[K:NWTS 3/1 (May 1988) 20-32]

The Claims of Wisdom in Proverbs 8:1-36

William C. Davis

The ancient church controversy over the deity of Christ involved the church fathers in a discussion of the implications of Proverbs 8:22-31 for Christology. Their formulation located Christ, the Wisdom of God (I Cor. 1:24,30), in the Proverbs account of creation. However, the Christological import of Proverbs 8 is not exhausted in the references to Christ as creator. The writer of Proverbs also presents the Wisdom of God as claiming to be the Way and the Life as well. In the course of this exposition of Proverbs 8:1-36, connections will be drawn between the claims of Lady Wisdom and the reality of Jesus Christ.

The Unity of Proverbs 8

The first problem requiring attention in a treatment of Proverbs 8 is the boundaries of the unit involved. Since vv. 4-31 are generally accepted as the words of Wisdom (working off of v. 3), these surely are to be taken together. Problems arise, however, concerning vv. 1-3 and vv. 32-36. The potential problem with including vv. 1-3 with vv. 4-31 is that it is not a quotation of Wisdom, but rather the narrator's rhetorical question calling attention to the fact that Wisdom calls. Verses 32-36 are evidently the words of Wisdom, but the opening–"Listen to me my son"–seems formulaic and thus shifts back to the narrator (cf. 5:7 and 7:24).

It seems that both of these difficulties can be resolved by considering the relation of chapter 8 to chapter 7. Throughout the first nine chapters of Proverbs, the author is drawing a contrast between the two ladies: Wisdom and Folly. The comparison is most clearly drawn in the final three chapters of the introduction, with chapter nine contrasting the houses of Wisdom and Folly and chapters 7 and 8 contrasting their call and ways. Chapter 7 is structured with the father's exhortation to the son bracketing the picture he presents of Folly's vain promises (7:1-5, 24-27). Chapter 8 can be arranged in a similar manner with the exhortation (now by Wisdom herself instead of the father) bracketing the account of the substance of Wisdom's claims (4-11, 32-36). The formulaic beginning of 8:32 in the mouth of Wisdom identifies the wisdom inherent in the father's instruction in chapter 7 and the parallelism of structure reinforces the identification.

The inclusion of 8:1-3 with the rest of the chapter is less certain, but can be established as a connector between the images of chapter 7 and 8. Having just presented the vain enticements of Folly, the narrator turns to Wisdom's promises with rhetorical question, "Does not Wisdom also call?" I will treat vv. 1-3 with 4-36 because of the striking extent to which the vocabulary of 1-3 coincides with that of 32-36 (see below).1

Rhetorical Structure

This passage exhibits a broad A:B:B:A structure. The A sections (1-11; 32-36) constitute the call of Wisdom; the B sections (12-21; 22-31) present her self-identification. A major theme in the book of Proverbs is the "way" (Hebrew derek) one is to choose. Four of the 27 uses of derek in the first 9 chapters are in this passage, each at the beginning of the sections. In the A sections, Wisdom stands at the crossroads (derek) and calls to the hearer to choose her blessed way (derek).

The division of the two middle sections is difficult, but a number of considerations favor our proposed construction. In the B sections, the way is described first negatively (8:13) and then positive-primally (8:22). The two middle sections are both concerned with Wisdom's self-identification, working off of the word "I" (Hebrew ani), with both sections utilizing this word to focus a chiasm. Verses 12-21 center in Wisdom's "I am understanding. Power is mine." Verses 14b-16 focus on Wisdom as the maker of kings and princes (wisdom and the king is a major theme in Proverbs).

The integrity of 8:22-31 as a unit is attested by the great number of articles devoted to its explication. Its important role in the Arian controversy renders it a hot subject of study and the structure of the passage (many have been presented2) does seem to focus on the creation image. But the creation imagery and the location of Wisdom in that image is not the end in itself, as so many of the treatments seem to assume. The center of the section is the statement: "I was there." The two center sections are identification sections.

As indicated above, vv. 1-11 and 32-36 are related thematically as the exhortation-command by Wisdom to be heard. There are seven significant vocabulary repetitions between the two sections: "way," "man," "lest," "hear," "wisdom," "find," "door." The last of these reinforces the house of wisdom image that is so prominent in chapter 9.

It should be noted that both the passage as a whole and 8:22-31 have strong linear characteristics as well to highlight other important themes and images. The passage as a whole builds with ever-increasing claims by Wisdom, claims which culminate proximately in the claims surrounding the creation, and ultimately in the claim in v. 35 to be life itself. The linear arrangement of 8:22-31 develops the creation image from pre-history to Eden, with the central act of creation architecture sandwiched between the two.

Before moving to translation and commentary, it is necessary to clear up some broad exegetical issues regarding the passage. In the first place, even vv. 4-31 contain some lines easily considered to be commentary by the narrator in the middle of Wisdom's dialogue. This would possibly include vv. 11 and 13.3 Even if these are properly narrator insertions (and it does not seem necessary to take them out of the mouth of Wisdom), there is still no need to remove them from the text. The narrator is trying to show the unity of his instruction and that of Wisdom. Nor should such an admission of narrator intrusion alter the apparent structure.

Second, it should be maintained that the primary reason in the mind of the author for the personification of Wisdom in this and other sections of Proverbs (cf. 1:20ff., 2, 4:6ff.) is the usefulness of the literary device. Thus the intent of the human author was personification and not hypostatization. The author does not seem to be asserting an hypostasis of Folly; Wisdom, as a figure, is the contrasting character to Folly. But this is not to say that the Holy Spirit did not have the Second Person of the Trinity in mind in the inspiration of the passage. The New Testament authors join Christ in seeing that as a reference to himself and the Old Testament saints were not without contact with the Second Person in the guise of the "Angel of Yahweh." Derek Kidner puts it well:

Not only does the next chapter proceed immediately to a fresh portrait of wisdom, in a new guise (as a great lady whose rival is certainly no hypostasis), but the present passage makes excellent sense at the level of metaphor . . . But there is also a wider setting. The New Testament shows by its allusions to this passage (Col. 1:15-17; 2:3; Rev. 3:14) that the literal truth, was a preparation for its full statement, since the agent of creation was no mere activity of God, but the Son, His eternal Word, Wisdom and Power (see also John 1:1-14; I Cor. 1:24,30; Hebrews 1:1-4).4

It will also be the primarily metaphorical character of the image that will relieve some of the Christological pressures that can arise in the translation of "to beget" (Hebrew qanah) in 8:22.

Translation and Commentary

Does not Wisdom call?
And Understanding put forth her voice?
In a prominent place at the crossroads,
At the house of the ways she takes her stand.
Beside the gates, at the mouth of the city
From the opening of the doors she cries out:   – 8:1-3
Unlike Folly who lurks for her prey in the dark corners (7:12), Wisdom takes a place of prominence so as not to be missed. The writer presents the unavoidability of Wisdom's call. It is made continually in the places of decision: the crossing of paths (here "the house of the ways") and the gates of the city which is its judicial center. Wisdom is presented as a woman at the crossroads. She is one to be loved, honored and eventually wed–an apt contrast to the harlot, Folly.5 The conjunction in 1b of understanding and voice indicates the close connection between the words of Wisdom here and the voice of the Lord. Indeed, the call of Wisdom is the voice of the Lord.6
"To all of you, oh men, I call,
And my voice is directed to the sons of Adam.
DISCERN, oh simple ones, prudence.
And, oh fools, discern the heart.
HEAR! For great things I will say,
And the issue of my lips will be right.
For truth my mouth will utter,
And wickedness is an abomination to my lips.
In righteousness are all the words of my mouth;
There is nothing in them that is crooked or perverse.
All of them are righteous to the one able to discern
And they are right to the one finding knowledge.
TAKE my instruction instead of silver,
And knowledge rather than choice gold.
For better is wisdom than jewels,
And all (other) delights cannot compare with it."   – 8:4-11

The call of Wisdom comes in the form of three imperatives: discern, hear-obey and take. She takes up her cry in terms very similar to those found in 1:22ff. addressing the listeners as simpletons. The hearer is naive about the danger involved in following Folly, as the previous passage pointed out. The composition in couplets places "discerning" and "seeking" in synonymous parallelism (v. 9). This is reminiscent of the search for wisdom conducted by the discerning in Job 28. This is a theme that will be reiterated in 8:12-21 in the same terms. It is not until 32-36 that the full reason for such a preference is given: Wisdom is life itself.

"I am Wisdom,
I dwell with prudence,
And knowledge of discretion I will discover:
The fear of the Lord is hatred of evil,
Pride, arrogance and the way of evil and the mouth perverted I hate.
Counsel and understanding are mine.

I am Understanding,
Power is mine:
By me kings reign,
And rulers prescribe righteousness.
By me princes rule
And nobles (enact) all my righteous judgments.

I am Love,
I love and the ones seeking me will find me:
Riches and glory are in me,
Splendid wealth and righteousness.
Better is my fruit than gold, even pure gold,
And my increase (is better) than choicest silver.
In the manner of righteousness I will walk
In the midst of the paths of justice
To give in possession those truly loving me
And their treasury I will fill up."   – 8:12-21

The key to this section is the word "I" (Hebrew ani) and the particular construction in which it is used. This is the manner in which the word is used when it is used of the Lord in predictions he makes concerning himself (ani plus the abstract object without the verb expressed; cf. Deut. 32:39 and Isa. 44:6 in particular).7 Thus the section is a threefold affirmation of the identity of Wisdom in strongly divine terms. Counsel and Power belong to her and it is by her that kings rule. In view of the clear sense throughout the rest of Proverbs that it is God who sets up and directs kings, this is a strong statement by the author concerning the fundamental unity of Wisdom and God.

Of vital significance is the thrust of v. 17, that those who seek Wisdom will find her; and she identifies the nature of the prize found as riches and glory. For Solomon this would be autobiographical. He had chosen wisdom as his single request of the Lord and the Lord had provided him with riches and glory as well. This text, however, must not be construed as the promise to Christians that seeking after wisdom will also bring material wealth and worldly glory. It is here that the integral connection of 32-36 to this section becomes a vital corrective. In 35-36, it is seen that "he who finds (wisdom) finds life." This is not mere continuation of life, but is life in its fullness;8 it is heaven, communion with the true life, Jesus Christ.

"Jehovah begat me, the first principle of his ways
Before any of his works in history, even from then.
From everlasting I was consecrated from the beginning,
From the earliest times of the earth.
When there were no water-chaoses I was born;
When there were no fountains bursting forth with water;
When the mountains were not sunk
Before the hills I was born.
When he had not yet made the earth and the expanse
And the primal dust of the world.

When he established the heavens, I was there.
When he inscribed a circle on the face of the water-chaos;
When he made strong the vaults of the sky from above;
When making strong the springs of the water-chaos
When he established for the sea its boundary,
So that the water would not transgress his command;
When he inscribed the foundations of the earth,
Indeed I, the architect, was beside him.

Indeed I was a delight day after day,
Playing before him in all seasons;
Playing in the earth, his world,
And my delight was the sons of men."   – 8:22-31

In general, this section divides into three parts: vv. 22-26, 27-30a and 30b-31. The first and third utilize child imagery to represent Wisdom as God's precious child begotten prior to God's works in history. This works well as a metaphor and inasmuch as the credal statements concerning the eternal generation of the Son are themselves metaphorical, the translation "begat" is not problematic. Indeed, the New Testament allusions to this passage concerning the role of Christ in creation are a good argument for the usefulness of the credal formulation. As will be seen, the child imagery is picked up again in the closing part of this section.

The middle section (vv. 27-30a) concerns the creation itself. Whereas 22-26 deals with pre-history, locating Wisdom with the Lord as pre-existent of creation, the second part locates Wisdom with the Lord in the activity of creation. The Genesis one creation-account parallels are numerous. The obvious references to the water-chaos, the heavens and the earth, and the beginning are reinforced by the device of a six line account of the creation beginning with the heavens (v. 27a) and ending with the earth (29c-30a). Significantly, both of these lines make reference to the presence of Wisdom. It seems that the primary inspiration is simply the opening sentence of Genesis: "In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth."

If there is a clear "six" principle involved in the middle section, one would expect to find some mention of the Sabbath. Two possibilities present themselves. One option would be to see the third part of this section with its reference to the delight of the Lord and the delight of Wisdom as a figure for Sabbath bliss. While this is possible, a return to the child imagery in this section demands an account of its relation to vv. 22-26. The period after the creation that offsets the eternity prior to creation could be the Sabbath, but the reference to the "day after day" and "in all seasons" would fit better with an identification of this period as the Edenic state. It is into this Edenic image that the covenant command comes promising Sabbath rest and life (vv. 32-36).

"And now, oh sons, listen to me.
For those blessed of me will keep my ways.
Listen to instruction and be wise,
Lest you neglect (it).
Blessed is the man listening to me:
Watching my gates day by day,
Guarding the doorposts of my gates.
For he who finds me finds life
And obtains favor from the Lord.
And the one sinning against me injures himself,
And those hating me love death."   – 8:32-36

At the culmination of Wisdom's call is the dual promise-threat of life for obedience and death for transgression. This is fitting for the Edenic context and places before the reader true life. It is a call to holy living in this age (day by day) that consists in the search for wisdom. This search the New Testament identifies as the search for the true Wisdom of God: Jesus Christ (cf. Jn. 8:24; I Jn. 5:12).9

Wisdom the Creator

The Creator-Wisdom makes clear claims to deity (eternality, participation in creation, the uses of "I" and "I am"). But more than that, Wisdom is also found identifying with the creation, specifically the sons of men. This may rightly be taken as a shadowy figuring of the incarnation. Further, it is profitable to consider the extent to which the New Testament picks up on this account of creation and applies it to Christ. John 1:1-14 presents a pre-existent Word that is the agent of creation. Hebrews 1:1-4 also presents Christ as the creator. But it is Colossians 1:15-20 that makes the most extensive use of this passage and as a result sheds some light on the difficult word "architect" (v. 30a).

Colossians 1:15-20 uses the same idea of Christ as the first-born, an adoption of the begetting metaphor that the church has adequately qualified. Consider the other parallel elements: creator of heaven and earth (Col. 1:16 parallel with Prov. 8:27,29) and thrones (Col. 1:16 parallel with the kings of Prov. 8:14-16); he is before all (Col. 1:17 parallel with Prov. 8:22-26); the father's good pleasure is in him (Col. 1:19 parallel with Prov. 8:30-31). A final element may be added if the Colossians reference to Christ as the one in whom all things subsist is taken as a rendering of the Hebrew root of "architect" using the meaning "unifying".10 This understanding relies almost entirely on the Colossians usage. Apart from that meaning, it seems that the rendering "architect" as an appellative of Wisdom has the most merit, in keeping with the image of Wisdom as the builder of a seven pillared house (Prov. 9:1). The reading "child" would fit with the begetting imagery, but the proposed structure would not make that necessary. It is hard to see how, in the midst of the escalating claims of Wisdom, there would be a reversion to the child-status.

The Way, The Truth, The Life

Throughout this passage Wisdom identifies herself with deity by using the "I am" formula derived from God's name-revelation to Moses (Ex. 3). It is significant that John's gospel, the gospel most clear on the creative activity of the Wisdom of God, would also be the gospel that makes the most use of the "I am" formula: "I am" the light (Jn. 8:12); the bread of life (6:35,48); the door (10:7,9); the resurrection and the life (11:25); the way, the truth and life (14:6); the true vine (15:1,5); and the Alpha and Omega (Rev. 1:17). This is no accidental pattern and Jesus did not make these claims without Old Testament precedent for the various types employed.

A case may be made that the John 14:6 imagery is taken from Proverbs 8. Jesus is the "way" (8:12,13,22,32), the truth (8:7) and the life (8:35). This is supported by the occasion for Christ's claim: it was in response to Thomas's question how they could follow him if they "did not know the way." Jesus is the way. Those seeking him, find him. And those finding him find riches and eternal glory. They find life.

South Bend, Indiana


  1. It is significant that all commentaries consulted treated 8:1-36 as a unit. Cf. Patrick W. Skehan, Studies in Israelite Poetry and Wisdom (Catholic Biblical Association, 1971), 9-14.

  2. See for example Gale A. Yee, "An Analysis of Prov 8:22-31 According to Style and Structure." ZAW 94 (1982) 58-66; Robert L. Alden, Proverbs (Baker, 1983), 74; Mitchell Dahood, "Proverbs 8,22-31." CBQ 30 (1968) 512-21; C.H. Toy The Book of Proverbs (T&T Clark, 1970), 172-79.

  3. This is the view of Patrick Skehan, "Structure in Poems on Wisdom: Proverbs 8 and Sirach 24." CBQ 41 (1979) 365-79. It should be noted that he finds the exclusion of these verses helpful in reducing the line-count of the passage to 22 lines. He seems overly willing to remove verses as glosses because of similarity with earlier sections of the book.

  4. Derek Kidner, The Proverbs (InterVarsity, 1964), 78-79.

  5. Alden, Proverbs, 69.

  6. Roland E. Murphy, "Wisdom and Creation." JBL 104 (1985) 9.

  7. A. Cohen (Proverbs [Soncino, 1973], 46) takes this position, but Toy (Proverbs, 167) rejects it as out of keeping with the context. This seems patently false. The metaphor of personification allows Wisdom to speak. Why should she not make claims to deity? Certainly the New Testament authors would have considered the predication valid.

  8. Georg Fohrer, "Sophia" in TDNT, VII, 491. Cf. Prov. 3:19,22; 4:13,22-23.

  9. Kidner, Proverbs, 81.

  10. This possible meaning is presented by R.B.Y. Scott, Proverbs (Doubleday, 1965), 72. It seems to receive little support.