On the face of it, the Book of Proverbs would seem to be a rather benign part of the scriptural canon. It is, after all, a collection of Godly wisdom attributed to Solomon himself: thirty-one chapters’ worth of pithy life lessons that are both spiritually centered and practicable to the human experience in every generation, including our own. As such, it’s relatively unladen with all the weighty details of history and law that make up so much of Old Testament literature, nor is it filled with the kind of rich imagery or deep theological discourse that one finds in such abundance, for instance, in the Psalms or in the Book of Job. On the contrary, Proverbs seems to handle this matter of “learning about wisdom and instruction” (1:1) in a way that is at once rapid, assertive and relentless; in fact, one could actually begin to summarize the whole Book of Proverbs this way: Wisdom, Good! Foolishness, Bad!
This is not to say, however, that Proverbs is in any way “a kinder and gentler” approach to walking with God; if anything, Proverbs takes an unflinching hard line on the truth that “the fear of the LORD is the beginning of knowledge;” (1:7) moreover, it’s personal. This becomes very clear early on, as “Wisdom” – portrayed here not as a concept but a person; specifically a woman of substance, authority and divinely inspired knowledge (in Hebrew, Hokhmah) – is seen fearlessly crying out from the busiest corner of the square, “How long, O simple ones, will you love being simple?” (1:20-22) Or even more brutally, as The Message translates this passage, “Simpletons! How long will you wallow in ignorance? Cynics! How long will you feed your cynicism? Idiots! How long will you refuse to learn?”
What follows ends up far afield from the series of sweet little, fortune cookie-sized snippets of advice we’re expecting; rather, what we learn in Proverbs is that wisdom ignored leads to death: a death of character, a death of relationship, a death of integrity in daily life and living, and yes, sometimes a physical death as well. Consequently, it can be tough going; and it’s no coincidence that on many occasions over the years when I’ve preached from this particular book of the Bible I’ve also had to deal with some amount of negative feedback: from the man who honestly, and quite angrily, believed that the sermon was directed at him personally and that I had, in fact, called him a simpleton; to the woman who refused to read aloud the passage from the 31st chapter that in at least one NRSV edition of the Bible is subtitled, “Ode to a Capable Wife,” in part because she felt it was not only antiquated but also inherently sexist.
Granted, there’s a whole lot in Proverbs that wreaks havoc on our modern sensibilities: amongst other things, there are verses that address child rearing and discipline (including the infamous verse, “Those who spare the rod hate their children” (13:24)); adultery and sexual immorality; matters of greed, debt and finance; and even a smattering of advice on manners in social situations: all of it presented in a way that’s direct, blunt and sometimes even downright judgmental. Indeed, to work one’s way through Proverbs requires a fair amount of moral, ethical and theological wrestling, and that can be difficult indeed; but taken as a whole, what we discover is a way of life and living that is grounded in true wisdom and speaks with the voice of God.
Some years ago, in the days following a tragic shooting at a schoolhouse in the Amish village of Nickel Mines, Pennsylvania – in which the remarkable, faithful response of the Amish families in that community was one of forgiveness and caring love rather than embracing an attitude of anger and revenge – I was approached by one of the members of the congregation I was serving at the time who, well-meaning though he was, said to me that “if only we could live in our church with such a simple, forgiving, peaceful attitude as those Amish, just think of how much easier and happy life would be.” I’m sure I just smiled and nodded my head; but to be honest, I remember thinking, “Are you kidding? You think that was easy for them? You don’t think that every single day those families don’t have to literally fight the temptation to anger and rage, and struggle to renew themselves to the cause they know in faith is right?”
And the answer, of course, is no; for it is rarely easy to heed the wisdom of the Lord in our lives, most especially in those moments when all is seemingly lost and the earth shakes beneath our feet. But it is true that in the “fear of the Lord,” that humility and reverence that both grounds us and guides us, that we find the beginnings of strength and understanding that will lead us to true wisdom; and the grace to respond in faith and with love even when we’re feeling like every fiber of our being is crying out to do the opposite.
The lessons can be hard indeed; but the rewards garnered from what we learn will be well worth the struggle.
c. 2014 Rev. Michael W. Lowry