Proverbs: A Tree of Life
When I was a kid growing up in the 90s, the church I attended sang praise choruses. One was taken from these verses:
Lord, you are more precious than silver
Lord, you are more costly than gold
Lord, you are more beautiful than diamonds
And nothing I desire compares with you
Evidently “diamonds” is more singable than “rubies.” In the 90s, that chorus sought to express a truth: The valuable things of this life pale in comparison to God. In Proverbs, these verses are about wisdom.
13Blessed are those who find wisdom,
those who gain understanding,
14for she is more profitable than silver
and yields better returns than gold.
15She is more precious than rubies;
nothing you desire can compare with her.
16Long life is in her right hand;
in her left hand are riches and honor.
17Her ways are pleasant ways,
and all her paths are peace.
18She is a tree of life to those who take hold of her;
those who hold her fast will be blessed.
19By wisdom the Lord laid the earth’s foundations,
by understanding he set the heavens in place;
20by his knowledge the deeps were divided,
and the clouds let drop the dew (Proverbs 3:13-20, TNIV).
The main point is that the person who finds wisdom will be blessed. This is not the word most often used in the Old Testament for blessing. This is esher, from which the name Asher comes. In Proverbs, people are called esher when they keep wisdom’s ways (8:32) and listen to wisdom (8:34), when they are kind to the needy rather than despise the poor (14:21), when they trust in the Lord (16:20), and when they tremble before God rather than allow their hearts to harden (28:14). You would say this word wth an exclamation point often, with the sense that these are the truly happy people.
They can be happy because they’ve found something even better than gold, silver, or rubies. This isn’t a consolation prize. It’s not a poor man’s way of boasting about how he’s better than the rich man; there is nothing to suggest that wisdom and wealth are a dichotomy.
Think about the returns you might get in the stock market today. If you invest your “gold” wisely, how rich will you be in several decades? God says to us, “Wisdom yields a better return on its investment.”
Wisdom holds long life in one hand and riches and honor in the left. The imagery here is from the Egyptian goddess Ma’at, whose name is “wisdom,” and who was often depicted holding life in her left hand (not right) and a scepter of rule in her right. By putting life in wisdom’s right hand, God has given it more honor, more weight, than wealth and honor. As Waltke comments, “Wealth is a desirable state and the reward of wisdom, not the aim of one’s life.” Solomon asked for wisdom first and was given wealth and honor also.
In verse 18, the tree of life reminds us of the Garden of Eden, whose actual tree of life was guarded by an angel so no one could ever eat from it again. Through wisdom, though, we are granted access to a so-called tree of life. This imagery will be used three more times in Proverbs 11:30; 13:12; and 15:4. The tree of life represented immortality to Adam and Eve. They would not physically die if they ate from it. While no one reading Proverbs would confuse gaining wisdom with a promise of eternal life, the point was that reading this book and listening to the father’s advice was the same kind of connection to life as the tree of life in the Garden of Eden. Like the tree, wisdom is a gift from God. Like the tree, it symbolizes life, which God has in Himself and freely gives to us.
This leads to verses 19-20, part of a theme in Proverbs–God used wisdom when making the world. Not “used” like He made wise choices, but used wisdom as the means to create. Athanasius, in the 4th century, commented:
Solomon says, “The Lord by wisdom founded the earth; by understanding he established the heavens.” And this wisdom is the Word, and by him, as John says, “all things were made” [and without him not one thing was made]. This Word is Christ, “for there is one God the Father, from whom are all things. We are for him, and one Lord Jesus Christ, through whom are all things, and we are through him” (qtd. in ACCS, Proverbs).