Words of Wisdom

Stephen Terry


Commentary for the February 21, 2015 Sabbath School Lesson


“Pay attention and turn your ear to the sayings of the wise; apply your heart to what I teach, for it is pleasing when you keep them in your heart and have all of them ready on your lips. So that your trust may be in the Lord, I teach you today, even you.” Proverbs 22:17-19, NIV

The book of Proverbs purports to be about wisdom, but how do we sort out the difference between knowledge and wisdom? One pundit, a British journalist, Miles Kington, quipped, “'Knowledge is knowing that a tomato is a fruit, wisdom is not putting it in a fruit salad.” Perhaps that is the essence of wisdom, knowing how to properly apply the knowledge we have obtained by education and experience. In that vein, it may be that Proverbs actually leans in some cases more toward the imparting of knowledge than wisdom. Wisdom becomes in such cases more a matter of degree than of specific action. For instance, one proverb states, “Blows and wounds scrub away evil, and beatings purge the inmost being.”[i] Another one says, “Whoever spares the rod hates their children, but the one who loves their children is careful to discipline them.”[ii] It does not take much imagination to see how these sayings can be a recipe for child abuse. In this case, the knowledge that children are to be disciplined does not impart wisdom unless one understands the moral boundaries to said discipline. Too often has this counsel been used to justify criminal abuse and neglect by otherwise well-meaning but unwise parents. Taken to an extreme, religious counsel intended for good has at times been used to justify many types of extremely violent behavior. Perhaps this finds its nexus in a deviant interface between knowledge and wisdom.

We might wish to be careful about letting a problematic understanding of inspiration lead us into too literal an understanding of books like Proverbs. Proverbs or aphorisms, by their nature, tend to be contradictory. They are often applied based on circumstances rather than some notion of absolute truth contained therein. We do this regularly without thinking about the contradictions we are creating. When we want help, we might quote the proverb, “Many hands make light work,” but when we prefer to go it alone, we may say “Too many cooks spoil the broth.” Wisdom allows us to see that logically both sayings cannot be true at the same moment, yet each may be true at certain times according to need. We might admit that this is the case with secular proverbs but be unwilling to grant that this may also be the case with the Bible, also. However, we can find similar samples there as well. For instance, we have the admonition “Do not answer a fool according to his folly, or you yourself will be just like him,”[iii] immediately followed by “Answer a fool according to his folly, or he will be wise in his own eyes.”[iv] This juxtaposition highlights the contrast, perhaps with a purpose. Maybe it is intended to make clear the role of wisdom in determining the validity of a proverb in a given situation. If we don’t, if we prefer to view each proverb as an absolute truth, inviolable in every situation, then pairings like this become huge speed bumps on our road to faith.

It may be difficult to make this concession because of the implications it carries regarding what might be deeply held beliefs, even though those beliefs might not be strictly biblical. An examination of some other proverbs may help to understand this point. An example can be found in the saying, “Wine is a mocker and beer a brawler; whoever is led astray by them is not wise.”[v] An absolutist understanding of this text might see this as a complete prohibition of all alcohol consumption. When we take such a black and white position, then we run head on into other, apparently contradictory, passages such as the miracle at the wedding in Cana,[vi] and Paul’s counsel to Timothy.[vii] This apparent conflict is not just with the New Testament, it also seems to fly in the face of Old Testament counsel as well. In the Pentateuch, we can read “But if that place is too distant and you have been blessed by the Lord your God and cannot carry your tithe (because the place where the Lord will choose to put his Name is so far away), then exchange your tithe for silver, and take the silver with you and go to the place the Lord your God will choose. Use the silver to buy whatever you like: cattle, sheep, wine or other fermented drink, or anything you wish. Then you and your household shall eat there in the presence of the Lord your God and rejoice.”[viii] It is difficult to reconcile these passages and others like them with the prohibition of the absolutist. As a result, contrived etymologies are used in an attempt to create reconciliation, not with what verses like Proverbs 20:1 are actually saying, but with what the prohibitionist may wish it to be saying. Interestingly, if we remove the idea that the verse is a prohibition against all alcohol consumption, the apparent inconsistencies immediately vanish. The textual understanding is no longer forced.

Another example of a need for a more relaxed approach to application of the various proverbs can be found in the statement “The righteous lead blameless lives; blessed are their children after them.” On the surface, this might seem to be supportive of a perfectionist doctrine, but it seems to be in conflict with Paul’s statements in his epistle to the Romans about the universal nature of sin.[ix] But that isn’t the only conflict, for in the very same chapter of Proverbs we have “Who can say, ‘I have kept my heart pure; I am clean and without sin’?”[x] Fortunately, the Bible is more transparently consistent here when we understand that righteousness comes from God. Through the impartation of that righteousness via Christ it is possible to be blameless and yet sinners, albeit covered with grace. It is that grace that eliminates the blame for the righteous,[xi] who are righteous not of their own accord but through the cross.

Perhaps the most egregious examples of turning malleable proverbs into iron rules are those that pertain to wealth. Repeatedly, Proverbs associates wealth with industriousness and implies that failure to achieve prosperity is the result of laziness, with the resulting implication that those who are wealthy are somehow more industrious and even more righteous than the rest. While we have excellent examples of philanthropy to be found in individuals like Bill and Melinda Gates, there are many more who are niggardly and who are exploitative of both employees and customers in their grasping for ever more wealth. These are far from examples of righteousness. They may even invest heavily in purchasing political influence in order to create a favorable legal environment to continue exploiting others for gain. Sadly, they may point to their wealth and status as evidence of their value, even, at times, citing the Bible as justification for their elitism. These are often the individuals that continually refer to “the lazy poor” who would prefer to be on the dole rather than gainfully employed. Yet, they willingly overlook that it may be their hiring practices that have made it difficult, if not impossible, for those poor to find employment. What is heartbreaking about this is that some poor people who are employed and poorly paid will even recite the same approbations about the lazy poor without realizing that they are condemning themselves in the process. They perhaps don’t understand that those same hoarders of wealth would consider them the lazy poor as well. The reasoning being that if they were not lazy they would be wealthy as well instead of working for such poor wages.

Perhaps the bottom line is that many proverbs are like a wax nose and may be twisted in whichever direction suits the one citing them. They may be used as in the last example to justify oppression. They may be used in a controlling manner to preach perfectionism, with those who buy into such teaching placing their lives and their families under the control of others claiming the right to lead them on the pathway to heaven. They must only obey everything they are told to believe and do by their controller as though it were coming from God.

Proverbs may also be used as a false legal standard, prohibiting behavior that the Bible nowhere universally forbids. In so doing, the burdens created can often drive pilgrims to abandon the path to heaven altogether. Instead of loading others with burdens, we are instructed to be lifting their burdens, and in so doing, fulfilling the Law. Perhaps if we approach the book of Proverbs with the intent of doing that instead of finding additional requirements to put upon one another, we can all find our burdens lighter and our community more loving.



[i] Proverbs 20:30

[ii] Proverbs 13:24

[iii] Proverbs 26:4

[iv] Proverbs 26:5

[v] Proverbs 20:1

[vi] John 2:1-11

[vii] 1 Timothy 5:23

[viii] Deuteronomy 14:24-26

[ix] Romans 3:10, 23

[x] Proverbs 20:9

[xi] Colossians 2:13-14



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