Proverbs: A Christian Manual

given on Sunday, September 13, 2009

This is the first of a mini-series.

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Proverbs:  A Christian’s Manual

I suppose almost every one of us has wondered why in the world there is not a handy manual for raising kids these days.  We grow up, get married, and have children.  All along we learn by doing; but when you suddenly have the responsibility of raising a young baby, we want a how-to manual.

For the next several years, we struggle to know what to expect and what we are to do.  First are the nighttime cries of the new baby.  Next we worry about safety proofing the house when the baby begins walking.  Before long the first day of kindergarten arrives; and we worry about all the outside influences that our child will confront.  Where is that manual?

The manual is there—right in front of us.  The manual is a composite of 66 books.  How can we overlook it?  Still we do overlook it.  We know the stories of how the earth was formed in Genesis, of Noah and the Ark, of David and Goliath, and of the Baby Jesus born in a manager.  The stories seem so familiar, but we still think of the Bible more a storybook than a manual for life.

For some time I have been curious about Proverbs, that book following Psalms.  I do not remember ever having a preacher talk about it.  I have no recollection of ever participating in a study of Proverbs.  When I look at Proverbs, I am reminded of another small book, H. Jackson Brown, Jr’s Life’s Little Instructions.  In fact, as I mentioned last week, I have used it for class discussions and reflections.  This small book of advice was written so a father could provide his son life lessons as he headed off to college.

Still the question remains, why do we overlook life’s instructions provided in the Bible, especially in Proverbs.  God’s instructions for life are written right there just like Brown’s pieces of advice to his son.  Compare the two:

Life’s Little Instruction

Treat everyone you meet like you want to be treated.

Strive for excellence, not perfection.

Become the most positive and enthusiastic person you know.

Proverbs

Hatred stirs up dissension, but love covers over all wrongs.

Lazy hands make a man poor, but diligent hands bring wealth.

A generous man will prosper: he who refreshes others will himself be refreshed.

So why have we avoided studying Proverbs?  Maybe one answer is that it seems so obvious, almost too easy to expect the words to make a difference in our life.  Yet when one begins reading it, the first few chapters are so focused on the topic of “wisdom” and written in such a literary manner that one can become lost.  Understanding the definition of wisdom and how it is presented helps in understanding all the couplets that follow.

According to my study Bible, knowledge is having the facts and wisdom is applying those facts.  As a teacher, I refer to that as B-level work and A-level work.  I try to teach the students to understand what knowledge is which is basically B-level work.  The goal, though, is getting the students to use higher order thinking skills, HOTS, by taking the knowledge, evaluating it and then applying it in different situations—another words synthesis or A-level work which means wisdom has been reached.

The purpose of Proverbs, according to the Life’s Application Bible study notes is

“to teach people how to attain wisdom and discipline and a prudent life, and how to do what is right and just and fair…to apply divine wisdom to daily life and to provide moral instruction.”  (p.1070)

Written primarily by King Solomon–the same one who stood in the temple and decided the only fair way to provide the two self-proclaimed mothers of a child was to cut the child in half–the notes say he was the “wisest man who ever lived.”  Yet I remember feeling a tremendous sense of horror at the thought of cutting a baby in half.  How could he be considered wise?  Needless to say as a young girl, I had not reached the understanding that the King would never carry through with that action. The King’s wisdom knew the real mother would never allow him to harm her child even if it meant giving up the child.

As Solomon begins the book of Proverbs, he makes an argument why it is so important to teach young people the rules of Christian living.  He begins in Proverbs with the premise, or the basic rule, that knowing God is the key to wisdom:

7The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge,

but fools despise wisdom and discipline.  (from the NIV)

In our culture today, fear would not be translated as honor and respect.  Fear is a negative term in our common use.  Today, in the Message, the same verse reads:

7Start with God—the first step in learning is bowing down to God;

Only fools thumb their noses at such wisdom and learning.

Reading the two translations caused me to look a little more closely to the Message translation.  I backed up to the introduction to Proverbs written by Eugene Peterson.  Suddenly, as I read, a new twist or a better understanding emerged:

“Many people think that what’s written in the Bible has mostly to do with getting people into heaven—getting right with God, saving their eternal souls.  It does have to do with that, of course, but not mostly.  It is equally concerned with living on this earth—living well, living in robust sanity.  In our Scriptures, heaven is not the primary concern, to which earth is a tagalong afterthought.  “On earth as it is in heaven” is Jesus’ prayer.” (p. 829)

The words Peterson wrote suddenly made so much sense.  Why shouldn’t we realize that the Bible was written as a manual for life here on earth more than for eternal life?  It is how we live here on this earth that leads us to eternal life.

Peterson goes on to define wisdom in this matter:

“Wisdom is the art of living skillfully in whatever actual conditions we find ourselves. … Wisdom has to do with becoming skillful in honoring our parents and raising our children, handling our money and conducting our sexual lives, going to work and exercising leadership, using words well and treating friends kindly, eating and drinking healthily, cultivating emotions within ourselves and attitudes towards others that make for peace.”  (ibid)

This makes so much sense.  Peterson’s explanation is written in language I know.  The words do not need interpretation.  He is straight talking right to me.  Proverbs is written so that we are indeed given the rules for life.

Proverbs is our “life instruction book” and we just keep overlooking it.  Proverbs is from the Old Testament, before the New Covenant.  I suppose that may be one reason we have avoided them—we thought the rules did not apply any longer, but they do.

The book of Proverbs is divided into three primary sections.  The first nine chapters are focusing on the wisdom for young people, but the principles are just as important for all of us, not just young people.  The second section covers 14 chapters and is titled as wisdom for all people.  The rules in this section cover daily living.  The final section is wisdom for leaders and includes contributions from other “wise men” not just Solomon.

Are we ready, then, to begin reading Proverbs?  Are we ready to look at these rules for daily life and see if we are doing well?  I am not sure, but I also do not want to ignore these gems of wisdom.  I want to see if I can deal with people and life here on earth in a manner that lets me experience “heaven on earth.”

Let’s begin by going back to that first section of the book; the one which is wisdom for young people:

  1. Start with God (Chapter 1)
  • Pay close attention to what your father tells you
  • Don’t follow bad friends who tempt you to “go out and raise some hell, mug people, rob people, etc. (sounds like gang behaviors)
  • Result listed in verse 19:  “When you grab all you can get, that’s what happens: the more you get, the less you are.”
  1. Make insight your priority (Chapter 2)
  • Look for good advice, even collect it
  • Analogy of a gold prospector on an adventurer, a treasure hunt
  • Connects wisdom to God in verses 6-8:  “…God gives out Wisdom free, is plainspoken in Knowledge and Understanding.  He’s a rich mine of Common Sense for those who live well, a personal bodyguard to the candid and sincere.”
  • Result/concluding statement in verse 21:  “It’s the men and women who walk straight who will settle this land, the women with integrity who will last here.”
  1. Don’t assume you know it all (Chapter 3)
  • Reminders of following God, trusting God, honoring God
  • Connects Wisdom to the very source of life and warns never to “walk away from God” “because God will be right there with you; he’ll keep you safe and sound.”
  • Advice on dealing with others is a clear reminder of the New Covenant to love one another.  Verse 27:  “Never walk away from someone who deserves help; your hand is God’s hand for that person.”

The chapters four and five continue to outline key points about how to listen and search for wisdom.  Reading them in the message is almost like reading advice columns in the newspaper.  The various sections are very clearly titled:  “Your life is at stake”,  “Learn it by heart”, “Nothing but sin and bones”, “Never take love for granted.”  Then the style changes in chapter six.

Chapter six develops small poems in story form which wrap up in a cause and effect statement.  It is getting close to deer season and chapter six starts off with one titled “Like a Deer from the Hunter.”  This small section  talks about getting oneself into a mess such as a bad deal with someone, and it ends with a warning hunters hope the deer do not heed:

“Don’t procrastinate—

there’s no time to lose,

Run like a deer from the hunter,

fly like a bird from the trapper.”

We might smile or giggle about that from the mindset of deer hunting, but place yourself in the hooves of the deer.  The warning is so accurate that we must apply it to our own lives.

The style shift of chapter six continues through chapter nine.  The list of topics even talks about dressing to seduce (if time, reference styles today and how they have changed).  The story unfolds and the young man falls into the trap.  This is a timeless story and therefore a timeless piece of advice.

Wisdom may sound as though it is so difficult to develop, but the results are certainly worth it.  Our life on earth can be just a glimpse of heaven if we strive to read the words from the Bible, if we meet together to reach understanding together, if we develop the skills to hear God talk to us through the words, through our Christian relationships, and through our efforts to live out the knowledge we have.  We may not all be the Lady Wisdom, but we certainly know that we can make the commitment to reach understanding and then apply that knowledge into our daily lives.

Dear God, provider of Wisdom,

We face the challenges you have warned us of each and every day.  We ask that you strengthen our resolve so we do not tire or do not misunderstand the lessons of your word.  As we read, as we discuss, and as we apply the knowledge, help us to continue serving others as your own hand.  Let us share our knowledge and help others to find heaven on earth while we wait for the final gift of life eternal and join you.   –Amen

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