Saturday, September 22, 2018

How Not to Crash and Burn (25)

If you live long enough, you will find there are times when a soft answer just doesn’t turn away wrath. We are living in times like that today.

Watch carefully the next time the social media point-and-screechers descend en masse upon an unfortunate public figure accused of violating some new PC piety. No apology, no show of contrition and no amount of craven deference slows down the social justice juggernaut once it has a full head of steam. It pours out its bile until a tastier snack inadvertently presents itself.

That doesn’t make Proverbs 15:1 incorrect. After all, it’s a proverb, not a prophecy or a doctrinal statement.

Throughout human history, a soft answer has proven to be the most consistent deterrent to anger ever formulated. If anything will dial down the volume on a warlike wife, a fuming friend, a boiling boss or a noisome neighbor, the soft answer will.

A low-information lynch mob? Not so much.

Generalities and Other Things Shortly to be Encountered

Likewise, a wise son may not make a glad father when dad is a bitter, jealous loser engaged in a perpetual sparring contest with his more-successful and much-resented offspring down in the depths of his deeply damaged heart. Thankfully, fathers like that are rare. I can think of little that gives me more joy than to see my children walking wisely.

Proverbs are good for giving you the most likely outcome, the savviest response, the most accurate worldview and the shrewdest possible analysis. But they are general observations about a race of beings that have been granted by God the freedom to choose. Once in a while, that freedom will produce an outlier; a reminder that the rest of our race is a little more predictable.

As we launch into the first of 22 chapters of ancient and tremendously sound advice, bear in mind that we are bound to encounter one or two bits of wisdom we don’t really understand or that seem unlikely to us based on our very limited personal experience. Thankfully, the truth or falsehood of any particular saying doesn’t turn on your opinion or mine. God put them here for our good, and if not for ours personally, then surely for truth-seekers of other ages in other circumstances.

Short version: take from it what you can.

Assorted Proverbs (Proverbs 10:1-32)

Any really useful statistical examination of Solomon’s proverbs would involve reading them all, evaluating them and crunching some serious numbers. I’m not sure how profitable that sort of an investigation might be. It might turn up all kinds of neat things about themes, technique and vocabulary. But I can say for sure that it would take months or years, and I’m not up to it.

Still, because such things interest me, I’ll likely make a few notes as we go along about the frequency of appearance of certain themes or techniques — things people of a certain bent cannot help but notice. But I’m going to confine myself (mostly) to a chapter-by-chapter approach. Since the chapter divisions are not inspired (though they are usually judicious), that’s a bit arbitrary, I admit. But it’s a series of blog posts, not a dissertation, so take it for what it’s worth.

Thematic Considerations

Though proverbs are generally intended to stand alone, and the context in which they occur is rarely of assistance to us in interpreting them, the arrangement of the proverbs may be a little more sophisticated than it appears to a casual reader. I rather doubt Solomon wrote his pearls of wisdom down on little bits of paper, put them all in a bag and pulled them out at random to determine his order of presentation.

For example, the “righteous” and “wicked” are contrasted 14 times in Chapter 10, which is well over a third of the chapter’s content. I’d say that’s enough to constitute a theme. We learn all kinds of things about these two lifestyles: that wickedness is spiritually unprofitable, whereas righteousness delivers from death (v2); that the wicked dead are cursed and the righteous dead well spoken-of (v7); that the righteous have reason to hope where the wicked do not (v28); and so on.

Chapter 10 also has an awful lot to say about speech, both good and bad. The word “mouth” appears six times, “lips” five times, “tongue” twice, “babbling” twice, “words” once and “utters” once, covering a total of 12 of our 32 verses. James also devotes 12 verses to the subject, but these are more narrowly focused. The references in Proverbs 10 cover all sorts of situations, from the hypocrisy of being too buttoned-down while seething with rage (“The one who conceals hatred has lying lips”) to the benefits of being cautious about what you say (“whoever restrains his lips is prudent”) to the edifying value of profitable speech (“the lips of the righteous feed many”).

Other themes in the chapter include economic gain (verses 2-5 make eight different statements on the subject) and things that lead to life (the mouth of the righteous, the wage of the righteous, heeding instruction and fearing the Lord).

But, as we might expect with a series of sayings, rarely do we find these verses grouped so as to form some kind of persuasive argument. They stand on their own perfectly well, and each verse merits individual consideration.

Types of Proverbs

There are 32 two-line Hebrew proverbs in Chapter 10. Not all are of the same type, nor do the types found in this chapter represent all the varieties we will encounter later on. We can sort them either by content or technique:

A. Sorted by Content

By “content”, I mean us to ask what these proverbs are about. Sometimes Solomon is telling us what eventually happens to people who behave this way or that way. I call these outcome proverbs. Other times, he is simply describing certain behaviors, good and bad, and telling us something insightful about them. I call these observation proverbs.

1. Outcome. The vast majority of the proverbs in this chapter tell us what this or that sort of conduct will almost inevitably produce down the line. An example:
“Whoever walks in integrity walks securely, but he who makes his ways crooked will be found out.”
Arguably, 26 of the 32 proverbs in this chapter have to do with outcomes.

2. Observation. How do you protect yourself and others from bad people? Learn to assess character by observing its results, as Solomon does:
“Hatred stirs up strife, but love covers all offenses.”
A man may be drawn into conflict against his will once or twice, but if it happens continually, there’s a solid chance something is wrong with his motivation.

Or this one:
“Like vinegar to the teeth and smoke to the eyes, so is the sluggard to those who send him.”
So true. Would you hire a sluggard on this sort of recommendation?

B. Sorted by Technique

Solomon uses one of three common methods to get at timeless truth in every verse but one of this chapter; he contrasts, he amplifies, or he qualifies:

1. Contrast Proverbs. A truth may be stated negatively or positively. To make it even more memorable, why not do both? That’s what Solomon does. These are the “but” proverbs. They state a truism, then immediately follow it by stating its opposite. The chapter commences with nine straight contrast proverbs and ends with six more, including these:
“A slack hand causes poverty, BUT the hand of the diligent makes rich.”

“The wise of heart will receive commandments, BUT a babbling fool will come to ruin.”
You get the idea. You could probably write a few of your own right now. To these we must add a few proverbs in which our English translators have not elected to make the contrast quite so explicit:
“The wage of the righteous leads to life, the gain of the wicked to sin.”
Here there is no “but” to make us sit up and pay attention. All the same, it is evident the first and second phrases are deliberately contrasted. In fact, the word “but” is not present in the Hebrew anywhere in this chapter. It is implicit. Contrast proverbs are the most common sort. Of the 32 proverbs in this chapter, 28 are explicit or implicit contrasts.

2. Amplification Proverbs. A second useful way to reinforce a truth is to state it mildly, then say something similar but stronger:
“Whoever winks the eye causes trouble, and a babbling fool will come to ruin.”

“The one who conceals hatred has lying lips, and whoever utters slander is a fool.”
Here there is no positive virtue in view, and the second case is reliably worse than the first. The person who engages in innuendo lets trouble off the leash; the fool goes at it full-throttle. The person who hates another and hides it does less overt damage than the person who lets his hatred out in the form of slander, but we cannot commend either.

Amplification proverbs are fairly common. There are two in chapter 10.

3. Qualification Proverbs. A third device we will come across is to state a truth and then tell us a little more about it:
“The blessing of the Lord makes rich, and he adds no sorrow with it.”
There’s some ambiguity in this one: that second clause may also be translated “and toil adds nothing to it.” That changes the meaning, certainly, but it remains a qualification of the first statement, as opposed to some form of restatement of it. Solomon gives us some extra information in the second clause that enhances what we learn in the first. There are different ways one might become rich, but riches obtained in a godly way come without the misery, guilt and paranoia that often accompany riches obtained through theft, manipulation or coercion.

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