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Proverbs: A Tree of Life

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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).

Into the Image of Jesus Christ

Christian spiritual formation is the lifelong process of being conformed into the image of Jesus Christ for the sake of the world. What does the “image of Jesus Christ” refer to? To understand this, we must think back to the creation account in Genesis, where it says that God created Adam and Eve in His image (Genesis 1:26-28). John Wesley wrote about the image of God both before and after the Fall, saying the image of God can be thought of in three parts. 

The first part is called the natural image. As people made in God’s image, Adam and Eve were immortal—they wouldn’t die; had perfect reason or understanding—they understood things completely; had free will and judgment—their choices were made just like we make choices, but with perfect judgment; and perfectly ordered emotions or affections—they didn’t get angry over the silly little things, they were patient, etc. 

After the Fall, this natural image was marred. They were still able to make decisions, but they didn’t always turn to God when making them. They definitely weren’t immortal anymore; death had entered the Garden. And their emotions were swayed easily over little things. It didn’t take much for them to become depressed or saddened. 

The second part is the political image. This refers to our ability to rule over earth and engage in interpersonal relationships. Adam and Eve ruled over creation, naming the animals and living peacefully in the Garden of Eden. They didn’t have to worry about famine or drought, as the earth had not yet been cursed. They also got along with one another. No miscommunication, no hurting each other’s feelings, no secrets or betrayal. 

After the Fall, the political image was also marred. Adam and Eve were kicked out of the Garden, rule over the earth became much more difficult as a result of the curse, and they did not rule the earth as God intended. Neither did they relate to one another perfectly: the first sin recorded after humanity’s booting from the Garden was Cain killing Abel. 

The third part is the moral image. This refers to our immediate personal knowledge of God. Adam and Eve knew God intimately. God wasn’t just a part of theirs lives; He was there with them. He cared for them, and they spoke with Him like we do one another. They loved God with all their hearts. And because of this, they understood that people were special to God. 

After the Fall, the moral image was completely destroyed. Not just marred, but destroyed. Adam and Eve didn’t know God intimately as before. God no longer walked in the cool of the day with them. Their sin separated them from God. And there was nothing they could do to restore the relationship. Sin was alive, and as a result, they would have to rely on God to make Himself known to them and to make it possible for them to know Him once again. 

And here is the kicker: The New Testament intentionally speaks of Jesus Christ as the second Adam! 

  • Romans 5:14, 18: Nevertheless, death reigned from the time of Adam to the time of Moses, even over those who did not sin by breaking a command, as did Adam, who is a pattern of the one to come…. Consequently, just as one trespass resulted in condemnation for all people, so also one righteous act resulted in justification and life for all.
  • 1 Corinthians 15:21-22: For since death came through a human being, the resurrection of the dead comes also through a human being. For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive.

Jesus Christ is the second Adam, the one who is both fully human and fully God who lived a life faithful to God unlike Adam. When given the choice to sin, Jesus did not. He perfectly reflected the image of God to humanity by His faithful obedience, showing us exactly who God is. Hebrews 1:1-3 says, “In the past God spoke to our ancestors through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom also he made the universe. The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being, sustaining all things by his powerful word. After he had provided purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty in heaven.” 

And so, when we are being conformed into the image of Christ, what God is doing is making us like the Son of God, capable of representing God to the world in faithful obedience. We go from having a marred natural and political image and a fully broken moral image, incapable of even knowing God, to a partially-restored natural and political image. When we are born, we have some ability to reason, to understand the world around us, to relate to those around us, etc. But our moral image is still fully broken. Those who accept Christ receive His grace and begin on the road to receiving more grace, which enables them to cooperate with God and to find full restoration of the moral image in this life. God enables us to be conformed into the image of Christ. 

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