fish6.gif - 0.8 K

A Sermon from
Valley Covenant Church
Eugene, Oregon
by Pastor Steve Bilynskyj

Copyright © 2014 by Stephen S. Bilynskyj

Proverbs 8:22-36
“Spirit of Wisdom”
June 8, 2014 - Pentecost

         Pools of water glimmered around trees planted in pots. A litlle waterfall cascaded down a rocky slope. Several kinds of water lilies bloomed in abundance. Cattails and other sorts of aquatic plants grew in and around lovely pools. Our guide to the Oregon Gardens explained how water figured so prominently. He told us the city of Silverton daily pumps thousands of gallons of gray water from their sewage system up above the site so that it can flow through all those stunning water features and emerge clean and pure.

         Many of the ponds and little streams, like the one flowing through the Lewis & Clark Columbia Gorge display, look totally natural and wild. Yet it was all carefully planned and laid out. The part called The Amazing Water Garden, with all those colorful water lilies, won a design award when it was first being conceived. What looks so wonderfully spontaneous is the result of careful thought about the wise use of water and the land.

         In Proverbs 8 we listen to the voice of the designer of a beautiful and harmonious system and landscape that takes in the whole world, the whole universe. Skip back to verse 1 of the chapter and you read that it is Wisdom speaking. As we heard several times already in Proverbs, Wisdom is given a woman’s persona. She is Lady Wisdom, and in our text she tells us her role in creation.

         It’s an old joke that you shouldn’t ask a woman her age, but Lady Wisdom is not ashamed at all to say in verse 22 and 23 that she has been around since the beginning, “The Lord brought me forth as the first of his works, before his deeds of old. I was formed long ages ago, at the very beginning, when the world came to be.”

         You might not have guessed, but in Christian history these lines in Proverbs about the age of Wisdom were some of the most controversial verses in the Bible. You need to know that the word we translate “brought forth” or in other versions “created” has the sense of birth about it. The old fashioned word is “begot.” “The Lord begot me as the first of his works,” is what Lady Wisdom is saying.

         And when you hear it that way, that Wisdom is the “first begotten” of all God’s works, maybe that rings a bell for you like it did for early Christians. What does John call Jesus? The “only begotten” Son. What do we read in Colossians 1:15? “The Son is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation.”

         Verses 24 to 26 reinforce that Wisdom was begotten, given birth before the world was made, by listing all its components. Oceans? “I was born before them, before even the springs of water,” says Wisdom. Mountains? “I’m older than the hills,” she says. Our world, its fields, even the dust on the ground in verse 26—she’s been around longer than it all. This is a woman who is literally older than dirt and proud of it.

         Then go on to verses 27 through 29, where Wisdom starts talking about God making it all, His acts of creation. I was there, she says, “when he set the heavens in place,” when the line between sky and sea was drawn across the horizon, “when he established the clouds above, and fixed securely the fountains of the deep… when he marked out the foundations of the earth.”

         Proverbs is picturing God as the design-builder of the garden which is our planet. From the moment He began laying out the project, Wisdom was with him, there at His side, accompanying and informing every line and curve of His blueprint.

         Now listen to John 1:3 as we hear, clearly about Jesus, “Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that was made.” Colossian 1:16 tells us, again speaking about Jesus, “For in him all things were created.” Hebrews 1:2 says, “in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom he also made the universe.”

         Put all that together, those words from Proverbs about Wisdom and her beginning before the beginning and her part in creation, together with what the New Testament says about the eternal “begottenness” and “firstbornness” of Jesus and His part in creation and you may be inclined to do what Christians in the first few centuries did, to write an equal sign here between the figure of Lady Wisdom and the figure of Jesus Christ.

         They didn’t worry about gender. They understood what we should understand, that picturing wisdom as a female is just a metaphor, a rich and beautiful way for Proverbs to talk about a deep and fundamental aspect of God. So it didn’t matter to several hundred years of Christian theology that Wisdom here in Proverbs is a woman and that Jesus is a man. They simply heard all those things that the verses we’re reading today say about Wisdom, about her eternal existence and about her intimate part in creation, and decided that Solomon must have been talking about Jesus, even if Solomon didn’t know it.

         The real problem for them was not that Wisdom is a woman here, it’s the way that verse 22 especially talks about her. It’s the same problem some of them found in Colossians 1:15 when Paul called Jesus “the firstborn of all creation.” A few Christians began to think that Jesus was not actually eternal, but only really, really old. They began to say that Jesus was not God. Instead, He was the first being that God ever created.

         In the fourth century a bishop named Arius taught that, while Jesus is the Son of God, while Jesus died and rose again, while Jesus is great and wonderful and worthy of worship, He is not actually God. The person we know as Jesus Christ, he said, was the first and most important and most glorious of all God’s creations, but He is not the same as God. Arius used Proverbs 8:22 to prove his point. It’s an idea that’s been around a long time and is still taught by Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses and by the leader of a Christian community whom some of you know here in town.

         Way back then, at the beginning of the fifth century, Christians discussed this question and argued and even fought about it. And under the prodding and leadership of a saint named Athanasius they said a great big, “No way!” to Arius and his followers. Athanasius held onto what the very first Christians experienced. Jesus forgave their sins, but only God can forgive sins. The disciples fell down and worshipped Jesus, but only God is worthy of worship. Jesus Himself said, “I and the Father are one.” After Jesus rose from the dead, Thomas went down on his knees to cry out, “My Lord and my God!” From the very beginning Christians perceived that Jesus was not just a man, and not just one of God’s creations, but God Himself born as a human being.

         When Athanasius and all other true, orthodox Christians read Proverbs 8 about Wisdom, who reminded them of Jesus, being “brought forth” or “given birth” as verses 24 and 25 say,  they don’t hear that Jesus was less than God, but that God is more wonderful and mysterious than anyone before had imagined. There is not only God the Father. There is God the Son, eternally begotten. And along with the Holy Spirit, whom we celebrate today on Pentecost, they are three persons in one God.

         Christians put it all in the Nicene Creed, which we recite every Sunday in our early Communion service. Together with true believers down through the ages we say that Jesus is, “eternally begotten of the Father, God from God, light from light, true God from true God, begotten, not made, of one being with the Father; through him all things were made.”

         The things said about Wisdom here in Proverbs point us to Jesus, point us to Him as what Paul calls Him in I Corinthians 1:24, “the power of God and the wisdom of God.” In Matthew 12:42, when Jesus was talking to people who were attacking Him and trying to twist what He did and said, He told them they were ignoring a wisdom that was greater even than Solomon’s. Jesus is wisdom, the best and most perfect wisdom we can seek, the wisdom that was there at the beginning and by which God made the universe.

         Yet Lady Wisdom in Proverbs does not equal Jesus. She’s a picture, an allegory, a story to inspire young men and all the rest of us to seek the highest and best knowledge and understanding we can find. Christians discovered that wisdom completely in Jesus.

         At least one other way to interpret these verses about Wisdom apparently goes back to the church father Irenaeus in the second century. He believed Wisdom here in Proverbs 8 is the Holy Spirit. Genesis 1:2 tells us that the Spirit of God was also there at the beginning, hovering over the waters when the world was created. God spoke and the world was created. The Word was there, that’s Jesus as John chapter 1 tells us. But His Holy Spirit was also there and that is the Wisdom we read about here in Proverbs.

         Irenaeus’ idea has been used to try and bring God up to date in relation to gender equality. Since Wisdom is female in Proverbs and in Hebrew language in general, some folks have argued that the Holy Spirit must somehow be the female aspect of God. So they call the Spirit Sophia, which is the Greek, female word for wisdom. But once again, Irenaeus wasn’t at all thinking about God’s gender or any of that. He understood perfectly well that both men and women are made in God’s image and God’s Spirit is neither male nor female. And he knew that the Holy Spirit is the Spirit of wisdom.

         Name some of the gifts of the Holy Spirit. I bet you will mention some items from the lists we find in Romans and I Corinthians and Ephesians, maybe I Peter. Faith, teaching, encouragement, giving, or maybe some role like pastor or teacher or apostle, and probably something flashy like speaking in tongues or prophesy or healing—that’s what we as Protestant evangelicals call the spiritual gifts. Does anyone know what the answer would be if you asked a Catholic that question?

         Your Catholic friend wouldn’t even look in the New Testament. She would turn to Isaiah chapter 11, verse 2, which talks about the Messiah who will come from Jesse’s, from David’s, lineage and she would read, “The spirit of the Lord shall rest on him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and courage, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord.” And she would say those are the gifts of the Holy Spirit: wisdom, understanding, counsel, courage, knowledge, fear of the Lord, and because of translation issues she would add a seventh, piety.

         Now before you say, “Oh, that’s just those Catholics, they don’t know their Bibles like we do,” go back to our reading from I Corinthians 12 this morning. What did Paul put at the top of his spiritual gift list there? That’s right, “a message of wisdom,” and the very next one is knowledge, and then faith. The showy gifts like miracles and tongues are at the bottom. The top of the list are gifts like Isaiah promises, gifts of the heart and the mind. And the very first one is wisdom. The Holy Spirit is the Spirit of wisdom.

         Wisdom was there at the beginning when God created the world. She was there in the person of Jesus Christ and in the work of the Holy Spirit. Wisdom represents God’s beautiful, just and holy design for the this world, for the kind of lovely, peaceful and righteous place He meant it to be. And the Holy Spirit comes to us to lead us back into that wisdom, into God’s plan and design for our own lives.

         Christ our Lord ascended into heaven, as we celebrated two weeks ago. He is there once again, as verse 30 of Proverbs 8 says Wisdom was originally, at the side of God the Father. But by the Holy Spirit, Jesus is still with us, still nudging us, correcting us, guiding us into His truth, into the living plan which is His own wonderful life.

         My dear wife was delighted to walk around those beautiful gardens last month. The textures and colors and light and shade all spoke to her of the care and design that went into them. But as beautiful as those gardens are, she delights even more in the garden she designs and creates in our own yard. So when we left the Oregon Gardens, we bought a few little plants to continue the experience and delight at home.

         Lady Wisdom also delights in her garden. In verses 31 and 32 of our text she declares that there at God’s side during creation, “I was filled with delight day after day, rejoicing always in his presence, rejoicing in his whole world, and delighting in humankind.”

         Lynn and Terry taught our Sunday School class on Christian art and music last fall, and I’m sure they would both say there is an understanding, a knowledge, a wisdom in the ability to create something beautiful out of dabs of paint or sounds or plants arranged in the soil. It’s wisdom full of delight in the beauty and joy of creation. It’s that kind of delighted wisdom which God has in His creation, in us.

         Yet both Lynn and Terry are artists themselves and I’m sure they would tell you along with my wife in regard to her garden, that the beauty doesn’t always work out, the creation isn’t always what you would want it to be. The words don’t flow, the notes don’t harmonize, the weeds grow up instead of the flowers. And the same thing happens in God’s creation.

         In the last few verses of our text, Lady Wisdom becomes a parent, asking her children to listen and heed her instruction. The reason she offers in verse 35 also reminds us of Jesus and the work of the Holy Spirit, “For those who find me find life and receive favor from the Lord.” To receive the Spirit of Wisdom is to follow the path of life, to go toward life as God created and meant it to be, toward joy and peace.

         Yet God made us free. He made us free to be unwise, to walk away from Wisdom, so verse 36 warns, “But those who fail to find me harm themselves; all who hate me love death.” We can only guess their motivations, but “loving death” seems an apt description of those who walk away from all wisdom and pick up guns to shoot and kill at random.

         It was divine and glorious wisdom which created the world, but it’s an even more wonderful wisdom which restores it to life when it has been killed and destroyed. Wisdom, and the Holy Spirit who brings wisdom, rejoice when people turn away from the path of destruction and are restored and healed and receive new life in Christ.

         My wife delights in her garden, but I think she especially delights in going out to it in the spring, when some plants are overgrown and some have died in the cold and everything just looks brown and ragged. She clips and rakes and plants new flowers, and suddenly it’s all fresh again, green and colorful and full of life. She starts to see the design that’s in her mind coming back and she is truly delighted.

         For me it happens more mechanically. Our dishwasher quit draining a couple weeks ago. I went on-line, figured out the design, then went to work. I checked the drain line and it looked clear, then I pulled out the drain pump and tested it. It spun just like it should. I was stymied until I checked the drain line again and found a little wad of gunk right where it ran into the garbage disposal. I cleared that and then ran a cycle. I was delighted when I saw the drain water running out into our disposal the way it was made to run.

         The Holy Spirit of wisdom came blowing and flaming down on Pentecost to restore God’s design for us and for our world. That’s why one of the signs was that everybody heard and understood the message that day. All the confusion and conflict we have because of our differences was cleared away for a little while by the Spirit, the Spirit of Wisdom. That same Holy Spirit still wants to guide us into the way of order and peace and understanding between all people, the way of Jesus Christ. God is still delighted when we take that path.

         All the things which divide and separate us from other people, all the sins which come between us are like the clog in that drain, like the dead brown of winter kill. The Holy Spirit of wisdom comes clearing it all away, letting God’s grace flow freely between us, letting the green of life together spring up. It’s a sign of God’s design for us that the Holy Spirit came to the disciples gathered together, not individually. Beth shared with me this quotation from a seventh century saint, Gregory of Agrigento.

Therefore if somebody should say to one of us, “You have received the Holy Spirit, why do you not speak in tongues?” the reply should be, “I do indeed speak in the tongues of all people, because I belong to the body of Christ, that is, the Church, and she speaks all languages. What else did the presence of the Holy Spirit indicate at Pentecost, except that God’s Church was to speak in the language of every people?”[1]

         We heard the Church, we heard the Spirit of wisdom speaking many languages today. May you be blessed today by the Spirit of Wisdom, the Holy Spirit sent by the Father and the Son to lead you to Wisdom’s house, to show us the wise path through this life together. And may that Holy Spirit give you wisdom like He gave those apostles on Pentecost, a wisdom that came to them together and changed the world.


         Valley Covenant Church
         Eugene/Springfield, Oregon
         Copyright © 2014 by Stephen S. Bilynskyj

[1] From his commentary on Ecclesiastes.

Last updated June 8, 2014