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April 1980 · Vol. 9 No. 2 · pp. 23–31 

Seeing the Truth: Proverbial Wisdom and Christian Ethics

Ben C. Ollenburger

Within our Mennonite Brethren fellowship it has become quite rare to hear someone quote from, or even allude to the book of Proverbs. In the hope that proverbial wisdom can again help the church in its ethical decision making, I will discuss briefly the wisdom tradition in which the biblical proverbs stand and the nature of proverbial wisdom itself. This is a prolegomenon; it is intended merely to set the stage for further reflection and for application.


The two characteristics usually attributed to wisdom literature (Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Job, and some Psalms), and to the wisdom perspective generally, are its secularity and its derivation from experience, the experience of human beings in the world. The terms used to describe wisdom (anthropocentric, humanistic, skeptical, secular, empirical, autonomous, reflective, responsible, enlightened) are designed to set off the perspective of wisdom from the historically oriented covenantal theology presented in Exodus and elsewhere in the Old Testament.

In Exodus Yahweh continually intervenes on behalf of his people; there is no mention of such activity in Proverbs. In Exodus the relationship of Yahweh to Israel is grounded in a covenant with the fathers; Proverbs mentions neither covenant nor patriarchs. In fact the term “Israel” never occurs in the body of the book. In Exodus the conduct of Israel is regulated by divine commands mediated through Moses and celebrated in worship; Proverbs contains relatively few commands, none of which are said to come from God, and makes no mention of cultic worship. Nor do the ethical exhortations in Proverbs derive their authority from any priestly or prophetic leader. The authority of the proverbs derives chiefly from wisdom gained through experience. 1 Yet Proverbs, which does not contain a “Thus saith the Lord” and which incorporates wisdom drawn from experience, is nevertheless Scripture, God’s Word. {24}

The “Secularity” of Wisdom

Let us look briefly at those aspects of wisdom’s “secularity” that might be important for Christian ethics.

First of all we must be struck by the explicit focus on responsible and correct action in Proverbs. People are thought to be capable of proper conduct and are held strictly accountable for their behavior.

It is also clear that the obligation to carry out this behavior derives not from a law, a rule, or a direct command but from the nature of things themselves—from an understanding of the way the world really is. The sages who produced the book of Proverbs never appealed to tradition or to revelation. They never quoted the Torah or referred to any of Israel’s “biblical” literature (which is not to say that they did not read and believe it) but referred instead to the way things are—the way they really are.

For this reason wisdom literature is deeply interested in nature and, theologically speaking, in creation. Behind the many observations recorded in Proverbs there lies a pervasive conviction about the order of things, about the order of the world. There is a current debate among scholars whether this order is simply given, underlying all of reality, or whether order is conferred upon reality by those who perceive it from the perspective of a belief in God’s creation of the world. Both positions are, of course, correct. But the God-given order of the world is not transparent to our undisciplined gaze. It is the peculiar gift of the wise to be able to perceive the way the world really is and by virtue of this perception, or vision, to confer order upon the folly and disorder which appears ultimate to those of us who are fools. Wisdom is the ability to perceive: it is a way of seeing and hence of understanding and of knowing what to do.

The result is that wisdom is international in character and its observations are designed to elicit the consent of anyone who can see. This is nicely illustrated by the fact that Proverbs 17:22-24:22 is paralleled by ten of the thirty sections of an Egyptian text, “The Instruction of Amenem-ope,” written sometime prior to our book of Proverbs. This does not mean that theology or religious beliefs were unimportant for the sages or that they saw their wisdom and Israel’s belief in Yahweh as unrelated, but that they considered what they saw to be the truth. The truth remained the truth whether it was seen by an Israelite prophet or sage or by an Egyptian priest. Part of wisdom’s continuing appeal can be attributed to its universality, its appeal to all who can see or are willing to undertake the discipline to learn how. Wisdom can thus provide a common ground for ethical discussion in pluralistic societies. {25}

The Empirical Basis for Wisdom

My overuse of “seeing” in the previous paragraph is intentional. It is to highlight the second characteristic of wisdom. It is empirical. 2 This means that what is known by the sages is known by experience, by observation. A contrast is often drawn here between the sage who appeals to experience and the prophet whose ethical proclamations are validated by appeal to revelation in the claim, “Thus says Yahweh. . . .” There is no space here to debate this point so I must simply claim apodictically: prophet and sage cannot live without each other, and the best of each are both.

This is the case because wisdom, understanding gained by perceptive reflection on experience, is the proving-ground of revelation. Because wisdom has an understanding of (a) the order of the real world, (b) the disorder of our world and (c) the kind of behavior appropriate to the world(s) in which we dwell, it provides a context, a “horizon,” within which revelation may function. A “horizon” is defined by Husserl as the structure of expectations and probabilities by which perception and interpretation is guided. Such a horizon, for Israel and for us, is not the product of revelation but is the presupposition for the comprehension and application of any revelation. When, for example, the prophets call the people to righteousness (tsedaqah) in the name of Yahweh and threaten them with impending judgment if they pursue evil (resha‘), this will be understood by Israel in terms of tsedaqah as the comprehensive order of the real world which is threatened by resha‘. 3 So also Psalm 104, which is a hymnic description of creation as dependent upon Yahweh’s sustaining power, ends with the hope that sinners will be removed from the earth and the wicked will be no more because these are incompatible with the order of creation. Because wisdom is empirical and thus available to all who can see, Israel’s encompassing horizon was shared with the broader culture of the Ancient Near East. It is no accident that Psalm 104 is strikingly paralleled by the creation hymn of Akhenaton (Amenophis IV), written in Egypt some centuries earlier.


This understanding of wisdom is important to the two simple points I want to make about proverbs and ethics. First, ethics (and particularly Christian ethics) is fundamentally a matter of interpretation. Secondly, proverbs are models of and models for interpretation. 4

Ethics as Interpretation

First of all it is necessary to note that proverbial exhortations based {26} on the observations of wisdom are not to be taken simply as commands to be obeyed. In fact they cannot be. For example, in Proverbs 26:4 we are instructed not to “answer a fool when he speaks foolishness.” But to adopt this as an infallible rule for every situation would be silly, for the very next verse exhorts us to “answer a fool when he speaks foolishness.” The same dilemma is met in the New Testament where we are told both to bear one another’s burdens and not to (Gal. 6:2, 4). The point is simply that wisdom does not consist in knowing all of the proverbs and obeying them. Wisdom consists, rather, in knowing which proverb is fitting for a particular occasion. There are some instances when a fool’s foolishness should be challenged and there are other instances when foolishness should be ignored. One who knows when to do which is wise. “To everything there is a season . . .” as another bit of wisdom has it (Ecclesiastes 3). How does one acquire this wisdom? “Go about with wise men, and you will become wise” (Proverbs 13:20). There is no other way to acquire wisdom, in Israel, than to submit to disciplined instruction at the feet of the wise. 5 Neither wisdom nor moral sensitivity, if they are different things, is learned only from reading books, even the Bible.

Proverbs as Models of/for Interpretation

In spite of the “secular” and “empirical” character of wisdom, proverbs are more like works of art than of science. What is here meant by “work of art” is the “transformation into structure” of the free interplay of life and nature, so that this interplay can be understood and interpreted. In our confrontation with the work of art we are confronted with a new world in which we are asked to recognize the truth:

The world of the work of art . . . is in fact a wholly transformed world. By means of it everyone recognizes that that is how things are. 6

This is so because entering the new world of the work of art is at the same time a coming home. When we hear a proverb, or read Psalm 8 or an Elmer Suderman poem or “Black Elk Speaks,” or see “Simon the Apostle,” we say, “Yes! I recognize that. It captures the truth.” And so we are “confronted with an injunction” to see things in a different way. Or, more accurately, we are invited to adopt a new way of seeing that is appropriate to the new world of the work of art. With reference to the interpretation of literary works of art Paul Ricoeur says that

the text speaks of a possible world and of a possible way of orientating oneself within it. The dimensions of this world are properly opened up by and disclosed by the text. . . . Here showing is at the same time creating a new mode of being. 7 {27}

Since it is the function of the work of art to show us what is (that is, the truth), it also shows us who we are and invites us to change. The work of art tells us not only “This is who you are,” but also says to us, “You must change your life!” 8

The vast majority of the proverbs are “merely” observations about the way things are, and most of the relatively few admonitions in the book are connected to an observation. For example, the admonition not to be a drunk or a glutton is supported by the observation that drunks and gluttons don’t fare very well. Like works of art, the proverbs invite us to see things in a certain way and to change our lives in accordance with the new world we are invited to enter.

The material in the book of Proverbs is thus important not only for its content, but for its form. The proverb is a form of wisdom which involves a way of seeing, a mode of perception: von Rad calls it “gnomic apperception.” 9 By this is meant a specific way of knowing and of expressing what is known; the two cannot be separated. When the Israelite sage formulated a proverb he was not only saying something about the world but was at the same time discovering something about it. We lose sight of this poetic and noetic quality of the proverbs when we regard them as merely useful to us not as rules but as artistic sensibilities—our sensitivity to truth, goodness, and beauty. Great works of art do not teach us that certain things are the case, rather they change us in certain ways. 10


At this point we confront a major problem in relating proverbial wisdom to Christian ethics. As modern people concerned with technique, our understanding of ethics centers largely on questions of what acts ought to be done or what principles ought to be followed. If we are trained in philosophy our discussion of ethics will be mostly concerned with the ways in which we justify our acts as morally good or our principles as right. In these ponderous discussions the playful aphorisms of proverbial wisdom have little place. It is in fact possible that we scientific and sophisticated moderns have lost the skill of formulating proverbs and the ability to appreciate them and to move in their world.

Only rarely does one still meet men for whom a remembered stock of proverbs is more than a rhetorical flourish, whose life and thought are so rooted in such aids to living that they serve as indispensable signposts in making decisions large or small. The question is obvious enough, whether we moderns have not lost, with the disappearance of the maxim, a whole dimension of specific knowledge about the world. 11

In what remains of this essay I want to suggest a recovery of a rich {28} heritage of proverbial wisdom and hint at the importance of this recovery for ethics.

Part of the decline in our use of Proverbs can be attributed to the loss of the essential context of the proverbial work of art—the interplay of life and nature. Our lives, our work, our study, and our thought about ethics are conducted in situations designed to isolate us from the rhythms of life and nature from which proverbs spring. In our modern, technical thought about God and about the behavior appropriate to Christians we seek after truth without contradiction but such “truth” does not arise from experience and is foreign to proverbs, biblical or otherwise.

My suggestion is that we Mennonite Brethren have a rich heritage of proverbial wisdom on which to draw for understanding how things really are and that we ought to reconsider our assumption that these proverbs are really useless in the modern age. Our churches are made up of a variety of ethnic groups, most of them possessing a stock of traditional proverbs. The American Indians, for example, have an amazing number of proverbs applicable to virtually any situation. The proverbs which I inherited, precious few in number, are primarily Low German in origin. Among these perhaps the most useful and expressive of the truth is one my Grandmother once directed to her employer, A.L. Schellenberg, erstwhile editor of Zionsbote: “Je jeleada, je vetjeada,” which means something like, “The more you learn the more confused you become.” Who would deny such wisdom? Yet if this proverb were translated into a rule: “Do not learn more than the bare minimum,” it would be a perversion of the truth. To “translate” the proverb at all is to say something else, something different, just as the “Mona Lisa” is different from any explanation of it.

There are other proverbs worth remembering, such as “Kann man ueber den Hund, kann man auch ueber den Schwanz” (If you can make it over the dog, you can make it over the tail), or the more pious, “Wer das Kleine nicht ehrt, ist das Grosse nicht Overt” (One who doesn’t honor the small things is not worthy of great things).

What is expressed in all three of these proverbs can be said in other ways, and I believe that all three of them can be supported from biblical texts if necessary. What is important, however, is their form and function as proverbs. They derive from, express, and give rise to vision. They derive from seeing the world in a certain way, they give expression to this world, and they provoke us to see it and live within it. This wisdom in the form of proverbs can be passed along as tradition so that successive generations can share a common world within which things make sense. This kind of process is illustrated by the Amish. Beliefs and actions which make sense among these people over numberless generations seem stupid to their neighbors. We who think more “rationally” {29} make perfect sense to our neighbors (for we are indistinguishable from them); but our grandparents are utter strangers to us. Their wisdom is foolishness and their world is a foreign country. My Grandmother once told me that she prayed daily that none of her children or grandchildren would become wealthy. Who can understand such wisdom?

Earlier I suggested that Christian ethics is fundamentally a matter of interpretation. By this I mean that ethics is concerned ultimately with the development of the capacity for mature moral discernment and vision for the moral life.

The moral life is . . . not just the life of decision but the life of vision—that is, it involves how we see the world. Such “seeing” does not come from just perceiving “facts,” but rather we must learn how the world is to be properly “seen” or better, known. Such learning takes place by learning the language that intends the world and our behavior as it ought to be that good may be achieved. The moral life is a struggle and training in how to see. 12

Rather than dealing with vision and character our ethical discussions are too heavily focussed on individual acts, individual decisions, individual principles. Proverbial wisdom leads us to look rather at the style of our lives that is created by the pattern of our decisions. In art, style is the nexus of perception and expression. The decisions that shape our lives exhibit a similar pattern grounded in our perception, our vision of the way things are. But our vision, the way in which we see, is not the same as discernment.

In any act of discernment, but particularly moral discernment, we engage in interpretation. In moral discernment we interpret the way things are and the way they should be on the basis of our vision of reality and our beliefs (which are given by the tradition in which we stand). Interpretation always takes place within a tradition which includes both a larger vision of reality and specific beliefs, in our case theological beliefs. Interpretation also takes place within communities that have histories. A community’s vision of reality, its beliefs, and its history are all unavoidable components of any act of discernment. But conversely, it is through our judgments, our decisions, and our interpretations that our world, our vision, our beliefs, and our history are given shape. The relationships among these elements are reciprocal. Moral discernment always depends upon our world, but it also affects and reshapes that world. {30}


From this I would like to draw two conclusions. First, skill at making ethical decisions is acquired through practice. Our “world,” the benchmark for determining what is real, possible, and true, is acquired through practice—through the practice of making ethical judgments in the corrective company of the wise. Secondly, by not exploring our own Mennonite Brethren tradition and understanding it we deny ourselves the possibility of making wise ethical decisions. By not being for our children and our students a community with specific tradition we leave them impoverished and without the essential presupposition to wisdom and understanding. By preaching the Word but ignoring our history and our identity we greatly hinder the possibilities of using the Word in making ethical decisions. By coming to the unredeemed as missionaries denying our own particular tradition, or being silent about it, we deny to the recipients of our message important possibilities for appropriating the truth we proclaim. As an Egyptian proverb has it, “A man who has no village—his own personality is his family.” Apart from the community which helps us define our world, we are left alone to be a world unto ourselves. In this situation the wisdom of our proverbs, the biblical Proverbs, or even the words of Jesus (the wisdom of God) can only be confusing in ethical deliberations. All that we can then do is look to material like Proverbs for rules and end up acting like fools.

More needs to be said, but this is a prolegomenon. As pastors, teachers, and moral leaders we must be prepared to acknowledge that we cannot teach wisdom simply by explaining the proverbs. We must show what wisdom is by being wise and acting wisely. While teaching at Tabor College I asked a class of philosophy students to name some people whom they would consider models of a life of beauty, proportion, and grace—a life of wisdom. A class of about twenty people, almost all of them from Mennonite Brethren churches, could name no one. Not one person had shown to them what wisdom is. Perhaps they need to be taught how to recognize the wisdom that is there. But perhaps we have no one to teach them. This is where Proverbs, wisdom under the fear of Yahweh, can make its lasting contribution, if we will but see.


  1. It is part of God’s wisdom to give us these wisdom texts. A fuller description of the relation of Torah and wisdom would have to call attention to passages like Deuteronomy 4:5-8 and Ecclesiastes 12:9-12. These issues are dealt with most adequately by Wayne Sibley Towner in his article “The Renewed Authority of Old Testament Wisdom for Contemporary Faith,” Canon and Authority, ed. George W. Coats and Burke O. Long (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1977). {31}
  2. The terms “secular” and “empirical” should be accompanied by the kinds of qualifications that I cannot elaborate here.
  3. Cf. H. H. Schmid’s writings, especially Altorientalische Welt in der alttestamentlichen Theologie (Zurich, 1974).
  4. Clifford Geertz, The Interpretation of Cultures (New York: Basic Books, Inc., 1973).
  5. Abraham Joshua Heschel. A Passion for Truth (New York: Farrer, Straus, and Giroux, 1973), p. 74.
  6. Hans-Georg Gadamer, Truth and Method (New York: The Seabury Press, 1975), pp. 99, 101-102. I am indebted here to conversations with professor Gibson Winter and to his unpublished paper, “Symbol of Society: Proposal for a Political Ethic,” Princeton Theological Seminary, Princeton, NJ, 1979.
  7. Paul Ricoeur, Interpretation Theory (Fort Worth: Texas Christian University Press, 1976), p. 88. A less complex account of art as interpretation can be found in Theodore M. Green’s The Arts and the Art of Criticism (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1940).
  8. Hans-George Gadamer, “Aesthetik and Hermeneutik,” Proceedings of the Fifth International Congress of Aesthetics (The Hague: Mouton, 1968), p. 101.
  9. Gerhard von Rad, Wisdom in Israel (Nashville: Abingdon, 1972), p. 30.
  10. See especially R. W. Beardsmore, Art and Morality (Atlantic Heights, NJ: Humanities Press, 1971), Cf. Gerhard von Rad. Old Testament Theology (New York: Harper & Row, 1962), I:421.
  11. von Rad, Wisdom in Israel, p. 26.
  12. Stanley Hauerwas, Vision and Virtue: Essays in Christian Ethical Reflection (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1974), p. 20. Cf. James Gustafson, “Moral Discernment in the Christian Life,” Theology and Christian Ethics (Philadelphia: United Church Press, 1974).
Ben C. Ollenburger is a Ph.D. candidate in Old Testament at Princeton Theological Seminary, Princeton, New Jersey. Earlier he taught at Tabor College, Hillsboro, Kansas.

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