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Proverbs 8, Personification, and Christ
A Response to Jehovah's Witness Claims about Proverbs 8:22
Robert M. Bowman, Jr.
This article originally appeared on the Evangelicals and JWs Discussion Board August 9, 2006
Jehovah's Witnesses argue that in Proverbs 8:22 "Wisdom" claims to have been "created" by Jehovah, and since God's attribute of wisdom was not created, "Wisdom" in Proverbs 8:22 must be a created being-- whom they identify as the prehuman Son of God. Is this really a correct understanding of Proverbs 8:22?
I would say not; let me explain. First, in Proverbs 8, the description of wisdom as being the first of God's works, or as having been "created" (8:22 in the Septuagint, or Greek Old Testament) before everything else, is part of an extended poetic passage in which wisdom is personified. Personification, of course, is a figurative use of language and is misread if taken literally. We know that the language is personification if we read the passage in light of its preceding and following contexts. Wisdom takes her stand by the city gates and cries out to those who pass by (8:1-3). She dwells with prudence (8:12); I have always wanted to know who she was! She has unlimited riches and bestows them on whoever loves her (8:18-21). She promises blessing to those who watch daily at her gates and doorposts (8:34). She builds a house with seven pillars and invites the men passing by to a party with wine and women (9:1-5)!
Only by extracting Proverbs 8:22-31 from its surrounding context could anyone mistake the description of wisdom as a literal description of an actual existing person. The meaning of the passage is not that God literally procreated (or created, LXX) someone called Wisdom before he created anything else. The meaning is that God "had" wisdom and established it as foundational to the created order before he actually made anything in our physical universe. Proverbs 8:22-31 is essentially a more elaborate statement of Proverbs 3:19-20 using the literary device of personification.
Please don't misunderstand me. I don't deny that the words of Proverbs 8:22 can in some way apply to Christ. Proverbs 8:22 is part of a biblical description of wisdom, and Christ can in some sense be called wisdom, so some sort of correlation or application is plausible. But this does not mean that Christ is literally speaking about himself in Proverbs 8, or that whatever is said about wisdom may be applied directly and literally to Christ.
Let me illustrate my point with another statement in Proverbs 8. Obviously we could extract certain lines from Proverbs 8, like "wisdom is better than jewels" (v. 11a), and say that such statements are literally true. Indeed they are, shorn of their context. But what is the point of that statement? Is its point, in context, that Christ is better than jewels? Although "Christ is better than jewels" is a true enough statement, that is not the point of Proverbs 8:11a in context. Rather, the point is that we would be better off cultivating the attribute of wisdom than pursuing material wealth. We KNOW this to be the point because the exact same statement was made earlier in a passage that is indisputably talking about cultivating the attribute of wisdom:
"How blessed is the man who finds wisdom And the man who gains understanding. For her profit is better than the profit of silver And her gain better than fine gold. She is more precious than jewels, And nothing you desire compares with her." Proverbs 3:13-15
Compare the above passage with Proverbs 8:11a in context:
"Take my instruction and not silver, And knowledge rather than choice gold. For wisdom is better than jewels, And all desirable things cannot compare with her." Proverbs 8:10-11
It would be hermeneutical suicide to argue that wisdom in Proverbs 3:13-15 is the attribute of wisdom while wisdom in Proverbs 8:10-11 is the person of Christ. Yet in Proverbs 3 wisdom is not personified, but is rather described poetically and metaphorically as a possession to be pursued and prized above all material things (see also Prov. 2:3-4).
Again, so that I am not misconstrued, I will repeat that both comments about wisdom can be secondarily, indirectly applied to Christ insofar as we know from other Scriptures that he embodies wisdom. Specifically, Christ embodied the perfectly wise person who puts truth, wisdom, knowledge, and understanding above personal material gain. One might even go so far as to say, quite correctly, that a relationship with Christ is more important than material things. Yet it remains true that this is not the point of the passage; it is not something the passage teaches.
Now consider Proverbs 8:22 again by comparing it with another parallel statement from Proverbs 3:
"Jehovah by wisdom founded the earth, By understanding he established the heavens. By his knowledge the deeps were broken up And the skies dripped with dew." Proverbs 3:19-20
Unless we are willing to go even further out on a limb and argue that understanding and knowledge are also hypostatizations in this passage, "wisdom" here must refer to the attribute of wisdom. And since we have already seen that Proverbs 3 and Proverbs 8 parallel each other considerably, the conclusion that Proverbs 8:22-31 is an expanded reiteration of Proverbs 3:19-20, utilizing an extended personification, is essentially certain.
Of course, we learn from the New Testament that Christ was active in creation, and it is possible to see some correlation or thematic connection between that New Testament teaching and what Proverbs 3 and Proverbs 8 say about the role of wisdom in creation. But it does not follow that one can derive specific teaching about Christ from Proverbs 8. Neither Proverbs 3 nor Proverbs 8 is referring to Christ. What they say about wisdom may be applied in a secondary, indirect way to Christ only insofar as we have explicit teaching from the New Testament. To take selective words from Proverbs 8 and interpret them as referring to some specific event pertaining to the Son of God, such as his alleged origin in time, is hermeneutically unjustifiable.
Let me back up and say something more about personification. The Wikipedia gives an excellent definition of the literary practice of personification:
"Personification is a term used in literature to name the figure of speech which involves directly speaking of an inanimate object, or an abstract concept, as if it were a living entity, often one with specifically human attributes." http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Personification
This definition must be carefully distinguished from another use of the word "personification," in which a person who embodies or fully displays an abstract quality or characteristic is said to "personify" that attribute (e.g., "Fred Astaire was elegance personified"). In this sense of the word "personification," a real person is said to "personify" an attribute. In the literary sense, an attribute is "personified" by being spoken of as if it were a real person when it is not. These are two different linguistic phenomena and should not be confused.
In Proverbs 8, wisdom is "personified" in the sense that it is spoken of as if it were a person when in fact it is not. Even the Watchtower has at times recognized this fact:
"Personification is another figure of speech. We use this when we speak of something inanimate as if it were alive. For example, the Bible tells us, 'Death ruled as king from Adam down to Moses'; 'grief and sighing must flee away'; 'true wisdom itself keeps crying aloud in the very street.' (Romans 5:14; Isaiah 35:10; Proverbs 1:20) Death, grief, sighing and wisdom cannot really rule, flee or cry out. But speaking as if they did, the Bible paints vivid mental pictures, easily visualized and remembered." "The Bible's Vivid Figures of Speech," _Watchtower_, 6/1/1984, 19, bold emphasis added.
The above definition is quite correct, and the examples given are apropos, including wisdom in Proverbs 1:20. Similarly, the publication _Insight on the Scriptures_, in its article on Spirit, has this to say:
"However, it is not unusual in the Scriptures for something that is not actually a person to be personalized or personified. Wisdom is personified in the book of Proverbs (1:20-33; 8:1-36); and feminine pronominal forms are used of it in the original Hebrew, as also in many English translations. (KJ, RS, JP, AT) Wisdom is also personified at Matthew 11:19 and Luke 7:35, where it is depicted as having both 'works' and 'children.' The apostle Paul personalized sin and death and also undeserved kindness as 'kings.' (Ro 5:14, 17, 21; 6:12) He speaks of sin as 'receiving an inducement,' `working out covetousness,' `seducing,' and `killing.' (Ro 7:8-11) Yet it is obvious that Paul did not mean that sin was actually a person." _Insight on the Scriptures_, 2:1019, bold emphasis added.
The above article seems to say very clearly that wisdom in Proverbs 8 "is not actually a person." Yet elsewhere, of course, the same publishers argue that wisdom *is* a person. Such a claim is inconsistent with the fact, which the Watchtower has occasionally recognized, that the passage is employing the literary device known as personification.