Proverbs shows how we affect others' lives


By Sue Whitt

May 7
A Treasure Worth Seeking
Purpose: To recognize and seek the benefits of God-given wisdom.
Bible Lesson: Proverbs 2:1-5; 3:1-6, 13-18
Key Verse:Happy are those who find wisdom, and those who get understanding.” — Proverbs 3:13

Much of the Bible is narrative. The big story begins with one man and his family. In Genesis, we learn that God chose Abraham, made covenant with him. Abraham’s grandson Jacob was and was not faithful and so on with his descendents one after another. Yet, God kept saving them.

In Exodus and Numbers and retold in Deuteronomy, we hear of God’s gifts to these wretched folks — rescue from slavery, providence in time of need, law to enable them to live in community as God’s family, a promise of a land. In Joshua through 2 Chronicles, we read of Israel’s initial success then its failure. And we read that to these people, God remained faithful.

By saving these stories and reflecting on them and saving the reflections, Israel asserted that God was involved in their history from before they even had one, and that God continued to be involved in their lives. But narrative is not the only way that the Bible teaches. The book of Proverbs, with its poems and sayings and lists, reminds us of something like an advice book or an instruction manual.

As the big story was about building a nation, Proverbs gives advice to individuals. Here’s what you need to do to get ahead — but, not primarily for your own personal success. Proverbs, this collection of wisdom, teaches us that what you and I do in the lives we call private affects an ever-widening circle of other folks, folks with whom God is and has always been involved. Like the rest of the Bible, Proverbs is concerned with helping us to please God.

As Protestants, we’re used to disparaging “works theology,” the notion that we have to earn the gifts of God instead of receiving them at no cost to ourselves — free grace. Well, as Bonhoeffer put it, grace is free but not cheap. Look at it another way: the more dependent you are on God, the freer you are of any other demands.

This week’s text begins with some if/thens. If you pay attention to what I’m trying to teach you, if you will work as if it really mattered to you, then you’ll understand the fear of the Lord, and you’ll find the knowledge of God (2:1-5).

What is “the fear of the Lord” and why do I want it? What does the phrase “knowledge of God” mean? Does it mean what God knows or does it mean that I will know God? Are these two goals, or, are “the fear of the Lord” and “knowledge of God” two ways of describing the same goal?

Proverbs 3 expands on the value of trusting and honoring God: God’s commandments assure you:

  • A long, bountiful life
  • A good reputation
  • Straight paths
  • Happiness.

Happiness is more important than silver or gold or jewels. But, I don’t have to choose between them. Wisdom offers both long life and riches and honor.

May 14
Wisdom’s Invitation
Purpose:  To hear and respond to God’s call to wisdom
Bible Lesson: Proverbs 8:1-5, 22-31
Key Verse: “Does not wisdom call, and does not understanding raise her voice?” — Proverbs 8:1

On a hill high enough to be visible to passers-by. At the crossroads where travelers going in different directions may meet. At the gates of the city where people would meet to buy and sell, to arrange marriages, to settle disputes. These are the places where wisdom is needed, and these are the places where wisdom speaks.

These are all places where people meet. These are all situations that require settling. The human way to impose order may be on the basis of strength or money. Tyranny can settle a lot of disputes. Proverbs asks us to consider what God has in mind — what God had in mind for us at the beginning and what God continues to want for us.

Wisdom was God’s first creation (22) and was present with God as God set out the limits that define our world (24-29). Compare Genesis 1:1-10 with Proverbs 8:27-30. These limits, or boundaries, or ways of separating one thing from another, are essential.

We may speak of the world as wicked, but God called creation good (remember Genesis 1).  God is delighted with Wisdom, and Wisdom rejoices always in the world God created and in us, the humans designed to live in it (30-31).

Bible scholars differ on the identity of Wisdom in the Old Testament. Some examples include:

  •  An attribute of God (my choice, most days)
  •  A metaphor for God
  •  A female personification of God (Sophia).

For Judaism, Wisdom was associated with Torah (see Deuteronomy 4:6-8; Psalm 19:7; 147:15-20). Baruch makes the identification more explicitly, “She is the book of the commandments of God, the law that endures forever. All who hold her fast will live, and those who forsake her will die” (4:1).

For Christianity, Christ is associated with Wisdom. Compare Proverbs 8:22-30 with John 1:1-3, “the one who was in the beginning with God, through whom all things were created.”  Paul says that Christ is the firstborn of all creation and that in him all things were created (Colossians 1:15-20). The Letter to the Hebrews says that God created the worlds through his Son (1:2-3). (New Interpreter’s Bible).

May 21
Choosing the Path of Integrity
To discern the communal nature of righteousness
Bible Lesson: Proverbs 11:1-14
Key Verse: “The integrity of the upright guides them, but the crookedness of the treacherous destroys them,\.” — Proverbs 11:3

The world described in Proverbs is one that makes sense. Certain actions have predictable reactions. Proverbs 11 is talking about our actions and the consequences we can expect them to have. We need this instruction because although all the world is under God’s governance, God grants us a lot of freedom and, consequently, a lot of responsibility. 

The advice includes what we are supposed to do at work and at home. “A false balance is an abomination at work, but an accurate weight is his delight” (1). Don’t gossip (9, 13), nor make belittling comments (12). The New Interpreter’s Bible says “to have contempt for other human beings is to insult their Maker (11:12-13)….In marriage and family, in corporate and civic life, to belittle the other destroys the ability to continue our common work.”

Our actions affect everyone. Everything we do — right or wrong — has an impact on our community. None of us is alone. Furthermore, none of us can discern what is right or wrong without a lot of help. We need counselors (14).

Look for actions/consequences in this chapter. For example, “The integrity of the upright guides them, but the crookedness of the treacherous destroys them,” (3), “The righteousness of the upright saves them, but the wicked fall by their own wickedness,” (5) and “The righteousness of the upright saves them, but the treacherous are taken captive by their schemes” (8).

Get out the morning paper and find illustrations of these verses. Find stories about the righteous being saved and the wicked being destroyed. You may be able to come up with some illustrations from your own life.

For those of you that have trouble with this thesis, you may want to turn to another book in the Wisdom tradition, Ecclesiastes. It gives a counter testimony to Proverbs by describing life as inscrutable, non-controllable, and non-predictable (according to Walter Brueggemann’s Theology of the Old Testament). 

For those of you that are offended by the notion that humans can effect the outcome, you may want to turn to yet another book in the Wisdom tradition, Job. In that book, God is completely unfettered by human action. A righteous person who does everything right still suffers (also, Brueggemann).

May 28
Living Out Wisdom
To understand how wisdom is lived out in relationships
Bible Lesson: 31:8-14, 25-30
Key Verse: “Charm is deceitful, and beauty is vain, but a woman who fears the Lord is to be praised.” — 31:30

Chapter 31 begins “The words of King Lemuel. An oracle that his mother taught him.” How Southern I thought. He’s a king, so his words would be important to anybody listening. And he admits, and listeners are reassured, that these words came from his mama.

Don’t run after the wrong kind of woman (31:3). Don’t get drunk (31:4-7). Speak up for the lowly. Defend the rights of the poor and needy (31:3-9).

Then the advice becomes even more motherly: Marry the right woman.

Here’s what a good wife is like. She works hard for her husband (10-14). She is busy, busy, busy. She gets up before the sun does. She fixes breakfast.

She’s strong and dignified. She’s wise and talks wise. She looks after her family. She doesn’t lie around the house. Her kids are happy, and so is her husband (25-28).

No similar advice is given to King Lemuel’s daughter on how to select a good husband.

Besides the good advice on wife selection, there’s a lot more that’s good about this passage. Like much of the rest of Proverbs, it reminds us that how we live our ordinary lives is important to God and that we serve God by caring for each other. And, that caring for each other is what brings us joy.

At least that’s the intended message. But, an unintended message may be coming through. Read the verses that weren’t included in this week’s text: She works in the garden. She is still working after the sun goes down. She takes care of every need of her family and has time and effort to spare for the poor. She makes all her own clothes—fine clothes. She makes more clothes and sells them. Everybody thinks well of a husband of a wife like this (15-24). Well, wouldn’t they? What do they think about wives that don’t do all these things? Do they not measure up to their husband’s expectations? To God’s?

Whitt is an elder in the Mississippi Conference.