When I became a Christian many years ago, I started praying for wisdom. Over the years, I have ended up in a number of responsible leadership positions within my organizations (SIL International and Wycliffe Bible Translators). Often it seemed clear that my prayers were answered and yet at other times I have been less confident. In my continuous prayer and search for wisdom, I have often turned to the book of Proverbs, which has answered some of my most common, and most perplexing problems. This journey has been a long one, so here I reflect on some of what I have found and, with a short story here and there, try to show what 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, as the author reminds us, “common sense”. But even common sense seems to be lacking in a good part (or a bad part) of our society. As I have studied Proverbs I have found that its most complementary aspects are wisdom and understanding. And Proverbs, of course, have a long history:
For example, “In ancient Israel… was essentially story-based” (Sharon Hels, in Williams 1994:14). The terms story and proverb often have overlapping root meanings that involve comparisons, analogies and metaphors. Proverbs were handed down from generation to generation by word of mouth and were shaped into their literary form by scholars and editors. In this way, wisdom and narrative were linked by means of historical reminiscences (the stories of Abraham, Isaac, Moses, and others), received knowledge (what mother taught), and from tradition (“the living faith of the dead”).
Certain themes were prevalent in the Wisdom literature, in particular relationships (men and women, the young and old, the rich and the poor, as on on). To be understood well, they required listener participation because the hearer had to use his or her power of discernment and the challenge was to follow them. When crossed with a story a proverb becomes a parable, such as Jesus used throughout his ministry.
The midrash (stories of the Rabbis) accompanied proverbs. These side stories filled in the gaps about God and human relationships by using analogy and an encounter between the hearer and the teller. They were community-based sayings and stories and could be told by non-professionals. The Jewish community had no homeland or citizenship, were persecuted, and relied on the Torah, so folk traditions and the sayings of the rabbis were important for guidance.
The stories they told were diverse and the rabbis made no attempt to completely harmonize them. Further, “the sages never signed their work or attempted to take credit for it individually” (Williams, p.23). The midrash were for teaching and complemented the biblical texts but we most often do not know who wrote or spoke them.
Because I have been trained as a linguist and anthropologist, I examine and analyze what I see from that background. My chief mentor in linguistics was Professor Kenneth L. Pike, who taught me the perspective of contrasting things, noting their variations, and trying to determine where they fit within a system. Pike attempted to view things from both an emic (inside) and an etic (outside) perspective. In this writing, I am restricting my study mainly to the book of Proverbs, although with an occasional foray into the book of James (or other books) as well.
I chose Proverbs because it is extremely practical and I value a practical (but not always or simply pragmatic) approach to thinking about and interpreting my own life. Although I have read commentaries on Proverbs, I seldom refer to the exegetical conundrum that surrounds certain verses where the “Hebrew is unclear” or where there are historical and theological controversies, such as on the book of James—about which Martin Luther did not seem to have much time. He did not consider it a truly inspired book that belonged in the Canon. Luther was a great theologian, but apparently the practical aspect of “works” interfered with his wonderful interpretation of “grace”.
Proverbs lends itself easily to binary oppositions, which reveal deeper meanings. In many proverbs two elements are contrasted, where the result is more helpful than looking at either in isolation. Of course, in any text there is always potential variation in meaning, but always according to context—words and phrases have different meanings in different places. In addition, I attempt to take what I find and place it in the grand scheme of God’s plan for the me and, possibly, mankind. I therefore interpret meanings as systematic, not ad hoc, although sometimes the system is difficult (and therefore debatable) to find. In other words, I believe there is meaning in the universe and that things have not “just happened”.
We hear less about sin than was once preached. Instead we hear that we need to tap the power within ourselves, and that, by following certain steps we can be stronger and wiser; in short, that we can find our “spiritual selves” and be better people. Self-examination can be helpful, but Proverbs repeatedly tells us that God alone is the source of all wisdom, including spiritual wisdom. Fortunately the ungodly at least have a measure of common sense, which can lead to wisdom. My theological perspective teaches that to find God, we come through Christ who desires us. Further, to know God, we have to be taught by the Spirit, including the powerful Word of His Spirit. But, in varying degrees, God has mercifully allotted to the world spiritual wisdom and common sense wisdom and the two should not be artificially separated, even when not acknowledged or sought after.
The version of the Bible that I have used, 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”. It is the version often used in Papua New Guinea, by people whose mother tongue is not English.
We need to remember that reading a proverb is different from reading a book or seeing a movie. There are several features of style in Proverbs to note that are also common to the wisdom literature:
- Recapitulation, or saying the same thing twice. This follows a semantic / pedagogical device and is common in Psalms as well, e.g. “They left the bodies of your people for the vultures; The bodies of your servants for wild animals to eat” (Ps. 79:2).
- Antithesis or contrasts, which points out the opposite affect of the good, e.g. “The Lord hates people who use dishonest scales. He is happy with honest weights “(Pr. 11:1).
- The use of synonyms: knowledge, intelligence, understanding, insight, and instruction mean basically the same thing—they are characteristics of wisdom.
Wisdom (its opposite is Foolishness)
I have mentioned that contrast is an essential feature of analysis in linguistics (or anything, for that matter), so I begin by examining two words that show up often in Proverbs.
The opposite of wisdom is foolishness and both can be found or referred to in any culture, often by means of a proverb—a short, pithy saying which expresses a well-known truth or fact. An archaic example in English is “A stitch in time saves nine” or “You can lead a horse to water but you can’t make him drink”. Most women don’t patch clothes and most men don’t own horses, but the wisdom captured by the proverbs is readily understood. A modern version might say: Don’t put off what can be done now—you will be glad later; You can help people by teaching them, but you can’t make them understand.
The book of Proverbs contains only a sampling of Solomon’s wisdom, a king who composed songs as well as proverbs: We read (1 Kings 4:32-4) that he collected 3,000 proverbs and more than a thousand songs. In doing so he often spoke of trees and plants, from the Lebanon cedars to the hyssop that grows on walls; he talked about animals, birds, reptiles, and fish. His wisdom was so famous that kings from all over the world sent people to listen to him and report back—for example, the Queen of Sheba visited him and was amazed at his understanding (1 Kings 10:1).
Solomon and other wise men gave counsel and their writings were a ‘third force’ in the religious life of the people of the Old Testament. These wise men did not speak of traditional or institutional religion, or about the special relationship of Israel to God; instead, they appealed to the disciplined intelligence and the moral experience of good men.
However, although wisdom is to be prized, note that it: 1) cannot save a person; 2) can always be perfected; and 3) is often proved by the humility of the speaker.
Underlying the basic purpose of Proverbs is the paradox that one needs true wisdom to please God and yet wisdom springs from God. Consequently, it seems obvious that we cannot please God with true wisdom unless we know the source of that wisdom (“To have knowledge, you must first have reverence for the Lord” Proverbs 1:7, GNB). This search for wisdom seems to be a primary principle in life: people believe there is a source for all knowledge. For some it is magical: given the correct formulae, one can gain access to the source. In Papua New Guinea and other places in the Pacific, this is known as the cargo cult syndrome. At the other end of the magical scale, and in our own culture, is the lottery syndrome: life is one big roll of the dice, so take your chance.
Others search for wisdom in science and education: to them knowledge is cumulative and mainly revealed in the microscope and telescope. Theoretically, it can then be used for the common good and contributes to a better life for us all. However, scientific explanations are not generally concerned with wisdom. They are experimental and rooted in time, summed up as: “life is what we experience”. Wisdom may be a byproduct, but it is not a goal of science. Scientists are generally not searching for wisdom—they are already “smart”.
Still others care little for wisdom, although they may want to be smart, to be street-wise, and know how to get what they want. Their search is for information that is directed toward survival and exploitation. In a similar manner, we are aided by electronic devices that are smart, but none of them have wisdom—they are utilitarian, not philosophical.
Therefore my search for wisdom is to gain understanding or insight, which are often not immediately available or apparent to me in my life. My conviction is that the Word of God exhibits deep meanings (“Proverbs will teach you wisdom and self-control and how to understand sayings with deep meanings” 1:2). Such meanings are often not immediately apparent but, when found, lead us to wisdom. We are to note carefully these deep meanings and try to follow them. Only in this way will we learn discernment because life is full of both good and bad choices. My conclusion is that we all need God’s wisdom to make proper choices.
We know that there are certain things that “make sense” in society and, in part, this is an out working of the commandments of God. For example, one command is to “not commit adultery”. Why? To the Jew—and to at least half of our society—the commandment was (and is) too difficult to follow. But people who object to it destroy themselves by their own stupidity (6:32), even though, from a practical point of view, the commandment seems too demanding.
With relationships, the concern in Proverbs is not simply about romantic love and life-time commitment. Instead, we read that our primary relationship must be with God, coupled with a desire to do what He says. This seems reasonable and wise men of old assumed that people could be reasoned with—“Intelligent people talk sense” (10:13), believing that a common parameter of understanding was a principle that sensible people could appeal to. Today, in our Western societies, this seems to be less the rule.
We, however, can use common sense as a basis for an appeal: God has given everyone reasoning power, although it can be blunted physically, psychologically, spiritually, and in other ways. by drugs, brainwashing, new age meditation, or even over spiritualization, such as “The Lord told me”.
If a society is to function well, it follows that people must be honest, fair and just. For example, sensible people gather the harvest when it is ready. This includes planning and the ability (God-given) to carry out the plans. Sensible people also see trouble coming and avoid it. It may be an overstatement to say “Good people never have trouble, but troublemakers have more than enough” (12:20-22), but the verdict is sound.
The unthinking person walks right into trouble instead of being alert and circumspect—“Only a stupid fool is never cautious— so be extra careful and stay out of trouble” (14:15-17). We learn that when we are driving, for example, it is best to not simply watch the brake lights on the car immediately in front of us, but rather look further down the road, so that we can be aware of potential problems earlier.
Trouble comes, but we should not insult those who have it (17:5) and a real friend will share in our own troubles (17:17). Instead of common sense, a bad temper (19:19), lies (17:4, 20), arguments (17:14), dishonesty (17:20), drunkenness (23:28-30), cruelty (28:14), selfishness (28:25) and foolish talk (18:6) are some of the things that will get us into trouble.
We can stay out of trouble and Proverbs gives us the guidance and education (1:5) that we need to do so. Most crucially, it is through such wisdom that we can first learn about God (2:5), who gives us knowledge and understanding (3:6). The promise in Proverbs is that if we remember the Lord in everything we do, he will show us the right way (4:10). Solomon states (1:4) “I want to warn you young men about some problems that you will face. I want to teach you how to act in every circumstance.”
A first step in achieving wisdom is to have reverence for the Lord (1.7), a fear of God (2:5), and to trust him (3:5). In other words, for the Christian, every thing starts with God—we start with him or we start with ourselves. Looking to God contradicts one of the main tenants of our society, which tells us that we achieve satisfaction and success by looking out for ourselves. However, “To be wise you must first have reverence for the Lord. If you know the Holy One, you have understanding. Wisdom will add years to your life. You are the one who will profit if you have wisdom, and if you reject it, you are the one who will suffer” (9:10-12).
Our society requires self-reliance: first of all, we leave home. For some this involves the “John Wayne” image – testing oneself in the macho world. We are convinced that our need to be free is important and for some that will also mean leaving church. Perhaps they have gone to church because it is a value of their parents and not their own. If, so the need for church will disappear.
For others, work enables them to “make something” of themselves. And it is true that many leaders in the world have worked for the good of the people and society and made a name for themselves. The Book of Common Prayer says (for Labor Day): “So guide us in the work we do, that we may do it not for the self alone, but for the common good.” However, today that theme is decidedly unpopular in the West.
One of the final results of “finding oneself” is that each person chooses his or her own values. Everyone is then their own moral universe, with no other way to decide what is good or of value. Of course they will rely upon their friends and peers. But utility replaces duty or authority: Being good becomes feeling good and, if it feels good, then it must be right. This does not prove to be a good argument for anything, including defining morality. Rats will kill themselves by satisfying pleasures. Nevertheless, a pleasure seeking world is the kind we find ourselves living in. How can we choose the right course? What is the correct road?
In my view, the correct road is the one on which we travel when we have the Wisdom of God, but it requires searching—it is not open to abuse (2:3-5).
Proverbs assures us of a number of things: Wisdom, through God, results in being able to distinguish right from wrong (2:9); we can possess certain virtues that we should not give up lightly (3:3); we should also not consider ourselves wiser than we are, but, in trusting God, we should refuse (make a choice) to do wrong (3:7); and we should guard our affections (4:23), certainly a tremendous promise from God, especially for young people.
Although wisdom may be for anyone who wants it, it is costly. If it comes from the Lord (2:6), it still requires searching. It demands discipleship and is not for the timid. Our goal should be to know God, and this belongs to the man who listens to Him (8:34) and anyone who finds Him finds life (8:35). We are reminded again that the reverence and fear of God is the basis for all wisdom (9:10).
If we are wise we turn from evil because the Lord hates evil ways and false words (8:13). If we believe the verdict from God that we are sinful, it can lead to conversion, where we repent from our sins, turn to God and are saved by Him.
A primary question is one that may seem self-evident: Why choose wisdom instead of foolishness? First of all, it is clear from Prov. 8:32-36 that wisdom will enable us to have the proper behavior to master life, that is, to live it as God intended. I repeat here a number of fundamental reasons why this is so:
- God is the source of wisdom, so knowing God is to find wisdom, to be wise;
- The proper attitude towards God is also the beginning of all wisdom;
- We naturally lack wisdom and therefore need to ask God for it, to depend on Him;
- Wisdom is not readily obvious, i.e. we can close our minds to it;
- We are invited to seek wisdom—God does not intend to hide it from us;
- Wisdom is not the accumulation of knowledge, but rather a way that we live before God;
- Wisdom sayings were of particular value in ancient Israel (and in surrounding nations);
- The personalization of wisdom in the OT depicts its influence upon thought and writing;
- Wisdom is revealed to us by God’s Spirit (I Cor. 2:10-16) as an avenue whereby we can possess “the mind of Christ”;
- Paul equates wisdom with insight and understanding (Eph. 1:8, 17, Col. 1:9) – in Christ are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge;
- For James, wisdom was demonstrated in good behavior, depicted by works of kindness (3:13);
To repeat: “The fool has said in his heart that there is no God”, so, by this definition, there are many fools in the world today. There are fools in politics, education, science, the military and religion, to name just a few samples of foolishness. And there are male fools, female fools, and fools who think they are one gender but are the other. Even animals may belong to either category—for instance, they are called “smart” or “dumb” (and often prized more than their human counterparts), and demonstrate their smartness and stupidity in non-verbal ways. We note that Proverbs brings a number of animals into the picture in its discussion of wisdom: ants, badgers, locusts, lizards, lions, roosters and mountain goats (30:25-31) get special mention.
Why the focus on these animals? 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 boldly in places that most people fear to tread. All of these animals do what they are created to do, 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 counterproductive ways. Proverbs reminds us that we who are human can learn a lot from the animals.
Wisdom is personified throughout Proverbs: it is our true friend and can 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 such bad people.
A wise person therefore has common sense (3:13), recognizing what is right, honest and fair (1:3). Such a person is not jealous of cruel people and, instead, helps people who are in need. People like this are kind and humble and will be praised (3:34)—but the stubborn fool will not be praised (3:35).
Why, then, doesn’t every one have common sense and desire wisdom? Instead, many people sneer and laugh at it (1:22), a sure sign of a foolishness. Wisdom wants to help and them, but its advice has been ignored (1:24, 25).
We display our wisdom, or lack of it, as we travel our Christian path. Proverbs has a lot to say about how we travel our road.
On the Road
Metaphorical language occurs throughout Proverbs and one of the most persistent themes is linked to “staying on the right road”. And our everyday speech is filled with expressions like “hitting the road”, “getting off the track”, “taking the high road”, “a fork in the road”, being on the “fast track”, or coming to the “end of the road”, so we are familiar with travel metaphors.
I have noted that the author of Proverbs, whom I refer to as KS, begins his book by reminding us that proverbs will teach us “wisdom and self-control, as well as how to understand sayings with deep meanings.” Through this understanding we will have a source of wisdom to keep us from following the road of sinners (1:15). We must also “treasure” wisdom and the teachings and instructions that flow from it (2:1). And wisdom is not obscure—it speaks out in the streets and market places and near the city gates (1:20-21), so there is no excuse for not hearing it—it is everywhere we travel.
Searching for wisdom is not like searching for gold or silver; however, it more valuable than either and its closest relatives are “common sense and understanding” (2:6). Once found, wisdom should “control our mind” (2:10), give us good judgment and protect us (2:11, 12) from the dishonest people we come in contact with along the road.
Wisdom will also protect us from the sinful woman, the one who leaves the man she married and entices men drawn from the “road to her house” (2:18). But visiting there means “you will never find the road to life again” (2:19).
We are to trust the Lord with all our heart as we follow his path, and not to rely solely on our own judgment or understanding (3:5, 6). It follows that we are not to turn away from the path on which he leads us and “become bitter”. Instead, life will become pleasant when wisdom “leads us safely along” (3:17) our journey. We can then “walk safely and never stumble” (3:23), but only if we don’t turn from the path (4:2). We can be assured that it is the “right path” and won’t be blocked as we follow it (4:11, 12). KS also assures us in a number of places that walking on the right path leads to a long, healthy and productive life (3:22; 4:10).
Keeping on the path means “looking straight ahead” (4:25), not being distracted by temptations that entice us to “turn aside”, one way or the other (to the right or the left) and follow the wrong path (4:27).
On the other hand, the immoral woman has “missed the path…and doesn’t even know it” (5:6). We are to stay away from her, not going near her door (5:8); instead, we re to stay deeply in love with the woman we married (5:19).
We are reminded often in the Scriptures that the Lord is watching us, even closely (5:21), and that we should avoid getting lost along the way and trapped into some sinful activity by being foolish. There are many deceitful people along the path we take, not just immoral women, but liars and deceivers (6:12), who are proud and make evil plans to cause trouble.
We have parents who should be teaching us the difference between right and wrong and who will guard us as we walk our road, or even when we sleep (6:20). They are like a light for our path, providing teachings and correction that will lead us through life. This also reminds us of what our role should be as parents.
Therefore the wise son pays attention and obeys the instructions he has been given, memorizing them and treating wisdom like a sister and close friend (7:5).
KS relates a story (7:6-23) to us: he looks out of the window of his house and sees a young man who deviates from his path and walks into the trap of an immoral woman. She seduces him as he turns quickly from his path and followers her into a night of sexual sin. The moral of the story is simple: “Don’t even think about that kind of woman or let yourself be misled by someone like her” (7:25). The affair is a one way street in which the journey ends “straight down to the world of the dead” (7:27).
We come to a cross-road and wisdom shouts for us to go one way, sin beckons us to go the other way. Wisdom is persistent—it calls out to us from every hill and from the city gate (8:1, 2) so that we can have understanding and make the right choice.
Wisdom is not a mere abstraction but represents Someone who is alive, who tells us that common sense is his/her closest friend; that she possesses “knowledge and sound judgment” (8:12). She is ready to teach us because she is powerful and has already helped rulers to be fair with their laws; they have become important and successful by following her home. This path contrasts sharply with following the immoral woman, an evil road that, when travelled, ensures that one is “as good as dead” (9:18). However, following “the road to Life” means that we won’t need to be bothered by what happens after death (12:28).
Note also this dire warning: if we make fun of wisdom, we will never find it (14:6), but if we have enough sense we will find our way (14:8). Still, we must be cautious because we may think we “are on the right road and still end up dead” (14:12). We need to be smart and know the direction we are going (14:15), lest we allow foolishness to lead us to more foolishness (14:24).
It all boils down to recognizing that “The LORD sees everything, whether good or bad” (15:3), and he will have the final word. We plan and “We may think we know what is right, but the LORD is the judge of our motives” (16:2).
The “beginning” of wisdom indicates that it is a continuous road of education, one which we must respect and obey the Lord (9:10). We will then know the Holy God, who is Wisdom. It is a Trinitarian view: the essence of wisdom is in both God and Jesus, revealed to us by the Holy Spirit.
Accepting correction helps us to live the life God intended, but rejecting it means that “you will miss the road” (10:17). So, as we are often reminded in Proverbs, it makes “good sense” to obey God. He will keep us safe, such that “Trouble goes right past the LORD’s people” (11:8) and we will also live longer. Other results are that we will be honest (“honesty will be your guide” 11:3); and that we will “always know the right thing to say” (10:12). Furthermore “if you act wisely, others will follow” (11:30). In other words, we will be wise leaders.
Among many proverbs refer to the good sense of people, KS pushes the example to show how they interact with animals: “Good people are kind to their animals, but a mean person is cruel” (12:10).
It may seem a bit out of place, but the essence or outcome of the right road is “Follow the road to life and you won’t be bothered by death” (12:28). We will of course die but we will not be consumed with thoughts about death.
On the right road, among other things, we are sensible and make good decisions, including the choice of good friends (13:20), accepting correction from our parents (13:1), and hating deceit (13:5). But if we do not have sound judgment we are on our way to disaster (13:15) and are acting like fools.
One object in following the road of good sense is so that we don’t get lost, like fools, who think they are on the right road but end up dead (14:12)—a dead end! So we should not be stupid and believe everything we hear; we need to “be smart and know where you are going” (14:15).
While we are walking along the right road, “the wicked will come crawling” to us because we obey God (14:19) and have good sense. Fools don’t, and they will be punished accordingly (14:35). Following God we can find our way, but stupid fools will get lost (14:8).
As we journey, the Lord sees us, in fact he “sees everything, whether good or bad” (15:3) and therefore he can see into our hearts (15:11). When we walk in his sight, we are “on a smooth road”, instead of in a “patch of thorns” (15:19; 22:5), a road that enables us to accept good advice, because we are following “a road that leads upwards to life and away from death” (15:24). On this road we respect the Lord who makes us wise and yet are to be humble as he does so.
In Chapter 16 we are reminded that, although we plan our journey, “the Lord decides where we will go” and what will happen to us (16:1, 9, 33; 19:21; 20:24), and we can be assured that he watches us as we travel along our path (16:17). We are therefore protected from evil because the road that sometimes seems right can lead to death (14:25).
The road is sometimes long, but if we are faithful, we end up with “grey hair” as a “glorious crown”, worn by those who have lived right (16:31; 20:29). These metaphors imply that God will reward us.
However, as we travel our thoughts are tested, refined like silver and gold (17:3). Throughout the process we are to stay honest, sensible, friendly and cheerful (17:22).
KS, who had a lot of wives, speaks as if he had but one in mind (perhaps his favorite)—in the singular to remind us in 18:22 that “A man’s greatest treasure is his wife—she is a gift from the Lord.” On the other hand, “A nagging wife goes on and on, like the drip, drip, drip of the rain” (19:13). In fact, we are better off in the desert than with “a nagging, complaining wife” (21:19). With KS having so many wives there must have been a bit of nagging going on.
The best summary of a good wife is by King Lemuel in 31:10-31, which I will now reflect on in respect to my wife:
- Her husband depends upon her. There is nothing more pitiful than a man who has lost his wife. He is the one who is lost: she filled every aspect of his life and he was influenced by her in everything. I have depended upon my wife for almost 60 years now, in the sense that I am incomplete without her.
- She is good to him, working with her hands. My wife has always been good to me: she encourages me by the work of her hands, whether cooking, sewing, computing, or playing games.
- She prepares food for the family and servants. My wife has always loved to entertain others. No “servant” was without food or love in our home. Students from a near by high school, from our own schools, members of churches, our family—it hasn’t mattered, she has served them all.
- She knows how to buy, plant, and work hard. My wife is always looking for a bargain and saving money has been one of her strengths.
- She works late at night. My wife is a night person but she comes to bed when I do because she believes it makes a happy marriage (it does!).
- She makes clothes for herself and others. My wife has been an accomplished seamstress, sewing clothes for our daughter in high school and college.
- She dresses smartly. My wife likes to dress well and she does, not with extravagance, but with good taste.
- She is a good shopper. My wife loves to shop—for anything.
- She is graceful and cheerful. My wife’s name is Joice, as in “rejoice” and she has a smile and good words for all who meet her.
- She is sensible. My wife knows how to judge people and issues and does it in a fair and level-headed manner.
- She takes care of her family. My wife has always looked after me, our children, our grandchildren and our extended family.
- Her children praise her. Both our son and our daughter, and now our in-laws as well tell her how wonderful she is—to her embarrassment.
- Her husband thinks she is the greatest of all women. There is no doubt in my mind and I have met many wonderful women.
- She honors the Lord. This is evident by her devotional live—personally, with me, and with other people.
- She deserves respect. She has it!
Proverbs 22:17 to 24:21 outlines 30 wise sayings, followed by others that conclude the chapter, then continue in chapter 25. We are told that with good sense we will follow these teachings along the right path (23:19). In later chapters, not much more is directly said about following the good road or path, but the implications are clear throughout: Don’t be a fool, don’t boast, and remember that the Law of God makes good sense.
Some comments on some of the 30 wise sayings as they relate to my journey in life—we may meet people along our journey who:
- Are poor, and we should help them.
- Are hot-tempered, and we should avoid them.
- Are in debt, and we should be cautious of loaning them money.
- Are disregarding the rights of their ancestors.
- Are not doing their work well and end up in slavery.
- Are greedy when in the company of those who are well-off.
- Are pending their lives trying to get rich.
- Are pretending to be generous.
- Are fools.
- Are taking what does not belong to them.
- Are refusing to listen to instructions.
- Are cruel to their children.
- Are not truthful.
- Are jealous of sinners.
- Are on the wrong path.
- Are not obedient to their parents.
- Are unfaithful.
- Are criminals.
- Are “successful” crooks.
- Are insensitive.
- Are poor planners.
- Are meager with advice.
- Are troublemakers
- Are helpless in times of trouble.
- Are not mindful of the helpless.
- Are lacking of wisdom.
- Are cruel to good people and their families.
- Are happy with others misfortunes.
- Are evil and cause worries.
- Are disrespectful.
The hunter and the hunted
The schema of hunting and trapping occurs in the book of Proverbs. For example, although sinners are trapped by their own evil deeds (5:21-23), anyone can be trapped by their own words (6:1-3) or dishonesty (P11:3). So we must try to avoid such things “just as a deer or a bird tries to escape from a hunter” (6:5).
Historically, the main purpose of hunting or trapping was to get food and was not in this sense “recreational”. There were no trophy hunters with heads of buffalo hanging in teepees.
Another purpose of hunting is to get rid of potentially harmful animals. There are many ways to do this, but unless something is literally captured by hand, some type of instrument is needed (a spear, sword, bow and arrow, club or gun).
I read about a large and named animal that was killed by a trophy hunter in Africa. The environmentalists went ballistic about the loss of the poor lion, but the people who lived near the “reserve” and had their own livestock killed by lions were not sympathetic about the loss of it.
The object of the hunt will help determine the instrument. Fish can be speared, caught with a net (casting-nets, drag nets), a hook, poison, etc. Animals were commonly hunted with the bow and arrow, guns, snared with traps, or caught in covered pits. Some who hunt fish use dynamite.
In hunting or trapping, one must know something about the particular animal or fish that is being pursued because different ones have differing characteristics and habitats. For example, when I hunted squirrels, I knew which trees they were most likely to live in and where the trees were located. With deer, I knew where their runs and crossings were and what time of the day they were most likely to feed. If there was snow, I knew the difference between different kinds of tracks and the animals that made them.
A necessary part of hunting or trapping is the bait, the lure, the blind, etc. A fisherman (or woman) wants to trick the fish into trying out a favorite worm or fruit and then hook it. We want the otter to believe that some of his favorite fish is waiting for it. A hunter wants the deer or duck to not see him so that he can shoot it. In Proverbs we are reminded that choosing bad friends is “like a bird that sees the bait, but ignores the trap” (1:16-18). The result is sin and death (1:32). Another example is the man who gives into the temptation of the adulteress and is “no more than a bird rushing into a trap, without knowing that it would cost him his life” (7:22-24). He is killed as if with arrows.
In some societies hunting and trapping have ritual activities associated with them: the arrows are divined, special food is fed to the hunting dogs, a secret language may be is used in the bush, a particular man knows how to talk to the fish, and so on. In other words, it is assumed that fish and animals can be influenced by certain ritual behavior. Over time the whole activity may become ritualistic, i.e., it must be done in a certain way because only then will the hunting or fishing be successful.
In some societies there are social activities that accompany the hunting or fishing, for example, people divert the stream to collect their fish and visit while doing so; hunting for certain animals may involve male vs. female social activities.
There is also an ecological aspect: deer that are not controlled by hunting will breed and proliferate to such an extent that they will eat food intended for humans, who, without it, will starve. There are also game protection customs to protect particular the species, e.g., fishermen among the Loniu in Manus are careful to not deplete the fish when they are spawning.
It often takes traps and some trickery to find an animal and the metaphor of trapping is used in Proverbs to depict the intentions of evil people. We need to protect ourselves from fools and false teachings, just as animals protect themselves in a variety of ways, e.g., the skunk by scent, the deer and ostrich by speed, the beaver, rabbit and bird by habitat, lizards and other animals by camouflage, the lion by confidence, and groups or packs of animals by company and companions.
The vocabulary and concomitant imagery of hunting and fishing are extended metaphorically in the Bible to give certain vividness to its warnings and instructions. I want us to examine some of these metaphors and pictures, especially in the Book of Proverbs.
Friends, families, fools and enemies
Friends won’t trick us unless, of course, they are having a bit of fun or showing us some magic tricks. That is because “A friend is always a friend, and relatives are born to share our troubles” (17:17). Hugh Kingsmill is reported to have said “Friends are God’s apology for relatives” and we all know or have heard of “fair weather friends”, those who are around when things are going well but disappear when they are not. However, even a friendly smile can make us happy (15:29) and “a true friend is closer than your own family” (18:23-24). We should never dessert them (27:10).
Families are held together by wisdom (14:1) but greed (15:27) and lies (6:19) cause trouble and will destroy relationships. Industrious people prepare food and warm clothing for their families (31:15, 21).
The family has enemies: fools who sneer and laugh at their knowledge (1:21-23), think they know best (12:15), but who are really lazy and daydreamers (12:11). Such people are to be avoided (13:20) because they are senseless and lose their way (14:8). They don’t care if they are wrong (14:9), they have quick tempers (14:17) and their stupidity even makes them happy (15:21). We should all want to learn but the fool “would rather give their own opinion” (18:2) and yet “their advice is no good” (24:7). If you meet up with someone who loves to quarrel, it is also a sure sign of a fool (20:3) and you can’t talk to them or they will just make fun of you (23:9). Still, they believe what they think (18:26), so if you answer them you must be careful (26:5).
We conclude this section by reminding ourselves that “Even fools seem smart when they are quiet” (17:28), prompting us that we often say the wrong thing if we talk too much—so we should be sensible and watch what we say (10:19).
Proverbs and contrasts
I mentioned at the start of this piece that there are many contrasts and I will list a number of them here
- Words and silence
- Youth and age
- Fidelity and infidelity
- Food and water: the good and the bad
- Drink and drunkenness
- Money and the poor
- Pride and humility
- Honesty and dishonesty
- Gifts and bribes
- Greed and generosity
- Peace and trouble
- Life and death
Summing up wisdom
If you could pray for two or three major things—not people, but other things that would benefit you in your Christian life—what would they be? Money (perhaps full support for missionaries)? Security (for your life or time of service)? Perhaps even fame (but for God’s glory, of course)?
Recently I was asked a question that I have heard often: What can I pray about for you? My answer has always centered on two things: 1) Wisdom and 2) faithfulness. To these I would now add 3) courage. In summary, I pray for wisdom because:
- When we are wise we are able to think sensibly, to make the right kind of decisions. We are able to give good advice, say things that are worth listening to; we begin to emulate Christ in our speech and thinking. Wisdom is often reflected like the maxims I quoted: “A stitch in time saves nine”, for example, maintenance saves breakdown, and so on.
- When we are wise we are able to discern, to know not only what is good or evil, but also to make judgments in cases that may at first seem unclear.
- When we are wise we bring to bear our life’s experiences in such a way that it benefits us and others, as well as protects us.
Kidner, Derek. 1964. Proverbs: An introduction & commentary. Inter-Varsity Press.
Ryken, Leland, James C. Wilhoit and Tremper Longman III, General Editors. 1998. Dictionary of Biblical Imagery: An encyclopedic exploration of the images, symbols, motifs, metaphors, figures of speech and literary patterns of the Bible. Downer’s Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.
Williams, Michael E. 1994. The storyteller’s Companion to the Bible. Volume 5, Old Testament Wisdom. Nashville: Abington Press.
 From “About the contemporary English version: Preface to the first American edition”. American Bible Society, 1991.
 Verse one identifies the writer as “King Solomon of Israel, the son of David”. I will refer to him as KS. Kidner (1964:21) reminds us that it is the work of several authors: in addition to Solomon, also Agur and Lemel.
 Wisdom is most often talked of as if it were “feminine”—the last part of Chapter 8 indicates that wisdom was “born” and a part of the creation process. The Dictionary of Biblical Imagery (p. 956) notes that “The imagery of wisdom plays an important role in the NT’s depiction of Jesus. The primary motif developed is that of God’s wisdom personified, beginning with Proverbs 8, where Lady Wisdom calls out and speaks of herself as the one who was created by God at the beginning of his work….” Kidner also sees wisdom as a personification (1964:78).