Saturday, October 20, 2018

How Not to Crash and Burn (29)

The book of Proverbs is one of the very few places in scripture where context is generally unimportant — even useless. For Bible students, that makes some of the more obscure individual proverbs a little difficult to parse: we are reduced to looking up the meanings of individual Hebrew words, comparing turns of phrase with other Old Testament books from the same period, or resorting to internet explanations of traditional rabbinical renderings.

Or making wild guesses. I don’t recommend that approach.

All the same, if we were to assume Solomon never groups proverbs together by subject for effect, we would be dead wrong.

Assorted Proverbs (Proverbs 14:1-35)

In chapter 14, for instance, we find several groups of consecutive proverbs that riff on the same theme. Verses 7, 8 and 9 are all about fools, while verses 11-14 are all about consequences. Verses 19 and 20 comment on neighbors and their relationships. Verses 26 and 27 extol the virtues of fearing the Lord.

Sometimes this can be more meaningful than others. I’m not sure the grouping-by-subject that occurs in chapter 14 does much more than take a common theme and offer two or more unrelated but useful thoughts about it.

On the other hand, it is impossible for me to read this extended series of verses about fools from Proverbs 26 without viewing verse 12 (in bold below) as kind of a punch line:
“A whip for the horse, a bridle for the donkey,
and a rod for the back of fools.
Answer not a fool according to his folly,
lest you be like him yourself.
Answer a fool according to his folly,
lest he be wise in his own eyes.
Whoever sends a message by the hand of a fool
cuts off his own feet and drinks violence.
Like a lame man’s legs, which hang useless,
is a proverb in the mouth of fools.
Like one who binds the stone in the sling
is one who gives honor to a fool.
Like a thorn that goes up into the hand of a drunkard
is a proverb in the mouth of fools.
Like an archer who wounds everyone
is one who hires a passing fool or drunkard.
Like a dog that returns to his vomit
is a fool who repeats his folly.
Do you see a man who is wise in his own eyes?
There is more hope for a fool than for him.”
The final verse is much more powerful than it might be on its own because of what precedes it. After telling us how useless, frustrating and injurious foolish behavior is, Solomon reminds us that a man with a false view of himself is in worse shape than the buffooniest of buffoons. That’s a powerful statement about arrogance, and I can hardly think of a better way to make it.

Take away the preceding nine verses, though, and I think it would lose its punch.

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