Wisdom’s Feast – a Vindaloo not a Biryani!

In the last edition I argued that, in neglecting the book of Proverbs - so valued by traditional Christians in previous centuries - the modern church has lost its grip on a vital tool for mission. The feast that Wisdom invites us to (Proverbs 9.5-6) lies untasted.

If you doubt that this is the case, look at the lectionary. Proverbs scarcely figures in it, - indeed Ecclesiasticus, from the Apocrypha, is more frequently listed! On the rare occasions when Proverbs is ‘set for the day’, it is usually just one passage, Proverbs 8.22-31, which is offered. These verses describe divine Wisdom playing before God as He creates, rejoicing with Him over the world and its people. They may give us wonderful opportunities to reflect on the work of Christ, God’s Wisdom made flesh, in creation, but they are not very typical of the book. For most of Proverbs is made up of pithy one-liners that instruct, comment, warn and lament; this is the fare that Wisdom offers us in her feast and it has been pushed to the side of the church’s plate.

How come? Well, in a nutshell, the guild of academic scholars (who through their control over what Ministers and Preachers are taught, as it were, write the churches’ menus) thought that these sayings were too bland to be nourishing. With a few exceptions (Roland Murphy and John Eaton spring to mind), scholars decided that the wisdom taught in Proverbs was simplistic, unrealistic indeed, actively harmful. They alleged that Proverbs simply teaches ‘what goes around, comes around’; that if you are pious, hardworking, thrifty and upright you will do well; but if you are godless, feckless, idle and wicked you will get your comeuppance!

Scholars argued that prosperous scribes, part of the ‘Establishment’ in Ancient Israel, confident that they had cracked the secret of a successful life, jotted down their certainties for the edification of the like-minded. Seen in this light, the teaching of Proverbs is actively oppressive, especially for the poor and the marginalized. As Philip Davies puts it,

~qThis philosophy has major advantages to the privileged scribal class: it justifies the status quo, a system in which the haves deserve their having and the poor are poor because they are not wise but foolish…’ (The False Pen of the Scribes, 2002, p. 123).q~

Grave charges indeed! And if proven, then Proverbs is a poisonous text that we would do well to avoid. However, there is little evidence that scribes in Ancient Israel were so stupidly self-satisfied. Indeed, in a land continually threatened by invasion, drought and disease even the richest were always aware of how fragile and prone to disaster is all human life (see Psalm 49.12,20 and the whole of Ecclesiastes!). We shall not appreciate the wisdom of the sayings in Proverbs unless we realize that the editors who gathered them together (perhaps the ‘men of Hezekiah’ mentioned in Proverbs 25.1) knew very well that we live in a risky world where ‘bad things happen to good people’ and, where, on the other hand, ruthlessness or physical attractiveness, can be a big advantage.

As Proverbs 11.16 puts it:

~q‘A pretty woman gets respect and ruthless men get rich’q~

This, by the way, is what the Hebrew of the above verse actually says. Many English translations follow the Greek version, translated some centuries later (around 150 BC) by someone who found the original far too difficult and spiky for comfort and so rendered it

~qA gracious woman gets honour for her husband (!)
But she who hates virtue is a throne of dishonour.
The slothful lack wealth but the manly support themselves with wealth.q~

What the ancient Greek translator has done is what many modern readers do; he tried to make one of many verses in Proverbs that bring you up with a jolt sound just like others in the book which do indeed insist that being good and devout will bring a long, happy life while wickedness leads to misery.

To take some verses, almost at random from Proverbs 10,

~qWhat the wicked fear – that will come upon them,
But what the just desire will be granted.
With a passing storm, no wicked,
But the just, a permanent foundation.
Like vinegar to the teeth and smoke to the eyes,
So the sluggard to those who make him a messenger.
The fear of the LORD adds on days,
But the years of the wicked are shortened.

(Proverbs 10.24-27, Murphy’s translation).q~

Three of these verses (10.24-5, 27) seem sure that virtue will be rewarded and vice punished. But before we rush to dismiss them as the wishful thinking of fat, complacent clerics, we should reflect on the well-attested fact that a devout, thrifty, industrious and honest lifestyle often does lift individuals and communities out of extreme poverty. It is so in the developing world today, as it was in Eighteenth Century England when many, converted in the Evangelical revival, shot up the ‘social escalator’ as a consequence of their sobriety and trustworthiness – ‘in every place, the Methodists grow worldly’, as John Wesley ruefully remarked towards the end of his life.

To admit this is not to agree that the poor remain poor simply because they are feckless and dishonest. Often enough the scales are so stacked against them that, strive as they might, they can never succeed in escaping want. Other verses in Proverbs reveal an awareness that poverty springs from injustice rather than from any fault of the poor. For instance,

~qThe tilled land of the poor produces much food
But [their] property is swept away when there is no justice.
(Proverbs 11.23, my translation)q~

And does wealth always protect you from mischance? Proverbs 10.15 might make you think so:

~qThe wealth of the rich, a strong city,
The ruin of the poor, their poverty.
(Proverbs 10.15, Murphy)q~

But other verses might make you think again:

~qWealth is of no profit on the day of wrath,
But justice delivers from death.
(Proverbs 11.4, Murphy)q~

~qWhoever trusts in their riches, that one will fall,
But the just shall bloom like foliage.
(Proverbs 11.28, Murphy)q~

Later in the book Proverbs 18.11 quotes 10.15 but adds a phrase that undermines the idea of ‘prosperity theology’.

~qThe wealth of the rich, a strong city,
And like a high wall, so he imagines.
(Proverbs 18.11, Murphy)q~

And the verse before 18.11 (which many of us will recognise as a lively chorus!) has already cast doubt on the notion that wealth makes you safe by pointing to another place of safety which you can’t buy your way into,

~qThe name of the LORD is a strong tower.
The righteous run into it and are safe.
(Proverbs 18.10, NRSV)q~

So, running through Proverbs is a complex debate about riches and poverty in the light of that ‘fear of the LORD’, which ‘is the beginning of knowledge’ (Proverbs 1.8). Fascinatingly, Christians with radically different understandings of economic issues – e.g. Lord Brian Griffiths on the one hand, and Daleep Mukarji, Director of Christian Aid, on the other - could find support for their positions from individual verses in Proverbs. There is a real dialogue going on here about a vitally important matter.

And Proverbs contains many other unsettled and unsettling debates – for instance, about whether strong leadership (by kings) is a good or a bad thing; about whether it is better to be eloquent or reserved; even about whether bribery can sometimes be seen as a judicious oiling of the wheels of business!

So Wisdom serves us strong meat at her feast – a vindaloo not a biryani! And she enjoys nothing more than provoking her guests to debate and questioning. Of course, we cannot go on debating for ever. If Wisdom is to be of any use then it must result in practical action, a truth of which the Book of Proverbs is perfectly aware:

~qIn all toil there will be profit,
But the talk of the lips – only to deprivation!
(Proverbs 14.23, Murphy)q~

But, even so, the more risky the activity, the more important it is to get as much advice as possible.

~qBecause by cleverness you win battles,
And with many counsellors, victory.
(Proverbs 24.6, Murphy)q~

Of course, even when we have thought everything through, we can never outthink God!

~qNo wisdom, and no understanding,
And no counsel against the LORD.
The horse prepared for the day of battle
But victory, the LORD’s!
(Proverbs 21.30-1)q~

How much the wisdom of Proverbs has to offer Christians in a mission field where all truth claims are doubted and people want to be convinced by arguments that take into account different views and the complexity of life! In ten years of running Alpha courses, I have so often seen people coming to faith only after they have worked through many different arguments and asked the sharp questions for which there are never easy answers (e.g. Why do the innocent suffer? What about sincere believers in other faiths?) If we have not trained ourselves to listen to the debates in scripture how can we take part in debate with others?

And this is not just pandering to post-modern fashions. Both host and fellow guest at Wisdom’s feast is the One who loved nothing better than sitting down at a dinner table and arguing the cause of the Kingdom with friends and opponents; that Jesus who, when asked which was the greatest of the commandments, replied by misquoting Deuteronomy 6.4, adding a clause that commands us to think as well as to feel.

~q‘Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God is one, and you shall love the Lord your God, with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ (Mark 12.29)q~

In the next edition I will offer some practical advice on how we can use Proverbs in private Bible study, house groups and in preparing sermons.