Exaltation of the Holy Cross: Proverbs Reading

My son, do not despise the Lord’s discipline
or be weary of his reproof,
for the Lord reproves him whom he loves,
as a father the son in whom he delights.
Happy is the man who finds wisdom,
and the man who gets understanding,
for the gain from it is better than gain from silver
and its profit better than gold.
She is more precious than jewels,
and nothing you desire can compare with her.
Long life is in her right hand;
in her left hand are riches and honor.
Her ways are ways of pleasantness,
and all her paths are peace.
She is a tree of life to those who lay hold of her;
those who hold her fast are called happy.
Proverbs 3:11-18

This short wisdom poem in Proverbs is the second of three Old Testament readings assigned to the feast of the exaltation of the Holy Cross vespers on September 14.  The first reading is Exodus 15:22-27 and the third reading is Isaiah 60:11-16.  The feast has two associations, the commemoration of the historical finding of the true cross by St. Helena in 326 and one of two semi-annual commemorations of the Holy Cross in the Byzantine liturgical cycle.  The other commemoration of the Holy Cross is the third Sunday of the Great Fast in the spring.  These two commemorations roughly divide the year.  This September feast also marks the liturgical shift to reading the Gospel of Luke and the change in Psalter reading assignments until the feast of the Nativity.  The Great Fast commemoration of the Holy Cross marks the mid-point of the fast and serves to foreshadow the coming events on Great and Holy Friday.  In both cases the Holy Cross serves as a liturgical pivot point and a reminder of the means of salvation.  This Proverbs wisdom poem serves to support this liturgical context in September.

Pericope within the Structure of Proverbs 

The use of introductory names in Proverbs divides the book into six collections plus the final acrostic poem.  This pericope is within the first collection attributed to “Solomon son of David, king of Israel” encompassing chapters one to nine.  Within this first collection there is a series of poems extolling wisdom interspersed between sets of instructions marked by the appellation “my child.”  The overall effect of this juxtaposition is to make wisdom the reward for hearing the instructions.  The collection ends with two poems describing wisdom and a final poem on her literary foil, folly.

This pericope of 3:11-18 is solidly in the middle of this first major unit within the book of Proverbs.  The passage opens with that standard appellation “my child” and one stanza of instruction.  The passage closes on the wisdom poem describing her benefits.  These benefits culminate with the equation of wisdom to the tree of life.  There are two parts to the poem in this division, the opening stanza on instruction and the description of wisdom that opens and closes with the term happy or blessed.

Poetic Language, structure and imagery

The poetic structure using keywords in parallel moves the reader from instruction to possession of the tree of life.  The poem starts by creating a direct key word link in the first stanza between verses.  The next step in the chain is to use a synonymous link between the terms in the same position with the next two verses.  

My child, do not despise the Lord’s discipline
or be weary of his reproof,

for the Lord reproves the one he loves,
as a father the son in whom he delights. [1]

Happy are those who find wisdom,
and those who get understanding,

for her income is better than silver,
and her revenue better than gold.

The poems opening stanza has two sets of instructions to “my child” set in synonymous parallelism.  There are two key terms in each pair of lines in the poem, indicated by the italic and underline.  The second key word in the first verse (reproof) carries into the stanzas second verse starting a poetic chain of connections through the verses.  The bridge from verse three to four is with the two words delight and happy.  The two verses for the second stanza set wisdom and understanding into parallel with income and revenue by using these same positions.

She is more precious than jewels,
and nothing you desire can compare with her. [2]

Long life is in her right hand;
in her left hand are riches and honor. [3]

From here the poet moves to jewels and all the riches one could desire being associated with wisdom and introduces long life as the completion of the pair with riches and honor.  The poem then culminates with wisdom as the tree of life itself and the source of peace and happiness.

Her ways are ways of pleasantness,
an all her paths are peace.

She is a tree of life to those who lay hold of her;
those who hold her fast are called happy.

The poetic keyword structure has brought the student from instruction by discipline to possession of riches, honor and long life in the person of wisdom who is the tree of life.  The invocation of happy bookends the description of wisdom, we open and close the wisdom poem with the son called happy or blessed.


The poetic chain of these stanzas artfully links a few key themes.  The poem connects discipline, wisdom, wealth and life via the keyword structure outlined above.  The opening theme of discipline places the reader into the status of son of God.  The Lord is equated with the father and the reader with his son.  We should interpret the difficulties sent our way as loving reproof to correct our ways.  This accepting attitude will make one blessed to find wisdom.

Wisdom is a common theme as the learning goal of the son in Proverbs and throughout the Old Testament.  Following the instruction and discipline of the father will lead to wisdom for the son.  A natural outcome from wisdom is prosperity.  The theme of wealth is developed in a variety of concrete forms in the poem.  The theme of life is also portrayed as a gift of wisdom.  The two hands of wisdom hold wealth and life.  Life then subsumes wisdom entirely as she becomes the tree of life blessing those who found her.

Integrated Reading

There are a few interesting details in this Proverbs poem that suggest a connection to the Holy Cross for a Christian reader.  Primary among these is the presence of the tree of life.  From an early age Christians saw the tree of life and the Holy Cross as “book-ends” to the story of salvation.  In the Genesis account, we are denied access to the tree of life because we sin through the wood of the tree of knowledge of good and evil.  The Holy Cross is planted as the new tree of life for the new creation.  Where Adam fails Christ succeeds.

Another image that suggests a connection is the verb scourges that occurs in the Septuagint rendering in 3:12.  The Lord scourges every son he receives is used in the letter to the Hebrews (12:5-6) as a reference to the passion of Christ.

A further implied image of a cross can be seen in the figure of wisdom.  The poem describes wisdom as holding life in one hand and riches in the other.  Christians see a visual image of a person on a cross whenever two hands are active in Old Testament figures.  One can imagine wisdom holding her arms outstretched with these two prizes on display standing in a figure of the cross.  When the figure then transforms into the tree of life the allegory is strengthened.


This Proverbs reading is part of a movement in three acts about the Holy Cross.  In the Exodus reading 15:22-27 the wood provides the water of life to the wandering Israelites by clearing fouled well.  The Proverbs poem connects the wood of the cross to the tree of life.  The figure of wisdom is seen standing with arms outstretched like a cross holding riches and life.  Finally, in Isaiah 60:11-16 we connect the ultimate triumph of Zion and the subjugation of nations with the cross.  The passage notes that even though one was forsaken and despised, now the nations and their kings bow before Zion.  The cross is originally an instrument of humiliation and torture but is transformed into triumph.

The three vespers readings taken as a whole provide an Old Testament context for the feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross.  These three selections from connect the Christian experience of the Holy Cross to a key miracle of the exodus experience.  They then allegorize the cross and connect the crucifixion with life in the creation account.  Finally, they promise that despite being forsaken and despised the nations will bow down in the end.


1 The parallelism implies are repetition of the verb “reproves” in this line.  The Septuagint sees “and scourges every son he receives,” where the parallelism of the stanza becomes explicit, as in the first verse.  The Septuagint rendering is quoted in Hebrews 12:5-6 as an exhortation concerning Christ’s passion.

2 The Septuagint would render this line “no valuables can match her.”  Removing the second person reference from the text.  This rendering seems to fit better in the poetic flow as there are no other second person references in the poem.

3 The Septuagint expands this verse with “Out of her mouth proceeds righteousness, and she carries law and mercy upon her tongue.”

Originally published 3/15/2020