by Tom Beutel
The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge,
but fools despise wisdom and instruction.
Proverbs 1:7, NIV
This particular “column” in Peace Signs is called, as you probably know, “Balancing Acts.” The idea is to look at topics and issues in a way that balances the practical and the spiritual. It is easy to get carried away doing practical things without really considering them in the light of how or whether they are being done within the ways and will of God. Likewise, we can focus too much on the spiritual side; we can be so “heavenly minded that we are no earthly good.” James speaks to this extensively and pointedly.
The idea of doing good within the context of God’s nature and values is not restricted to the book of James. One could probably argue that this is the focus of the entire Bible; however, a major place within the Bible that focuses on the balance between the practical and the spiritual is in the wisdom literature found predominantly in Job, Proverbs and Ecclesiastes. Proverbs, in particular, directly addresses this by presenting guidance on living which begins with “the fear of the Lord.”
While the lessons presented in Proverbs are critical to living a Godly life, many of us are largely unfamiliar with Proverbs or have a cursory knowledge of what it teaches. According to Gordon Fee and Douglas Stewart in their book How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth, “Christians sometimes either misunderstand or misapply this material.” Bruce Waltke, writing in the New International Commentary on the Old Testament says,
“the church has practically discarded the book of Proverbs…many Christians know three – to fear the Lord (1:7), to trust him (3:5-6), and to ‘train their children in the way they should go’ (22:6) – and possibly something about the ‘virtuous wife’ (31:10-31)…For the logical mind the book seems to be a hodgepodge collection, having no rhyme or reason in its groupings of sayings.”
To properly understand Proverbs – and any portion of Scripture – it is important to consider the historical and literary context. This involves, among other things, understanding words and their meanings as they were written originally and the literary devices used.
Words and their meanings within the context of ancient Hebrew are particularly important. Our 21st century understandings often don’t do justice to the rich and deep meanings embodied in writings from another time and culture. Wisdom is defined by merriam-webster.com as “accumulated philosophical or scientific learning: knowledge.” But, in Biblical Hebrew wisdom generally refers to skill or ability, often applied to craftsmen and artisans. In the context of Proverbs, wisdom denotes the ability to live in ways that honor God, the ability to make Godly choices and decisions and act on them. Wisdom is practical, but also moral in that it includes doing what is right, just and fair.
Proverbs addresses those who are simple, fools, or mockers. The distinction among these terms is important.
Simple means literally to be wide open. To be simple is to be easily led or misled, to be swayed by one view and then another. The simple have no firm foundation, they are “blown and tossed by the wind…double-minded and unstable.” (see James 1:6-8, NIV)
Fools are “insensitive to moral truth.” (NIV Quest Bible) “The fool is fixed in the correctness of his own opinion, which flies in the face of the established moral order revealed through the sage.” (New International Commentary on the Old Testament)
A mocker is one “who cynically scoffs at morality.” (NIV Quest Bible) The mocker actively opposes moral teachings as opposed to the fool who embraces morality as defined by his own opinion. A mocker would say that there is no right or wrong only what “works for me.”
The goal of Proverbs is to instruct the simple, the fool and the mocker in how to make Godly choices and live Godly lives. It does this by using poetic language, hyperbole, comparisons of behaviors and consequences, and other devices. Proverbs are written – especially in the original Hebrew – to be memorable, not to be literally true or exhaustive in their lessons.
A modern day example is “The pen is mightier than the sword.” Obviously, a pen is not “mightier” than a sword if used as a physical weapon. Neither is it true that the written word will always triumph over brute force. Censorship can be imposed, books burned, and mob rule can overcome common sense. The pen could, especially today, not even be a literal pen. It could be a movie, song, or other medium of expression and communication. Finally, it is not so much that writing or other forms of communication are, in themselves, mighty, rather that the ideas expressed can be have power to persuade or influence people and events. So what does this modern-day proverb mean? Probably something like “ideas are powerful.”
One final but important thought. What distinguishes Proverbs from the wisdom of cultures both ancient and modern is that it is founded on “the fear of the Lord.” This simply means that the lessons taught are within God’s values and ways and we must submit to God for understanding. Thus, justice is not simply paying back wrong for wrong. Instead, justice in Proverbs is God’s justice, that which restores community and right relationships.
Likewise righteousness or right is not simply “being good,” following certain rules or doing good deeds, rather righteousness in Proverbs means good, blameless, or upright according to God’s fixed moral order. It involves an orientation towards the well-being of others. “The righteous are willing to disadvantage themselves to advantage the community; the wicked are willing to disadvantage the community to advantage themselves.” (New International Commentary on the Old Testament)
There is a lot to ponder in Proverbs. Try reading this often-neglected book with a commentary or some direction such as Fee & Stuarts How to Read The Bible for All Its Worth. Even if you do not consider yourself to be simple, a fool or a mocker, the writer of Proverbs says, “let the wise listen and add to their learning, and let the discerning get guidance.” (Proverbs 1:5, NIV)
Editor’s Note: Tom Beutel, a regular contributor to PeaceSigns, is Professor Emeritus of Computer Science at Mount Vernon Nazarene University in Mount Vernon, Ohio. Balancing Acts is a monthly feature of PeaceSigns.