Proverbial Wisdom

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We should label the book of Proverbs in the Bible “handle with care”. Proverbs are not statements of absolute truth. We might assign them this status because King Solomon wrote most of them, and Solomon was reputed to be the world’s wisest man. Their inclusion in Scripture means God inspired them. But are proverbs intended to be nuggets of truth? We need to interpret them in context.

One reason to suspect there is more to Proverbs than the face value meaning of a proverbial saying is that some proverbs are contradictory. They have this in common with non-scriptural proverbs (e.g. “Too many cooks spoil the broth” opposes “More hands make light work”). King Solomon raises another issue in the book of Ecclesiastes. Things often turn out unfairly in a fallen world: “All is vanity and a chasing after wind.” (Ecc 1:14; 2:17; 4:4, 16). Proverbial claims sometimes do not come to fruition.

A case that highlights this issue is the misuse of Proverbs to support prosperity theology. Proverbs 3:9-10 (NRSV) appears to link righteousness with wealth:“Honour 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.” So, if you are a faithful and generous giver, you will enjoy prosperity. You can’t out-give God, right? But the verses that follow this proverb declare wisdom is better than wealth: “Happy are those who find wisdom, and those who get understanding, for her income is better than silver, and her revenue better than gold.” (Prov 3:13-14).

The book of Proverbs acknowledges that the unrighteous gain wealth: “The timid become destitute, but the aggressive gain riches.” (Prov 11:16b). Injustice pervades the world: “The field of the poor may yield much food, but it is swept away through injustice.” (Prov 13:23). “When justice is done, it is a joy to the righteous, but dismay to evildoers.” (Prov 21:15). This proverb presumes justice is often not done.

Prosperity is not coordinate with righteousness. Besides, righteousness delivers more than mere wealth. “Treasures gained by wickedness do not profit, but righteousness delivers from death.” (Prov 10:2). In contrast to those who urge people to sow their money into their ministry, Proverbs urges us to sow righteousness: “The wicked earn no real gain, but those who sow righteousness get a true reward.” (Prov 11:18).

Churches that teach prosperity theology use “Giving Talks” to assure Christians that God will look after them financially if they are faithful in giving and it is okay to seek wealth so they can give more to the work of God. In so doing, they inadvertently teach that those who are poor must have failed to live righteous lives. But is this how Christians should view worldly riches? Even Proverbs teaches, “A good name is to be chosen rather than great riches, and favour is better than silver or gold. (Prov 22:1).

Proverbs do not teach that wealth is good and poverty is bad but, “Better is a little with righteousness than large income with injustice.” (Prov 16:8). Prosperity theology teachers can only find sporadic examples of their claim that God blesses their supporters financially. Abraham, Moses and Israel did not receive everything that God promised them (Ps 44; Heb 11). The reality is that righteous behaviour is no guarantee of blessing and prosperity this side of the grave. Success and riches may follow proverbial hard work, but sometimes failure and injustice results.

God asks us, no matter what our circumstances, to trust him to ultimately establish justice. Perhaps Solomon used proverbs to cause people to think more deeply about life? Proverbs encompass both the good life and injustice. But either way, God invites us to respond in righteousness.

In this blog, I have drawn on Raymond C. Van Leeuwen’s article “Wealth and Poverty: System and Contradiction in Proverbs” (Hebrew Studies, 33, 1992).

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