“Your maxims are proverbs of ashes,” said a man being unjustly judged by his friends. “Your arguments are clay pots.” The man, of course, was Job. His friends plied him with aphorisms dripping with common sense. They aspired to change him, to humble him, to make him admit he deserved his situation and that God was certainly punishing him.
We see that proverbs can be ashes. They can also be thorns. “As a drunkard grabs thorns recklessly, so fools utter proverbs painfully” (my paraphrase of Proverbs 26:9).
Ashes have no value. They remain after destruction and they blow away in a breeze. Thorns hurt. How can words about wisdom be compared to them?
The proverbs we are reading in this month’s IHBPOM (Interesting Hebrew Bible Passage of the Month) sound awfully conventional. Their message can be pointed and hurt. People who rely on them mindlessly can end up with ashes.
That is, wisdom is rather pointless if we use it wrongly. The writers of wisdom sayings thousands of years ago knew this as well as we do. Anyone who thinks people in “Bible times” were mindless dolts is poorly read.
Kohelet, the persona who speaks through some unknown author in the book called Ecclesiastes, said to himself, “I will be wise.” But he found that “it was far off” (7:23). He found the limits of wisdom: “How the wise man dies just like the fool!” (2:16).
Biblical wisdom speaks with two voices. Wisdom is good. The wise are strong. But fools use wisdom too. Maxims hurt and aphorisms leave you holding ash. Which voice is right? Both are right. They can’t both be right. That’s right too.
Life is an enigma. The wise act with sagacity and utilize intelligence to beat the odds, but they know there are no guarantees. Fools take wisdom too literally and cough up ashes. Their hands bleed uselessly.
Wise sayings are often observations of simple patterns. They are not all virtuous. “The poor man is disliked even by his neighbor but a rich man has many friends” (14:20). “A bribe works like a charm for the one who uses it; he succeeds wherever he turns” (17:8).
But sometimes proverbs announce to us that goodness outperforms every swindle and scam ever devised. “Whoever oppresses a poor man insults his Maker” (14:31). “All day long the wicked person craves things, but the righteous person gives and does not hold back” (21:26). A good name and some peace inside beat other measures of success.
This wisdom thing bears searching out. We find it in speeches and sayings in Proverbs. We see gems glinting in the dark dialogues of Job. We hear music in the cynicism of Kohelet. We sing about it in those chapters of the Psalms that take wisdom as their theme.
Is there poetry in this month’s Bible passage (Proverbs 10:1-6)? Do these commonplace examples of conventional prudence live up to their promise? You be the judge. And please comment on what you’ve learned so far.
How To Participate in This Month’s IHBPOM Discussion of Proverbs 10:1-6
Read the passage. Think of keywords you might search out, in English or Hebrew. Take in some chapters of Proverbs, Job, Ecclesiastes. Think about themes and ideas that agree, that disagree. Locate the moving target that is wisdom. Write some observations. They don’t have to be dissertations (must not be dissertations). They might be simple and short, a little observation. They might be something more. You decide. Oh, and if you really love this topic, get Michael Fox’s commentary on Proverbs 10-31 in the Anchor-Yale series.