I want to find where the maid in the street
Is pouring her wine.
I heard she takes you in and gives you the words
You need said.
If you’ll be her brother,
She’ll kiss you like a sister.
She’ll even be your mother for now.
(“Sister, Mother” – from the album Sixpence None the Richer; lyrics by Matt Slocum)
Those who know the band Sixpence None the Richer only for their bright and breezy 90s hit “Kiss Me” (as featured in the film She’s All That) may well be unaware of their over twenty-year oeuvre of lyrically dense, often brooding songs, and also of the band’s Christian faith, often referenced in their songs through oblique poetic allusions rather than overt preaching. “Sister, Mother” is a case in point. These particular lyrics allude to Proverbs 9:1-6, in which a woman named Wisdom calls to the “simple” to come to her house to partake of her bread and wine and to learn from her to “walk in the way of insight”. The songwriter responds to Lady Wisdom’s call as recommended in Proverbs 7:4: “Say to wisdom, ‘You are my sister,’ and call insight your intimate friend.”
The figure of Lady Wisdom, as depicted in the nine chapters opening the book of Proverbs, is a mysterious one. She may simply be a vivid personification of an aspect of God’s character, and many modern commentators opt for this reading, which guards against theological peculiarities that can be taken in heterodox directions. However, Proverbs contains phrases that seem to identify Wisdom more closely with God or with a person of the Godhead. Perhaps most strikingly, Proverbs 8:22-31 describes Wisdom as present with God when God created the world.
While some of the Church Fathers of the early Christian centuries equated Wisdom with the Holy Spirit, many saw her as a feminine foreshadowing of Christ, noting the parallels between Proverbs 8 and the description of the Word (Logos) in the prologue to John’s Gospel. This is an interpretation that persisted past the Reformation in the writings of Puritan theologians such as William Perkins and John Owen. Whether or not the figure of Wisdom in the Hebrew Scriptures can directly be equated with Jesus, it is clear that New Testament writers speak of Christ using terminology drawn from the Old Testament depictions of Wisdom. Beside more subtle verbal parallels, the apostle Paul speaks of “Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God” (1 Corinthians 1:24).
The figure of Lady Wisdom in Proverbs arguably lies behind feminine representations of truth and virtue in the work of Christian writers such as Lady Philosophy in Boethius’s sixth-century work The Consolation of Philosophy, “virgin Truth” in John Milton’s political pamphlet Areopagitica (1644), and Sophia (Greek for wisdom) in William Young’s allegorical novel The Shack (2007). The interpretation and representation of the figure of Lady Wisdom through the ages is a fascinating topic which I hope to explore further in my academic research, but I lack both the space and the certainty to pin down her identity here for sure.
In the next post in this series, I will move from these more speculative and uncertain questions about Lady Wisdom’s identity to some clearer aspects of Wisdom’s character in Proverbs 8 which have practical applications for our Christian discipleship in the academy. For now, though, we can take encouragement from the witness of Scripture that the divine wisdom through which all things were created and placed in order is available to us in Christ and by the Spirit. God’s wisdom is there for the asking (James 1:5).
- Do I trust God’s promise that wisdom is there for the asking?
- Have I asked for divine wisdom where I need it?
- How can I invite my students and colleagues to the feast of wisdom?
O come, thou Wisdom from on high,
who orderest all things mightily;
to us the path of knowledge show,
and teach us in her ways to go.
(From the Advent hymn “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” – the English text is John Mason Neale’s paraphrase of the seven Latin “O Antiphons”, traditionally sung on the last seven days before Christmas.)
Sixpence None the Richer – Sixpence None the Richer (self-titled album, 1997). I enjoy this album musically, but love it especially for its gorgeously poetic lyrics. “Sister Wisdom” makes another appearance in the song “Love”.
David Ford, Christian Wisdom: Desiring God and Learning in Love (Cambridge University Press, 2007). A wide-ranging book using wisdom as a lens for exploring topics including the person of Jesus, interfaith encounter, and the interdisciplinary vocation of the university.
Alison Milbank, “The Academic Priest as Teacher and Tutor”, in Shaun C. Henson and Michael J. Lakey (eds.), Academic Vocation in the Church and Academy Today: “And With All Of Your Mind” (Ashgate, forthcoming December 2015). This contribution to a forthcoming essay collection by ordained scholars explores the question of how we can invite students to Wisdom’s feast when teaching in a secular context.
Image courtesy of James DeMers at Pixabay.com
About the author:
David Parry currently teaches early modern/Renaissance English literature and practical criticism for various colleges of the University of Cambridge, where he pursued his undergraduate and graduate studies. He greatly enjoyed a year’s postdoctoral fellowship at the University of Toronto before returning to Cambridge, and appreciates the ongoing friendships forged there. He is currently writing a book entitled Puritanism and Persuasion: The Rhetoric of Conversion and the Conversion of Rhetoric, and has published articles on various sixteenth- and seventeenth-century topics. He is an Associate Editor of The Glass, the journal of the Christian Literary Studies Group (UK). He is also involved in the Cambridge University Christian Graduate Society and in Christians in the Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences (CHAS), an informal group of Christian graduate students and academics interested in relating their faith to their studies. Some of his academic work can be viewed at https://cambridge.academia.edu/DavidParry.