Written by Pastor Ed
Proverbs: Common Sense Living
January 25, 2015
Books of the Bible Series
You’ve all heard them, and maybe even have come up with some of your own. “An apple a day keeps the doctor away.” “The early bird catches the worm.” “A stitch in time saves nine.” “Where there’s a will there’s a way.” “There’s no such thing as bad weather, just inappropriate clothes.” “Any tool can be the right tool,” a favourite from Red Green.
Pithy sayings that describe some aspect of life or way of living, either as an affirmation or as a warning. Somewhere along the way, the wise men of Israel decided to gather up such saying and compile them into a book, which we now know as the book of Proverbs. The title, Proverbs, comes from the Latin title that was given to the book when it was translated from the Hebrew. In Hebrew the contents are called “Mashal” which literally means “a comparison,” and can include, as proverbs does, much more than the two line sayings that make up most of the book. In the Hebrew Bible it is found in the third section, the “Writings.”
This collection of collections, as some call it, was compiled from many sources, as is evidenced by the ascriptions in the book itself. And not just Jewish sources. One section of Proverbs, beginning in chapter 22 and into chapter 23 is based on a piece from Egypt called “The Instruction of Amenemope.” The acrostic poem at the end of the end of the book, often referred to as “The Good Wife” was clearly a separate piece that was placed in the collection when it was compiled.
Now it is true that I Kings tells us that Solomon composed many proverbs. I Kings 4: 29-34 says:
29 God gave Solomon very great wisdom, discernment, and breadth of understanding as vast as the sand on the seashore, 30 so that Solomon’s wisdom surpassed the wisdom of all the people of the east, and all the wisdom of Egypt. 31 He was wiser than anyone else, wiser than Ethan the Ezrahite, and Heman, Calcol, and Darda, children of Mahol; his fame spread throughout all the surrounding nations. 32 He composed three thousand proverbs, and his songs numbered a thousand and five. 33 He would speak of trees, from the cedar that is in the Lebanon to the hyssop that grows in the wall; he would speak of animals, and birds, and reptiles, and fish. 34 People came from all the nations to hear the wisdom of Solomon; they came from all the kings of the earth who had heard of his wisdom.
Solomon was hailed as a wise king and a patron of learning, so it only seems appropriate that if you are going to ascribe a book of proverbs to someone, you would choose Solomon. And certainly some of the contents of the book of Proverbs may date back to the time of Solomon. But as the book itself notes, some of the contents came from other sources as well and was probably compiled some time after the exile.
It’s inclusion in the Hebrew bible was the source of some controversy even into the 1 c. AD. When the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible was made, known as the Septuagint, the book of Proverbs was clearly still in flux, as it was rearranged and even added to in the process. As Wikipedia (that source of all things Biblical) points out, “Proverbs was almost excluded from the Bible because of its contradictions – the reader is told, for example, both to “not answer a dolt according to his folly”, according to 26:4, and to “answer the dolt by his folly”, as 26:5 advises.” Again just an example of collecting saying from many sources. You may have also noted that there are some repeats in various chapters. The book also lacks any reference to the great moments of Israelite history, the deliverance from Egypt, the giving of the law at Mt Sinai, the prophets or kings. And for most of the book, even God is rarely mentioned.
In some ways we could compare the book of Proverbs to Ben Franklin’s Poor Richard’s Almanac, or more recently William Bennet’s The Book of Virtues. In its day it was probably used as a teaching tool for young men of the more well-to-do families who attended the academies of the day. Its purpose is summed up in those first verses we heard read.
2 For learning about wisdom and instruction,
for understanding words of insight,
3 for gaining instruction in wise dealing,
righteousness, justice, and equity;
4 to teach shrewdness to the simple,
knowledge and prudence to the young—
5 let the wise also hear and gain in learning,
and the discerning acquire skill,
6 to understand a proverb and a figure,
the words of the wise and their riddles.
Clearly it was aimed at young men, for there are many warnings about the wiles and evils of loose women or even contentious wives. Just like it is easy for us to remember some of those sayings I quoted at the beginning, so putting common sense wisdom into short saying would make them easier to remember.
It is also interesting that included in the book is a brief explanation of how some of the proverbs came to be. Proverbs 24 verses 30-34 says:
30 I passed by the field of one who was lazy,
by the vineyard of a stupid person;
31 and see, it was all overgrown with thorns;
the ground was covered with nettles,
and its stone wall was broken down.
32 Then I saw and considered it;
I looked and received instruction.
33 A little sleep, a little slumber,
a little folding of the hands to rest,
34 and poverty will come upon you like a robber,
and want, like an armed warrior.
So one of the things we should say about the book of Proverbs is that the many common sense saying are descriptive, not prescriptive. They are good descriptions of how to get along in life, the kind of advice a father or mother might give to their child. But they aren’t guarantees. “Train up a child in the way he should go and when he is old he will not depart from it,” is sound advice for a parent, but as we all know the results don’t always follow. And you can’t turn it around and say, “Well, the parents must not have done a good job of training.”
That being said, the book of Proverbs has been used in a whole variety of ways. In his letter to the Romans Paul quotes Proverbs 25: 21 “If your enemies are hungry, give them bread to eat; and if they are thirsty, give them water to drink, for you will heap coals of fire on their heads, and the Lord will reward you.” In II Peter 2, Peter references Proverbs 26: 11 which we heard in the video, “Like a dog returns to it vomit, is a fool who reverts to his folly.” That particular proverb was even quoted by Kipling in one of his poems, and has been used by politicians as well!
In the churches I grew up in, many pastors were chosen by lot. The candidates for minister were asked to choose from a selection of new hymn books, one of which contained a slip of paper with Proverbs 16:33 written on it, “The lot is cast into the lap, but the decision is the Lord’s alone.” And whoever got the slip of paper was ordained on the spot.
For the most part, the wisdom of the proverbs follows what one might expect. If you work hard, do good, and are wise, you will prosper and live a long life. If you are a fool, lazy, and wicked, you can expect poverty and punishment. Don’t lie or use false weights in your measurements, watch your language, and above all, watch out for those enticing women. All good advice, but as one commentator said, “The book of proverbs is not the highest height to which in the Bible the human spirit soars. It is neither profound nor dramatic. It is a manual of prudence, a guide to right living.”
So, is there one thing we can take from the book of Proverbs aside from its declaration that, “the glory of youths is their strength, but the beauty of the aged is their grey hair.” (20:29)
Well, the first part of the book personifies Wisdom as that which everyone should seek after, and wisdom, says the writer, comes from God. “Trust in the lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding.” (3:5) Wisdom, and those who are wise, are ready to learn, will listen to instruction and learn from their mistakes. And they will understand that ultimately it is God who is in control, and as we will see in two weeks in Ecclesiastes, that makes a difference in how we approach life.
To quote again from Wikipedia:
“The repeated theme is that ‘the fear of God (meaning submission to the will of God) is the beginning of wisdom.’ Wisdom is praised for her role in creation; God acquired her before all else, and through her he gave order to chaos; and since humans have life and prosperity by conforming to the order of creation, seeking wisdom is the essence and goal of the religious life.”
Certainly for us, as Christians, the teachings of Jesus carry more weight than those of Solomon, but it is good practical advice for common sense living, and the encouragement to always be open to learn and grow is certainly advice well heeded.
2 My child, if you accept my words
and treasure up my commandments within you,
2 making your ear attentive to wisdom
and inclining your heart to understanding;
3 if you indeed cry out for insight,
and raise your voice for understanding;
4 if you seek it like silver,
and search for it as for hidden treasures—
5 then you will understand the fear of the Lord
and find the knowledge of God.