Saturday, February 09, 2019

How Not to Crash and Burn (45)

Way back last April of last year when we started looking at Proverbs, I mentioned in passing that the book falls into seven fairly obvious divisions. We have now arrived at the fourth of these, which is a short group of lengthier “do” and “don’t” instructions prefaced with the words “These also are sayings of the wise.”

Translated literally from Hebrew, verse 23 begins, “These words belong to the wise.”

Taking that statement at face value, some commentators read it to mean that Solomon wrote this particular section specifically for the cognitive elite. John Gill goes beyond even that and asserts “Both what is said before concerning fearing God and the king; these belong to the wise and unwise, rich and poor, great and small.” Others, like me, read the statement to as a sort of credit, indicating that the next few proverbs were penned by wise persons other than Solomon.

Credit Where Credit is Due

How much of Proverbs Solomon actually wrote himself is open to discussion, but he never makes the claim to be the author of every word included therein. Far from it. He credits a few earlier verses to his father David; some later sections appear to have been appended by others after Solomon’s death; and, as I pointed out in an earlier post in this series, one or two of the proverbs generally assumed to have been written by Solomon are actually edited versions of then-current wisdom from Egypt or other foreign sources.

This is to be expected. Solomon was a Renaissance man long before there was a Renaissance, but he was not the first unusually wise man in the history of our world, or even in scripture. As much as he was an observer of the human condition and investigator of new things, he was also a collector of the wisdom of others and a refiner of existing ideas.

So here, I think, is more of that collected wisdom. The fact that it comes to us anonymously does not diminish its truth.

Sayings of the Wise (Proverbs 24:23-34)

On Giving Away the Culture One Decision at a Time
“Partiality in judging is not good.
Whoever says to the wicked, ‘You are in the right,’
will be cursed by peoples, abhorred by nations,
but those who rebuke the wicked will have delight,
and a good blessing will come upon them.
Whoever gives an honest answer kisses the lips.”
This would be an awfully apt portion of scripture to engrave on the tombs of the U.S. Supreme Court justices who handed the country the Roe v. Wade decision in 1973. There have been major wars that had far less destructive impact than that one legal ruling.

But to pretend these words only apply to those tasked with officially passing judgment on behalf of nations and communities would be a smug evasion. It is “whoever” gives an honest answer who kisses the lips, not just powerful men and women in black robes.

Here we are reminded that happy is the man who does not condemn himself by what he approves. It is one level of wickedness to hold a false opinion, another to voice it publicly and yet a third to enshrine it into law for generations. Sadly, it is far easier and much more comfortable to say in effect to the wicked, “You are in the right” than it is to give an honest answer to the difficult questions of the day, especially when you know an honest answer will meet with intense hostility. Rarely do today’s Christians capitulate verbally, but we far too easily accept wild redefinitions of morality — and even our very language — without any meaningful resistance. Our disgust over the sweeping social changes around us gets quietly expressed to one another behind closed doors rather than out in the public square, where it could produce negative consequences for us … or potentially have a salutary effect on our culture.

If coming generations really matter to us, we will take great care what sort of social change we tolerate. There is nothing quite as refreshing and inspiring as a forthright answer to a controversial question, delivered without equivocation or dissembling.

On What Happens When You Don’t Set Priorities
“Prepare your work outside;
get everything ready for yourself in the field,
and after that build your house.”
I know two women who are completely unable to prioritize. Both are wonderful people in other ways, but for them every issue is equally urgent at every moment. The small favor they intended to do for the neighbor, tonight’s dinner, making a business phone call, feeding the cat, sending off a birthday greeting to a niece or nephew, buying a gift for a friend and choosing a color to paint the deck are all being juggled simultaneously … and very much to each cause’s detriment. Nothing gets done well.

That’s actually a really terrible way to live. The mad scramble and perpetual panic can be overwhelming.

And there are other possibilities. One can go about one’s business in a peaceful, calm and orderly way simply by assigning certain tasks a higher priority than others, and concentrating one’s efforts on finishing the projects that are currently most meaningful while setting aside for another day those of less significance.

In this particular case, the writer of the proverb sagely observes that if you starve to death because you have not cultivated your fields, your house will not get built anyway. It is better to live in a tent for a while in order to ensure that your family can eat for the next few months than to start digging the foundation for your lovely new abode on an empty stomach.

The house can wait. Food cannot.

This is a principle that applies very broadly indeed, including the spiritual realm. It is of minimal value, for instance, to urge moral behavior on the unsaved. It might make for a more pleasant world for you and me, but since unbelievers lack both the necessary incentive and the enabling power to live moral lives outside of Christ, such efforts are at worst futile and at best focused on a lesser goal. The first and most urgent need of the unsaved is the gospel, after which they (and we) can enjoy all the benefits that follow from it.

Thus we would all be wise to give serious consideration to learning to sort our various responsibilities into immediate, short-term and long-term categories.

On Various Ways of Getting Back at Your Neighbor
“Be not a witness against your neighbor without cause,
and do not deceive with your lips.
Do not say, ‘I will do to him as he has done to me;
I will pay the man back for what he has done.’ ”
It is quite possible this deals with public testimony in a court of law. After all, we have numerous examples in scripture of men who perjured themselves to condemn the innocent, from Jezebel’s “two worthless men” who charged poor Naboth with blasphemy, to the false accusers of Jesus, Stephen and Paul in the New Testament. In each case, men deceived with their lips in order to please the powerful, though there was no legitimate cause for their hatred. It was said of the Lord, “They hated me without a cause.”

Of course there are other situations in which cause may legitimately exist for unhappiness between neighbors, but nothing can ever justify false testimony, gossip or slander as a means of revenge. The last two lines indicate that even if you feel you have a legitimate grudge, wisdom teaches it is better not to act on your feelings.

On the Long-Term Consequences of Laziness
“I passed by the field of a sluggard,
by the vineyard of a man lacking sense,
and behold, it was all overgrown with thorns;
the ground was covered with nettles,
and its stone wall was broken down.
Then I saw and considered it;
I looked and received instruction.
A little sleep, a little slumber,
a little folding of the hands to rest,
and poverty will come upon you like a robber,
and want like an armed man.”
There is little of greater educational value than seeing the consequences of someone’s actions or inaction played out in real time. “I looked and received instruction,” says the author of this proverb. Regrettably, few among us are skilled at learning from example. Most need to take a hit or two ourselves before we learn anything, and some people never learn at all.

Let’s face it: hard work is, well … hard. It is always easier to stay in bed, to take so many breaks you never accomplish anything, or put off until tomorrow what might be done today. In short-term orientation cultures, the priority is on the good time one can have right now. Little value is ascribed to giving up short-term convenience for long-term gain. But the end result of doing nothing is almost always … more nothing. Poverty. Loss. Need. Dependence on others. Three thousand years ago, the consequences of living like that could be devastating. Today, there is always the social safety net, and far too many would rather use it than pursue self-sufficiency.

For Christians, such a laissez-faire attitude is unacceptable. As Paul put it, “If anyone is not willing to work, let him not eat.”

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