Thursday, 11 December 2014

Proverbs - Wisdom for the ages



Judgement of Solomon

As we were coming to the end of the year in our Bible study group, we were discussing whether we would stick to the standard curriculum, or whether we would branch out on our own for a couple of weeks. I suggested that we might consider having a look at one of my favourite books of the Bible, that being the book of Proverbs (and here is a link to the Hebrew version if you are really game, though it is a dual translation, so maybe that will help if you are keen on learning Hebrew). I then asked if I could lead the study, which the group kindly allowed me (though I won't be making a habit of it - I always prefer it when somebody else is leading the study because then I get to answer the questions).
Anyway, over the three weeks we met at our regular location in a lovely Victorian era cottage in one of the leafy suburbs of inner Melbourne (though due to an unpredictable event earlier in the year, we had to change location for one of the nights):


Victorian Houses
To protect the innocent, I've selected some random houses from a random suburb
So, after Hannah faithfully made us each a cup of tea (we all seem to have cups of tea in our group), we all sat around and began to discuss this wonderful part of the Bible:

Bible Study Group
Now that I think of it, this reminds me of reading time at primary school.
Once again thanking my Bible Study group, I would like to share what we all got out of this study.

What is the purpose of the Book of Proverbs?
The proverbs of Solomon son of David, king of Israel:
for gaining wisdom and instruction;
for understanding words of insight;
for receiving instruction in prudent behaviour,
doing what is right and just and fair;
for giving prudence to those who are simple,
knowledge and discretion to the young—
let the wise listen and add to their learning,
and let the discerning get guidance—
for understanding proverbs and parables,
the sayings and riddles of the wise.
The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge,
but fools despise wisdom and instruction. Proverbs 1:1-7
We are quite lucky to have the first seven verses of Proverbs because not only does it set the context of the book, it gives us a valuable insight into how we should apply it to our lives. As you can see from the passage I have quoted above, the book is set out as a series of instructions given to a child by his father. However, it is also important to note that the father is a king, meaning that his child is a prince, quite possibly the crown prince. As such, while a lot of the advice that he gives the prince is going to be general advice that can apply to many of us, I feel that we need to keep this at the back of our mind.
The fact that the advice is the type of advice that a king would pass on to his son is actually exceedingly helpful to us living in the 21st Century as the advise would be of a much greater use than it would be if  we were say a farmer giving instruction to his child. In fact, if you want some advice from an ancient farmer there is always Hesiod's Works and Days.

What do we learn about wisdom? Proverbs 8 - 9:12
I have been using the term advice in my discussion above, however I feel that there is a difference between advice and wisdom. To me advice is generally something that is passed from one person to another, and it may not necessarily be good advice (for example, battery acid is good for hair loss would probably be considered bad advice). However, when we think of wisdom we seem to think of what would generally be good advice, yet wisdom doesn't entirely come through being taught by another person, but can also come through life experience. One of our group suggested that wisdom is not necessarily something that we can sit down and work out, but rather must come to us from elsewhere, either through trial and error, through watching others make decisions, and of course receiving advise from our elders.
It is interesting that twice in the passages I have referenced above is the phrase 'the fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom'. I was a little baffled by that because how can we learn wisdom from something (or someone) of whom we are petrified? It was suggested that the term fear in these passages doesn't refer to the fear that we experience when we turn a corner and come face to face with a hungry tiger, but rather awe and respect from somebody who is in authority over us.

Lazy Tiger
He's probably having a rest after finishing his lunch.
Anyway, let us look a some proverbs to see what they say to us.

Proverbs 10:27: The fear of the Lord adds length to life,
                           But the years of the wicked are cut short.
The idea that we got out of this proverb was that 3000 years ago people were not as hygienic as they are now, and as such quite a few of the laws that were handed down on Mount Sinai related to actual cleanliness as well as spiritual cleanliness. For instance, it was suggested that the food laws focused on animals that if they were not prepared properly then diseases could be passed on to those eating the meat. By the time Jesus came around the Romans had occupied Palestine and as a culture the Romans were incredibly clean (much like us today). However, wisdom still plays a significant role in living a healthy lifestyle today, such as eating only chocolate for three months in a row is probably not going to assist you in living a long and fruitful life.


Proverbs 11:15: Whoever puts up security for a stranger will surely suffer,
                           but whoever refuses to shake hands in pledge is safe.

It is amazing how a single Bible verse can provoke a lot of discussion, and this is certainly one of those verses. When we read this one we discussed everything from personal finance to business management. Initially we discussed about going guarantor for somebody (that is when you sign a contract with a bank so that if the person taking out the loan doesn't pay it back then the bank comes after you), and then moved onto the idea of easy credit and investment decisions. In fact, this verse is simply not about signing a contract with a bank that you may regret, but actually putting up your money in any investment, whether it be for a friend opening up a shop to putting money into a hedge fund. We even discussed business, and how some businesses would give credit to people who ended up not being able to pay. When the business discovered that since most of its income had been on credit they were not able to pay their own creditors when they came knocking on the door.
Even in my own recent experience I have discovered the reality behind this simple verse. I recently invested some money into two blue-chip companies, one a diversified miner, the other an oil producer. Within a month both the price of oil and the price of iron ore collapsed, taking the value of these two companies with them. So what we learnt from this verse was not just going guarantor for a bank loan, but also investing our savings in any and everything from a dodgy start up to a multi-billion dollar company. Remember, the share price of Enron went from $90.56 in August 2000 to less that $0.12 on 11 January 2002


Proverbs 11:26: People curse the one who hoards grain,
                           but they pray God’s blessing on the one who is willing to sell.

Okay, when we got to this passage we discussed the issue as it related to Israel in the 10th century before Christ. However I would suggest that this issue is still alive and well today. We must remember the context of it being a king giving advice to his son, so it may not immediately appear to apply to us. What the verse is talking about is the practice of hoarding grain to artificially push up the price. In the ancient world, where you were not able to simply walk down to your local Woolworths (Safeway for those of you in Victoria) to buy a loaf of bread, food supply was much more at the mercy of the seasons. So, it is not suggesting that we don't store food for times when it may be scare, but rather keeping the grain in storage despite there being a demand for it due to it being, say, winter, or even in the middle of a drought.

Supermarket Shelves
There looks like there is plenty of food to go around here.

Granted, in our modern western culture, food is readily available, however market manipulation still occurs. One of the incidences is with regards to the stockmarket. A common practice is that brokers will deliberately hold back shares for popular floats to artificially inflate the price (I'm not sure what the practice is called, but if anybody can give me some examples that would be great).
We also see this happening in the housing market here in Australia, with investors purchasing real estate and leaving it empty. Okay, this is not necessarily because the owners are intentionally trying to force up the rental value of the property, but rather due to tax concessions that are gained through negative gearing. Still, it is having that effect. In fact, this practice is becoming so common in Australia that the middle class is being priced out of owning their own property and the lower income earners are being priced out of the rental market.

Godly Wisdom and the Humanist Philosophers

Do not deceive yourselves. If any of you think you are wise by the standards of this age, you should become “fools” so that you may become wise. For the wisdom of this world is foolishness in God’s sight. As it is written: “He catches the wise in their craftiness”. 1 Corinthians 3:18-19
I think at this stage I better move on from looking at specific proverbs and move on to the next topic, which is how we should respond to the wisdom of the world. I must admit that when I originally drafted this question I did not anticipate that people would not understand what I was getting at, however it is one of those questions that has been burning in my heart ever since I attended a church camp back in my university days to listen to the preacher rile against humanism for the whole week. So, the question that I have is: if wisdom is always pointing to God, and we are told not to rely on the wisdom of this age, then how do we discern what is godly wisdom and what isn't, and is there any scope for us to explore the ideas of the existentialists and the post-modernists (just to name a few)?
I guess the short answer to this question is that there is not necessarily anything wrong with reading the writings of the existentialists (especially considering that the father of existentialism, Soren Keirkegard, was a Christian), nor is there necessarily anything wrong with reading the works of Jean-Paul Sartre, George Bernard Shaw, or even Samuel Beckett. However, the danger arrives when we begin to elevate this writing about that of scripture, especially where it contradicts scripture. No doubt Paul the Apostle was familiar with the philosophers of Ancient Greece to the extent that he was able to engage with the people of Athens.


Shaw, Sartre, and Beckett
See if you can guess who is who.
Correct me, if I'm wrong, but I suspect that the worldly wisdom being spoken of here is not so much the theoretical philosophies of the Greeks, Romans, and modern humanists, but rather referring to the way the world does things. For instance consider these popular sayings: if it feels good, then do it; or if it doesn't hurt anybody, then it isn't wrong. In many ways our perception is limited, so we may not realise the damage that our actions are causing to ourselves and to others. Granted, taking drugs may feel good at the time, but what is it doing to your psyche, or your relationships? What about the inevitable hangover or come down? In one instance, it may deliver short term pleasure, but in a lot of causes the short term pleasure translates into long term pain.

Adultery
I don't want to dwell too much upon this topic because there are some controversial views regarding relationships that a lot of Christians hold, and I really don't want to give anybody the wrong idea about where I stand and what I think. Therefore I will be restricting my discussion to adultery rather than to sexual relationships at large (and also because I have already written a chunk on this post, and there is still a bit more to go).

Couple holding hands
I had to add a picture to this section
So, ignoring the controversial topics, what is generally understood by society at large, whether the relationship is one of marriage, or simply de-facto, is that cheating on your partner is basically not kosher. To me it comes down to a question of trust, whether that trust comes under the marriage vows, or it is simply an understanding that comes about from a long term relationship. When somebody has an affair there is a breach of trust and it works to undermine the relationship because of the partners feels betrayed. Somebody suggested that it also involves the deep sense of intimacy that occurs within a sexual relationship, and people really do not feel comfortable when that sense of intimacy is shared with another person. I have even seen it myself where a single act of infidelity has brought about an immediate end to the relationship (one friend of mine said that after his girlfriend had an affair, everytime he was with her he kept on seeing this other person).
However, Proverbs seems to paint a rather dangerous picture of the adulteress (Proverbs 5, Proverbs 6:20-35, and Proverbs 7:1-27), but the question was raised by one of my pastors as to why the woman is pictured as the villain. There are a couple of reasons that come to my mind:
  1. It Takes Two to Tango: Just because the woman is painted badly does not mean that the man is the innocent victim. The man makes a choice to succumb to the adulteress's whiles, and because of this he simply cannot be painted as a victim. If there is a victim, it is the partners in the relationship.
  2. The Structure of the Book: As mentioned previously, Proverbs is written as a father giving advice to his son. We simply cannot read the book and see it as an attack against women – it is not. These concepts are meant to be interpreted and applied laterally, which means that an adulterer can be just as cunning and dangerous as the adulteress.
The final thing I wish to raise is the time in which the book was written. While it is true that it is just as easy to be caught out in an adulterous affair these days (thanks to the smell of perfume, the late nights, the mysterious phone calls) back in those days people did not live in mega-cities. At the time the book was written, being around 1000 to 800 BC, people lived in small villages where everybody knew everybody else. Thus if people were discovered having an affair it would tar the reputation of those involved. In fact it would probably not be all that easy to live in the village after being discovered. Consider some of the stories in the gospels (John 4:1-26, John 8:2-11)  – everybody knew the adulterers. Even in Jerusalem, which was the largest city in the region, people would still pretty much know most of the other people who lived there – there was really nowhere to hide.

Bad influences

Listen, my son, to your father’s instruction
and do not forsake your mother’s teaching.

They are a garland to grace your head
and a chain to adorn your neck.

My son, if sinful men entice you,
do not give in to them.
If they say, “Come along with us;
let’s lie in wait for innocent blood,
let’s ambush some harmless soul;
let’s swallow them alive, like the grave,
and whole, like those who go down to the pit;
we will get all sorts of valuable things
and fill our houses with plunder;
cast lots with us;
we will all share the loot”—
my son, do not go along with them,
do not set foot on their paths;
for their feet rush into evil,
they are swift to shed blood.
How useless to spread a net
where every bird can see it!
These men lie in wait for their own blood;
they ambush only themselves!
Such are the paths of all who go after ill-gotten gain;
It takes away the life of those who get it. Proverbs 1:8-19

Our discussion on the final week of our studies on Proverbs we looked at the warnings against unsavoury characters. It was interesting that when I asked the group to talk about people who have been influential in their lives most of the discussion involved good influences. That is probably because the bad influences are not worth talking about. I know that I have had a lot of bad influences in my life (whom I foolishly followed), however I would probably not share too much about them either (which I don't believe that I did).
Anyway, things may have changed since the days of bandits and highwaymen, however we can still get dragged into bad company today - I know I have. Mind you, while many of us may not be encouraged to rob a bank, we will still encounter people who will suggest that we do things that are not really all that legal - such as stealing from our boss, lying on our tax return, or even smoking ice.

Proverbs 13: 10: Where there is strife, there is pride,
                            but wisdom is found in those who take advice.


Proverbs 15:2: The tongue of the wise adorns knowledge,
                         but the mouth of the fool gushes folly.


Well, the above two proverbs do not necessarily contradict each other, but they do make us pause to think. A wise person takes advice, however this is not just any old advice, this is taking advice from somebody who is wise. They say that everybody wants to give advice, but nobody wants to receive it, though the problem is that because we have all these people giving us advice, how are we to discern what is good advice and what is bad advice?

Bag Pipe Cookie Monster
Not necessarily an example of a fool
Well, once again the book of Proverbs comes to our rescue. Proverbs has a lot to say about fools and their behaviour, and for a while I thought it was simply saying 'do not be like this type of person because this type of person is not wise'. However, is it possible that it is also painting a picture of a type of person whose advice we should take with a grain of salt? What would be the point of listening to advice when the advice that we are listening to is coming from the mouth of a fool? So, let us see what characteristics Proverbs gives a fool:
  • They slander people (Proverbs 11:9);
  • They gossip (Proverbs 11:12);
  • They react against wise instruction (Proverbs 15:5);
  • They speak and act without thinking (Proverbs 14:16);
  • They are rebellious (Proverbs 17:11);
  • They have no real sense of morality (Proverbs 10:22).
The main issue we ended up discussing was gossip and slander because this is something that we all are exposed to, and are all tempted to participate. I know that I have been really bad when it comes to gossip and slander. Look, even the church is not immune to this type of behaviour, and it is really hard not to get involved. In fact, as I am sure many of us have discovered, if we don't participate we may discover that we end up becoming an outcast (or even the target of the gossip).
The reason that I suggest this is not just because we refuse to speak badly of other people, but because not participating in gossip also suggests that we should also be reaching out to the people whom are being gossiped about and showing the same love and friendship that we show everybody else. That can be hard as well because we may find ourselves being out of the 'cool' circle by doing this. I remember when I started at new high school that a friend of mine pointed to the members of the chess club and told me that I should stay away from them because they were not 'the cool people'. As it turned out, the chess club were actually the wise ones while the 'cool circle' turned out to be the bad influences.
Wait a minute, with all this talk about fools, doesn't that contradict what Jesus says in the gospels (Matthew 5:22)? I raised that very question because I was not really comfortable going around labelling people as fools. Well, as was suggested, this may not be all that contradictory because in the Gospel Jesus is talking about lashing out at somebody in anger. This is not what is necessarily happening the Proverbs because these verses are painting a picture of what we shouldn't be, and helping us identify the type of person whom we probably should be taking advice from.

Laziness
As I was preparing this Bible study I felt that we should also look at what proverbs describes as the sluggard, otherwise known as a 'lazy person'. I was not sure whether they would fall into the category of a bad influence or not, but I felt it was a subject that we should discuss anyway. So, while Proverbs may say a few things about laziness, it certainly isn't anywhere near as much as the fool. Some of the statements are simply ludicrous, such as this one:

Proverbs 19:24: The sluggard buries his hand in the dish
                           and will not even bring it back to his mouth.


Apparently the sluggard is so lazy that they find it hard to even lift a spoon from the plate to their mouth!

Lazy Cat
You can't get any lazier than this.
Mind you, it is not necessarily poor people that Proverbs is warning (though there is a group of people who claim that the only reason people are poor is because they are lazy, and no doubt they refer to some of these passages to justify this all encompassing statement) because in those days (and also in many developing countries around the world today) if you don't work, you don't eat. 
However, let us consider these statements from the perspective of a king giving instruction to crown prince. In this context there is actually a much greater temptation to be lazy, especially when everything is done for you. Could this not also be the case in our modern, western, society with all of our labour saving devices? By having machines do everything for us gives us more free time, however how do we use this time we are given? Do we go use our time to do good things and be creative, or do we simply sit down and watch endless hours of television?
As for being influenced by lazy people, I suggest that there is one way it can happen. Say, for instance, you are living with some people and the people with whom you are living never do any housework. It is possible in that situation (and I know because I have been in that situation) that because the people with whom you are living aren't doing anything, you won't do anything either, simply because the attitude of 'why should I be doing all of the work when they are sitting down all day watching television' develops. So, yes, it is possible to be influenced by lazy people.

Interacting with unsavoury characters
So, just before Jesus ascended, he commanded his followers to go out and make disciples of the nations (Matthew 20:16-20). While we could bicker over exact interpretations of this passage, what is generally accepted (at least in the churches that I have attended) is that Jesus is telling us Christians to go out and interact with the world and the share our beliefs with them. So, the big question arises, should we be interacting with unsavoury characters?
It can be a difficult matter, though we did discuss whether we should avoid certain people. Personally, I suggested that we need to be wise as to who we associate with, and there are people that some can associate with that others probably should avoid. However, others in the group suggested that we probably shouldn't be discriminatory. I agree to an extent, however I do believe that there is a catch. For instance, a reformed drug user probably shouldn't be rushing off to spend their time with drug users. The reason I say that is because there is the possibility that they might backslide into their previous habits. Look, there are people who are strong enough to be able to resist that temptation, and sometimes the best person in these situations is the person who can understand the culture that they are attempting to reach. However, my personal advice would always be err on the side of caution. If you know that you can be tempted by associating with certain people, then maybe working with those people may not be the wisest of choices.

Tiger Picture Source: Colin M.L. Burnett use permitted under Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 unported
Enron Stock Price graph source: Nehrams2020 use permitted under Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 unported
Supermarket Shelves source: lyzadanger use permitted under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic
Couple Holding Hands source: lyzadanger use permitted under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic
Lazy Cat source: Simplicius use permitted under Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 unported


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