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Wisdom For Life

Introduction to Proverbs

Do you remember your parents ever telling you, “Two wrongs don't make a right” when you hit your kid brother for taking your toy? Or when you came home late for supper perhaps they said, “Better late than never.” Or perhaps they said “beggars can't be choosers” when you asked for pudding and you didn't like what they offered you.

The English language is full of these brief, single thought proverbs. Some aren't literally true: “A watched pot never boils.” Some are so familiar we don't even realise how shocking they are : “Don't throw the baby out with the bathwater.” Some are a bit confusing if you take them literally: “You can't have your cake and eat it too.” (Why not?). Some are so bland that they just say the same thing twice: “Nothing succeeds like success.” Some sound fun to say and stick in your mind, “Many a mickle makes a muckle” (it sounds even better in Broad Scots; “Mony a mickle macks a muckle”). But what does it actually mean? (Hint, “Lots o' little lays up loads”). Some are used to justify cruelty and betrayal: “All is fair in love and war.” Or revenge, “What goes around comes around.” We use them because they are short, they contain one main image that sticks in our mind that illustrates a general principle that is supposed to be applied in lots of different situations. The words and images used in most English proverbs have absolutely nothing to do with the application. “Don't carry all your eggs in one basket” is not just relevant to chicken farmers.

The Bible has an entire book dedicated to proverbs. Like English proverbs, they are short sayings that make a point that is relevant to lots of similar situations. Sometimes they use a memorable image, sometimes you it is obvious you're not supposed to take them literally. However, they normally deal with the issue honestly and head on. The ancient Hebrews were better educated and thought more deeply than English speakers normally do today. Unlike us, they could cope with more than one idea. They liked joining pairs of ideas. Sometimes the ideas contrast each other, sometimes they repeat the idea in greater depth. Unlike us, their proverbs weren't supposed to be used as mindless cliches. Their proverbs were supposed to be carefully meditated on to slowly draw out more and more wisdom. They were also supposed to motivate us to change our own behaviour, so that we can avoid making bad decisions that will bring greater problems into our own life and the life of others. Compare that to most English proverbs, which we normally to describe or criticise other people's behaviour or to justify or own.

Wisdom for dealing with Anger

If Proverbs had been written by an English speaker, this is what they would tell us about anger: A fool shows his annoyance at once, (12:16). A quick-tempered man does foolish things. (14:17). A quick-tempered man displays folly, (14:29). A hot-tempered man stirs up dissension, (15:18). A hot-tempered man must pay the penalty. (19:19). An angry man stirs up dissension, and a hot-tempered one commits many sins. (29:22). That isn't very helpful for helping you learn to control your anger, is it?

Now let's look at just one proverb.

A fool shows his annoyance at once,

but a prudent man overlooks an insult.

(Proverbs 12:16)

I wonder if your first thought on reading this was, “I've met that fool! I know his name!” Perhaps you respect the Bible enough to feel uneasy if that was your thought, so perhaps you thought, “well Lord, I guess it would be better to try to ignore it when someone insults me.” Or maybe even, “help me Lord not to get annoyed so quickly.” If so, good. That's the start of beginning to allow the proverbs to change your life. However, Solomon has already instructed us in his introduction to Proverbs that we're going to have to work a bit harder than that. He wrote,

“My son, if you receive my words and treasure up my commandments with you,

making your ear attentive to wisdom and inclining your heart to understanding;

yes, if you call out for insight and raise your voice for understanding,

if you seek it like silver and search for it as for hidden treasures...”

(Proverbs 2:1-4)

In other words, if we're going to allow that proverb to help us bring change in our lives, we're going to have to start thinking of every single proverb as being as precious as a diamond or a gold coin or any other treasure. We're going to have to pay attention and listen carefully. We're going to have to pray about it and ask the Holy Spirit to open our hearts and minds. We're going to have to dig deeper and work harder and keep digging into the proverb and into the rest of the Book of Proverbs until we find the silver it contains.

We can start to dig by simply asking, "what is a fool?” Proverbs tells us a lot about a fool, and it has nothing to do with a lack of inelegance. Proverbs says, “Fools despise wisdom and discipline.” (Prov 1:7). “Fools hate knowledge” (Prov 1:22). Fools are” complacent," they are happy as they are, (1:32). Fools “chatter,” they have more to say than they have to learn, (10:8). “Fools die for lack of judgment” (Prov 10:21). “A fool finds pleasure in evil conduct” (Prov 10:23). “The way of a fool seems right to him” (Prov 12:15). “Fools blurt out folly.” (Prov 12:23). “Fools detest turning from evil.” (Prov 13:19). In other words, there is much more to being a fool than just loosing your temper. Loosing your temper is part of a broader problem according to Proverbs. It is part of a wider character weakness. It isn't until the fool gains enough wisdom to see that “the folly of fools is deception” (Prov 14:8), that he can finally start to stop telling himself lies about what his character is really like.

If God is making you feel uneasy about your temper, admit what a fool you have been and go straight to “Jesus, who has become for us wisdom from God—that is, our righteousness, holiness and redemption.” (1 Cor 1:30). Because in Jesus “are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge” (Col 2:3), and because “the wisdom that comes from heaven is first of all pure; then peace-loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial and sincere.” (James 3:17). When you make His righteousness, holiness and redemption you own, you have His power to change and become more like Him.

As you can see, there's much more going on in this one brief proverb (12:16) than you realise. Hopefully, I've whetted your appetite to start reading Proverbs for yourself. We'll continue to keep digging into Proverbs next month.

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