The Fear of the Lord Is the Beginning of All Wisdom

A volume for the times.

Flavio Prestes II and Sergio R. Festa
The Fear of the Lord Is the Beginning of All Wisdom

The first multi-commentary volume of the new Seventh-day Adventist International Bible Commentary (SDAIBC) was published in 2022 in North America. It focused on biblical wisdom literature and included commentarieson Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and Song of Songs. Doctoral students Flavio Prestes II (FP) and Sergio R. Festa (SF), both serving as professors at the Adventist University of São Paulo, Brazil, recently interviewed Jacques Doukhan, general editor of the new commentary series and senior research professor of Hebrew and Old Testament exegesis at Andrews University, about the project and the importance of wisdom literature in general.—Editors. 

FP: Dr. Doukhan, The Seventh-day Adventist International Bible Commentary, volume 6, on wisdom literature, was just released. How would you describe wisdom from a biblical perspective? 

JD: One of the most important moments in the Bible, when wisdom is identified, is Solomon’s going to God with the complete awareness that he is not wise. And, therefore, he asks for wisdom (1 Kings 3:7-12). That is the paradox of biblical wisdom. Humility—that is, the need for wisdom from God—is the starting point of wisdom: “The fear of God is the beginning of wisdom” (Ps. 111:10; see also Prov. 1:7; 9:10; Eccl. 12:13). 

SF: How does the wisdom displayed in the Bible intersect with and differ from other ancient wisdom literature? 

JD: The Bible did not come to us in vitro, outside of its cultural environment. The Bible uses the literary forms, the language, and even some of the concepts and stories of the ancient Near East (ANE). The book of Proverbs, for instance, refers to the wisdom of Agur, the son of Jakeh, who comes from outside of God’s people and did not know God (Prov. 30:1-3). And yet his wise words have been retained in the biblical canon. When you take the book of Ecclesiastes, on which I have written the commentary, I am struck by the connections between Ecclesiastes and the wisdom of ancient Egypt. Wisdom is not exclusive to God’s people. We learn the same lesson from Jesus, who shows us that the Roman soldier and the Samaritan woman may sometimes be wiser than the man in God’s people, the biblical scholar, the Pharisee, and the doctor of the Law. What is missing in the ANE literature, however, is the presence of the true God, who gives wisdom—the personal God, who guides us in our present life and acts in history. He is also the God of the prophets who reveals Himself and sheds light on the future salvation of humankind. 

FP: What is the connection between wisdom and the hope in the second coming of Jesus?

JD: Wisdom is related to the future. The book of Proverbs gives us the example of the ant, which is wise in thinking about the future (Prov. 6:6-11). A person who is concerned just with the present is a fool and is not wise. And really, the future par excellence is the second coming of Christ. Very often Christians, unfortunately, have neglected and even eliminated the reference to the future. But if you live only with the present, you are no longer in touch with God—who is the God of the future, the God who will come. The Song of Songs speaks about the God who knocks at the door and promises to save us. If you take away the God who will come, there is no more wisdom. As the apostle Paul said, if you take away the belief, the faith in the resurrection, the faith in His coming, your life is nonsense (cf. 1 Cor. 15:19). So the future is a very important component of wisdom. 

But there is also a serious psychological and theological problem with people who focus only on apocalyptic prophecies, and are concerned only with future events. This mistake is found in all religions. In our little circle, people with this kind of mentality read only the last book of the Bible, the book of Revelation, and the book of Daniel. They neglect the wisdom books. As a result, these people fail to embrace the reality of daily life: they often don’t enjoy God’s gift of creation; they sometimes don’t pay attention to their neighbor. 

Both perspectives, the apocalyptic revelation of the future and the principles of wisdom in the present life, are needed. Actually, the Bible brings the two perspectives together. The book of Daniel is both a book of wisdom and an apocalyptic book. Daniel is a wise man (Dan. 1:4, 20) who entertains good relationships with other people (verse 9); but he is also an apocalyptic prophet who appeals to the future, “what will be” (Dan. 2:29). 

FP: How do these concepts you are talking about—wisdom and apocalypticism—relate to our identity as Seventh-day Adventists? 

JD: I think that this connection between the two perspectives is very present in our theology; it’s in fact what makes our identity, as testified in our name, “Seventh-day Adventist.” The “Seventh-day” part refers to the beginning of human history and connects us with wisdom that concerns the present reality of life, the concrete creation, and our relationship to each other as human beings. And the “Adventist” part refers to the end of human history, and connects us to the future apocalyptic salvation of the world, and makes us dream and hope for the kingdom of heaven. The biblical truth is about both perspectives. This is our challenge, our destiny, and our mission to the world. 

SF: How can wisdom impact our outreach to and dialogue with the people living in our world today? JD: We need a lot of wisdom to communicate our special message. Unfortunately, our beautiful and powerful message has often been communicated with little wisdom, and has thus been misunderstood, despised, and rejected by many intelligent people. Also, sadly, we have often testified to the profound and complex truth of biblical wisdom with a shallow reading of the biblical text. Or we shared this particular wisdom without trying to understand the others, without being relevant to them. We need to learn to identify with other people, just as the apostle Paul did (see Acts 17:23; cf. 1 Cor. 9:19-23). Wisdom is the capacity to be in touch with the world, knowing how the world thinks, being a part of the world (John 17:15), although not belonging to it (John 18:36). Daniel, John, Jesus, and the Adventist pioneers exemplified this wisdom. 

SF: How could pastors and church members use wisdom literature from the Bible in their sermons and evangelistic series? 

JD: I believe wisdom literature, which is found in the books of Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, the Song of Songs, and the Psalms (our volume 6 of the SDAIBC), is the part of the Bible that is the closest to the minds, the concern, and the situations of the people of the world today. So when we bring the message of biblical wisdom to the world, we will reach them where they are. Unfortunately, we very rarely preach or teach from these books. This is perhaps why we have not been successful with secular people of the world, who, by the way, constitute the majority of people today. 

FP: You are also the author of Ecclesiastes in the new SDAIBC, volume 6. What are your expectations and thoughts about your new commentary? 

JD: I hope that my commentary will be an incentive to read and discover the book of Ecclesiastes. Many of our Adventist people don’t know this book. And yet this is one of the most Adventist books of the Bible. This is the only place in the Old Testament where the hope of the eschatological judgment and the faith of creation are brought together (Eccl. 11:9–12:1, 6, 13), just as it is in Revelation 14, in the three angels’ messages. This is the book of the Bible that is the most explicit about the state of the dead (Eccl. 3:18-22; 8:2–9:10). This is also the book that is the most in tune with the postmodern minds of the people of the time of the end. 

FP: Volume 6 is the first published multi-commentary volume of the SDAIBC series. It happens to contain these books, Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and Song of Songs— the first ones to be finalized and put together in a single volume. Do you see any significance on having these books becoming available first and not other books/volumes of the series? 

JD: The fact that the first volume of the commentary series is on the Psalms, which contains the prayers of ancient Israel, and on the biblical books of wisdom, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and Song of Songs, is providential. In these times of troubles and confusion in the world and also in our Adventist communities we are in great need of prayer.* We are also in great need for wisdom— wisdom to confront and endure the trials of the last times, but also wisdom to fulfill our mission and testimony to the world. We need to be wise and we need to pray. Volume 6, the first volume of the SDAIBC, which anticipates all the following volumes, fits very well the spiritual and existential needs of people today, the needs of the remnant people, and the needs of the people of the world. 

* Ellen G. White, The Great Controversy (Mountain View, Calif.: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1911), pp. 621, 622.

Flavio Prestes II and Sergio R. Festa