Shortness, Sense and Salt

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Throughout July we’re taking an in-depth look at Proverbs, the Bible’s one-of-a-kind book about our never-ending need for wisdom.

There are hundreds of everyday proverbs in the English language.  Each of them suggests, “This is how life works.”

What’s interesting is that most of us are well aware of the fact they aren’t always true.  Check these out:

A watched pot never boils.  You mean to say you’ve never seen a pan of water gradually start boiling?

Barking dogs never bite.  Are you willing to bet there are no exceptions to that rule?

If you want something done right, you have to do it yourself.  Does that include brain surgery?

Absence makes the heart grow fonder.  How about the ex who violated your trust and stomped your heart flat? 

Train up a child in the way he should go, and when he is old he will not depart from it.   Since this one’s in the Bible it has to be true, right?

Specifically, that last one is Proverbs 22:6.  It’s been memorized, preached, and cited ad infinitum for thousands of years.  But as millions of heartbroken parents can attest, you can shower your kids with love and truth, pull out all the stops to train them spiritually, never stop praying that they will enter the kingdom, yet still see them thumb their noses at God.  It’s enough to make us conclude that “train up a child” is sheer hogwash.

What it is, in fact, is a proverb.  And proverbs, by their very nature, are different from two other important Bible features: promises and commands.

Promises are bedrock assurances concerning God’s nature.  When Paul says that God always provides a means to endure temptation (I Corinthians 10:13), he isn’t saying that God gets it right most of the time.  Commands are moral obligations.  When scripture tells us not to steal, it doesn’t include special clauses like, “Since everybody else is padding their expense accounts, you can, too – just don’t go overboard.” 

Promises and commands are unbending.  As statements concerning reality, they are fixed.  But proverbs are notoriously fluid.  How, then, should they even be defined? 

Paremiologists (students of proverbs – yes, there really are such individuals) have never come to consensus concerning that question.  Here are some possibilities:

Proverbs are brief expressions of wisdom, or “short sentences drawn from long experience.”  They employ pithy turns of phrase, present unforgettable images, and convey deep truths.  They stimulate thought and prompt action by means of “shortness, sense, and salt.”  They are catchy observations about the way things generally are

That last phrase is key.  Proverbs don’t declare how life always works, let alone how life must work.  A proverb may state that working hard brings prosperity.  That’s usually true.  But sometimes it just brings frustration.  We may read that wicked people will “get theirs” in this world, and good people will be delivered from suffering.  But most of us are personally familiar with painful exceptions to that rule.

When it comes to the book of Proverbs, there will always be exceptions to the rule.  But as scholar Paul E. Koptak points out, first we need to learn the rule.  That is the way of wisdom. 

The special nature of Proverbs becomes apparent in verses like 26:4-5:

Do not answer a fool according to his folly, or you will be like him yourself.
Answer a fool according to his folly, or he will be wise in his own eyes. 

The author flat out contradicts himself in back-to-back verses.  What are we supposed to make of this? 

Confucius was once approached by two men who asked the same question: “Should I carry immediately into practice what I have learned?”  To the first man he said Yes.  To the second man he said No.  When asked why he had given such dramatically different responses, Confucius said the first man was overcautious and needed motivation.  The second man was reckless and needed self-control.

Likewise, when it comes to Proverbs, one size does not fit all.  There will be days in which it would be incredibly unwise to become as foolish as a fool.  But there will be other days in which the wisest way to show a fool that he’s being foolish is by playing his own game. 

That’s what makes Proverbs so fascinating.  And challenging.

Not everybody – especially those who appreciate the certainty of promises and commands – finds such ever-changing nuances and applications comforting.

What we need is something or Someone that never changes.  And we have it: “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever.” (Hebrews 13:8)

May God give us the grace to remember that no matter how uncertain life might seem at times, there is a Rock beneath our feet that will never move.