Proverbs 31

Another named author, King Lemuel takes over for the last chapter. Or possibly half of it, not sure.

There’s speculation Lemuel is another name for Solomon, which would make the opening warning from his mother, Bathsheba, not to waste his energy on women just too rich in irony, given the trajectories of both their lives.

The advice on drinking which follows is really wise. I’ve been challenged about it since working for the Salvos, which are an unfashionably temperate organisation.

The gist of the passage is that drunkenness is inconsistent with a king’s responsibility.

There’s also lots of good reasons why Salvos too would want a strong hedge around alcohol, given the work they do particularly with addicted people. In an era where church hypocrisy is being constantly exposed, it’s a sign of commitment, sincerity and being set apart.

It’s a barrier to how deeply in the movement I can participate, but I’ve been very welcomed. I feel there is room for me.

The passage is honest about what excessive drink is good for… It neither glamourises or judges it:

Let beer be for those who are perishing,
wine for those who are in anguish!
Let them drink and forget their poverty
and remember their misery no more.

Finally, this section emphasises the obligation of those in power to have compassion and ensure justice for the vulnerable.

It’s a Monday morning, and I’ll have many opportunities this week to be part of just that in my work and church life, it’s just great!

The second half of the chapter is a famous description of the wife of noble character. These days it instantly brings to mind my mother, at whose funeral verses from this passage were read.

She was in some senses more than this description – it doesn’t refer specifically to the value of a wicked sense of humour, kindness or emotional supportiveness, all of which she had in spades.  I don’t think its intended as an exhaustive recipe for a perfect woman. And as for:

Charm is deceptive, and beauty is fleeting;
    but a woman who fears the Lord is to be praised.
Honor her for all that her hands have done,
    and let her works bring her praise at the city gate.

Yes yes!

Reaching the end of Proverbs, I’m thinking so much of it is a “for instance”… specific reactions to a specific sets of circumstances, from which we are to learn models of how to respond, rather than literal lessons.  If Kelly, my wife, ever literally acted like the wife of noble character I would become confused and demand my real wife back. The thrust of this advice is to to look beyond the shallow to the things of deeper value.

Yeah, its sort of sexist that the whole book appears to be directed specifically at young men, but its theme – how stop being a fool – is a bit redeeming. And as an older man, I’ve thought helpfully about how to live well, and contemplated how difficult and ongoing is aligning our thoughts and actions to the love of God.

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Proverbs 30

An  odd chapter.

Its from a different author, Agur of whom nothing is really known. The tone is instantly wilder and blunter, the consequences of foolishness more extreme than in previous chapters.

It explicitly claims to be God-inspired ecstatic utterance, and it says lots of great stuff, but much I barely comprehend as well… and its only 30 verses or so… such an exhausting book this one!

He is a good example of humility, his wisdom is not his own, it comes from God and from God’s creation. He realises how great and unknown is God – some powerful poetic images reminiscent of Job: the Lord’s hands gathering the wind and wrapping the waters in his cloak. How can we compare? He includes an intriguing reference here to God knowing the name of his son – impossible now for Christians not to think of Jesus.

He treasures God’s words, and he asks for contentment: neither to be poor nor rich. Both lead us into temptation. He wants just his daily bread, which for me illuminates the lords prayer as a petition for moderation and contentment as well as for basic needs to be met. Give us enough, not less, not more.

We’re working through issues of contentment as a family at the moment. Its a wonderful thing to pray for.

He then speaks of groups of people which displease or ignore God – in other translations they are called generations: a generation who invent their own standards of goodness and righteousness without reference to God or inherited wisdom; a generation who are violent and attacking.

I found it oddly encouraging to hear of generations so long ago going to the dogs.  We tend to think the latest generation is the one that is going to hell in a handbasket, but it has always been thus.

Sure, it not great to see wide scale foolishness, evil or ignorance. But it doesn’t mean God has lost control.  Its a generation, it will pass.

It concludes with a bunch of lists of observations from nature – generally 3 or 4.  Its a poetic device similar to our “et cetera”  or “for example”. A list with some specifics that is not exhaustive.

Its encouraging you to look to the world to learn of what is good and what is wrong. Honestly, this was the bit where I really started to loose comprehension.

He lists things that are:

  • never satisfied – including the grave and childlessness;
  • too amazing for him – including young love’s passionate eroticism, which he finds far more amazing than casual uncommitted sex
  • things that make the world unbearable – basically women, servants or employees that rise in the ranks… I really didn’t get that one, he’s finding social mobility or equality offensive?
  • things that are small yet wise, humble things in nature with impressive achievements, like ants. This kind of undermined the previous point, but was well made.
  • things that have stately bearing – such as a lion, or a greyhound. OK. As a proud Italian Greyhound owner, I can only agree!

Lastly a general warning about evil and stirring up trouble.

So a mixture of stuff that I found helpful and stuff that is hard to access for me now – culturally remote.

I got feelings of God’s size and power, and the sense that despite the randomness and evil we often see around us, God is in control.

I need it. A drumbeat of sadness still underlies the shock of the massacre in New Zealand at the hands of an Australian gunman.

Such a peaceful, tolerant society!  Chosen because they had the effrontery to make diversity work, to punish them for having compassion and love.

He’s failed, but at an insane price.

I sat in church this morning and thought about how easy it would be for someone to walk in and slaughter us if they wanted to try and break a society that would allow us to flourish.

 

 

 

Proverbs 29

Whoever trusts in the Lord is kept safe

Its a simple promise, but the only solid one we have. Reeling today after the killing and wounding of almost 100 muslim worshippers in New Zealand by a white extremist. Live streamed on social media.

The bloodthirsty hate a person of integrity
    and seek to kill the upright.

Waleed Ali, Australia’s most public muslim said on his news show that he had been at prayers in his mosque at the same time as the massacre, and conveyed what a vulnerable disconnected place you are in, lost in meditation about God. They were lambs to the slaughter. He said that he will be there next Friday too, like clockwork.

So its hard in this light not to read these wisdoms as a list of disaster, of corruption.

An angry person stirs up conflict,
    and a hot-tempered person commits many sins.

Where there is no revelation, people cast off restraint;
    but blessed is the one who heeds wisdom’s instruction.

The corruption of so many of our institutions has come to light of late, the church and paedophilia, the scale of the bank’s greedy self serving, the growth of hard line, polarised politics, …Michael Jackson (I mean we sort of always knew about him, but how were we so tolerant, so willfully blind?  How foolish are we?)

By justice a king gives a country stability,
    but those who are greedy for bribes tear it down.

If a ruler listens to lies,
    all his officials become wicked.

An Australian senator released a press statement blaming immigration for violence against muslims hours after the massacre.  Or you could choose not to kill them?

Deep and heartfelt, praying for wisdom – the fear of the Lord, departing from evil. Comfort for those who mourn.

 

Proverbs 28

We’re back to a lot of advice for Kings and rulers and some more explicitly spiritual proverbs.

I love this metaphor, and the value it gives the poor:

A ruler who oppresses the poor
is like a driving rain that leaves no crops.

I have to write an article at work for an internal publication about the Salvation Army’s attitude to the upcoming federal election, … Maybe I could give this one a Guernsey.

So there, the wisdom for rulers isn’t wasted in a democracy devoted to free speech. The citizens can throw them back at them!

There is a lot about the poor, the general theme being not to underestimate them, that exploiting them is to risk losing your own wealth and status.

If it was Solomon writing, he was foretelling the issue that led to the dividing and fatal weakening of the kingdom after his death.

The godly characteristics being taught here include: right living, seeking the Lord, confessing and renouncing sin, humility and integrity.

It’s interesting that there is reference to a goodness at work in society.

I suppose St Paul referred to it when he said to respect authorities because God gives that order to us to prevent chaos.

If you belive in original sin, you would expect society to be evil. But this sort of thing comes back a few times:

When the wicked rise to power, people go into hiding;
but when the wicked perish, the righteous thrive.

There is a rump of goodness that can only be temporarily subdued. Society won’t permanently career towards evil.

The universe is on the side of truth and love, so tyrants are ill informed and on the wrong side of history:

The rich are wise in their own eyes;
one who is poor and discerning sees how deluded they are.

Evildoers do not understand what is right,
but those who seek the Lord understand it fully.

And of course we are all rulers of our own little patch, no matter how small.

But also, lots of interesting fodder for my article!

Proverbs 27

Wounds from a friend can be trusted,
but an enemy multiplies kisses.

There is a vibe of things you can trust, tough love vs the things that deceive, or are insubstantial.

It starts with things said, including self praise (better to let others praise). It moves to things unsaid… (better to know, to have things out).

As iron sharpens iron,
so one person sharpens another.

There are a few verses about the value of good friends, and how the true nature of people is revealed over time:

As water reflects the face,
so one’s life reflects the heart.

It’s an egalitarian chapter, advice for the prols and Kings alike.

It is plugging into the things that are of eternal value.

It reminds me of 1 Cor 13, how after the things of this world have passed away, all that will remain is love. Or Jesus talking about storing up treasure in heaven that won’t decay.

One of my favourite hymn couplets is:

“Solid joys and lasting pleasures, none but Zions children know”.

It was a stressful weekend, all of the children were quite miserable in turns. We ended up going out a bit, a friend had spare theatre tickets, others invited us to eat out. But every time we got home there was acrimony and sadness.

The contrast between the wise cautious sensible calm in the book and the news of life is poignant and extreme.

Give me wisdom!

Proverbs 26

This chapter is more organised than others, it even includes a few unexpected twists in the way it is constructed.

You get 11 lines about fools… About how spectacularly useless they are, and deserving of contempt, then this:

Do you see a person wise in their own eyes?
There is more hope for a fool than for them.

It’s so easy to see the faults in others.

Similar with laziness, having attacked for a few verses it says essentially their worst trait is having no conception of how lazy they are… Oops, maybe it’s me?

The meta theme is humility. Like other chapters that barely mention God, there are underlying themes drawing out deeper spiritual truths from conventional wisdom.

The structure of many of these is particularly memorable, funny even. They read like lines from Rowan Atkinson’s comedy creation Black Adder:

Sending a message by the hands of a fool
is like cutting off one’s feet or drinking poison

The last bunch of verses is about lies, and the meta point is about our evil hearts.

Don’t kid yourself you are doing a favour to the person you are lying to, you show you hate them by your deception. Trying to hide your evil nature is futile. It’s only dealt with by exposure, by humility, as above. Lies block grace.

I was aware of lying, in a very small way, at work yesterday. I made a job sound more complete than it was because I was a bit embarrassed about how little progress I’d made

But the breach of trust I risked was a crazy high cost to preserve a tiny bit of pride.

Trust is so much more valuable than the illusion of perfection.

Proverbs 25

This collection of proverbs profiles the Christian character I recognise well from childhood. I drank it in.

Unpretentious. Not brash or self promoting. Under promising and over delivering.

I’m still there pretty much, bit I have vacilated a few times during my life. I felt cheated at times because even among Christians there seems to be a recognition that being like this often doesn’t actually work.

Take:

Do not exalt yourself in the king’s presence,
and do not claim a place among his great men;
it is better for him to say to you, “Come up here,”
than for him to humiliate you before his nobles.

So you wait watching nincompoops succeed through sycophancy and lies, while you, an unsung hero of substance wait for the king to say “come up here”. Others seeing your ability actively undermine you, it’s the only option they have.

To live by this proverb is to let go of the idea that the king might ever say “come up here”.

St Paul had a better take on wisdom in that extended passage where he talks about becoming fools in the world’s eyes.

And that message is here too. Because nothing is connected, you have to draw it out of the themes that repeat.

The strands lie alongside each other: a dose of quite cynical pragmatism, then an idealistic call to do what is right regardless of the consequences.

A promise of earthly prosperity followed by a gods eye perspective of eternal justice, where earthy wealth is of no substance, like dust blowing away in the wind.

These lie alongside each other in the faith based organisation I work for, it’s a daily tension. And in my family, and in my church.

Wisdom means many things in the book of proverbs. Maybe Solomon didn’t ask for quite the right thing.

Proverbs 24

A whole bunch of random wisdom. 10 numbered, and then a bunch of unnumbered “further sayings”. We’re talking pre Dewey decimal system organisation here.

The general theme is sticking to a sober sensible Christian life through thick and thin. When good people fail, when bad people fail, when evil seems to triumph, when you’re winning and when you’re losing, when things are calm or disrupted. Whatever.

Consistency. Calm. Letting God guide your steps, aware of the eternal picture.

The last few sayings cover honesty, fairness, justice and diligence. It warns against the slow decline that comes from lazy habits.

The underlying spiritual principle is the fruit of the spirit – love, joy, peace, self control. Like yesterday, not much mention of God but everything points to his indwelling.

I’m working really hard to emerge from a feeling of inability to cope, to be self disciplined and regular in my habits. We’re starting lent today, is as good a prompt as any to think about self discipline.

I might cut down on lollies and alcohol.

I had a thing last year where I could only eat lollies offered to me when I’m out, I’m thinking to do the same for both lollies and alcohol. It’s a good way to cut down very privately, without making a public fuss about it.

Also it’s a step towards establishing a sustainable habit rather than a fast.

Very proverbs! Wisdom is personal. It’s about ethics.

Proverbs 23

13 of the 30 “sayings of the wise”.

The longer form of expression compared to the two line formula of the bulk of the proverbs lets them be more intense. This is a series of fairly sharp prohibitions.

Most start with the words “do not…”

God isn’t mentioned much, but every word drives you to him. A drum beat of the commandment “I am a jealous God, you will have no other gods but me” lies under all of them. It’s a list of other gods.

In worldly terms you can be massively successful or a complete drop kick and be serving other gods.

You can be mixing with the wealthy and influential, devoting your life to hard work to gain wealth for yourself.

You can align with hard, cruel people, you can become a hard ass yourself, you can be driven by your jealousy of what other amoral people obtain, you can enrich yourself at the expense of the vulnerable.

You can live for sex, for food, for substance abuse. A life of reckless over indulgence.

The last extended poem about making wine your God is accurate, funny and knowing:

Who has woe? Who has sorrow?
Who has strife? Who has complaints?
Who has needless bruises? Who has bloodshot eyes?
Those who linger over wine,
who go to sample bowls of mixed wine.
Do not gaze at wine when it is red,
when it sparkles in the cup,
when it goes down smoothly!
In the end it bites like a snake
and poisons like a viper.
Your eyes will see strange sights,
and your mind will imagine confusing things.
You will be like one sleeping on the high seas,
lying on top of the rigging. “They hit me,” you will say, “but I’m not hurt!
They beat me, but I don’t feel it!
When will I wake up
so I can find another drink?”

All of these things lead to a range of life outcomes, from success to failure, but have in common that they replace the true God.

Only in the the true God will your soul find rest:

Do not let your heart envy sinners,
but always be zealous for the fear of the Lord.
There is surely a future hope for you,
and your hope will not be cut off.

I feel very sad for my family again. Everyone has struggles. I pray for wisdom. This passage has joyous accounts of having wise children. I pray that my children will be wise! May I be wise.

Proverbs 22

Oh my goodness, break in pattern! Ch.22 starts following the same pattern of two line proverbs we’ve had for 10 chapters or so.

But after verse 16 we start “the sayings of the wise” which are 30 choice sayings, with a little introduction and a slightly longer form, averaging 4 lines.

Why introduce the change in pattern mid chapter? Who thinks of these chapter divisions anyway?

Google say they date from the 1500’s when the bible was first printed. Apparently these sayings are a bit of a wrap-up of what has gone before, a greatest hits or summation. I still would have started a new chapter.

And the first 16 verses of proverbs are pretty much gold, too. Including, after my complaints about the pro-bribery verses, a condemnation of bribery/trying to buy influence:

One who oppresses the poor to increase his wealth
and one who gives gifts to the rich—both come to poverty.

I suppose the observational nature of much of this wisdom is a defense against the unrealistic optimism and neatness of some of the formulas. Like its saying, yeah, short term, bribes might do the trick. But long term, ill gotten gain will ruin you. If not in this world, from an eternal perspective…

Rich and poor have this in common:
The Lord is the Maker of them all.

Its one of the few places in the bible where you get specific childrearing advice:

Start children off on the way they should go,
and even when they are old they will not turn from it.

As for the sayings of the wise, we get the first 6 of thirty.

They are clearly targeted at the elite. I tend to read them as applying to me, but I am from the a middle class which wasn’t such a thing in the ancient world. It was rulers, priests and working class.

So the advice on not moving ancient boundary stones sounds excellent, but I’m unlikely to be in a position to take it.

I’m not in a position to crush the needy in court even if I felt like it, so I don’t have to be told not to. However, with adjustments, I can relate deeply to the endorsement of a meritocracy and mercy for the poor. Clearly however, the poor weren’t the audience, rather those in power who get to decide how the poor will be treated. Actually having been at the mercy of the courts and debt collectors a few times in my life, I’m grateful that this is the standard.

It’s really important to look below the specifics reading this book. Love, compassion and humility motivate most of it. And in execution, a large dose of pragmatism.