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"Wisdom is Justified by Her Children"
-- Jeff, Wednesday 02-20-2013, 9:24 am CST

In Matthew 11:16-19 Jesus Christ ends a teaching with the words "wisdom is justified by her children," which sound momentous. Like a saying which should have resounded down through history as a proverb. And well it should have, but there has been one small problem. Nobody seems to know what he was talking about.

Let's look at the Lord's entire teaching:

Matthew 11:16-19
But whereunto shall I liken this generation? It is like unto children sitting in the markets, and calling unto their fellows,

And saying, We have piped unto you, and ye have not danced; we have mourned unto you, and ye have not lamented.

For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, He hath a devil.

The Son of man came eating and drinking, and they say, Behold a man gluttonous, and a winebibber, a friend of publicans and sinners. But wisdom is justified of her children.

The Lord likens the generation that was alive during his earthly ministry to "children" who are "calling unto their fellows." But note that the two who they were "calling unto" in such a derogatory manner were John the Baptist, who was a prophet in Israel that God had ordained to be the forerunner to the Messiah, and the Lord himself, who was that Messiah and the King of Israel.

So when John came to them preaching repentance, the people of that generation in all their great wisdom, said, "We are piping and you should be dancing, you must have a devil." And when Jesus came preaching to them the good new of the kingdom of heaven, the people of that generation in all their great wisdom, said, "We are mourning you should be lamenting, instead you are worldly."

When it came the truth, that generation wasn't just difficult to please. That generation was impossible to please.

Then the Lord summed up this teaching with a statement that, from what I can tell, has stumped Bible translators and expositors to no end.

Verse 19b
...But wisdom is justified of [apo, "by"1] her children.
"Wisdom is justified by her children." People get it that "wisdom" in that statement is an abstract concept, and therefore does not have "children" in any literal sense of the word. And if you put a gun to their head, they would probably remember the lesson from their high school English class, when they learned about the figure of speech personification. And if they are Americans they may even get the idiom, that the concept of "children of wisdom" represents roughly the same figure of speech that they use when they talk about the "father of our country."

But within the context of the Lord's analogy, who the children are supposed to be? And how it is that they are justifying wisdom? And how does it have anything to do with what the Lord is talking about? It seems to me like, people either have no clue or they jump to erroneous conclusions. The problem being, that they are trying to read "wisdom" straight. So they completely miss the irony, by which the Lord is not talking about wisdom at all, but its exact opposite. Namely, "foolishness."

Some translators, in the effort to read "wisdom" straight, with the critical Greek texts of Tischendorf (8th edition, 1865-72) and Tregelles (1857-72), change the word "children" in Matthew 11:19 to "works," even though in the recounting in Luke of the identical teaching, all the critical Greek texts read "children."2 On the strength of which various editors have translated the phrase Matthew as follows:

Matthew 11:19b, New International Version
...but wisdom is proved right by her deeds.

American Standard Version
And wisdom is justified by her works.

I'll also cite my personal favorite, which goes into lunar orbit trying to make heads or tails of the Lord's proverb:
The Message
The proof of the pudding is in the eating.
The reaction of Bible expositors, who are trying to follow suit with the translators and editors by reading "wisdom" straight, from I have seen, are probably best summed up by how the phrase is handled at lectionary.org. Which opines:
"But wisdom is justified by her children" (v. 19). The meaning of this proverb is much the same as "By their fruits you will know them" (7:16, 20). Jesus challenges his critics to judge him based on the effects of his ministry.
Laying aside the fact that jumping to the conclusion that the figure "her children"3 refers to Jesus (they forgot about John) throws the logic of the analogy out of whack, there is a problem in the Greek text with the word "but" (which the ASV accounts for but the NIV does not, as seen above). In all the critical texts it is the Greek word kai.4 Which does not mean "but," it means "and."

Which means that the Lord is not setting the phrase "wisdom is justified by her children" in contrast with what precedes. He is setting it in correspondence with what precedes. Which, it turns out, keeps the logic of the analogy wholly intact, -- the children in the marketplace remaining identical with the children of wisdom.5 But which can only be arrived at by recognizing the Lord's use of irony.

That when he says "wisdom is justified by her children," the Lord is actually talking about, not the wisdom, but the foolishness of the people of the generation alive at the time. Of the people who were passing judgment on him and John the Baptist. Of whom regarding John, when he came preaching repentance because of how far they had strayed from the God of Israel, they said "he has a devil." And of whom regarding Christ, when he came proclaiming the good news of the kingdom of heaven and preaching forgiveness, they said "Behold a man gluttonous, and a winebibber, a friend of publicans and sinners."

It reminds me of too many Christian believers these days. Who on one hand, in the face of the greatness of God's Word about who they are and what they have in Christ Jesus, want to tell me that they are still "sold under sin," and that in their flesh "dwelleth no good thing." When the Word of God that is addressed to us says we have been "bought with a price" and exhorts us according to "his Spirit that dwelleth in you," talking about God's gift. But on the other hand, when their behavior falls short of "mercies, kindness, humbleness of mind, meekness, longsuffering, forbearing one another, and forgiving one another," they will go whatever lengths they think they can get away with to cover up -- or failing that, to rationalize it.6

What the Lord Jesus Christ's proverb in Matthew 11:19, "Wisdom is justified in her children" means, in literal terms, is that "People can rationalize anything." And the generation that the Lord confronted in this teaching would prove exactly that, by going on to murder both John the Baptist and the Lord himself.

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When talking about children, literally, certain amount of petulance is appropriate. Children, by nature, must be trained in the way that they should go. But whenever and wherever childish petulance survives into adulthood, to say that it's consequences can be dire would be a grotesque understatement. Consequences, such as those which in Matthew 11 the King of Israel, immediately after stating the proverb, spells out against specific cities where people lived who were rejecting him and the prophet who was his forerunner:
Matthew 11:20-24
Then began he to upbraid the cities wherein most of his mighty works were done, because they repented not:

Woe unto thee, Chorazin! woe unto thee, Bethsaida! for if the mighty works, which were done in you, had been done in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes.

But I say unto you, It shall be more tolerable for Tyre and Sidon at the day of judgment, than for you.

And thou, Capernaum, which art exalted unto heaven, shalt be brought down to hell: for if the mighty works, which have been done in thee, had been done in Sodom, it would have remained until this day.

But I say unto you, That it shall be more tolerable for the land of Sodom in the day of judgment, than for thee.

In light of which, to all of my brothers and sisters in Christ, but especially to those who have been fully initiated into the truths of the Great Mystery, I would exhort that we all pay close attention, in the faces of those who would seduce us from the truth,7 to the words addressed to us by the Apostle Paul in I Corinthians 10:
I Corinthians 10:11-12
Now all these things happened unto them for ensamples: and they are written for our admonition, upon whom the ends of the world are come.

Wherefore let him that thinketh he standeth take heed lest he fall.

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1. Strong's number G575.

2. Compare Berry's, p. 28, including footnote d., with p. 173, including footnote w.

3. The Lord's entire teaching in this section is one extended simile.

4. Strong's number G2532.

5. The words for "children" in the Greek are paidarion (G3808) and teknon (G5043) respectively.

6. Compare Romans 7:14,18 (and check this BRJ Weblog post covering those verses) with I Corinthians 6:20 and I Corinthians 7:23, and with Romans 8:11 and I Corinthians 3:16.

7. In the manner spoken of by the same Apostle Paul in II Corinthians:
II Corinthians 11:3
But I fear, lest by any means, as the serpent beguiled [exapatao, "seduced," G1818] Eve through his subtlety, so your minds should be corrupted from the simplicity that is in Christ.
Note: For another use of the figure of speech Irony in the Bible, see Christian Cannibalism: What Does the Bible Teach?

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