Proverbs 1:7-9; 2:1-11
Note: Verse numbers from the Book of Proverbs are included for the proverbs quoted here. All are from the New Revised Standard Version unless otherwise noted. Micah 6:8, Luke 6:47-49, and James 2:17 are also quoted.
I’ve always thought that one of the greatest gifts my mom and dad gave to my brothers and me was their absolute unity. We knew that there was no possibility of playing one against the other. If we asked Dad something, he’d ask, “What did your mother say?” When we told him, he’d say, “Then listen to your mother.” Ask Mom, and it was, “What did your Dad say?” and, when we told her, she’d say, “Listen to your dad.” Whatever answer you got the first time was the answer you’d have to live with, so we learned to be careful about who we asked first. I didn’t appreciate it this united front much as I was growing up, but later I realized that it offered a real sense of security as they guided us into adulthood.
The authors and editors of the book of Proverbs had a similar outlook. Throughout the book, they caution the readers to listen to their father and their mothers. Fathers (or teachers and royal counselors who served as stand-ins for fathers) do most of the talking in this book, but it’s clear that mothers also play an important role. Along with fathers, they rejoice in or are ashamed of or saddened by the behavior of their children. Right behavior is important, and it’s the parents’ responsibility to teach their children the rules of the road for everyday life—about work, wealth, and business dealings; friendship, marriage, and child-rearing; physical and emotional health; and how to be a responsible member of the greater community. It’s all there in the book of Proverbs for anyone who wants to grow in wisdom.
You might call Proverbs the first self-help book. But it’s different from the other 100,000 self-help titles Amazon carries. Most self-help books are based on the premise that it’s all about me—all about what I want, what I can achieve, what I can obtain. But the foundation of Proverbs is that it’s all about God. A happy, honorable, and productive life may result from following the advice of Proverbs, but simply making us better people is neither the starting point nor the intended end result. The starting point is—our motivation for living in the way Proverbs describes—is our fear of God. The desired end result is to live righteously, justly, and responsibly before God.
I mentioned last week that the Book of Proverbs is a collection of stories and advice that had been handed down from generation to generation, possibly from as far back as Solomon. It was intended to be a handbook for young men on how to have a just and righteous life. It deals with the daily things we all face, so those of us who are of the female persuasion can find wisdom there, too. The warnings against adulteresses, for example, aren’t so much about sexual morality as about how the seductive things of the world can draw us in and damage our reputations, our well-being, and our relationships.
The advice and stories we read in Proverbs clearly come from a time and place and culture much different from ours. They were intended for readers likely different from us, but we can all benefit from the nuggets of truth they contain. After all, as we read last week in Chapter 8, Wisdom’s cry of invitation is to all that live. So, what words of wisdom from our Biblical “fathers” should we be listening to as we strive to live more righteously, more justly, and more responsibly before God?
The first piece of advice is to get our priorities straight. And our first priority should be living in ways that are pleasing to God. Our motivation for this isn’t that if we do all the right things, God will make us healthy, wealthy, and wise. We call that “works righteousness”: a pay-to-play plan where we buy God’s favor by living according to the rules. That’s the message of the so-called “prosperity gospel” preachers, and it’s bunk. God’s love is pure gift, given to us by grace. Our desire to live righteously is our response to that gift—a response that stems from our fear of the Lord.
Fear of the Lord is not fear that has us trembling in the corner, waiting ‘til our father gets home. Just as we don’t live righteously in order to earn God’s favor, we don’t live righteously in order to avoid God’s wrath. This fear is better described as reverence. It is a respect for our magnificent God. This kind of fear is made visible in a life of piety—not the piousness that’s designed to show off, but a way of living that reflects our sense of love and duty to the God whose divine hands hold all of life. It’s our open-mouthed awe at a God so great and so good that we ask with the psalmist, “what are human beings that God is mindful of them, mortals that God cares for them?” It’s our bone-deep wonder that causes us to sing, “Holy and awesome is God’s name.”
It’s this fear that creates our desire to live the way God would have us live. It’s the starting point—the beginning—of knowledge. Our entire lives are held in God’s hands, and all our human wisdom must be tested against God’s claim on us. We test our wisdom by asking if it springs from our fear of the Lord and if it shapes our lives so that everyone can see that we live in reverent, obedient awe.
The father of Proverbs says, “if you accept my words and treasure up my commandments within you, making your ear attentive to wisdom and inclining your heart to understanding; if you indeed cry out for insight, and raise your voice for understanding; if you seek it like silver, and search for it as for hidden treasures—then you will understand the fear of the Lord and find the knowledge of God.” Our fear of the Lord not only motivates our desire for wisdom, wisdom helps us to better comprehend what it means to fear God—to live with reverence and respect for God. When we desire to know God better, we grow in wisdom and knowledge. As we grow in wisdom and knowledge, our understanding and reverence for God will grow—a constant spiral that brings us closer to God.
So, the first lesson we learn as we listen to the fathers of Proverbs is that our desire for knowledge should be rooted in our love and reverence for God. This lesson is repeated throughout the book—a kind of refrain that always brings us back to our foundation.
The second lesson is that any wisdom and knowledge we gain should help us live in ways that demonstrate that love. The good news here is that this doesn’t require any headline-grabbing acts of heroism. All it requires is living responsibly before God in every ordinary activity, each every-day choice, and in all our relationships. Another of our Biblical fathers, the prophet Micah, put it pretty simply: “What does the Lod require of you? To do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God.”
The book of Proverbs is jam-packed with one-liners that help us do that. In fact, in chapters 10-29, which make up 2/3 of the book, there are roughly 550 one-liners that touch on nearly every aspect of life. Maybe we should all commit to reading one (or a few) each day and see what wisdom we might gain from them! They are fun to read—some are downright funny. Some require some thinking to see how they translate from the Biblical world to ours. But many offer wisdom that applies directly to our lives today.
The book does seem to be something of a jumble. It’s written as though the editors just decided to jot down every saying or story they had ever heard, without worrying about organizing them according to a theme. But there are common topics that come up over and over.
One topic concerns the world of work. Work is a good thing, and we are to do our work well. As with everything we do, Proverbs 16:3 says, “Commit your work to the Lord, and your plans will be established.” By “established,” Proverbs means that our work will be based on the right things and aimed at the right goals. We are to work hard at what we do; Proverbs has no use for laziness. “One who is slack in work is close kin to a vandal,” the book says. “Like vinegar to the teeth, and smoke to the eyes, so are the lazy to their employers”—obviously an observation from someone who had experience with lazy employees.
When we commit our work to God and work diligently, we will often find success: “Anyone who tills the land will have plenty of bread, but one who follows worthless pursuits will have plenty of poverty” (12:11). This verse alerts us to the fact that we need to read Proverbs with some caveats in mind. First, there are clues in the book that suggest the intended audience was upper middle class, with the expectation that jobs and wealth and homes were something of a given. Second, the proverbs about work assume that the reader can work—that nothing other than laziness prevents them from working. Physical disability was well known in Biblical times, but our modern world also poses other limitations—lack of childcare or transportation, for example. There are many people who want to work hard but can’t, even when jobs are plentiful.
Finally, laziness may lead to poverty, but poverty doesn’t necessarily mean someone is lazy. When I worked as a tutor at the Polly Fox Academy for pregnant and parenting teenagers, most of my students were poor. But many of them had parents who were working two or even three jobs to keep their own children fed and clothed and with a roof over their heads. We need to read the proverbs as encouragement to do our own best work, and not as permission to pass judgment on others.
Hopefully, all our hard work will pan out and we’ll be successful in accumulating some degree of material wealth. Living responsibly before the Lord means listening to our Biblical fathers about the just and righteous use of that wealth. Proverbs spends quite a lot of time on the need to use our wealth to care for the poor. Verse 29:11 sums up the opinions of the Proverbs fathers: “The righteous care about justice for the poor, but the wicked have no such concern.” And, Proverbs repeatedly reminds us that what we do is ultimately for God, including our attitudes and actions towards the poor: “Whoever is generous to the poor lends to the Lord,” the Proverbs fathers say (19:17). “Those who oppress the poor insult their Maker, but those who are kind to the needy honor him” (14:31).
Our responsibility doesn’t end with giving money. Kindness and justice must go hand in hand, for the poor lack more than material resources. They also lack access to power and the people who hold it. Their voices largely go unheard. They are preyed upon and taken advantage of because they have no recourse when they are treated unjustly. The Biblical fathers were well aware of this and observed that “The field of the poor may yield much food, but it is swept away through injustice” (13:23).
So, they warn against taking advantage of someone’s poverty, simply because you can: “Do not rob the poor because they are poor, or crush the afflicted at the gate” (22:16). And, they remind us, “Oppressing the poor in order to enrich oneself, and giving to the rich, will lead only to loss” (22:16). Instead, they say, “Speak out for those who cannot speak, for the rights of all the destitute. Speak out, judge righteously, defend the rights of the poor and needy” (31:8-9).
Generosity is as good for the giver as it is for the recipient. Nearly every passage about giving is paired with blessings on the giver, not because God rewards good behavior but because living rightly before God is good for our souls. Giving to the poor as though we were giving to God enriches our spirits, while not giving out of a fear that we won’t have enough makes us more fearful and less willing to rely on God. “One person gives freely, yet gains even more; another withholds unduly, but comes to poverty,” one proverb says (11:24 NIV). “Those who are generous are blessed, for they share their bread with the poor,” says another (22:9). “A generous person will be enriched, and one who gives water will get water”—a powerful metaphor in the arid land of Israel (11:25). In a nutshell, we are told, “Happy are those who are kind to the poor” (14:21).
When we listen to these fathers, we also hear advice about wise money management and warnings about relying on wealth. “Wealth hastily gotten will dwindle, but those who gather little by little will increase it,” they advise (13:11). Wealth can create a false sense of security. Like the fear of having too little, the fact of having a lot tempts us to stop relying on God. “The wealth of the rich is their strong city; in their imagination it is like a high wall,” Proverbs observes (18:11). But, this is an illusion, as so many have found out when the stock market crumbles or a lucrative job evaporates.
Neither is wealth a guarantee of a happy life, as we know. Mansion walls can mask sorrow, anger, and fear, and those who live in the most derelict of houses, or no house at all, may be rich in the gifts of the Spirit. The fathers of Proverbs clearly hope that their children will be successful, but they repeatedly warn against wealth that is morally and spiritually bankrupt. “Better is a dry morsel with quiet than a house full of feasting with strife (17:1). Better is a dinner of vegetables where love is than a fatted ox and hatred with it (15:17). Better to be poor and walk in integrity than to be crooked in one’s ways even though rich (28:6). Better is a little with righteousness than large income with injustice (16:8). Better is a little with the fear of the Lord than great treasure and trouble with it (15:16).” Those advice-giving fathers had their priorities in the right place.
Proverbs invites us to listen to these fathers of long ago. We’re not always very good at accepting advice from those wiser than ourselves. It’s good to have an example to follow—someone we know and trust. Someone who knows how to listen and then act on what they’ve heard. Someone who can show us the way.
We have such an example in Jesus. He listened to his fathers. If you take me up on my challenge to begin reading Proverbs, what you read may sound strangely familiar, even if you’ve never read this book before. Because, Jesus knew these proverbs and used them. Many of his teachings and sayings recall the teachings of Proverbs. Clearly, he listened to those fathers of his Jewish faith.
I imagine that it was Joseph (and Mary, of course) who taught him those sayings. I imagine Jesus watching or working next to Joseph, listening as his earthly father taught him the wisdom of Proverbs. And, of course, we know that he listened to his heavenly Father. Then, after listening to all of his fathers, both human and divine, he shared that wisdom with his own generation and ours, through his teaching and through the way he lived.
As it was for Jesus, listening is only our starting point. We also have to act on what we’ve heard. Because, as James tells us, if our faith isn’t reflected in how we live, it is no faith at all. Jesus explained it this way: “Someone who comes to me, hears my words, and acts on them is like a man building a house, who dug deeply and laid the foundation on rock…But the one who hears and does not act is like a man who built a house on the ground without a foundation.” Listening needs to be followed by obedient action.
One of the ancient advice-givers said, “My child, if you accept my words and treasure up my commandments…then you will understand the fear of the Lord and find the knowledge of God.” And then he went on to tell a story about a woman named Wisdom who said, “My children, listen to me: happy are those who keep my ways.” On this Father’s Day and in the coming weeks, we’ll listen to the words of the long-ago fathers whose collective wisdom is preserved in the book of Proverbs. We’ll listen to more of their insights about how to manage the everyday concerns of our lives in ways that honor God and build God’s kingdom. We’ll listen to the teachings of Jesus which had their roots in what he had heard and learned. We’ll listen, knowing that the fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge, and that the Lord, our Father, stores up sound wisdom for the upright, preserves the way of his faithful ones, and guards the paths of justice. Amen.
~~ Pastor Carol Williams-Young