Monday, May 07, 2018

How Not to Crash and Burn (5)

Dictionary.com says a proverb is a “short pithy saying”. Most familiar Bible proverbs are no more than one or two lines.

A proverb communicates a great deal in the fewest possible words, presumably as an aid to memory, and the reader is usually left to meditate on how best to apply it. The vast majority of biblical proverbs are universally relatable. Even the more obscure sayings ring with plausibility, though they may express truths unfelt or unexperienced.

Or so we might argue. But there are some people to whom the offer of objective truth holds no interest at all.

A Ten-Part Discourse on Wisdom

Having introduced his subject and described his purpose in writing, and having supplied a short exhortation to his sons to avoid greed and its attendant temptations, Solomon now launches into a ten-part discourse on the subject of wisdom, by far the longest section of the book. These eight-plus chapters are the least “proverbial” section of Proverbs. They are well-developed and rarely pithy.

The word “wisdom” appears a full 20 times in this discourse alone. For convenience, I break it down as follows:
1. Wisdom’s call [Part 1] Proverbs 1:20-33
2. The benefits of living wisely Proverbs 2:1-22
3. The Author of wisdom Proverbs 3:1-12
4. The blessings of wisdom Proverbs 3:13-35
5. A father’s endorsement of wisdom Proverbs 4:1-27
6. Wisdom applied: warnings against adultery Proverbs 5:1-23
7. Wisdom applied: finances, work ethic, recognizing evil Proverbs 6:1-19
8. Wisdom applied: more warnings against adultery Proverbs 6:20-7:27
9. Wisdom’s call [Part 2] Proverbs 8:1-36
10. Wisdom and folly contrasted Proverbs 9:1-18
1. Wisdom’s Call [Part 1] (Proverbs 1:20-33)

A Change of Voice

Up until now, Solomon has been speaking in his own voice. The very first verse identifies him by name, title and relationship. Three times in the first few verses he indicates that he is writing as a father to his own son, no doubt one of a great many. Later, “son” becomes “sons” and the advice he offers becomes more broadly applicable. The writer is a well known historical figure, with all the glories and debaucheries of his reign as king of Israel laid out for us in the pages of holy writ, rendering much of his advice concerning the fairer sex either bittersweet or ironic.

Naturally, because all scripture is both God-breathed and profitable, we take Solomon at his word, despite his well-documented personal failings.

From verse 22 to the end of chapter 1, and again between chapter 8, verse 4 and the end of that chapter, Solomon suddenly adopts a feminine voice, addressing Israel as Wisdom personified. With the change in persona, we also get a change in the target audience, from fatherly Solomon teaching his sons to a far more universal cry directed at the streets, markets and gates of Israelite towns and cities. The message is no longer just about how to best function when you’re born into privilege or cheated by life. This is advice for the average man; for the Israel of Solomon’s day, for you, for me and for everyone.

A Blistering Attack

This first address commences with what can only be described as a blistering attack. I am reminded of my grade 11 English teacher, who would hector his less tractable pupils with accusations like “You willfully remain ignorant!” Wisdom’s approach is much the same. She targets those who have already demonstrated reluctance to heed her advice or pay her any attention. She assumes rejection. Perhaps some have listened; if so, those happy individuals are no longer her concern. They are not the object of this diatribe.

Rather, she speaks to three kinds of people who have heretofore spurned her offer of practical advice for living: the “simple”, the “scoffer” and the “fool”; people who take active pleasure in their ignorance and disdain good counsel. She declares, “I have called and you refused to listen”, “no one has heeded”, “you have ignored my counsel” and “would have none of my reproof”.

Three categories of endangered souls are most in need of what Wisdom has to teach them and, sadly, least likely to respond to her. We could do a Hebrew word study to profile these folks, but it’s far more instructive to see how the rest of the Bible’s wisdom literature describes each sort.

Three Kinds of Endangered Souls

See if any of these folks sound familiar to you. I can certainly put faces to these descriptions from my own experience:

The Simple: “Simple” is a word only used in Psalms and Proverbs, and once in Ezekiel. It basically speaks to an absence or void. This person is na├»ve, pre-informed, in danger of being talked into anything by the wrong sort of person. He has no foresight, no ability to see through falsehood, he lacks wisdom, revelation, and sophistication. Sometimes, despite his inattention to his own spiritual state, God graciously preserves him, but his failure to respond to direction can be fatal. Still, such a person, even if untaught, is not innocent. He is occasionally capable of learning from negative examples, though not much else; similar to the way the cat will step on the stove ring only once. Where wisdom is concerned, he is not so much antipathetic as uninterested. Thus, if a simple person fails to respond to Wisdom’s call, his fate is on his own head.

The Scoffer: This is the guy who makes faces, does imitations to mock people and behaves childishly, will stick his fingers in his ears and cry “I can’t hear you”; the kind who as a teenager thought it cool to make farting sounds with his hands just as the youth group bowed to pray. He is proud, volatile and quick to express hatred, contentious, deaf to rebuke, resents those who reprove him, and even when his actions impact him negatively, the only people who learn from it are the onlookers. He is dangerously close to being completely unteachable.

The Fool: “Fool” is another word found almost exclusively in wisdom literature. This is the fantasist. He’s not completely uninformed, like the first guy, nor as hostile as the scoffer. He simply has no ability to work through the consequences of his actions and so repeatedly does stupid things that hurt him. He has no self-awareness, he is always scheming and dreaming even though his plans come to nothing, he blunders into conflict, spends every cent he can get his hands on, is full of hot air, incompetent at the most basic things, self-confident, blurts out everything that enters his head, is lazy and easily distracted.

No wonder Wisdom comes down hard on these three. But I think if we are very honest, most of us can remember times when we too exhibited one or more of these qualities.

A Predictable Pattern

Interestingly, the fate of each of these three individuals, should they fail to repent, follows a predictable pattern. Wisdom warns of four unavoidable consequences:

1. Mockery and laughter. “Because you have ignored all my counsel and would have none of my reproof, I also will laugh at your calamity.” Regrettably, our society sees no value in shame as a motivator. It teaches us instead to be brazen in our folly and to double down on our ignorance. But Wisdom says, “I will laugh” and “I will mock” at those who refuse to learn, whatever their specific spiritual pathology. The simpleton, the scoffer and the fool will all be mocked, but God can never be. Our culture may no longer dare to openly scorn the deliberately ignorant choices made by many, but there will be plenty of mockery to come one day just the same.

2. Terror, calamity, distress and anguish.Your calamity comes like a whirlwind.” Jordan Peterson likes to say that life is suffering. Many who disagree with him today will find themselves agreeing five, ten or fifteen years down the road when they too encounter some inexplicable, deeply painful situation they could never have foreseen. The nature of the particular terror or calamity about which Wisdom warns is unspecified, but it is evident that the emotional consequences are serious indeed. One day the scoffer will cease scoffing, the fool will cease his foolery, and even the simpleton will look up from her glass-eyed stupor and realize she’s in serious trouble. The difference, of course, between the average sufferer and the fool, scoffer or simpleton, is that the latter group bring most of their suffering on themselves, and do so unnecessarily.

3. Inability to find knowledge when it is needed. “Then they will call upon me, but I will not answer.” Learning to live wisely takes time. Discernment is not granted magically in a moment but accumulated drop-by-precious-drop over the course of years. If you don’t take the opportunity to seek Wisdom out before bad choices plunge your life into crisis, it seems highly unlikely you will suddenly find her in a moment when you need her. The reward of the truth-seeker is that he has the emotional and spiritual resources to make it through the hard times. Scoffers, fools and moral infants do not.

4. Hoist with his own petard. You’ve heard of “getting your own back”. That is Wisdom’s warning: “They shall eat the fruit of their way, and have their fill of their own devices.” The fate that awaits the scoffer is often different from that of the fool, and the fate of the simple may well be different again. Where you end up in life is very much a product of the road you choose. If the dragon that comes for you one day wears a familiar face, there’s an awfully good chance he has your genes.

A Final Word

Wisdom closes her first soliloquy with this: “Whoever listens to me will dwell secure and will be at ease, without dread of disaster.” There’s nothing pithy or trivial about our introduction to Wisdom. In many cases, hearing her or not hearing her is the difference between life and death.

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