[K:NWTS 3/1 (May 1988) 33-39]

Wisdom and Folly

Proverbs 9:1-6, 13-18

Steven M. Baugh

The pursuit of Wisdom may seem like a pleasant, but largely irrelevant exercise in our day. We Christians–like the world around us–do not yearn for wisdom. We want other things: success, effective ministry, personal piety. Don't misunderstand, these are all excellent things, but we usually ignore wisdom as an object of constant pursuit. About the only time we look for wisdom is when we want instant, practical discernment: "Oh Lord, should I sell my house and go to the mission field? Give me wisdom . . . ." But wisdom should be our earnest pursuit all the time. We should seek her like precious treasure and cry out for her from our hearts (Prov. 3:3-4). "The beginning of wisdom is: acquire wisdom," "prize her," "guard her," "do not let go" of her (Prov. 4:7-13)

Wisdom and Folly are the two main themes in Proverbs 1-9. Chapter 9 serves as a conclusion drawing together the fundamental themes of the first 8 chapters. Even the form of the Hebrew poetry in chapter 9 is carefully crafted to highlight the importance of Wisdom and Folly. We have here a point-counterpoint arrangement called a "chiasm" which looks like this:

A. Lady Wisdom (9:1-6)

B. Response to wisdom: the wise man and the scoffer (9:7-9)

C. The foundation of wisdom (9:10-11)

B. Consequences of response: the wise man and the scoffer (9:12)

A. Woman Folly (9:13-18)

The effect of this format is to highlight Lady Wisdom and Woman Folly as two opposing figures and to focus our attention upon the "C" element in vv. 10-11 which act as the summary of the chapter (and indeed of Proverbs 1-9 in this case).

The personification of Wisdom and Folly here is very unusual. Personification itself is quite common in the Old Testament as we see in the verses which present the wise man and the scoffer. These are personified examples of the people who respond rightly or wrongly to wisdom. It isn't hard to find many other examples of this sort: "How blessed is the man who does not walk in the counsel of the wicked . . ." (Ps. 1:1); "For the heavy drinker and the glutton will come to poverty . . ." (Prov. 23:21).

However, there really are few other places in the Bible which use such extended personifications as Lady Wisdom and Woman Folly in Proverbs 1-9. I believe that the biblical writers were sensitive to the fact that the pagan nations all around them pictured the natural and social forces of the world as personal beings. For instance, the Canaanites had a cloud-riding storm and war god, a god of craftsmanship and a goddess of fertility in their pantheon. The Old Testament writers, however, rarely used personifications of natural forces so that we would not confuse them with polytheists. They believed that God is one. Yahweh, the God of Israel, is the only God.

Solomon does take risks with Wisdom in Proverbs 8, especially–"Yahweh begot me at the beginning of his way . . . when he marked out the foundations of the earth, then I was beside him as an architect" (8:22,29-30). Lady Wisdom is not only personified, but has divine characteristics as God's child and fellow Creator. Therefore Wisdom and Folly are not really personifications of human response or human qualities. Let's look at them more closely.

Wisdom—The Evangelist

First of all, Lady Wisdom is pursuing us! She has personally gone out into the city streets and squares (1:20-21) where men and women buy and sell their merchandise; to the gates (8:3) where the elders hear the lawsuits of their neighbors and conduct the city's business; and even to the very heights of the acropolis (9:3) where the city makes its last ditch defense. Wisdom broadcasts her message to the whole city: the streets, the squares, the gates and the acropolis. Proverbs is not a quaint tour through Jerusalem. The point is that Wisdom is offering herself to everyone. Wisdom is not hidden in guru-caves on remote mountaintops; she is not the mysterious consort of gnostic illuminati.

Wisdom is freely and openly offered to everyone throughout the holy city. And it is Wisdom herself who is issuing the call. The statement in v. 3, "She has sent out her maidens" (NASB) should be taken to mean that she has dismissed them. She considers everyone in Jerusalem worthy of the honor of a personal invitation rather than sending her servants out as if to guests of lower status than herself. Compare here the offense that Naaman takes when Elisha deals with him through his servants rather than personally (II Kings 5:11). Lady Wisdom is making a personal invitation to everyone to come to her feast.

Wisdom—The Life-Giver

Now look at the content of Wisdom's summons. She has prepared her meat; she has mixed her sweet wine with aromatic spices and laid it all out on the banquet table (9:2). And then Wisdom invites us to come and feast with her: "Come, eat of my food. And drink of the wine I have mixed" (9:5). But this is no ordinary meal. "Abandon your folly and live" (9:6)! Life! Eat at Wisdom's table and live. She herself is the tree of life (3:18). Her food is bread of life; the blood of her grapes is the wine of life.

Wisdom—The House-Builder

"Wisdom has built her house, she has hewn out her seven pillars" (9:1). Why is this statement included? It seems that many commentators are reading this line as a treatise on Israelite architecture and since most houses unearthed from ancient Israel have four pillars, they often alter the Hebrew to read something like: "Wisdom has set up her lattice-worked pillars"; or "The Seven Sages have built the house of wisdom." On the other hand, we could allegorize the seven pillars (like earlier exegetes have done) to signify the seven sacraments or even the seven liberal arts (like Medieval exegesis).

It seems to me that the image of Wisdom's house is simpler than that. Wisdom has already claimed to be a master craftsman or architect in Prov. 8:30 in the creation of the world; thus the Seven Sages of ancient tradition need not be found here. The number seven is the number of perfection in biblical usage: seven days in the week; seven weeks in Daniel 9:25; seven lampstands (Rev. 2:1). The number seven means "perfect", "complete". And Wisdom's house has strong, stone columns holding it up; not the more common wooden pillars which can be burned up. It can also be that seven pillars indicates that the house is larger than the usual four-pillar model. Therefore let us retain the reading "Wisdom has hewn out her seven pillars" as an indication of the strength and size of her house.

Lady Wisdom's house is her banquet hall where her guests will sit down for their life-giving meal. This is the place where the bread and wine flow freely and all are invited to come and eat. Isn't this a blessed place? so much like that new city filled with the water of life and the trees of life preserved for the house of God, his church (Rev. 22:1-2; I Cor. 3:10-16)!


But Lady Wisdom and her house are not alone in the holy city. Here also Folly lounges at the darkened doorway of her own house with an invitation to her own meal. Even in the holy city, Folly the Simpleton, Folly the Know-Nothing-Whatsoever and Folly the Boisterous calls out (9:13). Folly is described as "boisterous" here so that we will identify her with the adulteress in Proverbs 7: "Dressed as a harlot and cunning of heart. She is boisterous and rebellious; her feet do not remain at home" (7:10b-11; cf. 2:16-19; 5:2-23; 6:24-35).

Like the word for Lady Wisdom, the Hebrew word here for Folly is in the plural. This is how the Hebrews expressed the supreme expression of something. Lady Wisdom is Supreme Wisdom. Folly here is the quintessence of foolishness. This is supreme Folly at work who is more than a mere mortal adulteress.

The evidence that Folly is more than a human characteristic is in the location of her house on the high places of the city (9:14). This is important because the heights of Jerusalem were where the pagan gods had their sanctuaries. We are told that even Solomon built "high places" for the detestable idols Chemosh, Molech and Ashtoreth in the holy city under the influence of his foreign wives (I Kings 11:1-7).

So Folly here represents more than the sin of human adultery. Supreme Folly is adultery with the living God. This is Hosea's adulterous wife Gomer personified (Hos. 3:1). Folly is enticing faithful Israelites to turn aside from their straight paths of faith and obedience into her house of illicit worship (9:15).

The Death Bringer

And this false worship is symbolized in a meal, the Simpleton's Supper. But Folly's meal is illicit. "Stolen water is sweet and bread eaten in secret is pleasant" (9:17). Yes, go up to the heights in Solomon's Jerusalem and there you will find the adulterous worship of idols: Molech and Chemosh, the war gods who devoured baby sacrifices; and you will find Ashtoreth the wanton fertility goddess (I Kings 11:5-7). There on the heights you can feast with Folly. The honey-lipped adulteress (5:3) spreads out her imitation meal to entice her guests. But her meal is not food! Stolen water is cyanide sweet and secret bread has strychnine icing!

Folly's fun house is a one-way elevator to the house of Death–non-stop to the Sheol Suite (8:27). And her guests are the shades of the dead (9:18). If Wisdom is life, Folly is death.

Don't think that we have outgrown the message of this passage. Molech is just as active here today as in ancient Israel. False worship, false teaching, false belief has just as much allure today as always. You can hear Folly calling out all over again: "Join me on the cutting edge of theology!" "You need the secret teachings if you want to be saved." "The Spirit is speaking through the ideas of our culture. We've moved beyond the Bible." Heresy is just as alluring now as it was then, but its partakers are enjoying a feast of fools whose guests are the shades of Sheol.

Ashtoreth, the sex goddess of old, is here today too. If you are a leader in the church, you should fear the siren's call which has captured so many in adultery. Folly is honey-lipped and she will try to lure you from faithfulness: "Didn't Solomon have many wives?" "No one will find out." "Love should not be suppressed." But adultery is dinner with the damned. Flee this Folly and live in the fear of the Lord.

But let's not forget that Lady Wisdom is with us today also. What is more, we understand her better today than in Solomon's day. Lady Wisdom was the Evangelist, the Life-Giver and the House-Builder. Who else could this be than Jesus? Oh, I know some people identify the personification of wisdom in Proverbs as no more than a personification of the divine attribute of wisdom. But I simply don't believe it. Where else in the Bible do you have such personification of a divine attribute? "I, Omnipotence have built my house." "I, Omniscience have prepared my meal." "I, Omnipresence am calling out in the streets." Nowhere else is a divine attribute personified as Wisdom.

We know who Lady Wisdom is by what she does. She is active; she is a person who acts in the Old Testament like Jesus acts in the New Testament! She calls out to all to drink her wine just as the Spirit of Jesus calls out for everyone: "Let the one who is thirsty come; let the one who wishes take the water of life without cost" (Rev. 22:17). Lady Wisdom has prepared her life-giving banquet of the bread and wine of life and Jesus is the Bread of Life: "He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life . . . for my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink" (Jn. 6:54-55). Lady Wisdom has built her house as a symbol of the perfect and strong banquet house of Jesus which even the gates of Hell cannot overthrow: "For (Jesus) has been counted worthy of more glory than Moses, by just so much as the builder of the house has more honor than the house" (Heb. 3:3). Jesus is the Evangelist, the Life-Giver and the House-Builder of God. He is God's Wisdom (I Cor. 1:24).

Westminster Theological Seminary
Escondido, California