This week, we’re looking at how to read the book of Proverbs – learning skills to be able to read it for ourselves, just like in the old proverb: give a man a fish, and he’ll eat for a day; don’t teach a man to fish and feed yourself. He’s a grown man. Fishing’s not that hard.
Yesterday, we looked at the fundamental theme of Proverbs: the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom. Today, we look at how we learn wisdom.
We can learn wisdom through God’s creation
Proverbs is essentially a commentary on creation: both the natural world God created, as well as the world of humans, which works according to the rules God set up.
This commentary, as we saw yesterday, comes from the belief that the God of Israel created the world. If wisdom was, as Proverbs 8:22-23 claims, the first of God’s works, and the principle upon which God created everything else, it implies:
- God’s world is a source of revelation from God; therefore we can learn about him and about how we should live, by observing his creation.
- if the universe was made by the principles of wisdom, it’s stupid to try to live contrary to these principles. You don’t win at cricket by adopting the rules of football (although tackling the opposing batsman might seem fun at the time). You don’t win in life unless you play by the rules of life – rules that God set up.
So how does Proverbs comment on life under God’s rule?
Lessons from nature – things we can know by analogy or comparison with nature.6:27-9 Can a man scoop fire into his lap without his clothes being burned? Can a man walk on hot coals without his feet being scorched? So is he who sleeps with another man’s wife; no one who touches her will go unpunished.
This illustrates cause and effect: Just as there are certainties that follow in the natural world, so there are certainties that, sooner or later, follow in the moral world.25:14 Like clouds and wind without rain is a man who boasts of gifts he does not give.
I hate hot weather. So I look forward with great anticipation to the best thing about living in Sydney: the southerly change. Some hot days, I even follow its progress up the coast on the Bureau of Meteorology website radar. But I tell you, there’s nothing worse than a lame southerly – one that arrives with a fanfare of thunder and rain, but an hour later it’s no cooler. The oven merely becomes a sauna. We might say ‘that change was a waste of space’. So, too, do we treat a person who promises much but doesn’t deliver. Again, a lesson from the natural world has force in the moral world.
Lessons from human society – things we can know by observing the world of humans
Proverbs also comments on the realm of human society: it talks about the dangers of wine, the fruits of laziness, the way to bring up children, and the fitness of right speech.23:20-21 Do not join those who drink too much wine or gorge themselves on meat, for drunkards and gluttons become poor, and drowsiness clothes them in rags.
25:11 A word aptly spoken is like apples of gold in settings of silver.
Is this just homespun advice like your mother gave you? No – it’s more. It’s a recognition that God set up the world – the natural world and human society – to obey certain principles. Fearing God, being wise, means setting your heart to live by these principles.
So what can we learn? First of all, learn the ‘micro lessons’. Proverbs have a vivid way of reminding us of the way we should go.
Kids, are you tempted to be disobedient to your parents? We know we should obey them. But how much more powerful is an image like this to spur us on to choose the wise path:20:20 If a man curses his father or mother, his lamp will be snuffed out in pitch darkness.
Tempted to be lazy?12:24 Diligent hands will rule, but laziness ends in slave labour.
Tempted to gossip?26:20 Without wood a fire goes out; without gossip a quarrel dies down.
Tempted to commit adultery?5:3-4 For the lips of an adulteress drip honey, and her speech is smoother than oil; but in the end she is bitter as gall, sharp as a double-edged sword.
7:21-23 With persuasive words she led him astray; she seduced him with her smooth talk. All at once he followed her like an ox going to the slaughter, like a deer stepping into a noose till an arrow pierces his liver, like a bird darting into a snare, little knowing it will cost him his life.
But don’t just learn the micro lessons – learn the macro lesson, too. Appreciate the fact that every aspect of our life works that way because God created it that way. This enables us to see God’s hand in everything – not just the “religious” part of our lives.
We work hard and provide for our family – God made life that way. At work, we give a gentle answer to someone that turns away anger – God made life that way. We honour our parents and bring them joy – God made life that way.
But what about things affected by sin? That, too, is part of how God set up the world. Think about it. If we humans had obeyed God in the first place, there would be no suffering, no disease, no death. But God set up some rules which he told us at the beginning: if we disobey him, we will surely die.
So now, as the human race we get what we deserve for disobeying God. (In fact, we don’t get all we deserve – we deserve to have been destroyed in Noah’s flood; we deserve to have our creator withdraw his sustaining hand which causes the sun to rise and the rains to fall on all of humanity; and we certainly didn’t deserve the sacrifice of Jesus on our behalf.)
But where there is evil and suffering in the world, it exists as a natural consequence of there being sin in the world. It doesn’t mean that if someone suffers, they did something wrong in particular to deserve it. It does mean that we have all sinned, and so suffering exists in this world as a consequence.
Read through Proverbs 24, noting how a lot of this wisdom comes from observing the world around us.