Whereas the Gospel points us toward the life to come, the Proverbs instruct us about the life we are now living. These sayings were addressed especially to young men who stood on the threshold of adulthood because success in this life matters to God. The sayings have 3000 years of history on them so they are time-tested.
The issue of wisdom for God’s people is so important that his holy word contains five books that are called wisdom literature plus numerous references elsewhere to wisdom for life in both Testaments. Most popular among the five books is the Proverbs, many of them attributed to King Solomon.
The collection of proverbs was not unique to Israel. Surrounding nations had proverbs too. But the Hebrew proverbs are different in that they are grounded in “the fear of the Lord.” We regard the Old Testament as divinely inspired so these proverbs are sacred scriptures for the church of all ages.
As such, we do not view the wisdom of the proverbs as merely man-made; through human agency they are given to those who fear God. To fear God means more than to respect God in a general sense or to be terrified of God in a time of crisis. John W. Wevers writes that fearing God “is a technical term for those who live a godly life.” Wisdom calls us to embrace godly living.
The Book of Proverbs begins with an urgent seven-verse entreaty that ends with the summary statement: The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge, but fools despise wisdom and instruction (Proverbs 1:7).
How can such pointed insights as are found in the Proverbs be made to stick? Not by lectures or lengthy exhortations or even drama.
A proverb is instead a short and memorable sentence to tell us something important about living the wise and ordered life and avoiding folly. They express simple truths in simple words. For example, practice makes perfect.
Our English language is rich in proverbs. Some we know well: Don’t put all your eggs in one basket. Absence makes the heart grow fonder. Actions speak louder than words. Beggars can’t be choosers. Birds of a feather flock together; and on and on.
Solomon’s proverbs are a bit different in that they are written in the form of Hebrew poetry in which a thought is presented and then repeated in different words that agree, or add to, or state a contrast, completing the thought. For example: The prospect of the righteous is joy, / but the hope of the wicked comes to nothing (Proverbs 10:28).
Solomon’s first proverb after his introductory entreaty is: Listen my son to your father’s instruction / and do not forsake your mother’s teaching. He adds, They are a garland to grace your head / and a chain to adorn your neck (Proverbs 1:8,9). In other words, listening to parents, with respect, will add beauty to your life.
If Solomon were alive in our conflicted and even chaotic society, he might start by saying: Honor your father and your mother, so that you may live long in the land the Lord your God is giving you (Exodus 20:12). Even to the present there is a connection between domestic order in society and civic stability.
Solomon’s second proverb begins, My son, if sinful men entice you do not give in to them (Proverbs 1:10). Few decisions have greater bearing on a young person’s future than the companions chosen in the early years. This advice is so important that it is followed by a brief essay telling what entreaties to be aware of and the consequences of ignoring them (Proverbs 1:11-19).
A teenager I befriended half a century ago wrote to me from the penitentiary a few months back. I had been a father figure to him when his own father abandoned his large family. David explained that his bad end had originated from bad choices and wrong companions with whom he went astray after his time in the armed forces. To all of us, wisdom says: Walk with the wise and become wise, for a companion of fools suffers harm (Proverbs 13:20).
And so the 31 chapters of Proverbs move from one counsel to the next always in the form of a proverb: The Lord detests dishonest scales, / but accurate weights find favor with him (Proverbs 11:1). Or, Laziness brings on deep sleep, / and the shiftless go hungry. (Proverbs 19:15) Or, Whoever loves discipline loves knowledge, but whoever hates correction is stupid (Proverbs 12:1).
It is worth repeating that we treat these proverbs as God’s holy word. To the young of today living centuries after they were written, they continue to point the way to wisdom and to caution against folly. They say, Listen for I have trustworthy things to say; / I open my lips to speak what is right (Proverbs 8:6). To all of us they cry out: Seek wisdom and live.
Photo credit: Janes Gallerie (via flickr.com)