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Word to the wise: wisdom or folly?

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Posted January 26, 2019

We all need advice for getting through life, and the Wisdom books in the Bible show that God is interested in all aspects of our lives. In the first of a five-part series, we look at the pithy wisdom of Proverbs.

Since ancient times people have been in active pursuit of wisdom. In Old Testament times, people of the Ancient Near East had sages, or wise men, who were often associated with the court of the monarch. In Matthew 2, some of these wise men from the East came to visit Jesus.

Wise men say …

Israel had a wisdom tradition of its own. Elements of wisdom literature can be seen scattered throughout the Bible, from the words of Jesus, to the positions of Daniel and Joseph (Old Testament Joseph!) to the lyrics of songs found in Psalms. But, naturally, the place where Wisdom is most easily located in the Bible is the ‘wisdom books’. These are the books of Proverbs, Job and Ecclesiastes.

The Bible is a collection of books. It has the one divine author behind it all, yet his voice is heard in the Bible through many varied voices. This is seen especially in the Wisdom books. The three books are completely different to each other.

The book of Proverbs is the voice of conventional wisdom. It contains short, memorable statements that give advice for living well. These statements are not promises or guarantees. Rather, the biblical proverb is a general principle, which if followed, will contribute to living a happy and successful life.

Job and Ecclesiastes have a completely different tone to Proverbs. They are called contemplative or speculative wisdom. Proverbs sees things in black and white terms: ‘If you do the right thing, you are wise, and things will go well for you’. But Job and Ecclesiastes say, ‘Hang on … I don’t think it’s always quite that simple!’ These books deal with the harsh realities of life.

Job asks, ‘Why is it that people who have done the right thing have bad things happen to them. How is that fair?! How can God let these things happen?’ Excellent questions!
The writer of Ecclesiastes certainly didn’t seem to be having a good day when he was writing his volume. He seems rather depressed. He questions everything. He wonders, ‘What is the point of it all?’ More excellent questions.

In fact, they raise questions that people are still grappling with today. We still need wisdom and we still need to be able to grapple with the complexities of it.

While the voices of these three writers are each quite different, there is something that unites them. That is the belief that the fear of God is the beginning of true wisdom. Each of the books point us to God as the ultimate source of wisdom.

Over the next issues we’ll be exploring the Wisdom books. This week we’ll begin with Proverbs, and from there we’ll move on to Job and Ecclesiastes. And then we’re going to throw in a bonus book, Song of Songs. It’s not exactly a wisdom book. It’s really in a category of its own, but it’s a fascinating book that’s worth taking a look at. So for now though, let’s think a little more about the book of Proverbs.

Pithy Proverbs

Who wrote the book of Proverbs? It is strongly connected to King Solomon who was known for being even wiser than the wise men of the surrounding countries. Solomon, we are told, composed 3000 proverbs (see 1 Kings 4:30–34). But Proverbs has other contributors, too—including someone by the name of Agur, a group simply called ‘wise men’ and Lemuel, who was a pagan king.

It is fascinating that the wisdom of a non-Israelite king should be included in the Bible! Wisdom can be found in surprising places.

The proverbs included in the book are usually two lines. The first line makes a statement and the second either makes the same statement in a negative way or carries on the first line by adding more information to it.

An example of the second line making the same point in a negative way is Proverbs 10:5, which says:

‘He who gathers crops in summer is a prudent son,
    but he who sleeps during harvest is a disgraceful son’.

An example of a second line which continues the first is Proverbs 16:4, which says:

‘The Lord works out everything to its proper end—
    even the wicked for a day of disaster’.

Reading these proverbs as couplets is important, as it helps to make their meanings clearer. Also, reading Proverbs through the lens of the introduction (Proverbs 1:2–7) is important as it states the purpose of the book which was:

‘… for gaining wisdom and instruction; for understanding words of insight; for receiving instruction in prudent behavior, doing what is right and just and fair; for giving prudence to those who are simple,  knowledge and discretion to the young—let the wise listen and add to their learning, and let the discerning get guidance—for understanding proverbs and parables, the sayings and riddles of the wise. The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge, but fools despise wisdom and instruction’.

Wisdom or folly?

We note from this introduction that the words of Proverbs are particularly for the young. Much of Proverbs has a fatherly tone about it, the voice of a dad giving advice to his son. It is also a book for those who don’t know much yet, as well as for those who are already wise. Both groups will learn things from Proverbs—it is a book for people who want to learn and grow.

The things they will learn cover a wide variety of topics, from the lofty to the very basic. The subjects jump around throughout the book—but themes stand out. It covers controlling one’s anger and restraining one’s tongue, being generous, being a good parent, respecting one’s parents, the value of hard work and the kind of company you should keep.

The writer(s) are essentially asking the reader to choose either wisdom or the way of folly. Consistent with a father advising his son, both folly and wisdom are personified as women who call out to the naïve young person asking them to follow her. The listener is asked to choose their path.

Proverbs is a practical book. It deals with real life decisions, interactions and situations that people found themselves in then—and still find themselves in now. In Proverbs, Israel’s relationship with God was applied practically to their attitudes, activities and relationships. The fact that it is included in the Bible shows that God is interested in all aspects of our lives.

(c) by Carla Lindsey - 'War Cry' magazine, 26 January 2019 p20-21. You can read 'War Cry' at your nearest Salvation Army church or centre, or subscribe through Salvationist Resources.