Updated: Jul 20
Solomon gives us rich words of advice. We would do well to turn them into a self-evaluation! "A wise person is prudent; a foolish person is gullible." "A wise person cares about consequences; a fool does not." "A wise person looks beyond the mask; a foolish person is satisfied with appearances." "A wise person trusts God; a fool trusts himself."
This article began as a look at a Bible study of Proverbs 14:8-15, "Living Wisely". As a warning, I have changed the headings for three of the four sections because I think my word choices better reflect the actual intent of the verses.
Folk Wisdom. Everywhere!
A few weeks back, I brought up "things you learned from your grandma". There are all kinds of collected wise sayings in every culture passed down through the generations. They are essentially proverbs. One way to warm up for studying biblical proverbs is to recall folk proverbs that we learned growing up. (I'd really love to know if today's teens have been taught the same proverbs! If you haven't, please let me know in the comments!)
A few ways you can get into the "folk wisdom" mindset:
Just start listing proverbs off the top of your head and write them down.
Create a proverb "fill in the blank" like I'll start below.
Research the proverbs of a specific culture and compare them with those of the American South.
Take some well-known proverbs and analyze them. Are they really true?
Here's the starting point of a quiz for you:
Early to bed and early to rise makes a man ___________
Absence makes the heart grow ___________
All work and no play makes _____________
When the cat is away, _________________
A stitch in time saves __________
Spare the rod, _________ the child
Out of sight, out of ________
Misery loves _________
Every cloud has _______________
Confession is _________ for the soul
Idle hands are ______________
Once bitten, twice ________
Practice makes ________
Old habits ___________
You can't teach an old dog ________________
Let me stop with those so as not to steal your thunder. Some of us grew up believing all of those to be true. And there is a bit of truth in each. If you aren't interested in my personal thoughts on these folk sayings, feel free to skip the next bullet points!
Circadian rhythms are well-studied. If you can sync your rhythm with the morning, when most important business is conducted, and be able to give your body a full night's sleep, the studies show that you will be better equipped to handle the workplace, you will be better adjusted to full morning activity, and your body will be healthier. This old saying is absolutely true (unless you hate mornings like Snoopy and me).
Sometimes absence makes the heart grow forgetful. This saying is silly.
All work and no play? This saying just makes me think of The Shining which disturbs me greatly. However, there is plenty of developmental evidence showing that children given the opportunity to play are more creative than children who do not play. If that's what they mean by "dull", then I think this saying has merit. If they mean anything remotely pejorative by "dull", then I'm out. I love to work. Don't call me dull.
Cats and mice. Truth!
I hate to admit that for most of my life I thought "a stitch in time" was literal, like "a wrinkle in time", and so I had absolutely no idea what this saying meant. That's not the saying's fault. The saying is fine.
Spare the rod, eh? We are going to be talking about "discipline" in a later session in Proverbs, so I don't want to go too far with this now. Let's just say that there is empirical evidence that this old saying is right.
Out of sight, out of mind? Tell that to my lab mix who just watched us put the cookies away.
If by "misery" you mean the kind of miserable person who wants to make other people miserable, then sure. But the research shows that misery actually prefers to be alone, and that's a big part of the problem!
Every cloud also has the potential for lightning.
It is absolutely true that confession is good for the soul. That's why the Bible makes such a big deal about it. You can't hide it from God, and you're expending an incredible amount of energy trying to hide it from a person. Confess, and God will forgive. Confess, and start the path of forgiveness. Preach!
Okay, so let's talk about idle hands. Let's remember that we are also taught to rest. At what point is "idle" turning into the "idle" of the saying? Also, is there not a middle ground of boredom? Why do I have to go immediately from "down time" to "doing the devil's work"? That seems extreme. And if the definition of being idle is "not doing anything", then how can idle hands be doing the devil's work at all?
If you've ever been bitten by a dog, you know this saying is true. Unless you're Cesar Millan.
Practice does not make perfect! Practice only reinforces what is being practiced! If you want to make perfect, you need to practice being perfect.
By definition, old habits die hard. 100%. But -- and this is critical to Christianity -- they can die through discipline and the power of the Holy Spirit.
The Mythbusters proved that you can teach an old dog new tricks.
The Proverbs in Proverbs
We made it to the actual proverbs part of what people think of in Proverbs! If anything, perhaps the last six weeks taught us that Proverbs is so much more than those pithy sayings we have in our mind. So, now this Bible Project video should make more sense:
Chapters 10-22 are given the heading, "The Proverbs of Solomon". As I said earlier, he very likely wrote most of these, but he also could have compiled some from traditional sources. These sayings have some common features:
They are poetic. Hebrew poetry is "marked by terseness, vivid imagery, and figures of speech".
They are very short; only 6-8 words in the Hebrew.
They are usually two lines in parallel (couplet), often presented as contrasts ("a wise son . . . but a foolish son . . ."), but sometimes the second line simply restates or expands on the first.
The key element: these are not "generic folk sayings" but written for the people of God. I've said that they have value for anyone of any religion, but they make the most sense in the context of Israel's covenant relationship with God. ("Do not be wise in your own eyes" is universally applicable, but it is the most helpful when paired with "but fear the Lord".)
The Lifeway lesson treats 14:8-15 as a chiasmus. This is a poetic device that is often diagrammed as A B B' A'. I'll let Dr. Seuss illustrate a chiasmus for us:
In other words, Lifeway is pairing verses 8 & 15, 9 & 14, 10 & 13, 11 & 12. And of course, we will follow that outline. For argument's sake, I think it is worth pointing out that not every Hebrew scholar believes these verses form such a unit. Verses 6-8 are often grouped, as are verses 15-18 and 12-13. What we need to take away from these disagreements is that the book of Proverbs is extremely complex and more or less defies our modern desires to neatly categorize verses or verse groups. Solomon did not intend to follow a modern pattern; the parts are intended to be understood against the whole.
Let me try to illustrate that this way: in modern thought, we tend to focus on how things fit together, like Lego bricks in a wall. But Solomon isn't using these sayings as individual bricks. Rather, he sees all of these chapters of Proverbs as melding into one another, like a paint swirl. It must be understood as a whole.
Part 1: Prudent (Proverbs 14:8, 15)
8 The sensible person’s wisdom is to consider his way, but the stupidity of fools deceives them. 15 The inexperienced one believes anything, but the sensible one watches his steps.
"A wise person is prudent; a foolish person is gullible."
Proverbs is filled with words of moral neutrality (which is a reason why I believe it has universal applicability). The word "sensible" (usually "prudent") is neither good nor evil; it just is. "Sensible" is the same word as "shrewd", meaning the ability to formulate a plan based on existing circumstances. A wicked person can be sensible -- their sensibilities will just likely turn into scheming or cunning.
[Aside on context. This is why I say that we look at Proverbs as a paint swirl. Proverbs 16:2 says, "All a person’s ways seem right to him, but the Lord weighs motives." So, yes, a wicked person can be prudent. And it is also wise to be prudent. But the Lord weighs the motives, so a wicked person can't fool God by being prudent.]
The English word "fool" can come from any of seven different Hebrew words (three in Proverbs), indicating how seriously the Jews took foolishness. Basically, a fool is unwise, but we have to remember that embedded in that idea is that the ungodly is also a fool. Very intelligent people are still fools if they reject the knowledge and fear of the Lord (and, now we know, access to God through Jesus Christ His Son). These seven words have a range of meaning from "simple-minded" to "brutish". All are people who reject the wisdom God offers.
The word for "stupidity" refers to the fool's disposition of rejecting wisdom, even their stubbornness to do so. This has nothing to do with the modern connotation of "un-academically-intelligent".
"Inexperienced" is often translated as "naïve", but the contrast is with the "shrewd" person, so "inexperienced" is a good word to use. The inexperienced person doesn't know what they don't know, so they walk blindly into a situation they do not understand and cannot handle. Conversely, the shrewd person ("sensible") puts in the work to understand the circumstances. Whereas the inexperienced person can be easily hoodwinked, the shrewd person is wary.
Here's the critical thing about the fool/naïve/inexperienced person: they don't know they are. If you're a little bit older, you know exactly what this looks like -- it looks like you twenty years ago. Thirty years ago. (Don't point the finger at young people today! We were exactly the same when we were that age.) What are some lessons you have learned through experience?
If we don't have that wisdom or experience, what should we do? We go to God's Word, or we go to more experienced Christians who can shepherd us through that circumstance!
Part 2: [Content] Conscientious (Proverbs 14:9, 14)
9 Fools mock at making reparation, but there is goodwill among the upright. 14 The disloyal one will get what his conduct deserves, and a good one, what his deeds deserve.
"A wise person cares about consequences; a fool does not."
I think that "content" is the wrong word to describe this section. Obviously, it is wise to be content, and the New Testament says as much over and over again! But that's not the focus of these verses. Actually, the Hebrew in both verses is ambiguous and a bit obscure. As with prudence, it can apply to the good and the wicked. The difference is intent. A good/wise person will care about the consequences of his or her actions because they care about the people affected. (A wicked/foolish person will only care about how their choices might come back to bite them. People today use the saying, "You aren't sorry you did wrong; you're sorry you got caught.") In a military context, we might call it "collateral damage"; a wise general would seek to avoid any such outcome.
We've talked about consequences/responsibility so many times recently, particularly in Romans. The world calls this idea "karma". Paul calls it "God's perfect justice". We often say "what goes around, comes around" or "you reap what you sow". You have examples of this from your own life; there are also plenty of high-profile examples of it in the news. Think about some of these examples. The point would be that everyone knows this to be true.
If you want to have some fun with nostalgia, think about your childhood. Was there ever a time your parents or grandparents caught you doing something wrong and then made you make "public reparation"? (Like, if you took something from someone, they made you go there and confess what you did and give it back? Or if you broke something, they made you confess to the owner and work odd jobs to pay for it to be fixed?) We learned the truth of these verses by learning how to say "I'm sorry" and "please forgive me" and watching what happened when we tried to ignore what we did wrong. Forgiveness, something we know to be foundational to human existence, must begin with confession.
There's another way you can think about this concept: think about community and business leaders who really care about how their decisions will impact people. That means a lot to you, right? You can generally tell when a person / leader doesn't care about how "the little people" will be affected by their choices. For example, there's an ongoing controversy in the video game industry right now about "microtransactions", how game producers get people to buy their game, and then find ways to continue to charge them money to play it. They obviously only care about making money, not protecting families from the impulsiveness of children or the unwillingness of parents to set limits.
A very apropos example of this would be the school districts (well, and everyone else) trying to decide what to do about their schools and the coronavirus. Some leaders are very clearly trying to balance the needs of families, of children, of teachers, and of staff. (And it's basically impossible under these circumstances.) And some are not. (We know which leaders will enjoy continued support and which will not.) (And by the way, please continue to pray for all of our leaders making such decisions that impact children and families. No matter what they decide, someone will be very upset.)
So ask yourself this question: why do some people think they can avoid the consequences of their actions? Why would someone deliberately ignore the obvious "bad karma" of their action? Because they are a fool. You might spend some time connecting the dots between how Proverbs has defined a fool and the kind of person in our world who ignores consequences. What are the potentially defining traits that bring those two together? Rich? Powerful? Unethical? Selfish? No matter what, they are ignoring God's wisdom!
It's a pretty simple point, one that we all know to be true.
Part 3: [Joyful] Perceptive (Proverbs 14:10, 13)
10 The heart knows its own bitterness, and no outsider shares in its joy. 13 Even in laughter a heart may be sad, and joy may end in grief.
If you're going to stick with the Lifeway emphasis, I think the best we can do is: "A foolish person chases happiness; a wise person desires joy." And that's absolutely true and thus helpful. But really, these verses are about the psychology of the emotional mask people wear, so I would change this section to be:
"A wise person looks beyond the mask; a foolish person is satisfied with appearances."
Here's another sets of truths than anyone in the world should agree with, but they're not like other proverbs. Both of these verses are psychological observations; they're aren't "do this / don't do that" but rather "this is how life is". We can't control it. We can only be aware of it.
Verse 10 focuses on the uniqueness of your interior life. No one else in the world can experience your life like you do. You can explain and relate and communicate all you want, but no one can truly know what's going on inside of your mind / heart. (Here, I'm using "mind" as what you think and "heart" as what you feel, in the Hebrew sense.) This is very important on both sides, for the person who cries "no one understands me?" and for the person who cries "why don't I understand you?".
In today's world, particularly considering the number of people who employ a therapist, it is very clear that people are having a very difficult time adjusting or adapting to one another. And it comes down to a failure to understand this particular verse: we are expecting too much out of the people around us. Either we assume they will appreciate and accommodate for what we are going through, or we assume that we can appreciate and accommodate for what they are going through. And that's simply not true.
This is one reason why "effective communication" is a part of every good pre-marital counseling. Here are some commonalities:
Be honest, but
Be careful with your words (don't be volatile or unwholesome), and
Be intentional, but
Be a good listener, which means
Listen with your head and your heart.
In other words, this proverb simply identifies the depths and unknowability of the human identity. A wise person acknowledges those depths. A fool thinks, "I've got this person figured out." So, basically, a wise person is humble and empathetic.
It is here that we reveal the other side of the proverb: a person cannot know what's going on in your heart, but God can and does. The Bible is filled with comments such a 1 Sam 16:7: "man looks at the outward appearance, but God looks at the heart". Yes, this should be terrifying, but it is also so freeing. My favorite wording of this truth is from Tim Keller:
“The gospel is this: We are more sinful and flawed in ourselves than we ever dared believe, yet at the very same time we are more loved and accepted in Jesus Christ than we ever dared hope.”
That comes from The Meaning of Marriage. Keller's point and context is that God does know us -- knows us better than we know ourselves. And yet He still loves us. (And that's the way it should be in a marriage.)
That's good news.
But let's move on to verse 11, which takes another approach to this idea. This has a little "tears of a clown" and a little "unintended consequences" and a little "Ecclesiastes" in it. I've mentioned that I grew up on the music of the 60s, and I loved Smokey Robinson.
There are countless songs on this theme: "I'm acting like everything is fine, but inside I'm falling apart". I love "Tears of a Clown", but pick whichever song speaks to you. The point is that everybody should know that the expression on your face may not match the feeling in your heart. That's all Solomon is saying here. (Some have tried to interpret this verse to mean that the fool is trying to deceive the wise into joining their foolish endeavor by pretending to be happy about it. That's not what's going on here. This is just an observation.)
Now -- let me counter with another well-known saying: "laughter is the best ______". Medically, that's true. Laughter is very good for your body and mind. But realize that laughter doesn't mean that you're happy! This verse points to a very real juxtaposition in the human existence: we can laugh when we're sad. There's nothing wrong with that. Solomon simply wants us to appreciate this point.
But the second part of the verse is the concerning part: "joy may end in grief". That sounds dark. And it's also true. We would prefer to live on the proverbial mountaintop, but we can't.
(I realized that I've been forgetting to put in Peanuts cartoons, so I have to make up for lost time.) An "up" leads to a "down", and a "joy" eventually leads to a "sorrow". Solomon is not saying whether this is good or bad; it just is.
Let me make a few comments. First, the terms "joy" and "grief" are both relative. Yes, we can treat them absolutely (see below), but the main point is their juxtaposition. Compared with a great joy, anything else is like grief (and vice versa). That's why Jesus was able to describe our feelings towards our family as "hate" compared with how we are supposed to feel about Him (Luke 14:25-27). In other words, your grief and my grief will be different. And my grief will also be different from one season of life to another. Second, note the conditional "may". Not every joy will end in grief. But every joy may end in grief.
Let's take the movie I Still Believe as an example. This is the story of Jeremy Camp and his first wife's battle with cancer. That season absolutely ended in grief for him, and he greatly struggled with that grief. However, grief was not the final word for Camp. Grief led to joy (eventually). Further, Camp would not go back and do things differently! The grief did not undo the joy! So it is with life. A tragedy is out there that can strike any of us at any moment (and it has struck too many recently!). But will we live in fear of the potential tragedy and thus miss the joy of life? Or will we embrace the joys of life that God has given us and accept the grief if/when it comes?
I know that's easier said than done. But it's a healthy, biblical perspective on life that will not lose hope when tragedy strikes. Life, and thus joy, will always have the last word.
Part 4: [Thriving] Godfearing (Proverbs 14:11-12)
11 The house of the wicked will be destroyed, but the tent of the upright will flourish. 12 There is a way that seems right to a person, but its end is the way to death.
"A wise person trusts God; a fool trusts himself."
What I don't like about the word "thriving" as a section title is that it makes these verses positive. They are not. They are a warning. Yes, Solomon is saying that a righteous person will thrive, but the emphasis is on the warning.
First, we note the wordplay between "house" and "tent". The house is supposed to be the more stable, safe, and permanent structure. But in the end, the tent will not only survive the ages, but it will grow (a mixed metaphor). Why? Because someone who fears God inhabits the tent, while a wicked person inhabits the house.
But really, it's verse 12 that is the key. It was so important to Solomon that he repeated it in 16:25. He used this imagery earlier when talking about seduction: the path that takes you to the forbidden woman's house might seem like a good idea, but it leads to death.
Let's dive in a little more:
"Way" is a word for path, but Solomon regularly uses it as a image of a person's life.
Solomon repeats "way" with a wordplay - there's the way in front of you which you are evaluating, and there's the way behind you, which has led to ruin.
"Way that seems right" is literally "way that is straight before you"; in other words, when evaluating a choice, it seems to be straight in front of you (which is usually good). And yet, though it is straight, you don't discern the end.
"Way to death" is literally "ways of death", which could mean any number of things -- "ways that lead to death", "ways that are characterized by death", "ways that end in death". Importantly, this means that Solomon was not only thinking of physical death. This "way" could be characterized by pain or suffering or destruction or ruin.
Solomon's observation is categorical. This is the way of it. Your way that you're evaluating that seems right to you, it's going to end badly. Now, what's the problem that Solomon is pointing out? You're evaluating your own way.
Perhaps we can have some fun with this. Put together a "door 1 - 3" challenge.
Come up with some random outcomes, randomly assign them to numbers 1, 2, and 3, and then take turns picking a door.
Eventually, someone will says that this is silly because you don't know what's on the other side of the door. And that's the point! You don't know what's on the other side of that door. But God does. Trust yourself all you want, but you still don't know what's on the other side of that door! Zoom back out to what this verse is talking about -- the decisions we make in life that affect our direction. We do not know (with certainty) where that decision will lead, but God does (with certainty). The person Solomon is talking about is the person who makes those decisions on their own, not relying on God's evaluation. That is a recipe for disaster. Let's look at some other Proverbs:
1:7 - The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge; fools despise wisdom and discipline.
3:5 - Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not rely on your own understanding.
3:7 - Don’t be wise in your own eyes; fear the Lord and turn away from evil.
10:29 - The way of the Lord is a stronghold for the honorable, but destruction awaits evildoers.
16:2 - All a person’s ways seem right to him, but the Lord weighs motives.
16:3 - Commit your activities to the Lord, and your plans will be established.
20:12 - The hearing ear and the seeing eye— the Lord made them both.
20:24 - Even a courageous person’s steps are determined by the Lord, so how can anyone understand his own way?
We will talk about chapter 16 next week. Reading Proverbs as a swirl, we see that "the way of man" is something other than "the way of the Lord". It's something he chose on his own. Man can choose to take the Lord's way, and if he does, the Lord will be with him.
Here's the key question for the day: how do you know if you're evaluating the "way" before you entirely on your own, or if you're relying on God's wisdom?
This is the simplest answer I can give: if you aren't sure if you're relying on God's wisdom, then you aren't. What are the words we have been using to describe wisdom?
and so many more. What do those have in common? They are intentional. They are not accidental. You have to put effort into prudence and diligence. Likewise, you know when you have searched for God's wisdom in a decision. You know when you have carefully evaluated a choice by God's standards. It is no secret to you if you have prayed for God's leadership.
So there you go. Another good "checklist" for godly living to go along with last week's. Keep up with these. Are you doing them? Are you living by them? You can, in the power of the Spirit!