Proverbs, Community and the Culture

Proverbs, Community and the Culture

Most pastors and teachers recommend the book of Proverbs as a manual filled with pithy statements of wisdom to be read and selected like items on a menu. This was not the intention of the authors, nor of God’s plan for His book.

Some years ago I preached through the book of Proverbs, and I learned two things I hadn’t known about it. First, the Proverbs only give up their meaning cumulatively. No one proverb gives you the whole picture. If one proverb says, “the morally good always have a good life” and a later proverb says, “sometimes the morally good suffer” we think it’s a contradiction. That’s because we think of each proverb as an individual stand-alone promise. But they are not. All the proverbs on a given subject are meant to be taken together, each one modifying the others like the parallel clauses do. One gives you information about a topic; then subsequent ones come along and answer questions raised by the first one, or they condition and nuance a more blanket statement made earlier.

Chapters 10-15 tell us that the hard-working have enough to eat and the lazy will be poor. But starting in chapter 16, the exceptions to the customary-way-life-works come along. There is an order God has put into things that we must abide by, but, on the other hand, we can’t see it all and so must expect exceptions. An example of how the Proverbs only give up their meaning cumulatively is the famous Prov 16:25 — There is a way that seems right to a man, but that way leads only unto death. I’ve never heard this invoked except when the speaker wants to say to the listeners “don’t trust your feelings.” But earlier Proverbs repeatedly said — “The way to destruction appears right to the fool.” That is, fools are terrible at making plans because they reject the way of wisdom (not getting counselors, not being humble, not watching your words or controlling your emotions, etc). But 16:25 comes along and says — “But the way of destruction can appear right not just to a fool, but sometimes to anyone (to ‘a man’.) Even if you follow the way of wisdom to the “T” and make your plans as well as can be — sometimes your life can still blow up! This is a broken world. The wise know that sometimes all paths may run ill.

So Proverbs cannot be “dipped into”. It only repays very long study in which you keep the whole book in your head and compare passage with passage. How is that best done? In a community! Some commentators argue that the book of Proverbs was originally written as a manual to be studied by a community of young men under the mentorship of older men — for a number of years. Each proverb was to be discussed and considered and compared to the others. Examples from life were to be shared. In other words, Proverbs may have been written to be the basis for deep, comprehensive personal growth through mentoring in community. It touches on every area of life.

It is also noteworthy that in Proverbs wisdom constantly raises her voice in the city’s public places — the commerce/market (where the roads converge), the court/justice system (the gate), etc. (Prov 1:20-21; 9:1-4.) For years I have been struck by the fact that discipling people for faithful living in their vocation is different than other kinds of discipleship. When I try to disciple someone to do work in the church, it is more one-way (I am the expert in Bible and ministry) and information-driven (I download my knowledge.) But how do you disciple a Christian actor to think out what roles to take, or a Christian financier to think out how to invest and how to treat profits? The Bible does not give us so much hard and fast rules as ‘proverbs’ — motives, goals, and values that have to be applied with wisdom to situations in the world. And that wisdom happens more through communal reflection on Scripture, especially a text like Proverbs.

How can we best integrate our faith with our work? I think we need more experienced people in a field meeting with younger persons in that field and working through a book like Proverbs in community, always applying its insights to the work they are doing in the world.

Tim Keller: Find Timothy Keller’s resources on Used by permission.

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