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Proverbs 1:1-33

January 5, 2015

Today begins a series of Bible study blogs on the Book of Proverbs, one chapter per week.

I have to admit that Proverbs is not among my favorite books of the Bible.  In fact, I rarely turned to it during the first twenty years of my ministry because I thought it was too conventional.  The wisdom sayings often seemed to state the obvious–a morality that rarely rose above common sense.  In addition, many of the proverbs struck me as sexist, based on a patriarchal society that kept women firmly in place.  Finally, the theology of the Book of Proverbs is not nearly as bracing as the stories in the Old Testament.  Most of the OT is a narrative with a dynamic relationship with an active and transcendent God; Proverbs, in comparison, is anemic regarding story and a revelatory relationship with the divine.

But in the past decade I have grown to appreciate the place of Proverbs in the Bible.  Although I think our faith and character are best formed through sacred story, the role of wisdom is also important.  To live well and justly, one needs not only a sacred story but also some bits of everyday wisdom.  Earlier in my ministry I collected “stories to live by” (not only biblical stories but also folktales and contemporary true-life stories).  But now I collect proverbs to live by.  I comb through collections of famous quotations looking for the best statements on different topics for guiding my life and decisions.  A proverb boils down the wisdom of everyday living into a precious nugget.  By collecting these nuggets we equip ourselves for all sorts of practical situations.  Wisdom is knowing which nugget to apply when.

The ancient Jews, when they came into contact with the wisdom sayings of the Egyptians and the philosophy of the Greeks, recognized the value of this way of doing ethics.  So they supplemented their sacred stories with collections of wisdom sayings, and the Book of Proverbs is one of the results.

Although the proverbs of the Jews are not very different from the proverbs of other people (all cultures have discovered similar basic truths about what is needed in order to live together harmoniously), the Jews did give their definition of wisdom a unique stamp, and we find it in the very first chapter of the Book of Proverbs:  “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge” (verse 7a).  In other words, the Jews denied that wisdom is “secular.”  Even common sense, everyday wisdom is grounded in God.

The “fear of the Lord” is a common phrase in the OT.  A careful study of the contexts in which it appears reveals that having a “fear of the Lord” means that one has a clear sense of right and wrong, and one submits to this ethic rather than living selfishly.  That sense of right and wrong, and that sense that we ought to do what benefits society as a whole rather than putting our own interests first, comes from God and is an expression of submission to God.  Although today there are all kinds of evolutionary and biological explanations for this impulse within us, I think it is still true that this impulse is of God.  To commit ourselves to living justly, lovingly and unselfishly is a deeply spiritual act–whether we think we believe in God or not.  We are transcending self for the sake of the greater good, and such transcendence of self is a joining with God–or in the Hebrew phrase, a “fear of the Lord.”

So this, according to the Book of Proverbs, is the beginning of knowledge (and the beginning of wisdom).  No knowledge can be considered correct, and no wisdom can be considered wise unless it conforms to this submission to justice and the greater good.

Verses 10-19 plead with youth not to join gangs who do violence to others for profit.  For me, such wisdom is obvious; but in many of our cities this is a bit of wisdom sorely needed by youth who are struggling to find the place where they belong.  I need to be reminded that a lot of our youth (and older adults too) are still stuck in a philosophy of “might makes right.”

Real wisdom is about what produces long term good for the individual and for society.  It may take a lifetime to figure this out; indeed, it may take may lifetimes, which is why we have this thing called “tradition”; it is the wisdom of generations of lives.  But tradition is always mocked by each new generation that thinks that it knows more in its own limited experience.  This is why wisdom needs to spend so much time crying in the streets, warning us (verses 20-33).

But is tradition always wiser?  It depends on how we apply tradition.  For tradition to remain wise and relevant, it must incorporate new information and recognize new situations.  Tradition should not be applied in a wooden and literal fashion; instead, one must find the underlying principles that remain valid.


From → Proverbs

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