Lecture 14: Proverbs
Course: Old Testament Survey
Now we are shifting gears to talk about Proverbs. Not totally shifting gears because we have already talked about the idea of wisdom. Here is a quick overview of Proverbs in terms of how the book is structured.
A. Importance of Wisdom (1-9): Nine chapters have in them some short and long poems about the importance of seeking wisdom. You just want to get a sense of the right choices and the wrong choices. If you do not have that, how are you going to make the right choices? As we will see the right choices always start with believing in God. The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, says Proverbs. A crucial statement.
B. Proverbs of Solomon (10-22): Then you have some Proverbs of Solomon, the biggest, single chunk in the book.
C. Words of the Wise (22-24): Then, interestingly, a section that is just called "Words of the Wise." Words of people who thought a lot about and taught a lot about making right choices.
D. More Words of the Wise (24:23-34): Then more of those for twelve verses.
E. More Proverbs of Solomon (25-29): Then another big chunk, more Proverbs of Solomon.
F. Words of Agur (30): Then the words of Agur.
G. Words of Lemuel (31:1-9): The words of Lemuel. Agur and Lemuel are both called kings. If you look in the books of 1 and 2 Kings you will look in vain for Agur and Lemuel, because they are Arab kings. You might then say, "Wait a minute. What are Arab kings doing contributing to the Bible? The answer is: this is something about Proverbs you need to appreciate. Solomon was probably much more a collector than an author in the sense of actually making up Proverbs. Did he make up many? Sure, undoubtedly made up many; more than anybody else, but he basically was a collector. God inspired him and if there were others who had any role to play in collecting the book, and there may have been, because there is a reference at one point in Proverbs to proverbs collected by "Hezekiah's men." Hezekiah comes at the end of the eighth century so he is at least one hundred and fifty years after Solomon. If some good stuff about the choices in life was available out there among the Arab contacts that Solomon had. Remember the Queen of Sheba; she is an Arabian queen who comes to Solomon. If it is out there, God can use it. Did Solomon, perhaps, clean up some of it? Did he add emphasis on the Lord, the God of Israel? Sure, but the origins are wherever they may come from. We can spot a very few, but there is a few, little parallels between some proverbs in Egyptian literature and things that we have in the book of Proverbs. Some of those were worth borrowing and putting in a good context.
H. A Godly Woman (31:10-31): Then, finally, the book ends with the praise of a godly woman.
II. Themes of the Book
Look at these themes and let me suggest why that kind of borrowing, even from outside of Israel, really was not a dangerous thing to do. If done carefully, it is perfectly legitimate. There are themes in Proverbs like number nine here which I have ended with the fear of Yahweh, the fear of the Lord that are, of course, orthodox Israelite themes that are not going to come from Arabs; as far as we know, most of whom did not worship Yahweh in any way. Some of the things are like that. But look at some of these themes like good speech, family matters, hard work versus laziness, the rich versus the poor, being proud versus being humble. These are things that are, to some considerable degree, shared human wisdom concerns. In other words, the book of Proverbs is as much a kind of an all-purpose book for living and not specifically a book for instruction in theology that makes it stand apart to some degree from other books. The special purpose of Proverbs is to bring up young people and to teach them what the choices of life really are. In other words, I would say to you if you are heading into youth ministry, Proverbs is the book in the Bible to help youth get it; to get what life is all about, to get the basics. To learn that you must make the decisions between wisdom and folly. That there is such a thing as righteousness and there is such a thing as wickedness. There is real evil and to know what it looks like. To know how important their speech is. To know how important it is that they relate properly within their family. That someday when they are a husband or a wife, a father or a mother they will have a crucial role to play in the lives of people that will be precious to them. And about the importance of hard work.
Proverbs would not require you to be converted to Christ to get a lot of the points. It really does not. Proverbs is much more, sort of, all-purpose. What is great about Proverbs is you can use it to help raise your own children even before they have made their decision to follow Christ as Lord and Savior. That is a fact. Those of you who have no children yet may have not even ever thought about this. I have had more children than anybody I know because my wife and I not only have had eight, four biological and four adopted, but we raised another dozen as foster children. We just have so many kids I can hardly remember their names. I look at them and say, "You are…?" But almost all Christian parents face the fact that they are raising their kids at one stage or another who are not necessarily living for Christ. Some eleven year old or some eighteen year old or whatever, they may be very far from Christ. How do you relate to them? You still need to raise them up with these basic values, basic truths, a basic sense of choices and so on. They should not be proud, they ought to be humble. They ought to get along well with friends and neighbors. They ought to know how to work hard and honor the boss and be a good employee, etc. If they are a boss, they ought to know how to be a kind boss and a fair boss, etc. Ultimately what you want is that they learn the fear of the Lord. They really get converted because that is the beginning point of all wisdom ultimately. If you want to be oriented to right and wrong, to be oriented to God is the best orientation there could possibly be for having all the other orientations fit. But still this can work. If you have got a youth group or a children's ministry or a Christian education ministry with a lot of kids who are not yet converted you can still use this material. It does not require for its applicability and its value that they have really made a decision to follow Christ. Of course that is ideal, of course it is perfect, but there is a lot you can do without that. I really encourage this.
One of the things that sometimes we do at home is that as we are eating dinner I will just grab the Bible and I will read a Proverb. I will just pick a Proverb at random. Often times it is just a Proverb that my eye falls on, I will do it now, I will give you a proverb like I do it at home. I will say to the kids, "It says here a wicked messenger falls into trouble, but a trustworthy envoy brings healing." Then I will say to my son Jonathan, who is now 14, "Okay Jonathan, what does that mean?" He will say predictably, "I don't know." Then I will read it again. "It says here, Proverbs 13:17, 'A wicked messenger falls into trouble, but a trustworthy envoy brings healing.'" Then my wife and I will start explaining what is a messenger, what is an envoy, teach him vocabulary and so on. Then I will turn to some of the older kids and say, "What do you think it means?" Then one of them will get it or get part of it and together we will work it out and then I will explain it, and it is a wonderful statement. Here is a statement about somebody who is a gossip or who is somehow giving false information or conveying things in a way that is harmful that gets people in trouble as opposed to the faithful, trustworthy envoy who can bring healing. When you handle the truth correctly and diplomatically huge amounts of good can happen. You want to hurt people, boy can you hurt them by just the way you say, "Do you know what so and so said about you the other night at Bible study?" Oh man, that is dynamite. Make it up. You could start a thing that would take years to die down.
III. Proverbs are puzzles.
One little detail, proverbs are essentially puzzles. This is important to get. A proverb is not intended to be simple to understand the minute you read it or hear it. It is supposed to soluble so it is not a puzzle that just makes you say, "I don't know; I have no idea what this says." A reasonable adult can always figure it out and explain it to a thoughtful child or adolescent. It is important to appreciate, however, in the way Proverbs are written--it is much more visible in the Hebrew, by the way, than it is in the English because the English often does kind of half explain it in the translation. English translators look for clarification, but in the original they are like puzzles. They are so terse and they have such unusual expressions and themes and metaphors that often they make no sense. Some of you who have learned English as a second language or have come from other cultures know this. You have heard many things that people say and you say, "What does that mean?" For example Americans say, "A stitch in time saves nine." It is an American and British proverb. We use it that way because it rhymes, it has a nice sense to it. What is the meaning? It has very little to do with sewing. It is not really a sewing proverb at all. You do not have to watch the Sewing Channel to understand this proverb. It is about the fact that from a literal point of view, a literalistic point of view, when a garment starts to unravel if you can quickly stitch it then much more unraveling will be stopped and one stitch in time saves nine stitches. Does it also save fourteen? Sure. Does it save thirty-eight? Sure. Does it save two? Yes. So it is not just nine. But it sort of rhymes to say, "A stitch in times saves nine," so that is the way it is put together to make it memorable but the real point of that proverb is that there are many kinds of situations that will get worse and worse and worse if you let them go but if you act quickly you can often prevent it from getting really bad. The sooner you act with many problems the easier they will be to solve. That is what a stitch in time really means. We say it in kind of a puzzle way. I sure that most kids as they are growing up, even kids who have heard that all their life, the first time they heard it said, "What, I don't get it." So you have to explain it. Proverbs are like that. We believe that when people taught proverbs to kids, again and again and again they would say, "Teacher, would you explain that one too please?" It had to be puzzled out. But you know what is wonderful, if you have something you have to puzzle out, we find this at the dinner table whenever we do it with our kids, it makes an impact because you are repeating it. You say, "Now listen to that first part again. What do you think that means?" You are going over it, you are repeating it, everybody is thinking about it, they are trying to solve the puzzle. This is what helps commit it to memory. Something that is easy to solve just sort of goes in one ear and out the other, which is also a kind of an English proverb; an expression for it does not last in your memory. A thing that you have to work on, think about, analyze. What is the point of that? I don't get it. Why is it stated that way? That is just great in terms of helping you to get the concept and likely remember it. In the Hebrew the proverbs are very, very memorizable. They are like "a stitch in time saves nine" or "look before you leap." They are short, they are very epigrammatic, they are very condensed, they often have similar sounds and cadences and they are put in a word order that you can easily remember. Like, "Roses are red, violets are blue, sugar is sweet and who are you." It is memorizable, because there are cadences and so on. There are a lot of those things that we do not have in English but we still have the puzzle factor, the need to go over it, the concept and the tremendous value for believer and nonbeliever alike, which is a great thing.
IV. Context of Warnings
One does have to be careful in the genre. I think in the wisdom literature, the warnings against prostitution, harlotry and so on are basically warnings in favor of sexual fidelity and purity. In the prophets the term harlotry, prostitution is usually metaphorical referring to polytheism. Where you use a term makes a very big difference in its applicability. I was giving the illustration in another class today--suppose you saw in a newspaper the following: Pittsburgh eliminates Detroit. If that were not on a sports page or a sport story it could be real serious. "Good grief, Pittsburgh attacked Detroit and eliminated them with atomic weapons or something." On a sports page, however, it means they knocked them out of the playoffs or out of eligibility for the playoffs. It has another kind of a meaning; it is using language in the context of the field of sports and it is not the city of Pittsburgh at all, it is the Pittsburgh Penguins or whoever it is. It is some particular team, a very small organization, a very small number of people from Pittsburgh actually who work in Pittsburgh. (They are from Canada if they are Penguins.) The context is a huge part of the meaning of something. In the prophets a word is going to have this kind of value in that context whereas over in the proverbs or wisdom literature in general it will have another.
V. Sexual Purity and Choosing a Spouse
One of the big issues in wisdom literature is sexual purity and so Proverbs ends with the advice about how wonderful it is to make the right choice about life's biggest choice from a human point of view. Life's biggest choice is choosing God ultimately. But the biggest choice that people tend to make that they think of as a human choice is the choice of a spouse. You end the book with this advice that it is so important to find a godly wife. All of Proverbs like the law and everything is always in the second person singular but do not think it is not automatically reversible. I think everybody in ancient Israel would have understood that that teaching advised a woman to find a godly husband as well. Just to make the appropriate changes so that the concepts would still essentially be helpful. Choosing a mate is crucial. Then one watches teenagers do this and it is basically who you feel comfortable with in the back seat of a car. That is the decision-making ability. It is just incredible how badly they make the decisions. It is amazing what you see. Any of you who have any pastoral experience know a big part of your time is spent in counseling people who not only made strange decisions preparing for marriage, but are continuing to make strange decisions in marriage. This is the biggest decision of life and people have not always done it well. What do we have at the end of Proverbs? Nothing about anybody's looks. Do not make it based on looks. Nothing about any number of things like, "Aw, she is a great dancer, that is a good reason to marry her." It is about the quality, the character, the competence, the willingness to work hard, the willingness to take care of the family and provide, the willingness to be a partner to you, the willingness to be helpful. It is just a whole other set of values that the wise person uses to make the right choices.
VI. A Useful Proverb
Let me end up on Proverbs and I know there is so many other things we could talk about.
Let me end up with a little story about a Proverb that did me much good. When I grew up my Dad taught me a Proverb. He taught me some Proverbs, I suppose, like don't play in the street is sort of a proverb. One that my dad taught me was this--every gun is loaded. I heard that from when I was a little kid because my dad had some guns and that was a rule. For years I would keep asking him, "Come on Dad, mine is not loaded, look it's empty." He would not hear me. He would say, "No, Doug, every gun is loaded." What was he teaching me? Technically it was not true but he was teaching me an attitude about a gun. He was saying, "Treat every gun as if it is loaded." It is something his dad had taught him. This was very useful to me when I shot a hole in my underwear. Let me describe it. I am home from college, I am a freshman at some obscure university in Cambridge, Massachusetts and I am home from college and I brought along two or three weeks worth of laundry, mostly underwear. I have got it in a bag and I come down to the basement with this bag of laundry and drop it on the floor next to the washing machine where my mom will do it for me. Wasn't that wonderful? Talk about a saint. Anyway, and I see that my dad has a new gun in there. This is great. He has got it loaded with birdshot; I do not know that. I look at the gun and determine by breaking it open, Ah ha! There is absolutely nothing I can see. The light at the other end of the chamber, the whole thing is just absolutely empty, you can see right through the barrel. I was seeing the reflection of the light bulb behind me on the nice, shiny end of the round that was in there. If you ever have a gun, all the men in the room know this and the women just have to trust us; this is true. You cannot just hold a gun; you have to see how it fires. You just have to. You have to feel what we call, "the action." You have to aim it, you have to get the heft. You just have to squeeze that trigger and just feel how it clicks. I had it up and was holding it out right against the window of the basement; the window looks out into our backyard, nice, big picture window. I was looking out there and thought, "No, I better not." That came to my mind, "every gun is loaded," as proverbs are supposed to. They are supposed to come to mind. They are simple, they are short. They are not always technically true like a stitch in time saves nine; it could be a hundred, it could be one, sometimes it does not save anything. So I said every gun is loaded and I aimed, instead, down at my underwear and it went off and I shot a whole bunch of birdshot and it did not do too much damage to anything but my underwear; I had a lot of holes in my underwear. Proverbs have that value. The theory is that they are like rules. Why do we have rules for driving on a highway? Because it saves lives to have rules and to have them strictly enforced. Why do you have rules in Proverbs for how to live and to make the right choices? Because it saves people from miseries of all sorts. Proverbs, in that sense of having these rules that are just generally applicable, is in some ways the most secular book in the Bible. It is not really secular, I do not mean that, but it is more nearly secular. Maybe that is a safer way to say it, because it does certainly have an awful lot that could apply to the nonbeliever and be useful to the nonbeliever. So certainly in youth work, in raising children, it is a great device and I do commend it to you.