Wisdom says ‘My cry is to all that live’ (Proverbs 8:4): but who are the living and what does it mean to have life?
In the Ancient Near East, the gates of a city were massive, double entranced defensive constructions that were also the site of major transactions (May 2014: 88ff). Here the king offered audiences, dispensed justice and oversaw the preparations for, and outcomes of, war—thinking to demonstrate in this last respect how effective he was as the protector of his people. Despite the exterminatory capacities of modern warfare, political leaders in many parts of the world still pander to such a view; young men, whole populations, die as a result. Now, as always, such conflicts will be the result of the pride, arrogance and ‘perverted speech’ (v.13) against which Wisdom rails.
The figure in Paul Kincaid’s Memorial to Samuel Robinson, a soldier killed at the age of 31 in Afghanistan, opens its arms in an imploring gesture: it is the gesture of all parents who have been thus bereaved as they wail for their dead sons. The outstretched stumps are also prophetic: wanton waste of life is what results from the lack of wisdom on the part of those who do not ‘govern rightly’ (v.16), those who, hating Wisdom, are in love with death.
Wisdom’s words, however, concern more than wise and just governance. She repeatedly offers riches and wealth (vv.18, 21), yet this is not merely filling our treasuries or investment portfolios. The wealth she promises is life itself, life in the life of the Lord. It is a life that transcends the boundaries of time, there before the world was created and, by implication, there after it ends, although Wisdom does not explicitly say so. This terrifying mystery, the paradox of time and eternity, moves at the heart of Kincaid’s sculpture. At the top of the supporting trunk sit two ovular shapes, the eggs of fertility and regeneration, and at this horizontal they meet the downturned beak of the dove, the Holy Spirit, the intercessor-paraclete, the angel of life and death, whose wings and feathered tail, we now see, are the mutilated limbs and faceless head of grief.
May, Natalie N. 2013. ‘City Gates and their Functions in Mesopotamia and Ancient Israel’, in The Fabric of Cities: Aspects of Urbanism, Urban Topography and Society in Mesopotamia, Greece and Rome, ed. by Natalie N. May and Ulrike Steinert (Leiden/Boston: Brill), pp. 77–122
8Does not wisdom call,
Does not understanding raise her voice?
2On the heights beside the way,
in the paths she takes her stand;
3beside the gates in front of the town,
at the entrance of the portals she cries aloud:
4“To you, O men, I call,
and my cry is to the sons of men.
5O simple ones, learn prudence;
O foolish men, pay attention.
6Hear, for I will speak noble things,
and from my lips will come what is right;
7for my mouth will utter truth;
wickedness is an abomination to my lips.
8All the words of my mouth are righteous;
there is nothing twisted or crooked in them.
9They are all straight to him who understands
and right to those who find knowledge.
10Take my instruction instead of silver,
and knowledge rather than choice gold;
11for wisdom is better than jewels,
and all that you may desire cannot compare with her.
12I, wisdom, dwell in prudence,
and I find knowledge and discretion.
13The fear of the Lord is hatred of evil.
Pride and arrogance and the way of evil
and perverted speech I hate.
14I have counsel and sound wisdom,
I have insight, I have strength.
15By me kings reign,
and rulers decree what is just;
16by me princes rule,
and nobles govern the earth.
17I love those who love me,
and those who seek me diligently find me.
18Riches and honor are with me,
enduring wealth and prosperity.
19My fruit is better than gold, even fine gold,
and my yield than choice silver.
20I walk in the way of righteousness,
in the paths of justice,
21endowing with wealth those who love me,
and filling their treasuries.
22The Lord created me at the beginning of his work,
the first of his acts of old.
23Ages ago I was set up,
at the first, before the beginning of the earth.
24When there were no depths I was brought forth,
when there were no springs abounding with water.
25Before the mountains had been shaped,
before the hills, I was brought forth;
26before he had made the earth with its fields,
or the first of the dust of the world.
27When he established the heavens, I was there,
when he drew a circle on the face of the deep,
28when he made firm the skies above,
when he established the fountains of the deep,
29when he assigned to the sea its limit,
so that the waters might not transgress his command,
when he marked out the foundations of the earth,
30then I was beside him, like a master workman;
and I was daily his delight,
rejoicing before him always,
31rejoicing in his inhabited world
and delighting in the sons of men.
32And now, my sons, listen to me:
happy are those who keep my ways.
33Hear instruction and be wise,
and do not neglect it.
34Happy is the man who listens to me,
watching daily at my gates,
waiting beside my doors.
35For he who finds me finds life
and obtains favor from the Lord;
36but he who misses me injures himself;
all who hate me love death.”