A Zombie Still Chasing Me: The Riddle of a Proverb
Over the past week, every working moment has been devoted to another (nice) zombie in my life: indexing my forthcoming book on Proverbs. So with a confused mind and eyes double-crossed, I present another short excerpt from A Life that is Good: The Message of Proverbs in a World Wanting Wisdom (Eerdmans, September 2018). Information for preorders is provided below.
Whenever I taught Proverbs 10–31 and had extra time, I distributed 3 x 5 cards and asked the students or seminar participants to write down proverbs or short sayings that they recalled hearing while they were growing up, and not necessarily proverbs from the Bible. After a few minutes, I asked students to share their most memorable sayings and their source. Among my favorites, some from traditional American wisdom and others shared by permission, are the following:
The early bird gets the worm.
Too many cooks spoil the stew.
People won’t care what you look like, but they’ll remember you coming late.
A penny saved is a penny earned.
Never put off until tomorrow what you can do today.
Next I would ask, “Are these proverbs always true? Can you think of other proverbs that contradict these sayings?” It would not take long for proverbs to be flying back and forth across the room, and the class would be having a good time.
The early bird may get the worm,
but the second rat gets the cheese.
Look before you leap,
but he who hesitates is lost.
Too many cooks may spoil the stew,
but two heads are better than one,
and many hands make light work.
People won’t care what you look like
but they’ll remember you coming late.
People won’t care if you come late,
but they’ll remember what you look like.
(a grandmother’s perspective)
A penny saved is a penny earned,
but don’t be penny wise and pound foolish.
Never put off until tomorrow what you can do today;
but… Learn to stop and smell the roses.
What this means for reading the proverbs in the book of Proverbs is more than significant: it turns on the reading lamp. As a rule, proverbs are not one-size-fits-all statements of absolute truth. They are observations about life from limited perspectives and specific circumstances. This is true for the genre of proverbs that are outside and inside the Bible. Take for example the second and third proverbs in Proverbs chapter 10:
The Lord does not let the righteous go hungry,
but he thwarts the craving of the wicked. (10:3)
A slack hand causes poverty,
but the hand of the diligent makes rich. (10:4)
If we misread the genre of these claims and take them as flat assertions of absolute truth, because they are in the Bible, we are in trouble. For example, with the greatest of sarcasm I assert that the first proverb confirms what I have always thought of the apostle Paul: he was a terrible man. After all in 2 Corinthians when he describes his hardships, he admits that he had been hungry and thirsty many times and often without food (2 Cor. 11:27). Paul isn’t fooling me for a minute. Even after he became a Christian, he must have been wicked because Proverbs 10:3 says the Lord won’t let righteous people go hungry. That’s what happens to the wicked—I say with great sarcasm. See the problem?
We find the same trouble with Proverbs 10:4, except now I ask us to draw from our experience and what we see in the world. Does diligence always make a person wealthy? What about the poor; are they always lazy and unproductive? Of course not. Many are born into wealth and never do anything productive. They have trust funds that ensure they will always be wealthy. Most of the world’s wealthiest people did not start from square one without a dollar to their name. They began with money to invest. So when their investments paid off big and they became multi-millionaires, their fortune was less about long hours and hard work than about the advantage of starting life ahead—like on the fourth lap of a four lap race. On the other hand, some of the most diligent workers in the world are in factories, hotels, fast food restaurants, and refugee camps. But these persistent, hardworking people are not exactly becoming wealthy.
The book of Proverbs also establishes the proverb as a non-absolute genre. In Chapter 26 we read
Do not answer fools according to their folly,
or you will be a fool yourself. (26:4)
This proverb urges us to avoid correcting or arguing with fools because such an engagement is certain to make us look like a fool. Then we read
Answer fools according to their folly,
or they will be wise in their own eyes. (26:5)
This instruction is equally clear: we should reply to fools and put them in their place so that their pride, being “wise in their own eyes,” does not continue to grow.
But just exactly what are we supposed to do with fools? Verse five tells us to respond and put them in their place, but verse four tells us not to respond at all, or we will look like or even become fools. So what gives? To speak or not to speak, that is the question. And the answer to our dilemma is simple: it all depends on the circumstances or situation. And even then, the only way to know is by wisdom.
The ability to memorize and quote proverbs is not the same as becoming wise. Any fool can quote a proverb, and many do. But their deployment of a saying may be useless and unhelpful.
The legs of a disabled person hang limp;
so does a proverb in the mouth of a fool. (26:7)
Or much worse, a fool can hurt others by quoting proverbs as absolute truth when the proverbs do not fit the situation:
Like a thornbush by the hand of a drunkard
is a proverb in the mouth of a fool. (26:9)
The image is graphic and violent—a drunkard flaying about with a thorny bush or large branch, such as a rose bush or branch off a mesquite tree with its long, sharp thorns. The fool swings wildly, indiscriminately hurting other people with his proverb branch, cutting into them with deep gashes. In the process, madly swinging a thornbush is likely to hurt the fool himself.
Consider, for a moment, proverbs that you have heard misused as absolute statements of truth; sayings used like a thornbush to harm other people. For me, one proverb leaps to mind.
Train children in the right way,
and when old, they will not stray. (22:6)
I have seen two unfortunate uses of this proverb, both the result of misunderstanding the genre of a proverb. First, preachers have unleashed unjustified pain onto parents who did their best to raise their children “in the right way.” But because their grown children have made their own decisions and left the church or lost their faith, “It is obvious,” so say the preachers, “that the parents did not do their job. Just look at what the proverb says. If children are trained properly, they will not stray.” So the parents catch the blame for decisions made by their adult children. What a foolish thing to say to parents who already beat themselves up and wonder what they could have done better.
The second misuse stemming from misunderstanding proverbs as absolute statements of truth comes in the commentaries and journal articles I’ve read that work intensely hard to make this proverb say something other than what it says so that it may still be read as an absolute. These interpretations include train a child in harmony with the child’s nature; train a child appropriate to their developmental stage; or train a child in a trade or occupation that fits them, and they will do it all their life. What a terrible misuse of a proverb that by its genre only makes a general claim: when parents raise their children well, they usually, but not always, turn out well. That’s all folks. Proverbs are not grand promises with sweeping statements of absolute truth, and to read them as such is to misunderstand them.
...much more to come...
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