The Christ of the Proverbs
When we turn to the Proverbs--which are arguably some of the most neglected portions of Scriptures in the realm of redemptive-historical studies--we discover a series of additional challenges to a consistent biblical-theological interpretation. When we considered the Psalms, we saw something of the complex nature (i.e. the diversity of genre, structure, and historical placement in the canon). In contrast, the Proverbs are self-contained units of largely the same literary genre. There is one sense in which their seeming lack of context makes them more difficult to interpret; however, in another sense their covenantal context demands that we interpret them Christologically. The Proverbs, like the Psalms, fall squarely within the realm of redemptive revelation during the period of the Davidic Covenant. This means that they will have undertones of revelation given during and prior to this period of revelation. They, like the rest of Scripture, are part of God's covenantal revelation. They are a full expression of how both Law and Gospel work in the lives of believers.
1. Law in the Proverbs
When I was in seminary I read through a chapter of Proverbs every day. At some point I realized that many of the Proverbs were couched in the same language as the Ten Commandments. In fact, one could argue that the Proverbs are a commentary on how the Ten Commandments work themselves out in the lives of God's people and the world at large. If we understand the different uses of the Law in redemptive-history, we begin to understand the relationship between the Proverbs and the believer's need for Christ. While the Proverbs will function exclusively in a pedagogical manner for unbelievers (i.e. driving them to Christ for forgiveness), they will also continue to do so in the life of the believer. Westminster Larger Catechism 97 helps us understand this aspect of the moral Law in the life of believers. There we read:
Question 97: What special use is there of the moral law to the regenerate?
Answer: Although they that are regenerate, and believe in Christ, be delivered from the moral law as a covenant of works, so as thereby they are neither justified nor condemned; yet, besides the general uses thereof common to them with all men, it is of special use, to show them: How much they are bound to Christ for his fulfilling it, and enduring the curse thereof in their stead, and for their good; and thereby to provoke them to more thankfulness, and to express the same in their greater care to conform themselves thereunto as the rule of their obedience.
The Law continues to convict believers of their sin and helps them to see their need for "the perfections of Christ's obedience." The first part of Westminster Confession of Faith 19.6 more carefully articulate the same position. It reads:
"Although true believers be not under the law, as a covenant of works, to be thereby justified, or condemned; yet is it of great use to them, as well as to others; in that, as a rule of life informing them of the will of God, and their duty, it directs and binds them to walk accordingly; discovering also the sinful pollutions of their nature, hearts and lives; so as, examining themselves thereby, they may come to further conviction of, humiliation for, and hatred against sin, together with a clearer sight of the need they have of Christ, and the perfection of His obedience."
This is one of the reasons why, in a book that calls the hearer to choose whether they will live a life of wisdom or folly, there are Gospel promises such as "By mercy and truth atonement is provided for iniquity" (Prov. 16:6). There is an expectation that while believers are called to walk in paths of wisdom and righteousness, there will be failings and fallings--resulting in the need for continual pardon and power. We see this worked out in Proverbs 24:16: "a righteous man may fall seven times And rise again, But the wicked shall fall by calamity."
We will see later in this post how the Law functions in the life of the believer as a guide and will be the pattern of Christian living as God supplies wisdom to believers in Christ by His Spirit.
2. Gospel in the Proverbs
As we have already noted, we have Gospel language sprinkled throughout the Proverbs; the language of Proverbs 16:6 being the clearest example. Additionally, we find references to "the righteous" and "righteousness" permeating the pages of Proverbs. The question that we have to ask is, "How does one become righteous before God?" Given the overwhelming testimony of Scripture to the fallenness and sinfulness of all men, this question can only be answered by looking forward to the One who would provide righteousness to His people. This is how the apostle Paul argues in Romans 3--interesting, where he appeals to the language of the Psalter. In the same way, we are to see in the Proverbs allusions to the One who is Himself righteousness For instance, Proverbs 12:3 and 12 speak of "the root of righteousness." What is this "root" other than the Lord Jesus Christ Himself. In this sense, whenever we see the word "righteous" in the Proverbs we have to think about all that the Scripture teaches about the imputed righteousness of Jesus Christ to His people. However, when we read of "righteousness" we must not avoid the biblical teaching on imparted righteousness in the life of believers. This too comes from their faith-union with Jesus Christ. Both judicial and practical righteousness are benefits of Christ and redemption. Believers are both justified and sanctified in Christ.
While more could certainly be added, it seems that all of the Proverbs can be organically related to the Person and work of Christ under one of the four following categories:
A. Wisdom Personified
There are verses in Proverbs that are so obviously about the Person of Christ that one would have to be spiritually blind to not even give intellectual assent to this fact. Such is the case with Proverbs 30:4, where we read:
Who has ascended into heaven, or descended?
Who has gathered the wind in His fists?
Who has bound the waters in a garment?
Who has established all the ends of the earth?
What is His name, and what is His Son’s name,
If you know?1
The God of Israel is the God of infinite wisdom. The Son is one with the Father, and--as wisdom is said to be "with Him in the beginning"--so the Son is shown to be inseparable from the Father from all eternity. The Son is the God of Israel. Since God is His attributes, it is right for us to say that He is wisdom. The wisdom that is spoken of in Proverbs is God's own wisdom. This means that we should not be surprised to find such an explicit reference to the Son in the book--as we do in 30:4.
In addition, older Reformed theologians almost unanimously granted that "wisdom personified" in Proverbs 8 is a reference to the Lord Jesus. Jonathan Edwards explained the relationship between God and His attributes in His reflections on Christ being the wisdom of God. He wrote:
"The Son of God is God's own eternal and perfect idea is a thing we have yet much more expressly revealed in God's Word. First, in that Christ is called "the wisdom of God." If we are taught in the Scripture that Christ is the same with God's wisdom or knowledge, then it teaches us that He is the same with God's perfect and eternal idea. They are the same as we have already observed and I suppose none will deny. But Christ is said to be the wisdom of God (I Cor. 1:24, Luke 11:49, compare with Matt. 23:34); and how much doth Christ speak in Proverbs under the name of Wisdom especially in the 8th chapter.
The Godhead being thus begotten by God's loving an idea of Himself and shewing forth in a distinct subsistence or person in that idea, there proceeds a most pure act, and an infinitely holy and sacred energy arises between the Father and Son in mutually loving and delighting in each other, for their love and joy is mutual, (Prov. 8:30) "I was daily His delight rejoicing always before Him." This is the eternal and most perfect and essential act of the Divine nature, wherein the Godhead acts to an infinite degree and in the most perfect manner possible. The Deity becomes all act, the Divine essence itself flows out and is as it were breathed forth in love and joy. So that the Godhead therein stands forth in yet another manner of subsistence, and there proceeds the third Person in the Trinity, the Holy Spirit, viz., the Deity in act, for there is no other act but the act of the will...
Christ is called "the wisdom of God.” If we are taught in the Scripture that Christ is the same with God’s wisdom or knowledge, then it teaches us that He is the same with God’s perfect and eternal idea. They are the same as we have already observed and I suppose none will deny. But Christ is said to be the wisdom of God (I Cor. 1:24, Luke 11:49, compare with Matt. 23:34); and how much doth Christ speak in Proverbs under the name of Wisdom especially in the 8th chapter.2"
In his Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics, Richard Muller approaches the question about wisdom personified in Prov. 8. He writes,
"The orthodox [teach] that Proverbs 8:23 does indeed refer to the second person of the Trinity 'under the name of Wisdom' and that the text does in fact indicate that the divine wisdom is 'begotten from everlasting.' Nor is the orthodox argument the simple syllogism proffered and refuted by the Socinians. In the first place, Solomon clearly intended to refer to the wisdom of God—although the text does not specify the phrase, the meaning ought to be obvious. This wisdom, moreover, was with God 'in the beginning of his way, before his works of old' (Prov. 8:22), which is affirmed in much the same way of Christ as divine Word in John 1:1. What is said of Wisdom in Proverbs 8, moreover, cannot be said of anyone other than the second person of the Trinity—and Christ is called the wisdom of God 'in Scripture, not only in the expression of ὁ Λόγος, but ῥητῶς [specifically], 1 Cor. 1:30,' and is so called 'absolutely and simply' in Matthew 11:19. The whole chapter in Proverbs, moreover, clearly speaks of wisdom as a 'person.' As for the Hebrew word olam, the Reformed argument is precisely the same as presented with reference to Micah 5:2: the word can and should be rendered as “eternal” or “from everlasting”—particularly so in Proverbs 8:23, where “everlasting, from the beginning” is explained by the phrase in the preceding verse “the Lord possessed me in the beginning of his way, before his works of old” and by the entire remaining passage (vv. 24–29), where clearly this wisdom is said to exist before the creation itself."3
Jesus called Himself "the wisdom of God" in Luke 11:49 and Matt. 23:34, and the apostle Paul called Him "the wisdom of God" in 1 Cor. 1:24. This alone should be sufficient to prove that Jesus is "Wisdom Personified." Everything that He did or said was wisdom. If you want to see the wisdom of God at work in the life of man just look at Jesus in the Scriptures. Though there is some debate in our day as to whether "wisdom" referred to in Proverbs 8 is a reference to Christ or not
B. Wisdom Fulfilled
In addition to 'Wisdom Personified," the book of Proverbs gives us "Wisdom Fulfilled." There are fulfillment themes that run throughout the book. Sometimes they are couched in language of reward. For instance, in Proverbs 11:30 and 13:12, it is spoken of in terms of "a tree of life." This clearly is an allusion to the Tree of Life in the midst of the Garden. What Adam forfeited by his disobedience, Christ merits for His people by His obedience (Romans 5:12-21). When the writer says, "hope deferred makes the heart sick, But when the desire comes, it is a tree of life" we are surely meant to understand that Christ will bring about the fulfillment of redemption. Again, Proverbs 16:6 is a clear statement in which "wisdom fulfilled" is spoken of.
Another use of fulfillment language is that of the idea of God's Kingdom or righteousness being "established." We see this worked out in Proverbs 24:3; 25:5 and 29:14:
"Through wisdom a house is built, And by understanding it is established" (Prov. 24:3)
"Take away the wicked from before the king, And his throne will be established in righteousness" (Prov. 25:5).
In all three instances, we are meant to understand the Messainic nature of the language of establishment. Jesus is the King who through wisdom builds the house of God, establishes righteousness by taking away the wickedness from His Kingdom and who judges the poor with truth.
There is also a sense in which all the references to the "King" and the "Kingdom" have to be understood in light of the promise of Gen. 3:15 and God's purpose of establishing His righteous rule through His Son. In His death and resurrection, Jesus establishes the Kingdom of God. By imputation, He takes the sin and wickedness of His people upon Himself at the cross (2 Cor. 5:21; 1 Peter 3:18; Gal. 3:13). In this way, He removes wickedness from the hearts of His people and establishes the rule of God there. It would not be wrong for us to suggest that Jesus was treated as"the foolish one," "the wicked one" and the "unrighteous one" because of His federal representation of His people. Our sin was imputed to Him so that He was constituted foolish, wicked and unrighteous, so that in Him we might become wise, godly and righteous. This is "Wisdom Fulfilled."
There are other ways that one can see "wisdom fulfilled" in the Proverbs. These are merely a few examples to help introduce this idea.
C. Wisdom Exemplified
Jesus was the Israelite par excellence. He studied the Scriptures for Himself. Like any other man, He was subject to the word of God and lived on the promises of God. Though He needed no redemption for Himself, He needed to submit to the Law of God in order to redeem His people. He was "born under the Law to redeem those who were under the Law" (Gal. 4:4-5). When he contended with the Scribes, Pharisees or Saducees, He was the one who perfectly exhibited the wisdom of Proverbs 26:4-5, In similar fashion, one can take almost any Proverb about wisdom and righteousness and see how this was worked out in the life of the Lord Jesus. He perfectly exemplified the wisdom of God.
D. Wisdom Provided
Jesus is said to be "Wisdom, righteousness, sanctification and redemption for us" (1 Cor. 1:30). This means that there is no practical wisdom, righteousness or sanctification in our lives unless we are united to Him by faith. The apostle Paul explicitly declared that "In Him are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge." Reflecting on this verse, the Puritan commentator Matthew Henry noted, "The treasures of wisdom are hidden not from us, but for us, in Christ.” If we are to live lives of wisdom and righteousness, we will only do so in as much as we depend on Christ to supply us with the grace and faith necessary to that end.
My hope is that this will awaken in us a desire to ask God to show us how His revelation in the Proverbs is organically related to the Lord Jesus Christ, and to search the Scriptures to see "the depth and the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God" in Christ.
1. If someone were to suggest that "the Son" of verse 4 is merely Old Covenant Israel, we have adequately shown elsewhere that Israel was merely a "typological Son" and that Christ is the true Israel and eternal Son. For a fuller treatment of this subject see this, this, this and this.
2. Jonathan Edwards "An Unpublished Essay on the Trinity"
3. Richard A. Muller, Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics: The Rise and Development of Reformed Orthodoxy; Volume 4: The Triunity of God (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2003), pp. 286–287.
*This post is an adapted and developed version of a post that first appeared on Feeding on Christ in July of 2013.