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.
We are exploring Covid Cues, a survival strategy for a time of displaced hopes and uncertain expectations drawn from ancient wisdom preserved in the Book of Proverbs. Today I want to focus on how we can gain a handle when everything has gone slithery like worms in a can.
There are some proverbs that I color code yellow. These sayings simply describe how life works. Here is one of those “code yellow” proverbs:
The human mind may devise many plans but it is the purpose of the Lord that will be established. – Proverbs 19:21
To some that statement sounds like a profession of faith but in the Book of Proverbs it’s a “code yellow” statement of fact.
So the question becomes, what does the wise person do about that fact and what is the way of the fool? The wise course (color code blue in my system) is a bit of a surprise. The fact that God is in charge might suggest that the wise person adopts a passive approach to living, yielding themselves to fate. But there wouldn’t be a Book of Proverbs if that attitude was in fact wise because there wouldn’t be anything to teach. Instead, Proverbs says:
The beginning of wisdom is this: Get wisdom and whatever else you get, get insight. – Proverbs 4:7
If there is a God there is a plan and if there is a plan then the world makes sense. So the wise thing to do is to get busy figuring out how everything works. To quote Proverbs again (code blue):
An intelligent mind acquires knowledge. – Proverbs 18:15
The fool (code orange) takes a different approach. Proverbs describes it this way:
A fool takes no pleasure in understanding, but only in expressing personal opinion. – Proverbs 18:2
The fool denies both designer and design and so loses ground to the wise. It’s all summed up by one more proverb:
Fools think their own way is right; but the wise listen to advice. – Proverbs 12:15
In the Book of Proverbs a good life springs from a commitment to lifelong learning.
I’m writing about The Book of Proverbs, a document that claims to offer “A Manual for Living” drawn from wisdom over 4000 years old. Sitting in my office “social distanced” and watching the world fall apart, I need a manual like that right now and I suspect you might be interested in one as well. So I’m exploring Proverbs to find cues for living in these “covid times”.
I call this posting “The Color Code” because I’m going to explain how I work with the Book of Proverbs. There are 31 chapters in the book and 915 verses which means it can be confusing and intimidating. But there’s a way to sort through the material.
Proverbs claims that the world has a shape and structure. Certain proverbs describe parts of that structure without making any judgments about whether what they describe is good or bad. I code those sayings yellow.
Proverbs also recommends behaviors that are consistent with the way things work. People who do those things are called “wise” and they enjoy various kinds of success. I code proverbs that describe the wise course blue.
Finally the book identifies behaviors that run counter to the way life works. People who do those things are called “fools” and they run into all kinds of trouble. Those I code orange.
I began my first posting in this series by citing a saying from Proverbs that might sound morally dubious: “Wealth brings many friends but the poor are left friendless.” This example shows how color coding can help us understand the book. A casual reader might take that saying as an invitation to hang with the wealthy and shun the homeless. As we will see, Proverbs has a lot to say about what makes for poverty and wealth but that isn’t the point of this line. Think about the color codes I just described. How should this proverb be coded? If you say “yellow” you got it. This proverb doesn’t tell us about how things ought to be. It tells us how they are. And you know as well as I do that the proverb has it right.
But now comes the big question. Given the reality of economic disparity, what’s the right and wrong thing to do, the way of the wise and the way of the fool? In a portion of Proverbs copied directly from Egyptian sources dating from the dawn of civilization we find this observation: “The rich and poor have this in common. The Lord is maker of them all.” I also paint that sentence yellow because it expresses a simple fact. The book then tells us what the wise, blue-coded course is based on that fact: “Whoever is kind to the poor lends to the Lord, and will be repaid in full.” Given the same reality, what does the fool do? Proverbs gives them a bright orange warning: “Those who mock the poor insult their maker.”
Social justice amid economic inequality is a hot topic today. The wisdom of 4000 years says the wise see everyone as having God-given value and find rewards in recognizing that value through acts of kindness while people who look down at the poor risk divine backlash. If you are trying to figure out how to live an abundant and successful life, Proverbs, with the authority of vast antiquity, certifies that kindness works.
We’re looking for “Covid Cues”, wisdom for living in a world gone crazy drawn from an ancient book called Proverbs. To get started we need to go back to the beginning, I mean the very beginning.
By “the beginning” I’m talking about what is generally thought to be the first book ever written, a collection of sayings put together by a man named Ptahhotep, Vizer (we would say Prime Minister) of Egypt around 2375 B.C.E. more than 4000 years ago. I need to insert a brief excursus here. To truly grasp long spans of time I find the following exercise helpful. When you think about 4000 years imagine 4000 years into the future. Star Trek has assured us that in the year 2320 (a full 200 years from now) we will be warping all over the galaxy. Presuming that’s accurate, 4000 years in the future will not be the Star Trek year 2320 but 6020. 6020!! Can you imagine what life will be like then? Is the earth still inhabited? Do people still exist? Is Shatner still around? Here’s the point, when you press dates forward you get a clearer idea how long a span of 4000 years really is. You’ll see why I think that’s important in a minute.
In his book, Ptahhotep published proverbs that were already ancient in his time. Here is one of those maxims: “The human race never accomplishes anything. It’s what God commands that gets done.” Consider now this verse from my beloved Book of Proverbs: “The human mind devises many plans but it is the purpose of the Lord that will be established.” I could have taken scores (yes scores!) of Ptahhotep’s sayings and cited a nearly identical saying from the Book of Proverbs.
So what’s the point? Proverbs begins with this self description: “These are the sayings of Solomon, David’s Son, Israel’s king — written down so we’ll know how to live well and right, to understand what life means and where it’s going; a manual for living for learning what’s right and just and fair; to teach the inexperienced the ropes and give our young people a grasp on reality.” Solomon, who apparently was the collector (not author)of the book of Proverbs, lived 1,300 years after the time of Ptahhotep but still 3000 years in our past (or imaging that in future tense that would be the year 5030, still 2700 years after Star Trek.)
Let’s come back now to the year 2020. I’m looking at the age of Covid. I see businesses failing, evictions looming, unrest on the streets, hyper-partisanship everywhere and pervasive dread of plague. If there really is a “manual for living” out there I want it right now. But I’m suspicious. There are lots of “experts” around and they haven’t proven all that reliable. Is Proverbs the real deal? Can it really “show me how to live well and right” like it says? Frankly it sounds like an internet sales pitch.
That’s why I have spent so much space writing about the spans of time involved here. Please, one more time, use your imagination. Imagine you are sitting in your living room enduring the partisan wranglings on cable news when suddenly your screen starts scrolling a set of strategies for living through this time emanating from the year 6020. That describes the Book of Proverbs in a nutshell. It presents a survival plan for 2020 crafted out of wisdom 4000 years distant. Coming to us from such a vast temporal distance I’m inclined to sit up and pay attention.
I’m a long time student of an ancient collection of writings, a collection that includes books named Job, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes and The Song of Solomon. That interest has deepened lately. For example, I’ve often been perplexed by this bit of advice from the book of Ecclesiastes:
So I commended enjoyment, for a person has nothing better to do under the sun than to eat, drink and be merry. (Ecclesiastes 18:4)
Writing in the New Testament, St. Paul quotes that statement and suggests it reflects a lousy attitude and I’d normally go along with him. But today, in my locked-down socially distanced world, those words sound like a reasonable plan. I’ve felt similarly challenged by a line from the Book of Proverbs:
Wealth brings many friends but the poor are left friendless. (Proverbs 19:4)
Watching Black Lives Matter protests on TV, I’m wondering what I’m supposed to make of that saying? Is the situation it describes supposed to be a good thing, a bad thing or is it just the way things are? As I said, I love these writings (I’ve actually written three books about them).They pose practical down-to-earth questions that are made even more relevant by these messed up times.
Together the four titles I mentioned are called “Wisdom Literature” or just plain “Wisdom”. “Wisdom” offers a distinctive vision of the world, a vision native to every culture on earth. First, Wisdom says reality has a definite shape and structure. There are rules that determine how things work. Second, Wisdom shows it’s students how to behave in such a way as to make those rules work in their favor. Third, Wisdom warns that certain behaviors run against reality’s grain and those who do those things will find that reality can rise up and bite them on the ass.
As I’ve noted, we live in challenging times. Some say everything is flying apart and I’ll admit that it can feel that way. But what if there really are truths that are always true and facts that aren’t ever fake? What if some things are right and others are wrong, not provisionally but always and everywhere? Sitting “distanced” in my home office watching violence on TV while climate change bakes my garden to a crispy New Mexico brown I have felt the need for “Wisdom” like never before. In these postings called Covid Cues I’ll be sharing “Cues” for living through these “Covid” times that have been preserved for us in the ancient wisdom of the Book of Proverbs.