Week 92: Proverbs Part 1
Proverbs seems at first to be a strange book to be included in the Bible. It contains humorous observations and pithy sayings that seem to be little more than common sense.
The book doesn’t seem very spiritual. It says little about private or public devotions, and some of its themes seem distinctly mundane.
Some of the proverbs make points which are obvious to everyone. For example: ‘Poverty is the ruin of the poor’; ‘A happy heart makes the face cheerful’; ‘Better to live on a corner of the roof than share a house with a quarrelsome wife’; ‘Like one who seizes a dog by the ears is a passer-by who meddles in a quarrel not his own’.
Some of the proverbs seem more entertaining than edifying, and others seem downright immoral. For example: ‘A bribe does wonders, it will bring you before men of importance’.
Many of the proverbs have found their way into everyday speech:
‘Spare the rod and spoil the child’;
‘Hope deferred makes the heart sick’;
‘Pride goes before a fall’;
‘Stolen food is sweet’;
‘Iron sharpens iron’.
The Book of Proverbs describes life as it really is – not life in church, but life in the street, the office, the shop, the home. The book covers all aspects of life – not just what you do on Sundays in church. It considers how you should live throughout the week in every situation.
So the characters who are found in the Book of Proverbs can be easily recognized in all cultures. There is the woman who talks too much, the wife who is always nagging, the aimless youth hanging around on street corners, the neighbor who is always dropping in and staying too long, the friend who is unbearably cheerful first thing in the morning.
Indeed, the 900 proverbs cover most of life’s important subjects, often presenting them as contrasts: wisdom and folly, pride and humility, love and lust, wealth and poverty, work and leisure, masters and servants, husbands and wives, friends and relatives, life and death. But there are significant and surprising omissions. There is very little which is ‘religious’, no mention of priests and prophets, and very little about kings – all people who figure prominently in the rest of the Old Testament.
It is important that from the outset we are clear about the way in which we should view the subjects that are covered. Some people would make the mistake of claiming that Proverbs focuses upon ‘secular’ life, but the so-called ‘secular/sacred divide’ is not one that the Bible endorses. Indeed, as far as God is concerned, the only thing that can be described as ‘secular’ is sin itself.
The idea that only the ‘religious’ is ‘sacred’ comes from the Greek philosophers and has filtered into much modern thinking, even among Christians. The Bible knows of no such division. Any activity can be sacred if it can be devoted to God. He would rather have a good taxi driver than a bad missionary. All legitimate jobs are at the same level.
So Proverbs is interested in where most of our waking life is lived. This book tells us how we can make the most of life and warns us that many people waste it. It is about the ‘Good Life’. Its wisdom enables us to arrive at the end of our days pleased with all that we have accomplished.
How is Proverbs related to the message of the rest of the Bible? The apostle Paul, in his second letter to Timothy, said that the holy Scriptures are able to make him ‘wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus’. But a reading of Proverbs may leave us wondering where ‘salvation’ appears, since the themes of redemption that are common in other biblical books are strangely absent.
But the theme is there. The word ‘salvation’ is very close in meaning to words such as ‘salvage’ or ‘recycling’. God is in the business of recycling people so that they become useful. Christians are changed from sinners into saints, but also from being foolish to being wise. The message of the Bible is that the real cause of pollution on the planet is people. Jesus himself likened hell to the rubbish dump in the valley of Gehenna outside Jerusalem, where all the garbage was thrown. He spoke of people being ‘thrown’ into hell as if they were good for nothing. God recycles people who are heading for hell, turning fools into wise people.
So in that sense Proverbs is full of ‘salvation’, since it tells us the sort of life we are saved for and reminds us about the sort of life we have been saved from. It thus corrects an imbalance that is common in the preaching of many churches. Too much attention is paid to what we are saved from and not enough to what we are saved to and for.
What about wisdom outside the Bible? Many would argue that there is a lot of wisdom that is not included in the Bible. What about the wisdom of Plato, Socrates, Aristotle and Confucius? It need not surprise us that there is wisdom outside the Bible, for all men and women are made in the image of God, and so they are able to make sense of life. But this is not to say that they have enough sense to make the most of life. Only when Christ redeems us do we grasp the real meaning of life and live as God intends. So in this respect the world’s ‘wisdom’ will always be folly, for it lacks eternal perspective.
So Proverbs is affirming the truth that God is ‘the All- Wise God’, the source of all wisdom, and that it is his wisdom that created the whole universe, with all its complexity.