Children laugh and play with puppies and hamsters. Boys and girls twirl and dance in the rain, squeal in the mud, and swim in public pools in the summer and in snow piles in the winter. They play tag and hide-and-seek. They run and evade and hunt.
Often play requires little more than a soccer ball, football, baseball and bat, dodgeball, or tennis ball. Our kids play organized sports. And for fun we attend and watch amateur and professional athletes in large stadiums and on national television.
“Play began in the presence of God, perhaps within the triune God. Play predates time and creation.”
Play is not a limited phase for kids. Adults have their own play — in pools and lakes and oceans and in slow-pitch softball leagues. Hunting and fishing are considered sports for a reason. And healthy husbands and wives regularly “laugh together” (Genesis 26:8).
Play is not the product of a particular culture. God wired play directly into us, across all societies and cultures, as a native impulse to run and twirl and laugh we learn to express before we can learn to speak or read. All of this laughing and twirling and dancing naturally expresses God’s creative design in his creatures.
Animals, kids, adults — we all were made for play. Wild animals play in the woods (Job 40:20). Leviathan plays in the waters (Psalm 104:26). David plays during worship in ways you’d never see inside our less expressive church services on Sunday (2 Samuel 6:14). And Zion will be “full of boys and girls playing in its streets,” and when they bore of the streets, they will play in the fields and harass snakes (Zechariah 8:5; Isaiah 11:8).
In the Beginning: Twirling
The apparent frivolity of play, I suspect, scares off a lot of serious thinking about the subject, and that’s unfortunate, because when we talk about play, we talk about something deeply embedded in God’s created world.
When he assigned to the sea its limit,
so that the waters might not transgress his command,
when he marked out the foundations of the earth,
then I was beside him, like a master workman,
and I was daily his delight,
rejoicing before him always,
rejoicing in his inhabited world
and delighting in the children of man. (Proverbs 8:29–31)
This poetic interlude takes us back to the triune drama of creation in the rejoicing of play, better interpreted as twirling or tumbling.
We meet two characters here: “he,” a father figure (the LORD) who creates, and “I,” a child at his feet — perhaps a co-craftsman, certainly the father’s object of delight. There are two ways to see the twirling child.
Pre-Incarnate Christ or Female Child?
Is the Wisdom character here an appearance of Christ? Consider four pointers in this direction.
One, some commentators like Roland Murphy notice a doubled “I am” (or “I was”) in verse 30, suggesting this child figure is divine. Second, commentators see the delight of God in the Wisdom character to echo the Father-Son delight we see in the Gospels. Third, many commentators have suggested that Proverbs 8:22–31 is the backdrop for Paul’s christology in Colossians 1:15–17. Fourth, commentators also connect personified Wisdom here to the personified Logos in John 1:1–5, who is Christ.
“Have our responsibilities to produce lost their power because we can no longer play as we make?”
In his act of creation in Proverbs, this pre-incarnate-Christlike figure stands in the presence of his Father as they unfold creation together in a blend of craftsmanship, art, and play. If this is the case, if the pre-incarnate Christ stands at the genesis of the cosmos, he participates in the story, not merely as an observer, but as the master builder, laboring as he sings and dances in joy like a twirling child, thrilled with the unfolding wonders of creation, all leading to his being filled with delight in the people designed.
But this Christological interpretation is inconclusive. Other commentators, more careful here, suggest that the “he” is God, but the “I” should not be seen as anything beyond a female character — a youthful, child-aged form of Wisdom personified, and leave it there.
Five Ways We Play
We can debate this, but less debatable is the proximity of play in this creation account of Proverbs 8:29–31. We see it in at least five ways.
1. Play Is Creational
Playfulness finds its place in the act of creation itself. Creation is make-believe that actually makes — a play that crafts. The holistic nature of play is hardly better put than in a hymn by Gregory of Nazianzus, who picks up on the Wisdom-Logos relationship when he writes, “The Logos on high plays, stirring the whole cosmos back and forth, as he wills, into shapes of every kind.”
Play is not mere frivolity; it’s creational.
2. Play Is Productional
We remember the repetition of God’s declared “good” in Genesis 1 as he looks over what he crafted, and we can imagine, in light of Proverbs 8, this “good” spoken in a playful tone. This is not a deadpanned, quality-control employee at the end of a conveyor belt looking for flawed widgets. This is the Creator of all things looking on with delight.
“Sports are most fun when the rules are clearly marked and fairly enforced. Boundaries are where play flourishes.”
Yes, our work is now under sin’s curse, and God’s work then was not. But we adults tend to divorce our craft from our play, and at the beginning of creation, we see them closely linked in God’s activity. This reality asks all of us adults to consider whether our responsibilities to produce have lost their power because we can no longer play as we make. Are we too serious to make as God made?
3. Play Is Relational
The interplay between the “he” and “I” — however we finally interpret the persons — reveals a relationship mediated in the play. It’s the context of the relationship as creation unfolds.
Play has been, from the beginning, a potent social connector between persons, even at the divine level, within the triune God or in his relationship to personified Wisdom. And when God delights in you, how can you not play before him?
4. Play Is Restrictional
Play is provoked by boundaries. Putting off childishness is not putting off play; it’s putting off foolishness (1 Corinthians 13:11–12). To be fully wise — to embody Wisdom — is to be easily made appropriately playful.
The ethical edges of wisdom unleash our play. Sports are most enjoyable when the rules and boundaries are clearly marked and fairly enforced. Watching a sprinting wide receiver make a one-handed catch with one foot inbounds and the toes of his other foot sliding on the turf as the body falls out of bounds is exciting because of the imposed restriction.
Play flourishes within plain boundaries. It’s why, as G.K. Chesterton comments, “children will always play on the edge of anything.” Fools are hypocrites who make-believe outside the boundaries. The honest soul is wise because she knows the best play is found inside the parameters of God’s will. No one is better suited for play than Wisdom.
5. Play Is Immortal
“Wisdom knows the best play is found inside the parameters of God’s will.”
When time began, play had already begun. Play began in the presence of God, perhaps within the triune God. Play predates time and creation. If there is whirling and laughter in our sports and on playgrounds and in running through mud in the rain, it’s not because the scenario made the play, but that the scenarios of life give expression to the primordial desire to play hardwired within us all, and our world, by God himself.
Play can become frivolous, but it is not itself frivolous. Play is divine. God not only created play, but we can say that the act of creation was in some sense an act of play itself. Play is creational, productional, relational, restrictional, and immortal. The cosmos was created as play, and it was created for play, a grand theater for our sporting. And you indeed were made to play.