In June and July the main focus of our Sunday sermons will be on the book of Proverbs. It is a book that is dominated by short pithy sayings, which its introduction tells us will help both the young and the already wise gain increasing wisdom to make good choices in our day to day lives.
There are of course similar sayings in our English culture: “Many hands, make light work.” or “A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush.” However, the Old Testament Proverbs are distinctive in that they follow the Hebrew poetic style of having two separate lines, that usually either contrast or compliment each other.
Many of the Proverbs contain a contrast:
“The way of fools seems right to them,
but the wise listen to advice.” (Proverbs 12:15)
In doing so they present us with a choice between two ways of living or two ways of being. Do we want to be fools or wise; righteous or wicked; humble or proud?
In fact, rather than diving straight into the pithy sayings, the opening chapters of Proverbs are couched as a parent presenting their son, who is approaching adulthood, with the choice of two ways to live and urging him to choose the way of wisdom. In chapters 8 and 9 this choice is personalised as two women: Wisdom and Folly. Both invite the young man to come and dine with them, but whereas Wisdom’s meal will bring life, Folly’s will lead the young man to his grave.
Wisdom is also very closely associated with God himself. Indeed, Wisdom’s claim is that ‘The LORD brought me forth as the first of his works…” (8:22). To accept Wisdom’s call is to choose to fear the LORD. After all, “The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom, and knowledge of the Holy One is understanding.” (Proverbs 9:10).
Some Proverbs do not contain a contrast, but the lines compliment each other. For example:
“The one who gets wisdom loves life;
the one who cherishes understanding will soon prosper.” (Proverbs 19:8)
When we have two lines that say similar things, we are invited to think more carefully as to how each line interprets the other one. As we do so, we are led into even deeper wisdom.
Indeed, we need to not just compare one line with each other, but the Proverbs with each other. Sometimes it seems the Proverbs contradict each other. The clearest example is:
“Do not answer fools according to their folly, or you will be a fool yourself.” (Proverbs 26:4)
“Answer fools according to their folly, or they will be wise in their own eyes.” (Proverbs 26:5)
Despite, the apparent contradiction, we can see that both of these Proverbs can be true sometimes. Deeper wisdom comes from knowing when to follow one Proverb and when the other. This also helps us to see that the Proverbs do not claim to state what is always true, but rather what is normally true. For example, they often state that the lazy will be poor, which is normally the case. Yet, in exceptional circumstances a lazy person may inherit a fortune or win the lottery! These exceptions do not undermine the teaching of Proverbs, they just show us that we should read them with care.
Have you chosen the way of wisdom? Come and join us for this series from 12th June.