Biblical Theology Articles

On Answering a Fool: Making Sense of the Book of Proverbs

Tim Chester


1. A CREATED ORDER

Proverbs are rules of thumb reflecting belief in a created order

Decisions, decisions. Many people find making decisions hard. Yet we have to make decisions every day of our lives. Wisdom is the ability to make good decisions. Wisdom is working out what is the right thing to do. The book of Proverbs offers helpful guidance for making wise decisions and living godly lives. They are practical: they have to do with ordinary life.

Compare Proverbs 26:4 and 26:5:

  • Do not answer a fool according to his folly, or you will be like him yourself. (26:4)
  • Answer a fool according to his folly, or he will be wise in his own eyes.(26:5)

These two proverbs show that proverbs are not universally or absolutely true. They are general statements - not iron clad certainties. They are rules of thumb. They may not apply in all circumstances.

Proverbs often involve:

  • consequences: ‘ ... for ...’
    'Do not join those who drink too much wine or gorge themselves on meat, for drunkards and gluttons become poor, and drowsiness clothes them in rags' (23:20-21)
  • comparison: ‘Better ... than ...’
    'Better a meal of vegetables where there is love than a fattened calf with hatred' (15:17)
  • observations on life - often without moral comment
    'A bribe is a charm to the one who gives it; wherever he turns, he succeeds' (17:8)

Peter Misselbrook says:

Wisdom is not an exclusively Biblical phenomenon but was a particular type of thought and of writing which was common to the world of the Ancient Near East. For a man's life to be prosperous and happy it is necessary that he should know something about the world in which he lives, the way in which it functions and the laws by which it is governed. The wisdom of the Ancient Near East is therefore not an abstract philosophy but a system of practical rules for life. It is concerned with the way in which a man must act in order to live well in the world and to prosper. Wisdom therefore begins with careful observations on the world, the world of men and the world of 'nature', and through observation seeks to learn something of the way things work. At the most basic level, man observes that there are regularities in the processes of the world and that to prosper one must recognise these and conform one's behaviour to the demands of the physical world .

So, for example, in Proverbs 24:30-34 we see that the person who fails to tend the ground properly will fail to get a crop.

Proverbs, however, reflect a particular way of looking a the world; a particular ‘worldview’. They look at ordinary life from a specific perspective.

The Worldview of Proverbs: A Created Order

The world was made by God. 'By wisdom the LORD laid the earth's foundations, by understanding he set the heavens in place' (3:19). And so there is order in the world: God is in control. Disorder has messed up that order to some extent (more of that later), but there is still order in the world. ‘The world is not driven about by erratic, arbitrary and accidental forces, but is maintained and directed by the order which Yahweh established at creation’ . Therefore we can see in the world purposeful design – the creative hand of God.

This means that there are predictable relationships between acts and consequences. This is what makes observations on life a worthwhile pursuit. Because of the order in creation, there are predictable consequences that follow from certain actions. This is the basis of the search by the wise to regulate life according to the intrinsic order of the universe. In Proverbs, wisdom is the skill of living in accordance with God’s order. ‘Because the order of life is God’s order, living in harmony with it is wisdom and righteousness’ .

2. A MORAL ORDER

Proverbs are rules of thumb representing belief in a moral order

What is the difference between information, knowledge and wisdom? The internet has lots of information, but little knowledge. Dr Radovan Karadzic, the former leader of Bosnian Serbs, is a qualified psychiatrist, but he is also a war criminal. He has knowledge, but little wisdom. Wisdom is working out what is the right thing to do.

The Worldview of Proverbs: A Moral Order

We have seen that Proverbs are rules of thumb, generalisations, observations on the consequences of actions. And they rules of thumb that reflect belief in a created order. But this is not mere pragmatism. God’s order is a moral order. The created order reflects his righteous character. And God continues to rule over his creation. We do not do something just because we have observed that its consequences might be beneficial to us. No, we want to live according to God’s righteousness.

Biblical wisdom is different from other wisdom of the Ancient Near East in that it does not stop at practical observations about life but dares also to make theological pronouncements. The Biblical wisdom writers stand from the standpoint of faith in the revealed word of God and depict true wisdom in terms of obedience to God's law … Biblical wisdom steps quite beyond the bounds of practical observations about the world to make clear statements of faith, the ground of which is nothing other than God's word of revelation. It was not through observation that the Israelites had concluded that there was some connection between obedience and prosperity, for all too often observation suggested quite the contrary (see Ps. 73:3-14 etc. where the complaint is precisely that the wicked prosper and the godly suffer). The basis of such affirmations is not experience but God's promise .

According to Proverbs 17:8, for example, 'A bribe is a charm to the one who gives it; wherever he turns, he succeeds’. In other words, it is an observable fact that bribes often work. Nevertheless, according to Proverbs 15:27, 'A greedy man brings trouble to his family, but he who hates bribes will live'.

How does the Bible define a ‘fool’? See Psalm 14:1.
How does the Bible define wisdom? See Proverbs 1:7.

This means that wisdom in Proverbs is not about being intelligent and clever. ‘This wisdom is as much moral and spiritual as it is intellectual’ . This is why Proverbs tells again and again:
'The fear of the LORD is the beginning of knowledge, but fools despise wisdom and discipline' (1:7)
'My son, if you accept my words and store up my commands within you, turning your ear to wisdom and applying your heart to understanding, and if you call out for insight and cry aloud for understanding, and if you look for it as for silver and search for it as for hidden treasure, then you will understand the fear of the LORD and find the knowledge of God' (Proverbs 2:1-5)
To fear God is to recognise that he is the judge; that he distinguishes between good and evil; to want to follow his ways; to obey his Law.

The Worldview of Proverbs: Ordinary Life

Proverbs is an important antidote to the way many Christians think. We too easily think that the body and material things are bad or secondary, and that the spirit is the primary. But that is un-biblical. All that God made is good. In the Bible to be spiritual is to walk with the Spirit in every area of life.

And so Proverbs can appear ‘unholy’. But in fact it is about living in a wise and godly way in everything. It is about the ordinary things of life because the ordinary things of life matter. It reminds us that following God is not just about praying, and singing, and meditating on your Bible and so on. It is about everything. It is about doing ordinary things in God’s way, and for his glory, and with the same servant attitude as the Lord Jesus Christ. Proverbs encourages us to be human - not in a sinful way, but human as God intended us to be.

3. A NEW ORDER

Proverbs leave us longing for Christ our Wisdom to create a new order

What do you make of these Proverbs?
'No harm befalls the righteous, but the wicked have their fill of trouble' (12:21)
'The righteous eat to their hearts' content, but the stomach of the wicked goes hungry' (13:25)
Are they true? Do they ring true to life?

We have seen that Proverbs are not universally or absolutely true. They are general statements that may not apply in all circumstances. But within the context of life lived under God’s rule, they offer practical guidance for making wise decisions and living godly lives. We have seen, too, that they reflect a particular framework or ‘worldview’: that there is in the world a created order and a moral order. God made the world in an ordered way. Actions have predictable consequences. That is the way God made the world.

And yet the world is also disordered. It is a mess. God made the world with beautiful order and a moral order. But we have turned from God. We have messed things up. Proverbs reflect a created order and a moral order. And that is true of the world. But it is not the whole truth. The created order and the moral order have been subverted. And so alongside the order there is disorder and chaos; there is suffering and evil. And what’s more, evil often goes unpunished.

We have said that Proverbs often have to do with consequences. Do this and this will follow. Act wisely and rightly, and you will be rewarded. Act wickedly and foolishly ignore God, and you will face disaster. That is the way God has made the universe and there is some truth to it. But it is not always true (see Psalms 37 and 73).

Proverbs offer really helpful guidance for practical Christian living. But they have their limits. The world is not an ordered world - not completely. There are hints of this in Proverbs. We have mentioned already the way that Proverbs points out that bribes often work. The book of Proverbs sets us up to look for someone to sort out the disorder of the world. We want someone to puts things right. It leaves us looking for a new order.

The book of Proverbs belongs to the high point of the kingdom of Israel – the time of King Solomon. God has rescued his people from slavery, brought them into a land of security and prosperity, given them rest from their enemies, the temple is being built as a focus for their worship and now God gives the king wisdom to rule his people well. God creating a new salvation order among his people in fulfilment of his promises to Abraham. The Queen of the South visits and acknowledges that life under the rule of God is good (in fulfilment of Deuteronomy 4:5-8). But it does not last. The nation does not live in the fear of the LORD and so the people are enslaved, the land is conquered, the temple is destroyed and the king is dethroned.

In Matthew 12:42 Jesus says, 'The Queen of the South will rise at the judgment with this generation and condemn it; for she came from the ends of the earth to listen to Solomon's wisdom, and now one greater than Solomon is here.' Solomon is a picture of Jesus Christ. People from all nations flock to hear the wisdom of Jesus – just as the nations came to hear Solomon - because Jesus offers true wisdom.

But the wisdom of Jesus is not about superior brains or cleverness. Remember that in Proverbs true wisdom is more about a relationship with God than intelligence. 'The fear of the LORD is the beginning of knowledge, but fools despise wisdom and discipline' (1:7). Paul says: 'It is because of [God] that you are in Christ Jesus, who has become for us wisdom from God – that is, our righteousness, holiness and redemption' (1 Corinthians 1:30). Jesus is the wisdom of God because he restores our relationship with God. Jesus is our wisdom because he is the one who makes wisdom work again by restoring the created order and the moral order of the universe.

So true wisdom is to recognise who Jesus is and accept the gospel message of salvation: For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. For it is written: "I will destroy the wisdom of the wise; the intelligence of the intelligent I will frustrate'' … Jews demand miraculous signs and Greeks look for wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling-block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God … God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise … so that no-one may boast before him. It is because of him that you are in Christ Jesus, who has become for us wisdom from God – that is, our righteousness, holiness and redemption. (1 Corinthians 1:18-19, 22-24, 27, 29-30)

And wise living is to be like Jesus. We have said that the book of Proverbs helps us to be truly human because it does not divide life into a spiritual sphere and an ordinary sphere. For Proverbs the whole of life, ordinary life, is lived under God's rule. And Jesus is the climax of that. He defines what it is to be truly human. He makes us human as we were intended to be.

Summary: true wisdom is to know God through Jesus and wise living is live like Jesus.

Endnotes

Peter Misselbrook, ‘The Contribution of Ecclesiastes to Biblical Revelation’, Still Reforming, No. 1 (May 1983).
Daniel Estes, Hear, My Son: Teaching and Learning in Proverbs 1-9 (Apollos, 1997), p. 26.
Graeme Goldsworthy, Bible Probe: Proverbs (Scripture Union, 1981), p. 11.
Peter Misselbrook, ‘The Contribution of Ecclesiastes to Biblical Revelation’, Still Reforming, No. 1 (May 1983).
Goldsworthy, op. cit., p. 12.

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