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Proverbs 21:1-31

June 8, 2015

Here are the proverbs in this chapter that caught my attention:

All deeds are right in the sight of the doer, but the Lord weighs the heart (v.2).  This proverb observes that we all have a tendency to justify our actions–no mater what they are.  In order to preserve our own self-image as a good or reasonable person, we need to find reasonable excuses for all our actions.  We minimize the harm done while maximizing the idea that our actions were natural and understandable, or even necessary and proper.  Maybe.  Maybe not.  Only when we have set aside all defensiveness and excuses may we be able to see our actions clearly for what they are:  the underlying motivations, how they were perceived and experienced by others, and the actual effects.

What does it mean, though, to say “the Lord weighs the heart”?  Does this mean God sees our true intentions?  Though I’m sure God does, I don’t think that’s what this proverb is getting at.  Our “good intentions” are part of our defense mechanism and excuse-making.  “I only intended to be helpful,” we say, even though we have created a conflict through our impatient words.  Our intention, though important, is not decisive for determining whether an action was right or not.

When the proverb says “God weighs the heart” I think it is saying that God sees our deepest motivations–motivations that are hidden even from ourselves.  The field of psychoanalysis has made us more aware of the fact that we are filled with all kinds of unconscious motivations.  We think we are making particular decisions for particular reasons, but actually those decisions are being shaped by early childhood experiences and the dynamics of the families we grew up in–as well as by deep impulses of fear, sexual desire and power that we rarely realize.  We think we know ourselves, and we think we act rationally, but God weighs a heart that we barely acknowledge.

The violence of the wicked will sweep them away, because they refuse to do what is just (v. 7).  Of course many wicked people are not swept away by their own violence.  Many vicious dictators have died quietly in their luxurious beds.  But the proverb is expressing a truth that is broader than individual cases; it is saying that injustice and violence are not sustainable–they eventually destroy themselves.

Injustice runs counter to our nature.  Ever since we were little children we have had a penchant that everything must be fair.  “That’s not fair!” is the cry of every eight-year-old (and older).  So any system that continues to be unfair will always create growing resentment and resistance.  Violence is then used to keep the unjust system in place, but the use of violence simply multiplies the sense of how unjust the system is.  Eventually those sensing or suffering the injustice will simply refuse to cooperate with the system–perhaps turning to violence themselves.

We see this happening in various middle eastern countries today, but we also see it happening in our own American cities when a police officer shoots an unarmed black man.  Sometimes the situation perhaps justifies the shooting, and certainly the police have an extremely difficult, dangerous, and often thankless job.  And yet, those who are empowered (with lethal force!) to uphold justice must be absolutely just themselves, or they fundamentally undermine the sense of justice in society.

The black community has a long history of sensing injustice from society and from the police; so the police are viewed, not as conveyors of justice, but as purveyors of injustice.  Any incident of perceived unjust violence by the police may trigger an overwhelming emotional response of noncooperation, protest, or even violence.  Because police are armed, and because they are used to quickly categorizing people as good or bad for the sake of maintaining public order, they are ripe for misusing their power.  But because they are needed, and society in general respects the difficulty of their task, there is also a tendency to cover-up or not indict acts of injustice by the police–which further alienates that segment of the society that senses injustice.

As our proverb suggests, the health and stability of our society depends, not on covering up acts of injustice by police (no matter how understandable the circumstances), but on full transparency and accountability–especially for those empowered to enforce justice.

One wise person went up against a city of warriors and brought down the stronghold in which they trusted (v.22).  In the ancient world there is nothing more secure than a city with high, strong walls filled with warriors.  Trying to defeat a well-defended city is extremely difficult.  In an age without gun powder, walls could hardly be knocked down.  But this proverb is saying that one wise person can defeat the best strongholds filled with warriors.  Perhaps divert the water supply.  Perhaps bribe a gate keeper.  Perhaps build a Trojan Horse!  The point is:  wisdom is stronger than strength.  Wisdom is more important than raw power.  Those with lots of power rely on their power, not realizing how vulnerable they are to an opponent’s wisdom.  Let’s rely more on the “soft power” of wisdom.

This chapter also contains two similar proverbs that I imagine were originally meant to be humorous, but for us today they are more likely to come across as sexist:  vv. 9 and 19.  Each suggests it’s better to live alone with meager shelter than in a nice home with a demanding wife.  That’s perhaps true.  It’s also true for wives who have to put up with demanding husbands.  Unfortunately, these two proverbs stereotype wives (not husbands) as the ones who are potentially difficult to live with.  There are no proverbs about difficult husbands.  So whenever we read Proverbs, let’s make sure we translate them to apply to both sexes!

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From → Proverbs

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