Equipping Christians & churches for whole-life discipleship in the world.

Proverbs (8): Just Enough

October 31, 2011
31 Oct 2011

Two things I ask of you, LORD;
do not refuse me before I die:
Keep falsehood and lies far from me;
give me neither poverty nor riches,
but give me only my daily bread.
Otherwise, I may have too much and disown you
and say, ‘Who is the LORD?’
Or I may become poor and steal,
and so dishonour the name of my God.
Proverbs 30:7-9

Apart from what we glean from the sayings in Proverbs 30, we know nothing of their author, Agur son of Jakeh. But he bequeathes to us the only prayer in the book – a two-fold request describing how he wants to live his life before he dies.

First of all, having declared that God’s own word is ‘flawless’ (30:5), he expresses a desire to be a man of truth and integrity – ‘keep falsehood and lies far from me’.

His second request also begins with a negative petition – ‘give me neither poverty nor riches’ – which is then stated positively – ‘but give me only my daily bread’. The prayer goes on to muse that life at either extreme of the socioeconomic spectrum might lead to faithlessness. The self-sufficiency that results from wealth might lead to a denial of the Lord. The insufficiency that results from poverty might lead to crime, profaning God’s name in the process.

It’s easy to see why the Bible has been claimed to be on the side of both the rich and the poor. The sheer breadth of its teaching on riches means a wealthy Abraham or Job over there can be set against the warnings of an Amos or the letter of James over here. The book of Proverbs itself recognises that money brings undeniable advantages even while it also carries inevitable drawbacks. Proverbs encourages neither prosperity nor austerity; it allows us neither to idolise a life of luxury nor to idealise a ‘simple life’.

Agur’s ‘just enough’ principle is reiterated in different ways throughout Scripture. His request calls to mind God’s provision of manna in the wilderness, sufficient for the needs of the day, and it reaches forward to the petition for ‘daily bread’ in the Lord’s prayer. Raising financial help for those suffering a famine, Paul calls churches to give generously of their ‘plenty’ so that others who are hard pressed might be relieved (2 Corinthians 8:13-15).

Agur’s prayer also provides a model for disciples today. Alongside an awareness of his own weakness is a recognition of God’s power to make poor or rich, a concern about the consequences of sin, and a desire to stay faithful above all else. This much, at least, we know about this ancient follower of the Lord God.

 

Antony Billington

Proverbs (7): A Time to be Silent and a Time to Speak

October 17, 2011
17 Oct 2011

Do not answer fools according to their folly,
or you yourself will be just like them.
Answer fools according to their folly,
or they will be wise in their own eyes.
Proverbs 26:4-5

Do not answer. Answer. So, which is it? Even some rabbis struggled with the ‘contradiction’ between the two sayings, deciding that one should correct the fool only when interpreting the Torah was at stake.

As it happens, the seemingly random mixture of individual proverbs throughout the book mean the sayings would work on their own if they were isolated from each other; placed side by side, however, they do something more.

As the second line in each case indicates, there is wisdom in both courses of action. On the one hand, in responding like a fool, we risk becoming like the fool. On the other hand, it’s not always wise to let fools have the last word, in case they mistake their folly for wisdom. All of which is even more significant when there are others around, listening in – during a team meeting, a presentation, or a coffee break conversation.

On their own, the pair of proverbs say nothing about the circumstances which require which type of response or even how the ‘fool’ should be identified. The point is that, at such and such a time one response is to be favoured over the other. Wisdom, in this case, is a matter of what is fitting and what is timely – knowing what to say and when to say it.

The two aphorisms also provide a helpful pointer to how proverbial sayings work more generally. Implicit in the book of Proverbs is the call to live with the ambiguities of life, often in relationship with others, and to navigate wisely through alternate courses of action. In such situations, individual proverbs are not moral absolutes which apply in all circumstances; no one saying contains the whole truth on a particular matter. And so the application of them requires discernment – careful reading of the proverb itself and the situation in which we find ourselves.

And we do all this with the encouragement that if any of us ‘lacks wisdom’, we may ‘ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given’ to us (James 1:5).

 

Antony Billington

Proverbs (6): A Bug’s Life

September 26, 2011
26 Sep 2011

Go to the ant, you sluggard;
consider its ways and be wise!
It has no commander, no overseer or ruler,
yet it stores its provisions in summer and gathers its food at harvest.
How long will you lie there, you sluggard?
When will you get up from your sleep?
A little sleep, a little slumber, a little folding of the hands to rest –
and poverty will come on you like a bandit and scarcity like an armed man.
Proverbs 6:6-11

Four things on earth are small,
yet they are extremely wise:
Ants are creatures of little strength,
yet they store up their food in the summer…
Proverbs 30:24-25

Solomon, internationally famed for his wisdom, composer of thousands of proverbs and songs, was also a student of the natural sciences. In line with the original mandate the creator God gave to the human race, Solomon’s wisdom incorporated an accumulation of insights from the natural world, his proverbs speaking about ‘plant life, from the cedar of Lebanon to the hyssop that grows out of walls’, and ‘about animals and birds, reptiles and fish’ (1 Kings 4:33).

This grounding of the wisdom tradition in creation is seen in the book of Proverbs itself, where the acquisition of sagacity involves not just the careful observation of daily life, consideration of personal experience, rumination on the know-how of others passed down through the ages, but also reflection on the created world.

Within this wider perspective, on two occasions, the wise teacher draws attention to the industriousness of one of the smallest creatures on the face of the earth – the ant.

In this case, the lesson is for the lazy person who is called to ‘go… consider… and be wise’. The sequence is important: go (shake off your inactivity), consider (observe, reflect on, and learn from the ant’s diligence), and be wise (internalise the lesson and make it habitual in your own life). Parents and teachers might like to note that the description of the ant’s commendable behaviour and the three imperatives are combined with rhetorical questions – ‘How long will you lie there, you sluggard? When will you get up from your sleep?’ – along with warning – ‘poverty will come on you like a bandit and scarcity like an armed man’. Description, commands, questions, and warning – with some gentle mocking – all artfully blended together in a concern for the welfare of the community as a whole.

Centuries later, one greater than Solomon called on his listeners to ‘look at the birds of the air’ and ‘see how the lilies of the field grow’ (Matthew 6:26-30). Such wisdom, far from being a special source of knowledge for the select few, is still available – to all who have eyes to see.

 

Antony Billington

Proverbs (5): Wisdom That Builds

September 5, 2011
05 Sep 2011

By wisdom the LORD laid the earth’s foundations,
by understanding he set the heavens in place;
by his knowledge the deeps were divided,
and the clouds let drop the dew.
Proverbs 3:19-20

By wisdom a house is built,
and through understanding it is established;
through knowledge its rooms are filled with rare and beautiful treasures.
Proverbs 24:3-4

It sometimes comes as a surprise for readers of Scripture to learn that the proverbs hardly ever refer to the major themes of the Bible, like covenant, redemption, law, kingship, and temple. Of course, given that ‘the fear of the LORD’ is the first principle of wisdom (Proverbs 1:7), it could be said that the sayings everywhere presuppose the special, saving relationship established between ‘the LORD’ (‘Yahweh’ – God’s covenant name) and his people.

As it turns out, however, wisdom is rooted even further back – in creation – grounded in the orderly regulation of the world by the creator God.

In using the verbs ‘established’ and ‘secured’, Proverbs 3:19 portrays God as an architect and builder who lays down a strong foundation and sets in place a building’s walls or columns. And he constructs this cosmic house by his wisdom, understanding, and knowledge. Incidentally, these are the same sort of qualities of those involved in the building of the tabernacle (Exodus 31:1-3) and the temple (1 Kings 7:14) – themselves microcosms of God’s creation, built with wisdom, understanding, and knowledge.

Proverbs 24:3-4, using the same words, reminds us that we too build in harmony with God’s own work, in God’s own way. The wisdom used by God in building and sustaining the house of creation is the same wisdom now given back to his people, to be eagerly desired by his people, in order to live wisely in his world.

And, as the rest of the book demonstrates, the call to wisdom is applicable in different spheres of life – at the city gates and in the market squares, in our homes and in our workplaces, in our bedrooms and in our boardrooms – where God’s people are called to wise ‘building’ in God’s house of creation. Far from being removed from the rhythms of our everyday life, such ‘building’ embraces a range of skills and practices, worked out concretely in the kitchen, on the field, and at the desk, wherever God has called us, and where the model for such activities is God’s own wise work.

 

Antony Billington

Proverbs (4): A Way With Words

August 19, 2011
19 Aug 2011

Like one who takes away a garment on a cold day,
or like vinegar poured on soda,
is one who sings songs to a weary heart.
Proverbs 25:20

It’s the summer holidays and time for family get-togethers. My three-year-old grandson decided to teach me a song I had never heard before. It began ‘Alice, the camel had five humps – go, Alice, go! Alice the camel had four humps – go, Alice, go!’ He sang Alice down to one hump, showing the numbers with his fingers. The last triumphant line – ‘Alice the camel had no humps – Alice is a horse!’ A song to teach him to count!

The joy of rhythm, the joy of catching me out with a joke, and the love of repetition reminded me of Proverbs. It’s a book about wise parents teaching their children, kings teaching their subjects – with repetition, and occasional jokes.

Much of the instruction is about how we use words. ‘Keep corrupt talk far from your lips’ (4:24). ‘A gentle answer turns away wrath but a harsh word stirs up anger’ (15:1). Do we take enough care with our words? We may do so in meetings and workplace situations where we are conscious that we need to be circumspect and to avoid aggravation. But in a relaxed holiday atmosphere with friends and family we also need to take care with our words. I was surprised when I first came across ‘I was only joking!’ in Proverbs (26:19). I heard that phrase often as a child. Several family members of mine would use it regularly as a back-tracking get-out clause after saying something spiteful, hurtful or silly.

Proverbs reminds us that our use of words on an everyday basis is an important part of our discipleship, involving self-control, kindness and the right kind of humour. ‘The prudent keep their knowledge to themselves, but the heart of fools blurts out folly’ (12:23). ‘Reckless words pierce like a sword, but the tongue of the wise brings healing’ (12:18). ‘When words are many, sin is not absent, but the wise hold their tongues’ (10:19). ‘A gossip betrays a confidence; so avoid anyone who talks too much’ (20:19).

I was only joking!

 

Margaret Killingray

Proverbs (3): A good life

August 1, 2011
01 Aug 2011

Wisdom’s instruction is to fear the Lord, and humility goes before honour.
Proverbs 15:33

John Stott, President of LICC, died last Wednesday. There has been an outpouring of tributes to him – long obituaries in the broadsheets described his massive achievements across the globe on so many fronts. But they also spoke of his simplicity of lifestyle, his humility, his generosity and his intellectual and pastoral gifts.

He modelled more than anyone else the linked virtues of wisdom and humility that are a feature of the book of Proverbs. Virtues linked by James in his letter. Who is wise and understanding among you? Let them show it by their good life, by deeds done in the humility that comes from wisdom. James 3:13

I first met Uncle John when I joined an eight week course at LICC in 1985, on which he did much of the teaching. Even as he taught with authority and conviction, he demonstrated his wise humility in the way he would answer questions, correct errors and encourage wider and more discerning contributions from students without anyone feeling put down. It was easy to love this orderly, purposeful man with his down-to-earth realism and deep sense of care and concern for all those he met worldwide. He seemed to have an almost miraculous memory for the names and details of the people he had met, and for whom he regularly prayed. The published obituaries have listed his achievements in changing the face of Christianity on the world stage. But for many of us who knew him personally it is the more day-to-day encounters that come to mind. A friend of mine, who attended LICC’s opening ceremony at St. Peters in 1983, described how, after the speeches and time of worship, tea and cakes were served in the dining gallery – and Uncle John served at table. To have known him, been taught by him and enjoyed his company are some the richest blessings of my life.

What is wisdom? Proverbs describes it as instruction, insight, guidance, discernment, discretion, knowledge, understanding, righteousness, prudence. Add in humour and a delight in all the good things of life, and you have the wise, humble, devoted follower of his Lord and faithful friend and teacher who was John Stott.

 

Margaret Killingray

Proverbs (2): The drink problem

July 18, 2011
18 Jul 2011

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 mind will imagine confusing things.
You will be like one sleeping on the high seas, lying on top of the rigging.
Proverbs 23:31

Alcohol is a problem. It is a problem today and it was a problem for the writer of Proverbs. It was a problem for Noah (Genesis 9:21) and for Lot (Genesis 19:30-33). It was a problem for the master of ceremonies in Cana (John 2:1-11). It was a problem in 1st century Ephesus (Ephesians 5:18), and in Rome (Romans 13:13). But it gladdens the heart (Psalm 104:4), makes the Cana wedding go with a swing, and is better for a weak stomach than dodgy water (1 Timothy 5:18). It is also the central symbol of the redeeming poured out love of Jesus.

Noah’s sons tried to avoid looking at their father’s drunken debasement. But CCTV footage regularly reveals the grotesque loss of inhibition in binge drinking. It reveals the dilemma for many of the young – if you don’t join in you have lost out on friendship and peer esteem and, if you do join in, loss of self-worth and physical and mental damage may result. We should be aware of the varied consequences of alcohol abuse – in crime, traffic accidents, domestic violence, homelessness, and liver damage, etc.

What can Christians do about all this? Some of us may feel a sense of release from the time when most non-conformists and evangelicals were, sometimes rather self-righteously, teetotal. Some feel the only response to the widespread abuse of alcohol is abstinence; others that responsible budgeting makes the cost unacceptable. Certainly we should avoid the chummy light-hearted ‘bring out the bottles’ kind of talk. Where we are part of a drinking culture we could practise being the life and soul of the party with only a very moderate intake. Being mature wise adults means being able to forgo pleasure for the greater good of communities and relationships with a light heart.

Do you know what it feels like to sleep on the high seas on top of the rigging? Sounds like personal experience!

 

Margaret Killingray

Proverbs (1): The fear of the Lord is the beginning…

July 4, 2011
04 Jul 2011

Proverbs… for gaining wisdom and instruction; for understanding words of insight; for receiving instruction in prudent behaviour, doing what is right and just and fair; for giving prudence to those who are simple, knowledge and discretion to the young – let the wise listen and add to their learning.
Proverbs 1:1-5

Proverbs was a disconcerting book for me when I first came across it. There are, of course, passages of connected verses – about not going with prostitutes, about a woman called wisdom, about the ideal wife. But most of it seemed to be a staccato list of the kind of sayings my mother would come up with, for example when any kind of domestic trouble occurred – me losing my purse on the way home from school, my father’s cycle’s flat tyre – ‘It never rains, but it pours!’

Proverbs, though, has grown on me over the years. It recognises the power of the kinds of traditional sayings that, as far as one can tell, all cultures and languages develop – sayings that pass on the wise ways of ordinary living, ‘details of character small enough to escape the mesh of the law and the broadsides of the prophets’.* Some sayings give you open options – ‘Too many cooks spoil the broth’ – ‘Many hands make light work.’ Those aren’t in Proverbs, of course, but the ones that are deal with laziness, generosity, kindness, wise speech, pride, violence, bringing up children. Sometimes they are funny – ‘Sluggards bury their hands in the dish and will not even bring them back to their mouths!’

So how do we understand this book, as Christians? Proverbs 8:22-31 turns our eyes from the small-scale domesticity of its proverbial wisdom to the wisdom that created the universe. Wisdom speaks – ‘I was formed long ages ago, at the very beginning, when the world came to be. I was filled with delight day after day, rejoicing always in the Lord’s presence.’ A wonderful picture of the Trinity, in loving relationship, creating and sustaining our world, then stooping down to each repentant human, breathing in the Holy Spirit’s transforming presence, teaching us wisdom to live ordinary lives.

 

Margaret Killingray

Today’s proverb for a busy, fractured, multi-tasking world – ‘To answer before listening – that is a folly and a shame.’ (18:13)