Sunday, February 27
Proverbs 19: Circumspection, not haste, is the way of correct action (verse 2); this is a warning against precipitous and impassioned reactions (cf. 18:13; 21:5; Romans 10:2). On those occasions when swift action is called for, in circumstances that do not permit the taking of adequate counsel, such action will be more safely and prudently taken by the man who normally does not act precipitously.
That is to say, a person who normally takes adequate counsel before acting on his decisions is the one most likely to react wisely on those occasions when he does not have opportunity to take counsel. This is the one who will not lose his head under pressure. He will keep his emotions at bay and not act on the basis of them (verse 11), knowing that acting on passion tends to become a dangerous habit (verse 19).
When verse 7 says, “All a poor man's brothers hate him; how much more do his friends go far from him,” this should not be understood in a sense that would treat all friendships with skepticism. It is simply a realistic warning that not all friends, after all, can be relied upon all the time. The person who believes otherwise will soon be embarrassed (cf. 25:19).
A gift given to the poor is a loan to God (verse 17; cf. 14:31; 17:5; 22:9. Matthew10:42). We do well to bear in mind that God pays a generous interest on such loans.
Perhaps the Book of Proverbs contains no more important a sentiment, a conviction strongly to be maintained in the heart, than “a prudent wife is from the Lord” (verse 14; cf. 18:22).
Monday, February 28
Proverbs 20: This chapter contains sound counsel about the avoidance of useless problems. It is folly, for example, to provoke those in authority (verse 2). It is equally imprudent and useless to engage in unnecessary strife (verse 3).
Especially to be avoided is the exacting of revenge (verse 22; cf. 25:21-22). Of all human pursuits, revenge is the most unprofitable, a sentiment almost never to the advantage of the one who cultivates it. There is, moreover, a distinct likelihood that the one seeking revenge may be putting himself secretly in the place of God. This truth does not negate, of course, the valid claims of justice, when the demands of justice are exacted by proper legal authority. Even then, however, the wrath of man is not to be identified with the justice of God (James 1:20).
The Bible’s condemnation of revenge pertains less to the valid claims of legal and civil justice than to the emotional sense of satisfaction derived from inflicting personal retribution. The latter, let it be said, is a pursuit utterly devoid of blessing. Much better it is to leave all vengeance to the God who neither deceives nor can be deceived (verse 24). For this reason, vengeance is strictly discouraged in both the Old Testament (24:29; Sirach 28:1) and the New (Matthew 5:39; Romans 12:17,19; 1 Peter 3:9).
This chapter also devotes attention to the importance of steady labor and the sustained application of effort (verses 4,13), as well as integrity in commercial dealings (verses 10,23). The Bible is not anti-business. On the contrary, the Bible encourages that fundamental human trust which is the ground of all commercial enterprise.
Tuesday, March 1
Proverbs 21: A wise man will go on learning, not only when he submits to reprimand, but also when he sees other people appropriately chastised (verses 11-12). This truth points us to one of the great advantages of studying history, because history is, among other things, the chronicling of God’s judgments against fools and scorners, and a wise man will take these lessons of history to heart.
We recently learned that a prudent woman is a gift from the Lord (19:14); a contentious wife, on the other hand, is a curse beyond human endurance (verses 9,19; cf. 25:24; 27:15).
God’s assessment of a man’s heart is not to be identified with a man’s assessment of his own heart (verse 2; cf. 16:2). “Feeling good about yourself” is the most deceptive of feelings and keeps the soul bound forever in the immaturity of Mister Rodger’s Neighborhood, along with King Friday XIII and Mr. McFeely.
The “king” in verse 1 is any king. Since kings, holding sway over nations, are in an excellent position to influence the paths of history, God may be said to follow a certain economy of effort by using the decisions of kings to bring about His own purposes. God is not obliged to do this, obviously, but Holy Scripture indicates that He frequently does.
On the other hand, while kings have their own projects and programs that affect the lives of many, the Bible (including Proverbs) is persuaded that God’s plans are not identical with those of the king, even when He employs the king’s decisions to his own plans to fulfillment . Ultimately, then, it is not the great men of the earth who determine the destinies of nations, but the Lord, who sees and knows all things, even those events that lie in the contingent future. God’s will prevail (verses 30-31).
Wednesday, March 2
Proverbs 22: The shared humanity of the rich and the poor (verse 2) is the basis of our moral obligation to care for the poor (verses 9,22; cf. 29:13), and the Lord is the avenger of their neglect (verse 16; 23:1-11). This chapter’s subsequent exhortation not to oppress the poor resonates with the voices of the prophets (cf. Isaiah 5:8-9; Jeremiah 22:13-19; Micah 2:1-5; Habakkuk 2:6-17).
At verse 17 a new collection of maxims begins, in which the independent and impersonal couplets are replaced by a return to personal address, “my son.” The section, which continues through 24:22, commences with an exhorting call to wisdom (verses 17-18). A man must begin the quest of wisdom by putting his trust in God (verse 19) and the remembrance that there is no wisdom apart from truth (verses 20-21).
A good reason for not associating with an angry man is that one may start to imitate him (verses 24-25), but it is not difficult to think of other reasons as well.
The warning against imprudent economic entanglements (verses 26-27) is an echo of several other passages in Proverbs (6:1; 11:15; 17:18; 20:16).
Verse 28—“ Do not move the ancient landmark that your fathers have set-”—is the classic principle of conservative philosophy, which will be repeated in the next chapter (23:10). It is no exaggeration to remark that the Book of Proverbs is never on the side of innovation!
Thursday, March 3
Proverbs 23: The greatest conceit a man can cultivate is a trust in “his own” wisdom (verse 4), because true wisdom is the shared inheritance of human experience. The surest guide of the moral life is the study of history and the understanding of history as it has been handed down in the tradition.
Therefore, it is no proper goal of education that a student should be taught “to think for himself.” Any idiot can learn that much on his own. (It is no accident that the Greek word for “his own” is idios, easily recognized as the root of several interesting words in English.) It is the proper endeavor of education, rather, that a student should learn to think the thoughts of Plato, of Aristotle, of Amen-em-Opet, of Ahikar, of Confucius, and of the other great minds whose ideas have fed and sustained entire civilizations over the course of centuries.
A true education, an introduction to wisdom, comes from hearing the instruction of those who are truly wise (verse 12). Idiosyncratic isolation is arguably the greatest enemy to the acquisition of wisdom.
Verses 15 to 28 take up again some of the motifs of the first part of Proverbs, encouraging the fear of the Lord (verse 17), custody of the heart (verse 19), sobriety and self-restraint (verses 20-21), respect for tradition (verses 22,24-25), and chastity (verses 27-28). This chapter closes with a colorful and amusing description of drunkenness (verses 29-35). The purpose of including this latter is, of course, to discourage a young man from the pursuit of alcohol and other chemical stimulants.
Friday, March 4
Proverbs 24: Material prosperity and the blessings of a stable life are founded on, and in some measure guaranteed by, the quest of wisdom (verses 3-4). Prudent choices and circumspect behavior, most especially in the time of youth when prudence and circumspection have not yet become solid habits, will determine a man’s course for many years, perhaps even for his whole lifetime (verse 27). The failure at such application, on the other hand, also brings about its own results (verses 30-34). A first step toward wisdom is to turn away from evil.
Now it is a matter of elementary experience that the evil-doer seems sometimes to prosper more than the just man, and this is clearly an argument against the entire thesis of the Book of Proverbs. Whereas in the Book of Job the prosperity of evil-does spawns a philosophical discussion about its cause, here in Proverbs it represents only a distracting temptation. Instead of wondering how to interpret the prosperity of the wicked, the young man in Proverbs is simply warned against becoming deceived by it through envy (verses 1-2,8-9,19-20; 3:31; 23:17).
Also to be eschewed, as a distraction at best, is the pursuit of revenge (verse 29). The wise man must avoid such temptations and get on with life.
True righteousness, however, is not a matter of appearing to be good in the sight of men, nor is true prosperity attained simply by being regarded, by other men, as prosperous. It is God who sees and judges the heart.
In particular, God recognizes the difference between brave and cowardly hearts. He knows whether or not a man is inwardly acquiescing in evil and oppression (verse 11-12).
For all that, God is not an impartial observer. He takes the side of the righteous man (verses 15-16). This is the very thesis that is put to trial in the Book of Job.
God’s reading of the heart also discerns the smug gloating a person feels at the failure of an enemy (verse 17-18). God does not respect the self-righteousness contained in such sentiments. Justice on the earth has nothing to do with smug emotions about oneself.
Saturday, March 5
Proverbs 25: The eighth century scribes of King Hezekiah, evidently as part of the general spiritual renewal associated with that godly monarch (cf. 2 Kings 18-20; 2 Chronicles 29-32), compiled the collection of maxims that begins here (Chapters 25-29).
It has been observed that this collection contains 126 maxims, the very number indicated by the numerical value of the Hebrew letters in Hezekiah’s name. Given the royal and courtly context of this collection, it is scarcely surprising that it begins with certain considerations of kingship (verse 1-7). We recognize that verse 7—“ it is better to be told, ‘Come up here,’ than to be put lower in the presence of a noble”—is repeated in Luke 14:7-11.
Various maxims indicate the value of good and intelligent speech (verse 11-13,15,25), while others exhort to moderation even in good things (verses 16,27). The counsel for how to deal with one’s enemies (verses 21-22) is taken up by St. Paul in Romans 12:20-21 as an important component of practical Christian ethics.
A very weighty concern in the pursuit of wisdom is the acceptance of limitations. “The sky is the limit” is the philosophy of someone with no sense of personal identity. Identity, after all, is a defining notion, and definition (from the Latin finis, meaning “border”) is always a matter of limitation (“this, and not that”). A larger ego is not necessarily more a blessing than a larger nose. The refusal to recognize limitations, therefore, is a marker along the path to loss of identity.
Consequently, this practical chapter ends with the absolute necessity of self-control, which is one of the most practical applications of the acceptance of limitation (verse 28). King Hezekiah himself, who witnessed the downfall of the Northern Kingdom to the Assyrians 722B.C., was well adjusted to this acceptance and was obliged, in his own pursuit of wisdom, to bear it in mind continually. Had he not done so, he would not likely have survived the very taxing geopolitical circumstances in which history placed him.