Proverbial Wisdom

Since I became a Christian many years ago I have prayed for wisdom. Sometimes it seems clear that my prayers have been answered; other times I am not so sure. But in my continuous reading of the book of Proverbs, I find answers to some of life’s common, but most perplexing problems. So I have decided to try and summarize what I have found and why it has been helpful to me. My hope and prayer is that someone else may benefit from what I have learned.

My reflections and comments are not, for the most part, theological, nor are they profound. After all, much of the Proverbs is simply “common sense”. But even that seems to be lacking in a good part (or a bad part) of our society and returning to it as a virtue can lead to the deeper aspects of it, namely wisdom and understanding.

I have been trained as a linguist and anthropologist, so I write with that background, meaning that I try to observe carefully and analyze what I see. My chief mentor was Professor Kenneth L. Pike, who gave me the perspective of contrasting things, noting their variations, and finding out where they fit within a system. Pike did this with everything, I am restricting my thoughts to the book of Proverbs, with an occasional foray into the book of James as well.

The reason I choose for those two books is that they are extremely practical and I value a practical (but not always or simply pragmatic) approach to my own life and wish it for my interpretation of life around me as well. Although I have read commentaries on both books, I will seldom refer to the exegetical conundrum that surrounds them. For example, Martin Luther may not have had much time for the book of James as an inspired book that belonged in the Canon, but although a great theologian, he was not always practical himself.

Proverbs lends itself easily to binary oppositions, which reveal deeper meanings because two elements are contrasted and the result is more helpful than looking at either in isolation. But there is always variation according to context—words and phrases have different meanings in different places. Nevertheless, whatever I find has to be placed in the grand scheme of God’s plan for the universe and mankind. I see meanings as systematic, not ad hoc, although often the system is difficult (and therefore debatable) to sometimes find.

The version I am using, for the most part, is the Contemporary English Version, which has as one of its goals “That the Scripture may be understood even by ordinary people…with a text that is enjoyable and easily understood by the vast majority of English speakers, regardless of their religious or educational background”[1]. It is the version we used in Papua New Guinea, working with people that did use English as their mother tongue.

Wisdom and Foolishness

I will start with the most profound, and yet simple, contrast: that of the wise person and that of the fool.

The fool has said in his heart that there is no God, so, by this definition (which I accept), there are many fools in our world today. There are fools in politics, education, science and religion, to name just a few genres of foolishness. And there are male fools, female fools, and fools who think they are one gender but are the other. We could put animals into either category as well because they are “smart” or “dumb” and often prized more than their human counterparts. Proverbs as a book brings animals into the picture: ants, badgers, locusts, lizards, lions, roosters and mountain goats (30:25-31) get special mention. The ant looks ahead and stores up food and the lion is fearless and can find food whenever it wishes. Badgers live in the rocks and find protection and lizards roam through the palaces of kings without a worry. Locusts march like an army, but without a king to lead them; roosters “strut”, showing their confidence and mountain goats climb without fear in places that most men fear to tread. All of these animals do what they are good at, without anyone reminding them that it would be foolish to be without food in the winter, get caught in the open by an adversary, march alone, or, in general, act in ways that are “foolish”. We who are human still have a lot to learn from the animals.

Wisdom will keep us from having bad friends (2:12, 13), who are often in gangs that commit crimes and even murder (1:16-18). With wisdom we will learn self-control and stay away from bad people.

A wise person therefore has common sense (3:13), recognizing what is right, honest and fair (1:3), so the person is not jealous of cruel people and instead helps people who need it. Instead he or she is kind and humble and will be praised (3:34). The stubborn fool will not be (3:35).

Why, then, doesn’t every one have common sense and wisdom? One reason is because they have sneered and laughed at wisdom (1:22), a sure sign of a foolishness. Wisdom has wanted to help and them, but its advice, given by wise people, has been ignored (1:24, 25).

[1] From “About the contemporary English version: Preface to the first American edition”. American Bible Society, 1991.