Sunday, July 10, 2011

Scripture Sunday: The Book of Proverbs

Proverbs is often attributed to King Solomon the son of David, though at least some of the individual proverb chapters have other authors.  The chief subject of the whole book is wisdom--mostly subdivided into discussions of why wisdom is important and how people can obtain it. Wisdom is something ordained by God, Proverbs says, because "The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge" (Prov. 1:7). The fear of the Lord doesn't mean being terrified of God and haunted by what he might do to you if you mess up; it's more about respecting and reverencing the Lord, which involves doing what he says. 

Here are a few of the themes and repeated elements I see in Proverbs:

Openness seems to be a big key to getting wisdom. You have to be willing to listen and take advice to heart:. "A wise man will hear, and will increase learning; and a man of understanding shall attain unto wise counsels" (Prov. 1: 5). We'll never learn to be wise if won't listen to people who have the knowledge we need. It's harder than it sounds to admit that we're wrong and to pay attention to wise instruction.

Foolishness is mentioned a lot in Proverbs, too, because you can't really have a good discussion about wisdom without noting some foolish behavior for contrast. Chapter 1 talks about a bunch of guys getting together for criminal activities, thinking that they won't get caught or suffer any consequences for harming others, and it advises young men to stay away from these guys. "My son, walk not thou in the way with them; refrain thy foot from their path: For their feet run to evil, and make haste to shed blood" (Prov. 1:15-16). These verses are addressing the issue of peer pressure and the intense desire to belong to a group. None of the crimes that the "sinners" in the verses are talking about sound good or appealing, but the "son" character might be tempted to join them simply because they advertise their shady activity as being a secret act of unity, like their own private club. Just like wisdom can be gained by listening to others, foolishness is a communicable disease that we can catch by being influenced by people who want to harm others and serve their own greed.

Short wisdom snippets: A ton of the verses in Proverbs are basically stand-alone quotes with a "This AND That" ("A lying tongue hateth those that are afflicted by it; and a flattering mouth worketh ruin." prov. 26:28) or a "This BUT That" (A soft answer turneth away wrath: but grievous words stir up anger. 15:1)

structure. There are many short proverbs that cover most any kind of moral problem and how it should be addressed, and I have several favorites among them. One that readily comes to mind is Proverbs 3: 27, "Withhold not good from them to whom it is due, when it is in the power of thine hand to do it." This reminds me that if it's possible for me to do good for a person, even in a small way, that's exactly what I need to be doing. Benefitting another person isn't just a matter of my feeling friendly and generous--I'm hurting that same person if I don't give them that small piece of help or encouragement that I'm able to provide.

Proverbs has 31 chapters of counsel and advice, all of them well worth reading. Proverbs is one of the cornerstone pieces of wisdom literature in the Old Testament, and it's the sort of jam-packed book that contains an immense amount of helpful information in a small space--it's readable within a few sittings, if you're in the right mindset.

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