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Proverbs 20:1-30

June 1, 2015

I have selected four proverbs from this chapter to reflect on; three of which are focused on the kinds of customs, attitudes and behaviors that a community needs to foster in order to have reasonable stability and peace:

A gossip reveals secrets; therefore do not associate with a babbler (v. 19).  Community is undermined when individuals reveal what should be kept personal or confidential.  Obviously some secrets should be revealed–secrets that are themselves doing harm.  But everyone’s personal dignity depends on others respecting their privacy.  Why then do some people gossip?  Because revealing what is secret gives the speaker attention and “importance.”  We are easily tempted to share information that is titillating, and we are easily tempted to want to hear it.  It gives us (both the speaker and listener) a sense of being superior to the one being talked about.

Gossip not only consists of revealing that which was meant to be kept private, it also includes negative speculations and judgments behind another person’s back.  It is the spreading of rumors (whether false, true, or somewhere in between) with the intent of undermining a person’s reputation.  It is a cowardly approach to confronting a person–confronting by not confronting, by going around the person and poisoning the well.  It is passive-aggressive behavior.

Gossip serves no constructive purpose.  Don’t engage in it and do not listen to it.  Show no interest in it.  The irony is that gossips never consider themselves gossips; they rationalize and legitimize their behavior.  Thus, all of us need to examine ourselves closely for this inappropriate behavior.

If you curse father or mother, your lamp will go out in utter darkness (v.20).  This proverb obviously reflects one of the Ten Commandments:  honor your father and your mother. It is one of the fundamental values of biblical society (and perhaps all societies that wish to survive).  As a child and teenager I had little regard for this sentiment–not because I was particularly rebellious, but because it seemed obvious that a parent wrote this for their own benefit.  As a parent myself, I have never used this proverb (or the commandment) to try to curb my children’s behavior; that always seemed too heavy-handed to me.  I don’t use religious fear as a moral guide.

Nevertheless, a community that curses its elders is a community that is throwing out the customs and traditions that keep that community together and functional.  Are our parents always right?  Of course not.  Should we sometimes disagree and take another course?  Yes.  But to “curse” (despise, hate, seek to destroy) what our parents represent is to undo society and go into chaos.

Where is the balance?  In what ways should we honor our elders while at the same time making necessary changes–even drastic changes–for the sake of greater justice?  The Bible does not resolve that tension, but accepts it.  On the one side the Commandment tells us to honor our father and mother, and on the other side Jesus tells his followers they will need to say no to their fathers and mothers in order to follow him.

Do not say, “I will repay evil”; wait for the Lord, and he will help you (v. 22).  This proverb is not rejecting the use of law courts to seek justice; it is rejecting personal vengeance.  In every society, judicial justice is imperfect.  Perhaps the rich buy their way out of responsibility; perhaps the powerful intimidate the witnesses; perhaps the evidence is strong but not strong enough for a conviction or a settlement.  In these situations we are tempted to take the law into our own hands; we demand that justice be perfect, and we fool ourselves that our revenge will bring perfect justice.  This too will tear apart a community.  Taking personal revenge always unravels the fabric of society.

Israelite society was often violent.  There was no police force.  There was no investigation of crime.  Each village was held together by strict codes of conduct, by habits and customs agreed upon by all, and by a sense of deep shame if those customs were violated.  The desire for revenge was very strong when an injustice was committed and the wrong doer escaped punishment by the village.  Many considered it a matter of family honor to bring vengeance.  But this proverb (and others like it) sought to curb this destructive tendency.  Will village justice be perfect?  No.  But when it is not, do not take justice into your own hands, but leave it to God.  Be patient.  See how life unfolds.  In the long run, it is the nature of life that it slowly moves toward rectifying what is wrong or out of balance.  Let God work in the human heart and in the events of life.  Perhaps God will bring about an opportunity for making things right in a way that does not destroy.  And trust that ultimately God brings justice.  Is this naïve?  Or is this letting God be God?

All our steps are ordered by the Lord; how then can we understand our own ways? (v. 24).  We are both free agents and we are controlled by factors beyond our awareness.  We are responsible for our actions, and yet we will never fully understand ourselves.  We should always examine ourselves, our motives and attitudes and behavior; but we should also recognize that we do not control life or even ourselves.  In the end, God–the great mystery behind all existence and creativity and grace–holds it all.  We live best when we live in grateful surrender to the God of love.


From → Proverbs

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