Ancient wisdom preserved in the Book of Proverbs has been guiding us through the Age of Covid. Its lessons may sound like common sense because that’s what they are. But it seems that common sense has become a bit less common lately.
A delightful feature of Proverbs are the many sayings that present insights drawn from nature. For example, Proverbs is fascinated by ants:
Go to the ant, you lazybones Consider its ways and be wise
It’s an audacious claim. The ancient sage was telling us that attention to the ant won’t just prove fascinating, it will actually impart the gift of wisdom! The thing is, he was right.
Consider indeed the ant. In this age of covid we struggled to find sufficient discipline to maintain social isolation. No problem there for ants. Studies have shown that ants who feel ill automatically separate themselves from their community.
Ants live in communities created by mutual cooperation and attention to the common good. For example, an ant that finds food creates a pheromone trail to that food that every other ant is free to follow. Some ants work together to form farms where they cultivate fungus which is shared with their whole colony. A few ants even have a form of language based on vibrations which they use to teach their young various life skills. Faced with a threat, ant colonies pull together as one to ward off the danger.
These are just a few of many amazing ant behaviours. Consider indeed the ant! But is there something particular that the Book of Proverbs wants us to see? Take a look at the ending of the Proverb I started above:
Without having any chief or officer or ruler It prepares its food in summer and gathers sustenance in harvest
The point isn’t just that ants are amazing (though they are). The point is that they do all they do without ever having to be told, paid or rewarded. They don’t need Dr. Fauci to nag them before they think about others. They never heard the phrase “What’s in it for me”. If they had a phrase to live by it would likely be something like this code blue proverb (blue being the color of the wise):
A friend loves at all times and a brother is born for adversity
We are finding our way through to the end of the Age of Covid with help from ancient wisdom preserved in the Book of Proverbs. One of the stated goals of that book is to “teach shrewdness to the simple”. Accordingly, many if its instructions involve proper management of wealth.
In handling finances, Proverbs encourages generosity as exampled by this saying:
Do not withhold good from those to whom it is due When it is in your power to do it Do not say to your neighbor “Go and come again Tomorrow I will give it” — when you have it with you
But in the Book of Proverbs there are limits to generosity particularly when it comes to offering one specific kind of assistance:
A man lacking in judgment strikes hands in pledge and puts up security for his neighbor
In my color code system, shade that proverb orange for it describes the way of the fool. Proverbs advises against guaranteeing another person’s loan seven times, making this, by my count, one of the most repeated warnings in the book. Why such concern? In ancient Israel offering surety on a loan meant the guarantor accepted responsibility not just for any unpaid debt but for the entire loan. In essence the guarantor relieved the debtor of any obligation to pay anything while gaining no right of ownership as a result of bearing the risk. It was, in other words, a stupid thing to do.
In the view of Proverbs, it is important to “be generous” and the wise never “withhold good” when they can give it. But when kindness encourages irresponsibility, it is no longer kind.
Ancient wisdom from the Book of Proverbs is guiding us through this Age of Covid with the help of my color code system. Some sayings simply describe how the world works and I code these yellow, for example this one:
Those who are attentive to a matter will prosper.
That sounds like good common sense. But what does it mean in practice? To understand what the wisdom teachers are advising us to do we need to look at what the wise and the fool do differently. The wise are people who live in accord with the way the world has been designed to work. I code sayings that describe what they do blue, including this rather detailed instruction:
Prepare your work outside, Get everything ready for you in the field; And after that build your house.
It turns out that the attentiveness that prospers takes the form of planning. The idea here is similar to a more recent proverb: “Measure twice, cut once”. It’s a matter of knowing exactly what you want before you move on to create it. Proverbs sums it up this way (note the repeated emphasis on planning):
The plans of the diligent lead surely to abundance.
The fool takes a different approach which produces less satisfactory results. In a verse that follows the one about the value of thoughtful planning, Proverbs offers an insight I code orange, the color of the fool:
We are finding our way through the Age of Covid with the ancient wisdom of the Book of Proverbs as our guide. I invite all of us to think about this saying:
Three things are too wonderful for me; Four I do not understand: The way of an eagle in the sky, The way of a snake on a rock, The way of a ship on the high seas, And the way of a man with a young woman.
This saying is an example of what scholars call “a numerical proverb”. It’s designed to draw our attention to the fourth strophe and invites us to ask: what do these four things have in common that reveals a secret about the fourth? In other words, it’s a kind of riddle.
I imagine more than a few women can quickly see a connection between a man with a woman and a snake on a rock but I don’t think that’s the point here. Somehow, “eagle” and “ship” have to fit too and they do. An eagle is made for the sky, a snake finds its home on a rock, a ship is built to sail the seas and a man finds his life in companionship with a woman.
Or so it is with the wise. Things are different with the fool. There are several proverbs that sound misogynistic. For example, “It is better to live in the corner of a housetop than in a house shared with a contentious wife”. Using my color code system, a person might shade that yellow, the color assigned descriptive proverbs, sayings that tell us how things are. But code this proverb and the others like it orange, the marker of the fool. It sounds like a complaint but it’s really a warning. That man on the rooftop is like an eagle forced to the ground, a snake crossing a busy road or a ship grounded. He has alienated the person designed to give his life meaning and by doing so has made himself miserable.
We are making our way through covid craziness with help from ancient wisdom preserved in the Book of Proverbs. But Proverbs can sometimes leave us a bit confused. Consider these two lines that are set one next to the other in the text:
Do not answer fools according to their folly Or you will be a fool yourself Answer fools according to their folly Or they will be wise in their own eyes
The sentences seem contradictory. What do the wisdom teachers who collected and arrangedthese proverbs want us to do?
The answer lies in understanding that these two sentences are displayed together because they constitute one singleproverb and that proverb isn’t about you, the reader. In my color code system they are shaded orange. They describe the fool.
There are people no one can deal with without getting sucked into the negativity that shrouds their life. No matter what you say or do it’s going to be wrong. It’s not just that they will disagree with you. Even if they act on your best advice, they’ll find a way to screw it up.
Jesus gave his disciples some startling advice. He said, “Don’t throw your pearls before swine”. (Yes, Jesus was the guy who coined that line!) Even Jesus couldn’t productively relate to some people and he didn’t expect his followers to fare any better.
So what is the wise person supposed to do? A mentor shared an insight with me. He said, “You can’t soar with the eagles while hanging out with turkeys.” The Book of Proverbs offered the same advice in a saying I code blue (the color that identifies what the wise do):
Whoever walks with the wise becomes wise but the companion of fools suffers harm
While searching for cues in the Book of Proverbs that can help us navigate this age of covid, I’ve come across some interesting sayings. For example the book offers this:
Like somebody who takes a passing dog by the ears is one who meddles in the quarrel of another.
My first thought was, “How true!” If you’ve ever been swept up into a fight between neighbors that should have remained none of your business, you understand how that can be like grabbing a stray dog by the ears.
But then I said to myself: “Wait a minute!! Who does that?” Forget the stuff about neighbors. That part is obvious. The question is: Who grabs a stray dog by the ears? At one level the answer is easy: The Fool of course! In my system statements describing the behavior of the fool are coded orange. Anyone grabbing some “passing dog” by the ears deserves orange paint all over himself (not to mention a few bite marks).
But then a more interesting question came to mind. Why does the fool do the things he does? Why, for example, would the fool jerk any dog’s ears? Proverbs offers a simple reply:
The righteous know the needs of their animals but the mercy of the wicked is cruel.
Fools are mean and their treatment of animals is just one expression of that mean streak. But that poses another question: Where does the fool’s cruelty come from?
Proverbs says there are seven personal qualities that God absolutely despises.Topping that list is the quality of arrogance. More specifically Proverbs describes the quality God hates more than any other with the term “haughty eyes”. I suggest The Fool acts as he does because he has haughty eyes. He thinks he owns the place whatever place he happens to be. He disrespects the privacy of disputing neighbors for the same reason he grabs a dog’s ears. In his arrogance he respects nothing and no one. How is the wise different? It comes back to the very first Proverb, the bluest of them all (blue being the color of the wise in my system): “
Reverence for the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.
The essence of wisdom is reverence, a term that expresses an attitude of respect. The wise are who they are because they respect God, their neighbor and creation.
We are surviving the “Age of Covid” guided by ancient wisdom preserved for us in the Bible’s Book of Proverbs. Today we are looking at one of the book’s favorite sayings, I say favorite because it repeats the same basic idea again and again as in this example:
A false balance is an abomination to the Lord, But an accurate weight is his delight
Using our color code system, shade that saying yellow because yellow identifies facts that are true for everyone everywhere.
This proverb addresses business dealings in which a scale can be adjusted or switched to cheat a customer, for example in a trade involving grain. But I believe the point about scales is repeated so often because it expresses an idea that goes beyond mere weights and measures. The initial point is that commercial cheating begins with the scale one brings to a marketplace. But the real point is deeper. Wrongdoing exists as intent before it takes expression in deeds.
With its focus on intention, Proverbs describes the fool’s orange coded plan to “deal sharply” and hints at its consequences this way:
Diverse weights and diverse measures are both alike an abomination to the Lord.
The habitual intention of the wise is quite different and their dealings receive a different evaluation (color code this one blue, the marker of the wise):
Honest balances and scales are the Lord’s; all the weights in the bag are his work.
In an unusual step, the people who gathered the proverbs attached a special promise and warning to this matter of intention: One who walks in integrity will be safe but whoever follows crooked ways will fall into the pit.
The Book of Proverbs presents a plan of survival for the age of Covid rooted in ancient wisdom. It offers the collected experience of humankind gathered in useful aphorisms. I am applying these sayings to the challenges of our time by means of a unique color coding system.
Some Proverbs simply describe the way the world works. I color these sayings yellow. For our consideration today here are two of my favorite descriptive proverbs:
A cheerful heart is a good medicine, but a downcast spirit dries up the bones
A tranquil mind gives life to the flesh, but passion makes the bones rot
These yellow coded sayings should not be read as advice. They offer the oldest written medical observations on record and as such they tell us what is true: Health of body begins in the mind. The question (as always) is this, given the undeniable reality Proverbs describes, what does the wise person do (color code blue) and what is the way of the fool (color code orange).
For Proverbs, the wise display an identifiable pattern in their self talk and in their communications with other people that helps maintain wellbeing: “Pleasant words are like a honeycomb, sweetness to the soul and health to the body”. But the health of the fool is poisoned by a different kind of speaking. Proverbs says “Their speech is like a scorching fire.” If the ancients could log on to some of our social media in these covid days I fear they might judge ours to be an age dedicated to self-destruction.
I have a favorite proverb: Better is a dinner of vegetables where love is, then a fatted ox, and hatred with it. That’s a code yellow proverb for sure, a saying that tells us something about the way the world works.
I think we all know what the proverb is referring to. We’re talking Christmas dinner with the extended family including that loud uncle who is critical of everyone and everything. But the Book of Proverbs focuses not on what we know but on what we can learn from what we know. Thinking about that meal, the book observes the way of the fool. It warns its readers (I code this saying orange): The mouths of fools are their ruin and their lips are a snare to themselves. It seems the fool sabotages his and everyone else’s enjoyment of life. The fool talks on and on and in the end Proverbs says, A fool’s lips bring strife.
But now comes the big question. What do the wise do differently? In a saying I code blue (the color of the wise) Proverbs describes the style of the wise this way: One who spares words is knowledgeable, one who is cool in spirit has understanding. The point is stated in a backward way but the basic idea is easily grasped. The meal (and life) of the wise and those around them is pleasant because she or he lets others do the talking.
We are mapping a survival strategy through the many challenges of the covid age courtesy of ancient wisdom preserved in the Book of Proverbs unlocked by my color coding system. Proverbs insists that our world has a God-planned design so the first thing a wise person does (code blue here) is to start educating themselves about how the world works.
The question then becomes, what sort of things do the wise learn? That’s what the proverbs are about. One discovery makes all the others possible. The first proverb in the Book of Proverbs (and a key to the entire book) says: “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge.”
In Hebrew the verse reads: “Reverence for Yahweh is the basis for discernment”. (Yahweh is the divine name revealed to Israel at Mount Sinai). This proverb does not advocate a creed or religious rite. It describes the attitude that makes it possible to be the kind of life-long learner Proverbs demands. A second proverb explains why it’s so important: “The reward for humility and fear of the Lord is riches and honor and life”. To grasp the point, compare that mindset with the attitude of the fool. Another famous Proverb describes him or her well (code this one orange): “Pride goes before destruction and a haughty spirit before a fall”. Reverence versus pride, humility versus haughtiness, these attitudes separate wise from fool. The design of reality reveals itself to the humble but remains forever hidden from the proud.