Monday, April 23, 2018

How Not to Crash and Burn (3)

How many ways can you ruin your life, or at very least dig yourself a hole so deep that climbing out of it affects the rest of your days?

I suspect the number is large, and the book of Proverbs is full of too many to list. You could have an affair, be chronically lazy, refuse to listen to good advice, marry the wrong sort of woman, make a practice of telling lies, turn your home into a war zone, talk too much or be characteristically proud. All of these things, we are advised, tend to bring about varying degrees of destruction and ruin. Simple observation of the world around us demonstrates their essential truth.

The Instruction Manual

Proverbs is God’s instruction manual in how not to crash and burn. Heed it and you may still receive a cancer diagnosis one day, or maybe succumb to some genetic defect. It’s a fallen world and such things happen; wisdom cannot help you with that.

What you will NOT do if you read and learn from Proverbs is pull your own house down on your head or otherwise sabotage your own life, and that’s a pretty good reason to make it a regular pit stop in your cycle of daily Bible reading.

In addition to errors that completely devastate lives, homes and families, Proverbs also addresses universal issues that arise out of daily human interaction and cause nagging, chronic problems in human society. We are sinful in ways big and small, conscious and unconscious, learned and invented. The writers of the Bible’s wisdom literature urge us to forsake these inferior ways of living and interacting, and seek out the ones that produce harmony and peace.

Bring On the Intro ...

Solomon’s introduction to the book is either very brief or quite lengthy, depending upon whether or not you include his nine-chapter treatise on the value of wisdom as introductory. I will treat it as a separate section of the book, as I have broken it down here, in which case the real introduction to Proverbs consists of what I take to be five major points expressing the book’s purpose:
  1. To know wisdom and instruction.
  2. To understand words of insight.
  3. To receive instruction in wise dealing, in righteousness, justice, and equity.
  4. To give prudence to the simple, knowledge and discretion to the youth — Let the wise hear and increase in learning, and the one who understands obtain guidance.
  5. To understand a proverb and a saying, the words of the wise and their riddles.
Five stated purposes, four different verbs: know, understand, receive and give.

1. To Know Wisdom and Instruction

In Yiddish, when you say, “yada yada yada”, you’re suggesting that there’s a bunch of irrelevant information in your narrative that you’re skipping over. Literally, it’s “I know, I know, I know.” It implies that everybody present already well understands what comes next, so let’s go on to the part of the story they don’t.

That’s the first verb Solomon uses here. In Hebrew, to know is to know via experience, as in “Adam knew Eve”, or “knowing good and evil”. Obviously that is not merely intellectual knowledge but knowledge gained through participation.

2. To Understand Words of Insight

In Hebrew, to understand is biyn. It implies consideration, the application of the intellect, adding up the available evidence, coming to a conclusion and working through possible implications. It is this sort of knowledge for which Solomon asked God. Without it, it would be impossible to rule a nation effectively, and we might argue that it is in remarkably short supply today.

When Joseph advised Pharaoh to select a “discerning” man, it is this sort of knowledge he had in view. Joseph ended up being drafted into the position, and it was not at all because of experience, but because he was obviously a thinker.

3. To Receive Instruction …

In Hebrew, to “receive” is not merely to have something passively bestowed on you but to take hold of it, as Eve “took” the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil (same word). If a postman leaves a package at my front door, I may have technically “received” it, but until I have taken hold of it and make use of it, I have no profit from it.

Thus to “receive instruction” implies active engagement with learning, not merely getting marks for attendance or acknowledging that you “took a course” in this or that.

4. To Give Prudence

To give is to unilaterally bestow, as God “gave” the land of Canaan to Abraham. As with the previous verb, no benefit arises to the simple or the youth from knowledge they do not seize and implement, as the next clause implies: the benefit is for those who “hear” and “understand”.

In short: wisdom is intended to be shared, not just enjoyed personally and quietly benefited from in a corner, so that it might result in a harvest of transformed behavior and a godly, circumspect society.

5. To Understand a Proverb

“Understand” is biyn again: consideration and discernment, as opposed to knowledge gained by way of experience. Here perhaps the thought is of the intellectual enjoyment that comes from working out the meaning of something and being initiated into small group of individuals who appreciate the thinking behind the way God has designed his world to operate both physically and morally. That pleasure is not so much esoteric as it is a sort of kinship or fellowship with likeminded people.

There are things that the wise have said or written that are deliberately obscure. The Lord Jesus was a master of this method of drawing in the sorts of individuals who craved the knowledge of truth while simultaneously repelling those predisposed to reject him and it. Perhaps Solomon is suggesting that grasping the way one proverb is designed to communicate truth provides the key to unlocking the meaning of other proverbs.

Certainly we will discover numerous patterns in the chapters that follow. This is no haphazard compilation of wise words.

The Fear of the Lord

Solomon ends his introduction with these words:
“The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge; fools despise wisdom and instruction.”
History provides ample evidence that by nature we are all moral imbeciles, absolutely bereft of any ability to see what is inevitably produced in the long term by the short-sighted pursuit of our desires. Left to our own devices, we invariably end up enslaving each other, killing each other and generally making one another utterly miserable.

The best things in our present society are the legacy of individuals who attended to the sort of wisdom found in the book of Proverbs; who recognized that it is God-given and therefore not merely an optional way of proceeding that we may find pleasing, but in fact the only way not to make a hash of our lives, homes and societies.

One becomes willing to receive wisdom when one recognizes that its ultimate Author knows an almost-incalculable number of things we do not. That admission of inadequacy on our part is critical, along with the corresponding respect for the truth that follows naturally from it.

The fact such wisdom is no longer widely read and circulated is not unrelated to the increasing level of chaos and uncertainty in the Western world.

Sometimes a little fear is a good thing.

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