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On Reading Proverbs

With 31 chapters, it's a perfect daily guide to living.
On Reading Proverbs

The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge,

But fools despise wisdom and instruction. — Proverbs 1:7 (NKJV)

“How can a young man keep his way pure?” the psalmist asks, in what comes to us as 119. “By guarding it according to your word,” follows the answer. The fear of the Lord, the armor of God, the love of wisdom, these seem heady and high things, easily abstracted for any young man prone to abstraction. “You’re a complexifier,” John Mearsheimer told me in a seminar on great power politics. 

Fortunately for all of us, Solomon in all his wisdom and his fellow ancient sages found many things to be very simple. The book of Proverbs is a gift, passed down through the ages, a reminder that human beings have always mostly cared about a few basic things; old guides are good guides when the terrain remains unchanged. Pillars of wisdom from desert kings bring the high down to earth. And so I read Proverbs. 

One chapter a day. Over and over. I recommend you join me in the practice. There’s a nice little calendar character to 31 Proverbs (This guide for right living famously ends with describing a good wife, the “Proverbs 31 Woman,” ascribed to one mysterious “Lemuel, king of Massa.” Though there’s plenty about women in the sections assigned explicitly to Solomon, too: The husband of 700 wives and master of 300 concubines should, one concludes, know). I confess I don’t know whether the collection and division of 31 Proverbs was some scribe’s deliberate parallel to the lunar or calendar month—if you know, please, tell me more—but I’m grateful for it.

Today is November 20. Let’s look at Proverbs 20 then. Applicable—relevant is I think the preferred term these days—out of the gate for someone who lives in the Beltway, see verse one: “Wine is a mocker, Strong drink is a brawler, And whoever is led astray by it is not wise.” A straightforward warning: One should never have to leave a wine and cheese hour here in town, now that those are back up, but one should also always be ready to. 

Not everything here is so easy, of course. Note verse five. “Counsel in the heart of man is like deep water, But a man of understanding will draw it out.” D.C. is not a town where people are reticent with their opinion or reluctant to give advice. Perhaps it should be. What kind of a country would ours be if the most trusted advisors were the sort of men who thought deeply before they spoke, and our leaders had the confident humility that recognized and valued that sort of care? In that light we can read verse 18: “Plans are established by counsel; By wise counsel wage war.” But verse six reminds us not to be too hopeful, or too trusting of politicians: “Most men will proclaim each his own goodness, But who can find a faithful man?” 

Verse ten seems suggestive in a time when our version of the rule of law appears destined to drift into a de facto millet system, a country of different demographic groups each with their own relationship to the judiciary: “Diverse weights and diverse measures, They are both alike, an abomination to the Lord.” Maybe it also suggests something about our financial system. Or maybe it says something about my heart, and how easy it is to bend justice and standards to whim and convenience. Anyway, it merits further reflection, repeated as it is in verse 23, “Diverse weights are an abomination to the Lord, And dishonest scales are not good.”

As Black Friday comes soon enough, verse 14 should elicit a laugh of familiarity, though we don’t barter much anymore. “‘It is good for nothing,’ cries the buyer; But when he has gone his way, then he boasts.” Don’t keep your receipts, I guess (don’t touch receipts). And as we look forward to Thanksgiving days of feasting, remember the warning of verse 20 and be grateful for your family: “Whoever curses his father or his mother, His lamp will be put out in deep darkness.” We sever the covenant between past, present, and future at our peril. 

And we can make that cut not just in our families but in our own individual lives. Verse 29 reads, “The glory of young men is their strength, And the splendor of old men is their gray head.” Consider how much of youth today is dissipated into the ether of the digital or televisual, sedentary and soft. Even the life of the mind, existence as a bookworm, can fall into the dualist’s failure to care for the animal side of rational animal, treating yourself as a mind in a meat vat. This body is you. Glory in it now and look forward to the wisdom of experience. 

May we all age gracefully, despite the trials guaranteed to come. Proverbs will help. The wisdom of 20 ends on something of a somber note: “Blows that hurt cleanse away evil, As do stripes the inner depths of the heart.” We will suffer in this life, but perhaps in that suffering we can be sanctified. It will not be by our own power. I am reminded of Isaiah 53 and the promises of Advent, “But He was wounded for our transgressions, He was bruised for our iniquities; The chastisement for our peace was upon Him, And by His stripes we are healed.”



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