, we might get the impression that following wisdom and reaping wisdom’s rewards should be fairly straightforward. However, following wisdom is complicated, and even Proverbs acknowledges this with its portrayal of Lady Wisdom’s archnemesis Lady Folly. A comparison between these two women as Proverbs presents them back-to-back in 9:1–12 and 9:13–18 bears this out. Both women have houses, both prepare a meal for their guests, both issue their summons from the high places, inviting the simple to dine with them, both offer nourishment and life. The key difference between the two is the destiny of guests who accept their respective invitations: Lady Wisdom’s guests receive nourishment, life, and blessing, whereas Lady Folly leads her guests to the grave, the depths of Sheol!
By portraying Lady Folly as a kind of doppelganger of Lady Wisdom, Proverbs is communicating a profound truth (expressed in different ways elsewhere in the book): sometimes we may think that a certain idea or course of action or decision is wise when in reality it turns out to be folly. What’s more, this case of mistaken identity can have devastating and life-threatening consequences. Paradoxically, it takes wisdom’s discernment to know the difference between what is wise and what is foolish.
Only Rumors of Lady Wisdom’s Whereabouts (Job 28)
Lady Wisdom gets even more complicated in Job and Ecclesiastes, where she seems far less public and accessible in extreme circumstances. To clarify, it is not that Lady Wisdom hides herself or makes herself less accessible (in other words, God does not deliberately conceal wisdom from humans); rather, in extreme circumstances humans struggle much more to find her even though she is no less present in trying times.
As such, wisdom is sort of like the dust particles that are always floating around in a room—only when the sun shines in through a window can we clearly perceive those particles; additionally, even in the full light of sun, those particles are nearly impossible to grasp. Such is the nature of wisdom in extreme circumstances—she is there but not always visible and really hard to get hold of. This is evident at a key moment in the book of Job.
The poem on wisdom in Job 28 is arguably the literary center of the book—it comes right after the dialogues between Job and his friends and before Job’s final appeal to God which results in Job encountering God in the whirlwind speeches. The question that drives the poem in ch. 28 is “Where can wisdom be found?” (28:12, 20). After the seemingly endless debating in the book, with both Job and his friends offering contradictory interpretations of Job’s suffering and loss with no resolution, the question seems most appropriate. In the midst of extreme human suffering and the quest to make sense of it, where is wisdom? The poem expresses brilliantly the incredible technical skill humans exert in discovering hidden and precious material, but for the most precious commodity of all, namely wisdom, their skill fails them. The poem leaves no stone unturned in the pursuit of this question, and even Death and Destruction (here also personified) are consulted but they have only heard rumors of this Wisdom character (28:23).
The answer to the question comes at the end of the poem and aligns with Proverbs’ portrait of Lady Wisdom: God possesses wisdom, He ordered the world (that sometimes may seem disordered) by wisdom, he established wisdom long ago, and he revealed wisdom to humans (28:23–28), a revelation which consists of fearing God and shunning evil. Intriguingly, Job is the only person in the book who pursues God, wrestling with his (and wisdom’s) hiddenness, and demanding a divine encounter. He’s also the one who is repeatedly characterized (even by God) as a God-fearer and evil shunner (1:1, 8; 2:3). Perhaps, like the bedroom dust particles, wisdom was not as far from Job as he thought. In any case, Job (especially ch. 28) demonstrates the elusiveness of Lady Wisdom in exceptionally challenging circumstances.
The Great Switcheroo: In the Arms of Lady Folly (Ecclesiastes 7:23–29)
The slippery character of Lady Wisdom in difficult circumstances is exemplified in Ecclesiastes. This book chronicles the journey of Qohelet (often translated “The Preacher”) to find meaning and purpose in a complex world. Essentially, Qohelet is in an excruciating intellectual tussle between what he knows to be true (God is good, sovereign, and created the world with order and harmony) and what he sees all around him (inequities, injustice, death, etc.).
Qohelet describes his method for discovering meaning in Eccl. 1:12–18. He uses the word “wisdom” to name his method and says that wisdom was his guide; however, his description is focused on himself: on his ability, his efforts, his observations, his experience (1:12–18).1This ironic use of the word “wisdom” is attested once in Proverbs (21:30). This is a far cry from the wisdom of Proverbs which begins with the fear of the Lord! As long as the starting point of his investigation is Qohelet and not God, it should be no surprise that along his journey he keeps finding things frustrating and beyond human comprehension (hebel, often translated “vanity” is the Hebrew word he repeatedly uses for this conclusion).
Qohelet’s perception of “wisdom” is, in other words, a case of mistaken identity—Lady Folly and not Lady Wisdom is his guide. This becomes crystal clear—and Qohelet admits it—about mid-way through his journey. In Eccl. 7:23–29, Qohelet pauses to take stock of his journey thus far. The passage starts with these words: “All this I have tested by ‘wisdom.’ I said, ‘I will be wise,’ but it was far from me. That which has been is far off, and deep, very deep; who can find it out?” (7:23–24, with echoes of Job 28?). He goes on to explain how he was pursuing wisdom and meaning, but what he found was “something more bitter than death: the woman whose heart is snares and nets, and hands are fetters.” Who can he be referring to but Lady Wisdom’s archnemesis Lady Folly? In other words, while pursuing Lady Wisdom he found himself in the clutches of Lady Folly and the “one woman” among a multitude (i.e., Wisdom) escaped him (7:28)!2Scholars have found the “one in a thousand” verse (28) notoriously difficult to interpret. I’m convinced in context that the “one woman” who eluded Qohelet is Lady Wisdom. See Craig G. Bartholomew, Ecclesiastes (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2009), 267–277.
All this is not to say that Qohelet is wrong at every turn. In his journey, he has moments of keen insight, when it’s like the sun hits the wisdom dust particles. Moreover, at the very end of his journey he seems to have discovered the appropriate starting point when he emphasizes the importance of “remembering” the “Creator” (which is like a reorientation toward the “fear of the Lord” as the proper starting point). Nevertheless, his journey to this conclusion and the hiddenness of wisdom along the way causes him real pain and confusion. Like we saw in Job, Lady Wisdom is complicated in extreme circumstances.
She Moves in Mysterious Ways: Wisdom Today
Lady Wisdom still lifts up her voice in the halls of power, in the economic marketplaces, in courts of justice, in lecture halls, in the media, in healthcare institutions, in places of worship and so on. Too often we have left her call unanswered, too often we have heard only rumors of her in these places, and too often we have been convinced she is on our side when in reality we have cozied up to her soul-destroying counterpart. In the challenging circumstances of our times, we desperately need Wisdom though she seems so elusive (though she is never far from us). With an unswerving commitment to and desire for God, perhaps we might encounter Lady Wisdom in unexpected places: in the refugee camp, in the face of the oppressed, in the innocent wonder of a child, in the pleading voice of the other. Does not wisdom call (Prov. 8:1)?
1. This ironic use of the word “wisdom” is attested once in Proverbs (21:30).
2. Scholars have found the “one in a thousand” verse (28) notoriously difficult to interpret. I’m convinced in context that the “one woman” who eluded Qohelet is Lady Wisdom. See Craig G. Bartholomew, Ecclesiastes (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2009), 267–277.
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