Those of us who tend to see parallels between features of the biblical testimony and contemporary life are having a heyday as we sit in the front row with the national drama of the U.S. on center stage.
Those who offer challenges to the drama’s plot and characters speak with powerful and eloquent voices, while those who defend what is challenged speak with equal force.
Like an athletic contest whose players are few and whose fans are many, the prominent voices on either side are echoed by sympathetic followers across the land in smaller contexts. Everyone seems to be “in the game.”
When issues are close to the heart of a community’s identity, voices rise in protest and defense, and it is not hard to see and feel a connection with the prophetic tradition of ancient Israel.
The images of Elijah – that “troubler of Israel” (1 Kings 18:17) – confronting King Ahab with his idolatry and injustice, and earlier of Nathan confronting King David with his destructive use of personal power (2 Samuel 12:7), are two of many portrayals of the profound and powerful voice of the prophet.
The thought and practice of ethics in any age of covenant history draw from the deep well of this tradition, and prophetic speech most often uses the rhetorical megaphone of “Thus saith the Lord!”
When any feature of a culture’s life drifts away from its moral core, especially when the drift is accompanied by an alliance of piety and power, the prophet is the loud voice of ethics, calling out the departure from the core identity of the community.
Without diminishing the significance of the prophetic voice in the journey of covenant faith, especially its call to a covenant community to remember who (and whose) it is, it is helpful to remember that the Bible’s conversation with itself includes another voice found in what we know as the wisdom tradition.
While the prophet calls us to “stand up and be counted,” to speak up and be heard, often boldly in the face of threat and opposition, wisdom has a quieter call to live a certain way in the ordinary, everyday moments and circumstances.
Walter Brueggemann calls wisdom the voice of “counter testimony” of Israel’s witness in his book, “Theology of the Old Testament.”
Wisdom invites us to embrace a way of life that is neither as bold nor as certain as the voice of the prophet who speaks the “core testimony.”
Rather, wisdom reflects an interrelatedness with all of reality, characterized by balance, moderation and harmony, but also uncertainty and ambiguity.
While the prophetic voice boldly proclaims, “Thus saith God’s word of justice and righteousness,” wisdom’s voice quietly says, “Thus liveth the life of God’s peace and wholeness.”
We are beneficiaries of countless prophetic voices from ancient times until now, and our ethical integrity requires that we hear and heed them.
But we are also heirs of a rich tradition known as wisdom, which applies a broader understanding of life to every relationship, encounter and specific issue that is part of our human family.
Wisdom knows the challenge of adversity, loss and suffering; through its lens, faith is more endurance than boldness. She (“sophia” is feminine) reaches deeper than the passion of the prophet’s pronouncements and indictments.
Like the “other side of prophecy,” illustrated by Second Isaiah, Jeremiah and Ezekiel, wisdom embraces a hope beyond what can be seen and known, confident that the life so lived is consistent with the foundational order of the universe in spite of all the uncertainties and ambiguities of the moment.
Historian Samuel Hill once observed that the reason the civil rights demonstrations were more transformative in the South than in other parts of the country was that there was an under-the-surface layer of moral consciousness rooted in the pervasive gospel message of the southern church.
When people in this context were confronted with the reality of the various forms of discrimination and injustice that were challenged by the prophetic voices and demonstrations, they felt the dissonance of that incongruity and were more likely to be transformed by the disclosure.
Hill’s observation seems consistent with the affirmation of wisdom in the biblical testimony: When confronted with a choice between the truth of wholeness and community or the falsehood of estrangement and alienation, wisdom is “tuned” to respond to truth.
Perhaps the deeper truth of the biblical testimony in its call to faithful living lies in the partnership of its primary prophetic voice and its secondary atmosphere of wisdom that enables the voice to be heard and lived beyond the issue of the moment in an interrelatedness with all creation.
It is easy to hear and respond to the ethical guidance of the prophet. Hearing the ethical advice of wisdom requires a little more care and attentiveness.
Colin Harris is professor emeritus of religious studies at Mercer University and a member of Smoke Rise Baptist Church in Stone Mountain, Georgia.