Why Proverbs Is The Perfect Book For Our Time

Posted: Dec 19, 2019 10:22 AM
Why Proverbs Is The Perfect Book For Our Time

Source: AP Photo/David J. Phillip

When you read Proverbs, you can easily think that you are reading general stuff that you can find throughout Scripture.

You read Solomon say, “Love not sleep, lest you come to poverty” (Proverbs 20:13 ESV), and you immediately think of how Jesus wanted his disciples to pray for him in the Garden of Gethsemane, or his parables about the servants who sleep on duty (Matthew 24:42-51). You think of all the times Christians are told not to sleep but to wake (Romans 13:11; Ephesians 5:14; 1 Thessalonians 5:6, 7). So, you think this is one of many statements on a theme in the Bible.

That’s partly right, but…

The truth is that there are no warnings about sleep in the Bible before Solomon. Isn’t that strange? Solomon says things like, “Slothfulness casts into a deep sleep, and an idle person will suffer hunger” (Prov. 19:15). Moses doesn’t say anything about the danger of sleep, but Solomon can’t shut up about it.

The same is true of alcohol. While being a “drunkard” is bad (Deuteronomy 21:20), most of the early Bible focuses on wine and strong drink as a blessing. While we have material that might lead us to the conclusion that alcohol can be abused, we don’t have statements from Genesis through Judges like this: “Wine is a mocker, strong drink a brawler, and whoever is led astray by it is not wise” (Prov. 20:1). We get even longer, more descriptive warnings in Proverbs 23:29–34 and Proverbs 31:4–9. Drunkenness is barely mentioned by Moses, but Solomon obsesses over it. Notice that Solomon doesn’t disagree with Moses. He too thinks that wine is a blessing (Prov. 3:2, 9:2, 5). But he spends more time warning about abusing alcohol than Moses does.

Even Solomon’s warning against adultery seems different than Israel’s earlier history. Many of the earlier laws seemed aimed at protecting women from predatory males. The one story we have of a wife trying to seduce a man involved Joseph who, though a slave, was known as a leader and productive worker (Genesis 39). That is far different from the scenario Solomon describes in Proverbs 7 in which a rich housewife offers herself and her husband’s luxuries to worthless young men.

Why the shift? Solomon made silver as common as stone in Jerusalem (1 Kings 10:27). Agriculture is still important but now Israel is a wealthy kingdom that is centered on a major city. Israel is wealthier and has more of an international reach. There are ways to provide for oneself on business trips rather than planting crops or herding cattle (the husband in Proverbs 7).

And with the new wealth comes new ways to impoverish oneself and ruin one’s life. When Solomon writes, "He who gathers in summer is a prudent son, but he who sleeps in harvest is a son who brings shame" (Proverbs 10:5), I doubt anyone growing up on a farm would need to be told that. A missed harvest would mean immediate pain. But Solomon's point is that young men growing up in Jerusalem haven't left that basic reality behind. If you go out drinking, and sleep in, and lose a job because you’re sure you can find another one, you are a fool. It may not hurt you as soon, but the delay merely gives you time to develop bad habits that trap you in self-sabotaging behavior.

According to Genesis 3, God responded to human sin by cursing the ground so it produced thorns. But in ages when it seems the curse of scarcity has been reduced, Solomon indicates another problem arises: the curse of human behavior. “The way of a sluggard is like a hedge of thorns…” (Proverbs 15:19a ESV), and “The fallow ground of the poor would yield much food, but it is swept away through injustice” (Proverbs 13:23 ESV). Between what people do to themselves and what they do to others, we curse ourselves with poverty in the middle of great abundance. Abundance gives us great power but, unless we are careful in how we use it, we can come under the power of things and our appetites for them.

And, as I’ve pointed out before, the self-sabotaging behavior makes people open to empowering politicians to exploit them.

This is why I believe Proverbs is especially helpful for people living in the prosperous modern world. It is a series of riddles and aphorisms meant to encourage people to use their prosperity productively rather than cursing themselves through it.