“The Lord created me to be His first work to behold; He made me at the very dawn, before his deeds of old.” (Proverbs 8:22)
This is the eighth in a series of posts on Proverbs, which I am translating into common meter. The following contains my rendering of Proverbs 8, preceded by a brief reflection.
In Reflection On The Psalms, C.S. Lewis wrote of Psalm 19: “I take this to be the greatest poem in the Psalter and one of the greatest lyrics in the world.” High praise indeed from the preeminent Christian apologist of the 20th Century. Lewis starts his reflection by reminding us of the structure of Psalm 19 – six verses about Nature, five about the Law, and the remainder about personal prayer.
The verses about nature are summed up by verse 1 –
The heavens show the work of God, His glory they proclaim;
The skies disclose His handiwork through starry host aflame.
The verses about the law by verse 7 –
The Lord reveals His perfect law so every soul can grow;
His words are worthy of our trust, with wisdom all can know.
And the verses about prayer by verse 14 –
May every word that’s in my mouth and thought within my soul,
Be pleasing in Your sight, O Lord, my Rock who makes me whole.
What fascinated Lewis was how the psalmist so seamlessly moved from the beauty of nature to the beauty of God’s law. Lewis wrote of the psalmist, “I think he felt, effortlessly and without reflecting on it, so close a connection, indeed (for his imagination) such an identity, between his first theme [nature] and his second [law] that he passed from the one to the other without realizing that he had made any transition.” Lewis understood this connection between nature and God’s law through a simile – as the sun penetrates all of the natural world, so too God’s law penetrates all of a person’s soul. Lewis wrote of the psalmist, “As he has felt the sun, perhaps in the desert, searching him out in every nook of shade where he attempted to hide from it, so he feels the Law searching out all of the hiding-places of his soul.”
I don’t think we need to get too hung-up about the meaning of God’s “law,” because in this context it is clear that the psalmist is referring to God’s moral law (as opposed to the ceremonial law). For example, the psalmist says that the law is absolutely ‘just’ (v 9), and provides ‘moral guidance’ (v 11) – both of which describe moral law. Lewis himself understood God’s ‘law’ in Psalm 19 as referring to Christian ethics.
C.S. Lewis gives us a wonderful handle on how the psalmist connects the beauty of nature and Christian ethics. Proverbs 8 suggests another.
Proverbs 8 is the penultimate chapter in the extended wisdom poem of Proverbs 1-9. Here Solomon returns to a number of themes from earlier chapters: the universal call of wisdom (v 1-3); the moral underpinnings and value of wisdom (v 4-21); and the blessings for those who find wisdom (v 32-36). I previously commented on the moral underpinnings of wisdom (see reflection on Proverbs 4). This is supported by a number of verses in Proverbs 8 that relate wisdom to virtue. For example, we find that Wisdom: only utters truth (v 7); only speaks righteous words (v 8); hates pride, evil ways and falsehoods (v 13); and walks the way of righteousness (v 20).
But in addition to restating some of his earlier themes, Solomon also provides a new insight in Proverbs 8, namely, that Wisdom was the first of God’s creations. Before God created anything else, he created Wisdom. (v 22-31) “The Lord created me to be His first work to behold; He made me at the very dawn, before his deeds of old.” (v22)
Many Christians think about creation in terms of the intelligent design of nature. We reason that life is far more likely to be the result of an intelligent being, than the result of random actions. But how often do we think about creation in terms of its moral underpinnings? Proverbs 8 tells us that Wisdom and its inherent ethical attributes are part and parcel of the created world. As noted, Wisdom was the first of God’s creations (v 22). This was no mere passive presence, but an active relationship with God. In the words of Wisdom: “I constantly was at His side, and I was his delight, Rejoicing in His presence while forever in His sight.” (v 30) And so, our world has more than just an intelligent physical design, but an ethical design as well. Christian ethics and virtue are not post facto overlays to the created world, but are in its very warp and woof.
This, I believe, is why Psalm 19 so easily flows from nature to law – from the physical to the spiritual. It is also why so much of what we call Christian virtue is intuitively obvious to us. Does anyone not know that lying is immoral? Or that assaulting another person is evil? Or that stealing is wrong? What about the fruit of the Spirit that we Christians so desire? “The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.” (Galatians 5:22-23) Are these not virtues that resonate with the vast majority of people on our planet? They are familiar to us Christians, but even those of other religions or no religion recognize them as somehow fundamental to our common humanity. Not that we achieve them or even mostly achieve them, but at least most of us would agree that they are desirable virtues – ones that at the very least we would like others to exhibit towards us.
It is said that beauty is in the eye of the beholder. But when it comes to the natural world and the moral world, I am not so sure that it is quite that subjective. It is the rare person who isn’t moved by the physical beauty of a sunrise, a rainbow after a storm, or the birth of a new life. It is not the idea of creation that is perceived as beauty, but its physical manifestation in nature. Similarly, most of us, regardless of our faith beliefs, recognize the moral beauty of another person who is truly kind, loving, and self-giving. It is not God’s law per se that is perceived as beautiful, but its embodiment in the lives of others. We really don’t need to be trained to appreciate these because both are woven into the very fabric of creation. This I think is why the psalmist in Psalm 19 writes so seamlessly about nature and God’s law. We have a vestigial recollection of something that God did at the dawn of time. Something about beauty and goodness that has been imprinted upon our souls and which we ignore to our poverty.
1 Is that not wisdom speaking now?
Is she not calling out?
Is that not understanding that
is coming with a shout?
2 On hilltops near the thoroughfare,
and far above the land –
Close by to where the pathways meet
is where she takes her stand.
3 Besides the city portal gates,
positioned near the crowd;
Close by the entrance passageway
is where she cries aloud.
4 “To you, O people, I call out –
to all both far and near;
I, wisdom, elevate my voice
so everyone can hear.
5 For those of you with simple minds,
gain prudence for your way;
And those who act most foolishly,
learn commonsense today.
6 O listen very carefully
to what I say to you;
For what is coming from my lips,
is excellent and true.
7 My mouth will only utter truth,
it’s all that it will state;
My lips detest all wickedness,
while loathsome things they hate.
8 For only righteous words I speak,
each one of them is just;
Not one is crooked or perverse,
not one you cannot trust.
9 To those who are discerning souls,
my words are always clear;
To those who find what knowledge is,
they’re upright and sincere.
10 Choose my instruction over all
the silver you can hold;
Take knowledge every chance you get
instead of bars of gold.
11 For I’m more precious than a jewel –
no ruby is so rare;
There’s no desire that you have,
that ever can compare.”
12 I, wisdom, live with commonsense
with prudence do I dwell;
It’s knowledge and discretion’s way,
that I cling to as well.
13 To reverence and fear the Lord,
means hating what is vile;
O I hate pride and evil ways,
and falsehoods that defile.
14 I, wisdom, offer sound ideas,
I put forth good advice;
For I have power, I have strength,
I’ve insight that’s precise.
15 A king’s empowered for his reign
by following my lead;
By me, a righteous ruler knows
what’s just must be decreed.
16 By me, a prince will govern well –
like one of noble birth;
By me, an overlord will rule
with justice on the earth.
17 I show my love to everyone
who shows their love for me;
For they will surely find me when
they seek me earnestly.
18 I’ve many riches to dispense –
high honors and success,
Prosperity that long endures,
great wealth and righteousness.
19 My fruit is far more valuable
than gold of any kind;
My yield surpasses silver ore
that’s perfectly refined.
20 I walk the path of righteousness –
the way that all can trust,
Along the course of what is fair,
commendable, and just.
21 I grant a rich inheritance
to all those loving me;
I generously overflow,
each store and treasury.”
22 “The Lord created me to be
His first work to behold;
He made me at the very dawn,
before his deeds of old.
23 Yes, I was formed long years ago –
so many ages past;
Before God even made the earth
and anything was cast.
24 Before there were great ocean depths,
is when I had my birth;
Indeed, I came before the springs
spewed water from the earth.
25 I came before the mountain peaks
were settled purposely;
Yes, long before the rolling hills
is when I came to be.
26 I came before God made the world
before it would begin,
Before the Lord created fields,
or even dust therein.
27 O, I was there when God set out
the heavens in their keep;
And when He drew a circle on
the face above the deep.
28 I watched when He established clouds
above where they would show;
I saw Him fix the ocean depths
and fountains deep below.
29 I looked when He gave sea a place
where it would be confined;
And when He marked the boundaries
where earth would be assigned.
30 I constantly was at His side,
and I was his delight,
Rejoicing in His presence while
forever in His sight.
31 Indeed, I constantly rejoiced
in everything He made –
The world and people living there,
and all that I surveyed.”
32 “Now then, my children, hear me well –
my every word and phrase;
For all are blessed who follow me,
and ever keep my ways.
33 O hear instruction that I give,
and in this way be wise;
Don’t disregard these things I say,
or what they teach despise.
34 For they are blessed who listen well
to every word I state,
Those watching daily at my doors,
those waiting at my gate.
35 Yes, everyone who finds me now,
finds life as their reward;
And they are certain to receive
the favor of the Lord.
36 But others bring themselves to harm
and suffer endlessly;
For they must be in love with death,
who harbor hate for me.”