This is my “second take” at looking at the wise teachings of Solomon. Some of the introduction is the same as Part I but the majority of the proverbs I’ve focused on here are different.
I recently posted on Facebook, asking people to share the best piece of advice they’ve ever received. Here are some of their answers:
“It’s easier to wear slippers than to carpet the world.”
“Be kind to everyone because everyone is fighting a tough fight.”
“If you’re going to be stupid, you’d better be smart.”
“If God graces you with another day, make it good.”
“Just keep swimming, just keep swimming.”
“If you don’t have anything nice to say don’t say anything at all. Also – Say what you mean, and mean what you say.”
“What you don’t have in your head you have to have in your feet.”
“Eat mo possum!”
“If you have this low grade anger and rage inside you, if you’re always looking for a fight, it’s probably because you’re not in one that matters.”
“Don’t eat the yellow snow.”
“Every day is a gift, that’s why it’s called the present.”
“I brought you up to know the difference between right and wrong. What you do with it is up to you.”
“Make margin in your life.”
“When I got drafted into the military, my father told me that it was up to me as to whether any place I was stationed was a heaven or a hell. I could make it to be either one. He was right.”
“Think before speaking.”
“No one ever complained about finishing church early.”
“Make the best decision you can at the time, with all available information. Then, don’t second guess yourself.”
“You can only make a first impression once!”
“RUN!” [That’s one a mentor told one of my friends who was contemplating the ministry.]
“Buy land, because they stopped making it a long time ago.”
“Challenges are a lot of fun, since they bring out the best in everyone.”
“Don’t mistake conversation for calling; if you’re called, you won’t be happy doing anything else.”
[Obviously, some of them were more serious than others!]
What’s the best piece of advice that you’ve ever received? What have you done with it?
As we work our way through the Old Testament, we find ourselves staring at the wisdom writings of Solomon, that is, the Book of Proverbs. It’s a thirty-one chapter collection of wise things that Solomon thought about or heard along his illustrious reign, some of which are ironic and some of which are obvious, some of which are incredibly clever and some of which require us to consider how we make choices in our lives today.
They are similar and different from the little pieces of wisdom we pick up in the world today, and we see that they all point us back to God.
In the prologue, Solomon writes, “For learning about wisdom and instruction, for understanding words of insight, for gaining instruction in wise dealing, righteousness, justice, and equity; to teach shrewdness to the simple, knowledge and prudence to the young. Let the wise hear and gain in learning, and the discerning acquire skill, to understand a proverb and a figure, the words of the wise and their riddles. The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge; fools despise wisdom and instruction” (Proverbs 1:2-7).
The book focuses in on this, that a) all people need wisdom, and b) that the “fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge.” Most people would probably agree that there’s something to be said for wisdom, especially if we can agree to distinguish between knowledge (academic “smarts”) and intelligence (the application of one’s knowledge to make good decisions). But what is the “fear of the Lord?”
The fear of the Lord is understood to be a fear of “awe” or a fear that one has of offending one loves or respects. It’s not, C.S. Lewis said, the fear we’d have if we found ourselves in the living room with a tiger! It’s not quake-in-your-boots, worry-you-did-something-wrong fear, but instead aimed at being better a person than you might be otherwise. So let’s consider some of the pithy wisdoms that King Solomon shared in his writings about the place where life and the love of God intersect, and see if we can’t grow in wisdom ourselves!
Pretty quickly, Solomon lays out the fact that that what we are about to read and study isn’t necessarily going to be what we’re expecting: “Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not rely on your own insight. In all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make straight your paths. Do not be wise in your own eyes; fear the Lord, and turn away from evil” (Proverbs 2:5-8). What we see, or what we think we see, might not always be what God sees. We know that David was chosen as the king when God looked at the inside rather than the outside, but how often have we really considered that what we think is wise might in fact be counterintuitive to what God wants or thinks is important. If we can’t recognize that this is pretty crazy… it’s crazy.
It’s that kind of counterintuitive knowledge that governs how Solomon looked at money, too. The same man who told God that he wanted wisdom more than money or power, also wrote that believers should “honor the Lord with your substance and with the first fruits of all your produce; then your barns will be filled with plenty, and your vats will be bursting with wine” (Proverbs 2:9-10). Where else would you hear that kind of backward economics? Solomon believed we should give God the first and best of ourselves, and that by being obedient to that, that we would end up with more than enough. That we would have more than we needed.
Solomon also took it a step further. He said that we needed to consider who were failing to love or serve if we didn’t consider our finances prayerfully. “He who oppresses the poor shows contempt for their Maker, but whoever is kind to the needy honors God” (Proverbs 14:31). Isn’t that ultimately what Jesus taught centuries later in Matthew 25 when he told the parable about the sheep and the goats, “what you did for the least of these, you did for me?”
That wealth could influence our relationship with God for good or bad wasn’t lost on Solomon. But he also understood that it impacted our lives and our futures. “If a man shuts his ears to the cry of the poor, he too will cry out and not be answered” (Proverbs 21:13). Martin Niemoller would later write a similar thought in regards to Nazi Germany and the non-Jewish response: “First they came for the communists, and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a communist. Then they came for the socialists, and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a socialist. Then they came for the trade unionists, and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a trade unionist. Then they came for me, and there was no one left to speak for me.” Isn’t that something like what goes around comes around?
But that’s too negative.
Honoring God, showing generosity. Those are the things that Solomon knew that God would love and appreciate. But Solomon also listed several things that the Lord hates:
“Seven [things] that are an abomination to him: haughty eyes, a lying tongue, and hands that shed innocent blood, a heart that devises wicked plans, feet that hurry to run to evil, a lying witness who testifies falsely, and one who sows discord in a family” (Proverbs 6:16-19). Are they what you expected to be on the list? Or are they something different?
Consider them, again. Pride, deceit, murder, wickedness, discord. Solomon wants his readers/hearers to know what they should avoid. And he wanted them to consider what they might do to change the way their lives were going.
Solomon doesn’t let up either, as he will revisit the wickedness that humanity does again and again. “When a wicked man dies, his hope perishes; all he expected from his power comes to nothing,” he later writes (Proverbs 11:7). Solomon wants us to consider what we hope in, where we invest our power and time and energy. In the 1980s, there was a bumper sticker that said, “he who dies with the most toys wins.” Later, Solomon would’ve loved this, a counter motto read: “he who dies with the most toys still dies.” We’re told over and over again by society that we should save for the future, that we should work harder, that we should fight like dogs to get ahead, and then there’s Solomon saying, “There is a way that seems right to a man, but in the end it leads to death” (Proverbs 14:12).
Solomon definitely had issues with people who were foolish, as the idea of “the fool” plays predominantly in the Proverbs as well. He wrote, “a fool finds no pleasure in understanding but delights in airing his own opinions” (Proverbs 18:2). That sounds like some of my friends when it comes to conversations about politics! Nowhere else have I seen ideology tear apart friendships as much as the political arena. Oh, if I only knew then what I knew now: “It is not good to have zeal without knowledge, nor to be hasty and miss the way” (Proverbs 19:2).
Solomon’s critique of foolishness didn’t mean he didn’t squander his own fair share of moments. His particular pitfall was his many wives. Apparently, as a young man, he thought that double the wives was going to be like a Doublemint commercial. But in his wise, old age, he wrote things like this:
“Better to live in a desert than with a quarrelsome and ill-tempered wife” (Proverbs 21:19). And also, “a good wife is the crown of her husband, but she who brings shame is like rottenness in his bones” (Proverbs 12:4). Solomon’s happiest thoughts were reflecting on when relationships went right, when he was where he was supposed to be. And it caused him to consider the way that he lived his life, and the way that he would raise his own children.
“Train a child in the way he should go, and when he is old he will not turn from it” (Proverbs 22:6). That begs the questions: Are you training your children? Are you telling them how much God loves them? Are you reading the Bible with them everyday? Are you sharing with them how important church is and what it means to follow Jesus?
Solomon didn’t always stay on the straight and narrow, but his place in the archives stands because when push came to shove, he chose wisdom… and his parents raised him right.
No pressure. Just consider, where do you get your guidance from, and are you passing it along?
If you agree, leave the best piece of advice you’ve ever received in the space below. Thanks!
This sermon is for the 11 a.m. worship of Blandford United Methodist Church on South Crater Road in Petersburg, Va. Feel free to join us if you can!