The Voice of Wisdom: Reading Proverbs the Right Way

The Voice of Wisdom: Reading Proverbs the Right Way

What is wisdom? I had friend recently ask me about wisdom literature and whether Psalms qualified. I responded saying that each psalm needs its own classification beyond the general category of poetry. Another person told me I should be a politician with a slippery answer like that.

That conversation was pretty indicative of the difficulties involved in writing about wisdom literature. One, it’s hard to pin down. The whole point is that it’s provoking the reader to ponder and discover for herself. It’s intentionally avoiding easy answers, prepackaged instructions, for life’s questions.

Wisdom literature is not spiritual milk, the food for spiritual infants providing clear direction for those who don’t yet have maturity or context. It is the solid food of someone who already has a foundation and wants to move deeper, to move beyond do’s and don’ts and understand the richness and complexity of living spiritually. It resists simple explanations, making analyzing it and writing about it nearly impossible to do with precision.

The second way it fits with that conversation is that it’s like poetry. I had a realization that it was attempting to accomplish the same thing poetry attempts to do, or any art for that matter. Our brains and minds are amazing and complex and (oversimplifying) the left side handles linear, logical, analytical, and linguistic thinking while the right side handles awareness of emotion, awareness of the body, spatial awareness and reasoning, relational awareness, and big picture thinking.

So, in poetry, what we have is an attempt to communicate right-brained concepts like emotional and relational awareness, big picture meaning, and significance too deep for words—in words. The right brain is essential for making life significant, but it’s not so good and helping others know our thoughts with detail, precision, and accuracy (let’s face it, even when we use words, we misunderstand each other an incredible amount of the time…). Poetry is an attempt to use a left-brained mode of communication to share and process right-brained concepts.

Wisdom literature does the same thing. It is an attempt not to convey factual or imperative information but to inspire reflection. Wisdom writers want to provoke their readers to generate their own wisdom (Proverbs) or invite them to experience the writer’s own journey through that process (Ecclesiastes), which in turn would generate an experience in the reader if he is willing and ready.

So, how do I simply convey complexity and analytically communicate the visceral and conceptual? I don’t know if I can, but here goes.

Proverbs, as I discussed in an earlier post, isn’t commands to obey. It’s not even the pragmatic wisdom accessible to all faith systems I was taught it was by my theology professors. It is the reflective musings passed on to those who would benefit from meditating on teaching that makes you go, “Huh.”

Sometimes it does it by saying something that makes you cringe. Sometimes it does it by contradicting itself and making you figure out how both can be true. Sometimes it does it by being vague, forcing you to figure out how it relates to real life. Whatever the method, if you’re taking it at face value and moving on, you’re missing the point.

Reading Proverbs in 31 days is doing it wrong. If you read it at the speed you would read this blog, you’re doing it wrong. You can’t read it quickly. You can’t read it in large swaths. Every section, every saying, every line, every word has to be savored. It has to be digested. It has to be prayed. It has to be reflected upon and wrestled with. Reading Proverbs how it is intended to be read is a serene struggle. You have to stick around to give it time to pin you to the ground.

In his book, Everything Belongs, Richard Rohr describes a time he was sitting with a group of Buddhist monks. They all suddenly rushed out of the room and gradually came back one at a time. He was confused, so they explained to him that it was their day to receive a koan. Essentially, it is a difficult saying meant to test a novice. He must reflect on it until he reaches understanding, which may take a short time or long, even years.

I remember an episode of The Simpsons from when I was a kid that dealt with a pop culture version. Lisa tried to help Bart find enlightenment by asking him what was the sound of one hand clapping. He foiled her by slapping his fingers to his palm and showing her the sound. She tried again, asking, “If a tree falls in the woods with no one to hear, does it make a sound?” He promptly falls into a trance.

It’s a tongue-in-cheek example, but I think it gets the general idea across. Proverbs is full of hundreds of sayings with essentially the same purpose as a koan. The student of Scripture is meant to ponder the meanings of these hard sayings until she finds understanding. It’s not the same as determining the correct interpretation, which is a left-brained, analytical endeavor.

With all that said, let’s give it a try. For the sake of my own sanity, I won’t spend the time on each verse that would be the true goal of reflecting through Proverbs. I’ll take a small chunk at a time and focus on the parts that speak most loudly to me. I’ll leave you to do the rest.

1 The proverbs of Solomon son of David, king of Israel:
2 For learning what wisdom and discipline are;
for understanding insightful sayings;
3 for receiving wise instruction
in righteousness, justice, and integrity;
4 for teaching shrewdness to the inexperienced,
knowledge and discretion to a young man—
5 a wise man will listen and increase his learning,
and a discerning man will obtain guidance—
6 for understanding a proverb or a parable,
the words of the wise, and their riddles.
7 The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge;
fools despise wisdom and discipline.
(Proverbs 1:1-7 HCSB)

Hebrew parallelism is strong at work here. Hebrew poetic writing tends to write in couplets, rhyming not with sounds but with synonyms (or sometimes antonyms). Look at verse 4. It describes wise instruction in righteousness, shrewdness, and integrity as teaching two things: “shrewdness to the inexperienced” and “knowledge and discretion to a young man.” It’s a perfect example of parallelism. Those two phrases are iterations of the same concept.

Verse 6, then, does something great. It’s parallelism does some definition work for us. Proverbs are sayings of the wise, and parables (Jesus was a wisdom teacher!) are riddles. They are all “wise instruction” meant to make students stop to think and gain understanding.

Beyond that, I want to spend time on verse 7. The Bible scholar in me wants to do a word study, pulling out every instance of “fear of the LORD” (written in Hebrew as יראת יהוה and pronounced yireth Yahweh) in the Bible and looking at its context. Don’t do that. Also, don’t look up what other people have to say about that phrase, at least not right now. It’s a worthwhile thing to do sometimes, but right now we are not analyzing, we’re reflecting, we’re meditation, we’re praying. We’re doing more to give ourselves to the text than we are dissecting it.

When I meditated on this verse, my thoughts (and we hope the Spirit) carried me this way:

What does it mean that the beginning of understanding, of wisdom, of knowledge, is fear of Yahweh? Why do we fear the one we love? Is God our abuser? Help me understand, Lord. Is this fear really reverence? Is it terror? Is it respect? Is it adoration? Is it awestrickenness? Is it that feeling in your chest that compels forward motion, that is excitement and desire all rolled up into one? The craving for more, in desperate anticipation for a fresh breath of the Spirit?

Is it like the flutter in your chest knocking on the door for a first date? Is it like the energy within sitting across the desk of an interviewer at your dream company? Is it like the fire kindled inside when you discover your true passion for the first time and flood your imagination with a whole life of fulfillment ahead?

Is יראת יהוה (yireth Yahweh) like the purity of a clear note sung in tune with the tuning fork, resonating with the growing energy of consonance? Does it contrast with the flat voice of a distracted choir member causing dissonance with his carelessness and seeping the energy from the air?

When we seek wisdom, when we open ourselves to learning and the work of the Lord within us and among us, are we adjusting the pegs on our strings to find the sweet resonance of attunement with the divine orchestra?

May my spirit be attuned to God’s perfect pitch and sensitive to the disquieting pulses arising from dissonance between my spirit and the Holy.

These reflections, or questions really (future reflections will probably take different forms), probably would not have been the same if you would have been the one to listen to these verses. And they shouldn’t be. You have to do the work yourself. That’s the point of wisdom literature. No one can hand it to you. You have to find it yourself.

I’ll continue to meditate on Proverbs, and also to dive into other wisdom literature. I would love to hear of others doing the same and growing from the experience. As always, I would love to hear from anyone with thoughts about these ideas or your ideas as you read. Together, we can help each other deepen our understanding, expand our knowledge, and cultivate wisdom.


** Originally posted on An Old Song with a New Dance

Published by Brandon Johnson

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