A Proverbs Seminar II
Bill Long 7/21/09
Proverbs from Other Lands; Meet the People of Proverbs
In order to get started in our appreciation of the Biblical book of Proverbs, I thought it good to understand a few proverbs from other lands. This activity is useful for two reasons--it shows us that, in the language of Sirach, the making of Proverbs requires "hard thinking" and, second, it illustrates that even if the proverbs make sense in English, they are only "translated" wisdom. For example, the pithy German proverb, "Rast ich, so rust ich" is euphonious in that language and, fortunately, retains its eupony in English ("When I rest, I rust"), but many Proverbs do not. A typical Biblical proverb, i.e., a verse from Proverbs, is 7-10 words in Hebrew and 15-22 words in English. Yet still the allure remains, and proverbs can often be translated well and retain their appeal in other languages.
See if some of these appeal to you; I introduced them last Saturday in Kansas.
1. Begin to weave and God will give the thread.
2. Envy eats nothing but its own heart.
3. Anger without power is folly.
4. Instead of complaining that the rosebud is full of thorns, be happy that the thorn bush has roses.
5. He who (she who) conquers anger has conquered an enemy.
6. As fast as laws are devised, their evasion is contrived.
Discussion ensued on some of these, as well as many others. We can see how proverbs state a principle very clearly and concisely, without actually telling you the precise words of the principle. Number 4, for example, stresses the importance of your perspective in life ("half-full or half-empty"). Number 6 is illustrated not simply through law, where clients come to law firms often to figure out how best to "get around" the new law that the legislature has tried carefully to craft, but in that most common activity in life--bringing carry-on luggage onto the airplane. A few years ago airlines tried to regulate the weight and size of bags you carried on to the plane. Now the "rule" states "one carry-on and one personal item." The personal item was supposed to be a laptop computer or a purse. But the second carry-on now has grown to the proportions of a sizable backpack, so that in a recent flight the guy sitting next to me placed his backpack behind him and his other carry-on in the space above the seat (both were too big to be put under the seat).
The Book of Proverbs and its People
We are mistaken if we think of the Book of Proverbs as just a collection of short sayings. These certainly predominate in chapters 10-31, but many proverbs or observations about life in those chapters are multi-verse illustrations. In addition, the first nine chapters of the Book of Proverbs consist primarily of exhortations to the life of wisdom or advice on how to avoid unhealthy things in life (i.e., the adulteress or the "loose woman"). When all the numbers are added up, we have about 550 or so individual proverbs, though many of them are repeated. There are more than enough, however, to provoke loads of hours of profitable reflection.
Two points that I recognized upon studying Proverbs are that the world of Proverbs is filled with an interesting array of people and that these people, in fact, continue to inhabit our world. The two principal categories of people are the wise and foolish, but each category can be further broken down and described quite precisely. That is, the category of the wise consists of the "wise" and the "further wise" or the "wiser." The latter are characterized not only by their ability to use words well and their implementation of wisdom principles (next essay, please), but they also are those who have learned to love correction and discipline. Then, there are the shrewd or prudent, who really are species of the wise or the wise from various angles (i.e., those who have certain kinds of insight).
On the other hand are the fools. We are never told what percentage of people in the world are fools, but you get the impression that they are all around us. The principal difference between the fool and the wise is that the wise person pauses while the fool just plunges on. In addition, we meet the fool in one arresting verse: "The fool takes no pleasure in understanding, but only in expressing personal opinion," 18:2. The fool is someone who basically will not or cannot listen to what is being said; s/he needs to drown out the cacophony or the gentle words of life with his/her own shouts and individual clamoring for attention. The fool gets angry at once, while the wise person knows that it is better to ignore an insult (12:16).
The fool can be further broken down into the fool, the scoffer or mocker and the sluggard or lazy one. While the fool is certainly wise in his own eyes, the mocker/scoffer is driven almost completely by arrogance (21:24). This kind of person erodes the spirit of a community with his words and actions. More precisely, Proverbs says: "Scoundrels concoct evil, and their speech is like a scorching fire," 16:27. Proverbs has no compassion for the lazy person, even though Proverbs is quite aware of and merciful towards the "poor." Thus, there has to be a distinction in the mind of the author(s) of Proverbs between the person who, as it were, brings poverty on the self through inactivity and those who are in that condition for other reasons. An unforgettable picture of the lazy person is drawn in 26:13-15. He cries out, "there is a lion in the streets" in order to justify his staying inside the house, safely away from the world of work. Such a person is so indolent that he cannot even bring his hand to his mouth after he has plunged it into the food dish (26:14). Despite expending himself in no way to understand or contribute to life, he sees himself as wiser than seven people who are wise (26:15).
A rich and patient description of the people you meet in Proverbs helps you "people" your own world. This is helpful because it tends to minimize discouragement that might otherwise happen. If you know that there are categories of people "out there" that simply won't work, who try to undo everything positive and who arrogantly assume that the world revolves around everything they say, even as they can't hear anything you say, you tend not to feel so hopeless. It has always been the case.
My final essay on the seminar will consider the way of wisdom.