Spice up your Faith Life!

I wonder if my recent articles have prompted you to look at Proverbs again with new eyes? I hope that, if you have, you’ll agree with me that it is a rich resource for us in our missionary situation, teaching about all the stuff that is important to our neighbours and friends who are not yet followers of Christ - dealing with the boss at work, relationships, bringing up children, care for the elderly – and doing so in a way that can help both the simple and the shrewd, not to say, ‘worldly-wise’. If we learn its wisdom we can avoid speaking in bland, cringe-making generalities – like Ned Flanders in the Simpsons – and become the sharp, tangy salt Jesus says is so needed to preserve a world in danger of becoming rotten (Mathew 5.13).

However, there is a problem. Most of Proverbs is arranged in a way that doesn’t help us get to grips with it. It’s not too bad in the first nine chapters - the drama of the clash between Wisdom and her devious opponents draws us in; but, after 10.1, Proverbs is made up of a host of pithy one liners, not neatly arranged by topics or integrated in a story line which would help us remember them. It’s easy to get confused as we switch from one topic to another. Here are a couple of what the scholars like to call “reading strategies” that have helped me get the most from Proverbs.

Firstly, there is the ‘proverb a day’ approach. As it happens there are 375 short pithy sayings in the biggest collection in the book, the “Proverbs of Solomon” from 10.1-22.16. So we can work our way through this important section, perhaps incorporating one proverb in a daily Bible study time with an extra one for ‘high days and holidays’. I have one of those flip over desk calendars which has done the work for me with a proverb for every day and a very short comment - with which I sometimes agree but which sometimes drives me potty! It doesn’t matter; the main thing is that I get a tough, spiky saying to chew on through the day. And it is amazing, how often my proverb for the day has something quite specific to say to that day’s events, even if I forget its wisdom under pressure.

For instance, I came back once from a Circuit meeting wishing I had remembered my ‘proverb for the day’.

~qWhoever moderates their words, a knowing person,
And the cool of spirit, an understanding person. (17.27)q~

Which has, of course, much to say to me almost every meeting and every day!

However, concentrating on a single verse may mean that we miss any connections between the individual sayings. In spite of what some scholars would tell us, these there clearly are, often of a subtle and thought-provoking kind. For instance, the next verse after 17.27 seems to be simply repeating the moral,

~qEven a fool, keeping silent, can be taken to be wise;
A tight-lipped person, intelligent (17.28)q~

But, thinking a little harder we can see that it is actually saying something different. Yes, we do well to think before opening our big mouths – but we should also remember that we can make a big mistake by crediting the silent member of the meeting with a wisdom that they do not actually possess! Silence can mean we are thinking deeply but it can also mean we have nothing to say!

We shall get the most out of Proverbs if we try and make connections between the verses, even if such links are subtle and we need to think hard before we see them. So occasionally we should read a bigger chunk of the book, perhaps a chapter. The so-called ‘African Bible Study’ technique is helpful here, both for individuals and for groups.

This involves reading a passage of scripture - to yourself, or out loud to a group - three times. The first time you simply listen carefully for a word or phrase, that somehow stands out and catches your attention. If you are in a group, after some silent reflection, simply share what struck you without any discussion or analysis. Then the passage is read a second time. After this second reading, and some more silence, write down what has been said to you. You may find it helpful to use sentences that begin with an “I” statement. Then the passage is read a third time. Ask yourself, in the light of what God has been doing in your heart as you have been reading his word, or heard it read, ‘What does he want from me today or this week?’ Try to be specific and to avoid bland generalities. Write down your conclusion – remind yourself of it during the week (perhaps by putting it in your Bible, diary or prayer handbook).

This is a powerful way of reading all scripture but it works particularly well with Proverbs because it forces us to slow down, listen and think – a ‘counter-cultural’ way of behaving in our modern world but all the more valuable for that; which brings me to a further difficulty we may have with Proverbs – namely the way it often jars with contemporary feelings of what is right and proper.

Take, for example, one of the most often quoted verses in Proverbs, which the King James (and most other versions) renders:

~qTrain up a child in the way he should go
And when he is old, he shall not depart from it. (22.6)q~

All very true, no doubt, but the translators have themselves departed somewhat from a more challenging original. The Hebrew actually says:

~qTrain a child according to their own way;
Even when they are old they will not depart from it.q~

So the point being made is not that of the Jesuits – ‘Give us a child until they are eight, and they are ours for life!’- but the darker one that habits of selfishness and laziness, if not tackled early in life, will take deep root. This is not a congenial message in today’s world. However, given what is happening in “broken Britain”, the burden of proof is, surely, on those who would argue - against Proverbs 22.6 and so much other Scripture - that we humans are naturally inclined to be good, and just need some gentle encouragement to realise our full potential.

Bible translations abound in Britain, but for so many here the Bible is a closed book, with which they cannot connect

This having been said, personally, I cannot accept that Proverbs’ clear recommendation of corporal punishment (13.24; 23.13-14) should be taken literally. We don’t need to if we realise that the stress on these verses falls on the paradoxical truth that sometimes ‘we must be cruel to be kind’. Indeed, kindness, even to animals, is one of the key values of Proverbs, and of course, Scripture in general.

~qThe just are concerned about the needs of their beasts,
But even the compassion of the wicked is cruel. (12.10)q~

Kind treatment of animals is important – you take the dog for a walk even if it means you delay finishing an article for MET! – and we must question the way we treat animals in our farms, slaughterhouses and labs, even if bad treatment is justified on the grounds of compassion for humans.

Indeed there are many ways of inflicting pain. Mental suffering can be worse than physical abuse, particularly the pain we feel when we are let down by those we thought loved us.

~qTrustworthy are the blows of a friend
Dangerous the kisses of an enemy (27.6)q~

This saying is not, of course, justifying domestic violence but rather alerting us to the possibility that the colleague in the office who is ‘all over you’ is actually scheming to get your job; while the one who is prepared to challenge your plans, even tell you outright that you’re wrong, is on your side and wants you and the firm to succeed.

A Korean scholar is enjoying a study break with us at Wesley College with his family before returning to Kirghizstan in Central Asia where he has been translating the Bible into the local language. Jae-Hee tells me that one of the first books his team finished was Proverbs. They hoped that, in an overwhelmingly Muslim culture, the book’s wisdom would be non-threatening and would encourage people to read other Scripture. And so it has proved; in fact, the President has sent a letter congratulating the team and urging them to complete the whole Bible.

Bible translations abound in Britain, but for so many here the Bible is a closed book, with which they cannot connect. I believe that one of the ‘ways in’ to the Scriptures and their message of salvation is through the Wisdom books, especially perhaps the book of Proverbs. We can moan about the ‘sound bite’ culture and opt out, or we can enter in and share the pungent, spiky wisdom of ancient Scripture and find it challenging now as it has always been. How well Proverbs’ one liners fit within the TWEET limit (140 characters)!