Thursday, May 29, 2008

Proverbs . . . the good, the bad, the ugly.

A simple glance through the book of Proverbs will quickly reveal that it is unlike anything else in the Bible. Outside of the first few chapters and the last, most of the book is a rather loosely connected collection of sayings.

Some have worked there way into popular Christian thought:
  • The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom (9:10).
  • There is a way that seems right to a man, but in the end it leads to death (16:25).
  • As iron sharpens iron, so one man sharpens another (27:17).

Some stand out for their vividness:

  • The purposes of a man’s heart are deep waters, but a man of understanding draws them out (20:5).
  • A word aptly spoken is like apples of gold in settings of silver (25:11).
  • As a dog returns to its vomit, so a fool repeats his folly (26:11).

Others seem like they should have come from something other than the Bible:

  • A bribe is a charm to the one who gives it; wherever he turns, he succeeds. (17:8).
  • Give beer to those who are perishing, wine to those who are in anguish; let them drink and forget their poverty and remember their misery no more (31:6-7).

What does one make of this great variety? What is one to do with the proverbs that seem, well…anything but good advice? The first key to interpreting the book of Proverbs is recognizing what type of book it is. It’s obviously not a historical book like Kings or Chronicles or even the gospels. It isn’t a book of law like Leviticus. It is instead considered a book of wisdom (along with both Job and Ecclesiastes).

Most likely collected during the reign of Hezekiah, the book of Proverbs is a collection of wisdom sayings from many different sources and sayings. Its purpose was to train young boys in the King’s court in the way of wisdom. This wasn’t just some theoretical training, but rather practical training on how to make choices that would lead to the desired results in life. Proverbs assumes an ordered universe, one governed by truth and justice. It does not have much room for mystery or suffering. It assumes that if one works hard and does what is right, one will succeed. Of course, the other two examples of wisdom literature (Job and Ecclesiastes) challenge this assumption.

What then are we to make of the book of Proverbs? First, the book speaks of what is generally (but not always) true in life. Take Proverbs 13:21 for instance: “Misfortune pursues the sinner, but prosperity is the reward of the righteous.” True, most of the time hard, honest work usually does pay off while sin most often leads to trouble. This is good advice. But we must always keep the book of Proverbs in the context of the rest of scripture. The rest of scripture highlights that there are times when the wicked prevail at the expense of the righteous, and that suffering is sometimes a sign of faithfulness not folly (just look at the example of Jesus). However, if we’ll exercise these cautions, the book of Proverbs will provide us with some true gems of godly wisdom.

My favorite this week:
Above all else, guard your heart, for it is the wellspring of life (4:23).

Praying that the peace of God will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus this week (Phil 4:7).

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