Words to the Wise

| |

Tov shem mishemen tov. Go ahead, try that on your tongue. It’s a clever play on words. And it’s a proverb from the Bible (Eccles. 7:1). It says that a good name is better than a good smell. Now there’s a piercing bit of biblical wisdom that our world can learn a lot from. Try it on for yourself and see how well it fits.

Before we delve more deeply into proverbs, let’s look at the broader context. The Bible is not a single book; it’s a small library that offers lots of variety. When we read through it all, we hear many different voices, especially in the Old Testament section of this library:

  • The voice of covenant historians, writers who tell the story of the dynamic relationship between God and Israel. They shape their telling into virtual sermons, recounting the past in a way that makes clear God’s claims, demands, and promises.
  • The voice of prophets, ordinary Israelites who act as God’s ambassadors, speaking timely messages when the situation calls for a new word from God.
  • The voice of godly Israel speaking to God in prayer or of God in praise and trust: “God is our refuge and strength, an ever-present help in trouble” (Ps. 46:1).

But there’s another voice, an equally distinctive one. The ancient Israelites called it the voice of wisdom. “The wise” were sharp observers of the human scene who had learned through experience—people uniquely gifted with keen insight into how things actually work in the world. Their wisdom included the experience of the “old ones” who passed down the accumulated knowledge and practical insights of previous generations. It even included the wisdom Israel gleaned from other nations—as long as it squared with their own understanding.

Wisdom’s Voice

One thing set “the wise” apart from all others: they saw the whole world and whatever happens in it under the all-encompassing rule of the Lord. So they would say such things as

  • “The lot is cast into the lap, but its every decision is from the Lord” (Prov. 16:33).
  • “The horse is made ready for the day of battle, but victory rests with the Lord” (Prov. 21:31).

For these folks the first step toward wisdom was to acknowledge who is finally in charge in the world, whom we can fully trust, and to whom we all must answer. Their basic article of faith was “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom” (Job 28:28; Ps. 111:10; Prov. 1:7; 9:10).

In this confession the voice of Israel’s wisdom blends with all the other Bible voices. But wisdom’s voice adds two unique features.

First, the other voices speak with an eye on God’s advancing kingdom in the world among and through the Israelites. From this perspective, every present moment is a moment on the way from the past to the promised future. But wisdom focuses on the “givens” of the created order. It illumines the common, repeated experiences of our daily lives—regardless of where we are on the redemption road. It offers us concrete advice that’s good anytime, anywhere:

  • “A hot-tempered man stirs up dissension, but a patient man calms a quarrel” (Prov. 15:18).
  • “Houses and wealth are inherited from parents, but a prudent wife is from the Lord” (Prov. 19:14).

A second unique feature of wisdom’s voice in the Bible is that it focuses on what is prudent rather than on matters of faith or morality, as the other voices do. It provides us with that indispensable third leg of the stool on which happy, prosperous, and productive living rests:

“She [wisdom] is a tree of life to those who embrace her; those who lay hold of her will be blessed” (Prov. 3:18).

Going with the Grain

But acting out of love and out of trust in God still doesn’t get us far unless we do so in accordance with the “grain” of the created order. That’s where wisdom guides us.

In Job and Ecclesiastes wisdom wrestles with some of the deep conundrums of life. We also occasionally hear her voice in the book of Psalms (Ps. 1, 34, 37, 49, 73). But it’s in the book of Proverbs that wisdom sweeps her eye across the whole range of our human condition and gives us solid advice for prudent living by examining a wide range of situations that we can all relate to.

Proverbs is a collection of collected instructions. After a brief intro we hear the voice of a father passing his father’s wisdom to his own son. His voice merges into that of personified Lady Wisdom (around since the time of creation—3:19), who urges us to heed her wise instruction. Both voices call on young adults to

  • align their moral compass to the moral order of God’s world by not exploiting others, by doing honest labor, and by staying sexually pure.
  • heed wisdom’s instructions based on its intimate knowledge of the grain of the universe.

From there come a whole series of instructions and observations about the consequences of our actions. These range so far and wide that they’re impossible to neatly summarize. But it’s safe to say that little in our human condition or experience escapes wisdom’s notice.

Think through this one:

“Like a gold ring in a pig’s snout is a beautiful woman who shows no discretion.”(Prov. 11:22).

Beauty and ugliness: to an Israelite nothing was more noble and beautiful than gold, nothing more repulsive than a pig. Nothing could be sillier than to adorn a pig with a gold nose ring—a jewel that adorned brides (Gen. 24:47; Ezek. 16:12). So now ponder what matches what in the proverb . . . (Mind you, when I was young, we used to put a copper ring or two in the tough upper ridge of a pig’s snout to keep it from rooting everything up—pigs can dig like badgers—but that’s another story.)

Proverbs is a treasury of precious jewels of wisdom. Let’s not neglect this unique book in the holy library that is Scripture. Doing that impoverishes our spirit and, in the language of the “wise,” makes us run the real risk of wandering into the way of fools.

To hear wisdom’s instructions well you need patience and you need to concentrate. Don’t bite off more than you can chew. Read bits at a time and read slowly—very slowly—giving wisdom’s pithy observations, exhortations, warnings, and proverbs time to burn their fuses and explode in your mind with fresh insights—those “Aha!” moments that point the way to good living.

So, dear reader, introduce yourself to, and heed, all the voices in the Old Testament. To your faith add love. Then to your love add prudence, and our reliable, loving, and wise Creator will smile on you and your endeavors.

About the Author

Rev. John H. Stek is an associate professor of Old Testament, emeritus, at Calvin Theological Seminary, Grand Rapids, Mich.
X