I recently learned about a privately owned manufacturing company in central Iowa that builds industrial agricultural equipment. Serving construction, landscaping, excavation, and forage markets domestically and internationally, this company has employed more than 3,000 people over the last 50-plus years. I was interested to learn that the most recent former CEO of the company, for nearly a dozen years, was a woman.
In American expressions of Christianity, there are wells of ink spent on what we call the Proverbs 31 woman. Most of these center around a gentile disposition and a curiously 1950s kind of wifehood. But a closer reading of the Bible’s wisdom literature shows a picture closer to this CEO from Iowa. Beyond that, I believe that Proverbs 31:10-31 has much more far-reaching applications than women working in business.
Wisdom Is Trending.
During the past 50 years, business research has demonstrated over and again that discernment and wisdom in business decision-making lead to employee well-being, productivity, profitability, and even a comparative advantage in the marketplace.
I have spent the last decade exploring thousands of articles across a myriad of industries around the world that provide decades of empirical evidence demonstrating that companies can indeed do well by doing good work. I have been shocked by the apparent impact of kindness, love, and care in secular settings resulting in life-changing corporate cultures, while researching with Fortune 500, small, and medium-sized companies. The result of this 10-year journey exploring the relevance of Scripture for Christians pursuing discipleship in the marketplace, the consequence of my longing to hear Christians encouraged to live out Scripture in spheres where our culture holds church and state at odds, is what I call wisdom-based business.
There is a tension between the promises of wisdom literature — the books of Job, Psalms, Proverbs, and Ecclesiastes, in the Bible — and the reality of the marketplace. Juxtaposed with the temptation of folly, wisdom beckons us from Scripture to cherish her. Solomon implores us, perhaps from experience, in Proverbs when he writes, “Cherish her, and she will exalt you; embrace her, and she will honor you. She will give you a garland to grace your head and present you with a glorious crown (4:7-8).”
Far from an American prosperity doctrine, the wisdom books of the Bible outline the benefits of wisdom while calling the wise to the greatest commandments — to love God and to love others by imparting well-being as a result of our work. Wisdom is worth far more than profitability, worth more than rubies, and is incomparable to any other business strategy. Along with prudence, knowledge, and discretion, wisdom was there at the beginning of the world and invites us into “the way of righteousness and the path of justice to bestow a rich inheritance” on those who love her (Prov 8).
This wisdom is divine. It’s wisdom we receive as a gift from God, similar to the gift of grace or faith. Imagine Solomon asking God for wisdom in 1 Kings 3. God’s response to Solomon results in Solomon being gifted all the promises found in the wisdom literature:
I will give you a wise and discerning heart, so that there will never have been anyone like you, nor will there ever be. Moreover, I will give you what you have not asked for — both wealth and honor — so that in your lifetime you will have no equal among kings. And if you walk in obedience to me and keep my decrees and commands as David your father did, I will give you a long life.
The divine wisdom of Proverbs is in a different category than natural or practical wisdom. Early Greek philosophers separated Sophia from phronesis. Sophia represented divine wisdom. Sophia was deified as a goddess worshipped in Ephesus whereas phronesis, or practical wisdom, represented the sciences of logic, reason, and discernment. Interestingly, the Greeks’ conceptualization of the goddess Sophia is not altogether different from the depiction of Lady Wisdom in Scripture. In Proverbs, wisdom is also personified as a woman.