Getting maximum value from God’s minimal maxims

Most proverbs owe their existence to the observation of events in creation and of the outcome of human behaviour, such as: ‘He who hesitates is lost.’ When compared, some pithy sayings can appear to be contradictory since each is the product of limited keyhole vision. ‘Look before you leap’ and ‘Second thoughts are best’ kind of cancel out that previous saying. In some cases, contradiction is avoided when the sayings are paired (Proverbs 25:4-5): ‘Red sky at night, shepherds’ delight; red sky in morning, shepherds’ warning.’ The delight or dread of a red sky depends on which time of day one observes interaction of sun and clouds, indicating the weather that usually follows.

Some maxims in the book of Proverbs were already popular in other cultures. But all truth is God’s truth, even if first written down by Egyptians or Chaldeans. So, what makes the biblical collection unique? This textbook of wisdom claims divine revelation by its regular reference to ‘the Lord’ (Yahweh/YHWH). Chapters Proverbs 1:0 2:0 3:0 4:0 5:0 6:0 7:0 8:0 9:0 prepare the reader for studying the hundreds of assorted couplets that follow; they are best studied in close disciple/mentor relationship (‘my son’). The opening paragraph (Proverbs 1:1-7) is a succinct introduction on how best to grasp wisdom from the rest of the manual.

The author (Proverbs 1:1)

The author is not an eccentric recluse but is a man in family relationship (son’) who holds an authorised office (‘king’). We, on our part, must also learn and teach its contents from an active involvement in church fellowship (not as individualists with a sectarian attitude), and actively engaging the kingdom authority of God’s appointed ministries (see Ephesians 4:8-12). It is Jesus, after all, who commanded his followers to ‘go … and make disciples’ (Matthew 28:18-20).

The preface (Proverbs 1:2-7) should be read as three foundational proverbs designed to guide all subsequent disciples and their instructors on how best to use this textbook:

Proverb 1 (to the ‘son’): Wisdom is practical morality.

‘To know wisdom and instruction, to understand words of insight, to receive instruction in wise dealing [is] righteousness, justice and equity’ (Proverbs 1:2-3).

Proverb 2 (to the ‘father’): To teach wisdom, first practise this morality yourself.

To give prudence to the simple [=naïve], knowledge and discretion to the youth, let the wise hear and increase in learning, and the one who understands obtain guidance’ (Proverbs 1:4-5) – none of your ‘don’t do as I do, do as I say’ nonsense.

Proverb 3 (to the ‘son’): Reverence for YHWH is the key to understanding this assortment of proverbsand achieving a life of practical godliness.

‘The fear of the Lord [in awe of his majesty] is the beginning of knowledge [at ease in his intimacy; compare ‘knew’ in Genesis 4:1]; fools despise wisdom and instruction’ (Proverbs 1:6-7).

  • Wisdom is practical (Proverbs 1:2-3a, 5b) yet intellectual (Proverbs 1:5a);
  • it is moral (Proverbs 1:3b) and spiritual (Proverbs 1:7a) – even mystical (Proverbs 1:6a-b);
  • and accessible (Proverbs 1:4a-b), but – be warned – it’s also missable (Proverbs 1:7b).
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