Sunday, 11 March 2012

Proverbs and the ability to cope in the chaos of the world

I like enthusiastic TV presenters.

Kate Humble and Helen Czerski are most certainly enthusiastic.  And pretty knowledgable too.

The latest blockbuster nature cum science series is simply called Orbit.  And it follows Planet Earth for one year as it makes its journey round the sun.  It’s another of those TV documentaries that has a very big ‘wow’ factor.

At one moment they took four cameras ten miles up into the sky in order to get incredible pictures of that thin blue line that is the atmosphere that encircles the globe.  The contraption they used seemed incredibly Heath Robinson!  Four pretty ordinary cameras fastened securely to a box containing a GPS tracking device.  And all suspended from a surprisingly small balloon filled with helium.

They let go the balloon and up it went and we watched as the cameras filmed it all!

The filming went through the atmosphere and beyond into the blackness of a sky where the sun was still shining.  We saw the whole curvature of the earth and the remarkable thin blue line that is our atmosphere against the blackness of the sky beyond.   We looked up and in glorious slow motion saw the balloon eventually burst and the film still rolled as the camera box plummeted to earth to be collected by the crew in a car with satnav tuned into the GPS tracking device still in its box!!!!   Amazing!  Wow!

Then with the aid of computer generated animations they showed how the way the planet earth spins on a tilted axis as it speeds around the sun affects the currents in the seas and the winds in the atmosphere.  Imagine you are looking from far above the earth and you can see the beautiful patterns that explain the movement of the seas, the surge of the tides and the rush of the winds.  The patterns are simple to understand and beautiful to see and have about them an order that is wonderful.

Seen from a distance and there is a beautiful pattern, an order that makes sense of things that happen.

But down on planet earth, in this location the pattern disappears – it is not possible to predict exactly when the weather will change.  On the ground there seems to be a chaos.

And the problem is we live on the ground.  We live in the middle of the chaos.

It is good to understand the order there is and those wonderful patterns.  Appreciating that order helps you to understand what’s going on on the ground.  But we still have to live in the middle of what not just seems like chaos but actually is chaos.

I think that offers us a wonderful analogy for what’s going on in the Bible.

Reading the five books of the Law, the Torah, is like looking at planet earth from a great, great height.  Those larger-than-life stories about the beginnings of things really do help us to understand the way things are in every age; those true to life stories of the great ancestors of the faith give us a glimpse into patterns of living that develop.  And the story of the Exodus and the laws that are given offer a framework for living life individually and collectively according to that God-given order there is in our world.

Reading the Prophets in Joshua, Judges, Samuel, Kings, in Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel and the Book of the  Twelve is to see how great prophetic voices speak truth to power and challenge the powers that be to keep to that God given order and model life along the lines of that God-given order.

In Jesus we find the fulfilment of all the law and the prophets and he offers us a profound insight into the God-given order of the world and how we are to live in that world in a way ordered by love to God, love to neighbour, in a wonderful frame of life, death and resurrection.

It’s great to draw the big picture, wonderful to see how that can shape our lives, and an inspiration to live life to the full knowing that nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

All of that is very much part of getting the bigger picture and understanding what’s actually going on.  It’s very much like those animations and wonderful pictures in Orbit that enable us to see all the wonderful patterns that show why things are as they are on planet earth.

But.  There’s always a but.

Down on the ground there can be and there is chaos.  Weather that is unpredictable.  Events that are seemingly impossible to make sense of.  And we have to live down on the ground.  In the real world on planet earth as it hurtles around the sun at phenomenal speeds on its Orbit, all the understanding gleaned from that bigger picture stands us in good stead as we live our lives on the ground.  But we still have to struggle.

The first three great books in the third section of the Hebrew Scriptures, our Old Testament, the Writings are all about what goes on on the ground.  The books of Psalms, Job and Proverbs offer us aids to living in the middle of the chaos.

All that material for personal prayer and collective worship in the Book of Psalms helps in the struggle.  The powerful drama of Job and all those words of wisdom tackle head-on the sheer awfulness of living on the ground where utter chaos prevails and asks some of the biggest questions of all – why is it that the innocent suffer so immensely.  And then there’s the Book of Proverbs.

Full of words of wisdom.

It’s fascinating to see the way this is not a Single Book in the Bible.  Every so often there are headings that show that this is a collection of mini-books as it were.   An anthology.   [Walter Bruegemann in An Introduction to the Old Testament (Westminster, John Knox Press, 2003), 305 quotes Crenshaw’s breakdown of the book …]
  1. The proverbs of Solomon, David’s son, king of Israel (1-9)
  2. the proverbs of Solomon (10:1-22:16)
  3. the sayings of the wise (22:17 – 24:22)
  4. more sayings of wise men (24:23-34)
  5. More proverbs of Solomon transcribed by the men of the Judean king, Hezekiah (chs 25-29)
  6. The sayings of Agur, Jakeh’s son, from Masa (30:1-9
  7. Maternal instructrions to Lemuel, king of Massa (31:1-9)
Two other divisions, 30:10-33 and 31:10-31 lack identification

Different ideas have been put forward as to what these collections were originally for and why they were put together: Bruegemann suggests three contexts that are frequently suggested

  • Family nurture in which children are socialised into a certain ‘world’ by the reiteration of folk sayings
  • Schools where instruction is more formal, though the existence of schools in Israel is itself a problematic question
  • The royal court wherein the sons of the politically well-connected were inducted into the protocols and arts of governance

In all likelihood the making the anthology in the book we have as Proverbs is the work in the post-exilic community of scribes who became important in the emergence of Judaism.

The whole of Proverbs has to do with wisdom: it is filled with words of wisdom.  Indeed, together with Job and Ecclesiastes and elements in other books you can speak of a wisdom literature in the Old Testament.  This is where you encounter words of wisdom.

What is ‘wisdom’?  In one sense it really is what it claims to be.  Wise words of age old wisdom that will help you get through day to day in  very confusing, muddling and muddled world.  One of the best definitions of biblical wisdom I have come across is ‘the ability to cope’.

Up against it?  Struggling in the chaos of the world?  Here are some wise words of age old wisdom to get you through.  It will help you cope with life in a very messy world.

The bulk of the book from chapter 10 onwards is made up of two-liners.  They are what they say they are.  Proverbs.  Wonderful Words of Wisdom.  The book fell open for me at chapter 15.  There are some pretty wise words of age old wisdom to help you get through here!

1)  A soft answer turns away wrath
But a harsh word stirs up anger

2  The tongue of the wise dispenses knowledge
But the mouths of fools pour out folly

4  A gentle tongue is a tree of life,
   but perverseness in it breaks the spirit.

7 The lips of the wise spread knowledge;
   not so the minds of fools. 

14 The mind of one who has understanding seeks knowledge,
   but the mouths of fools feed on folly.

22 Without counsel, plans go wrong,
   but with many advisers they succeed. 

Mind you, these words were written for a particular time and a particular place.  You have to be careful … it won’t be long in reading these proverbs that you will find ones that puzzle, ones that don’t make sense.  Ones that have been superseded by other things.

And of course, as Christians reading the Scriptures we need to bear in mind the teachings of Christ and read through his eyes.  For he has brought to fulfilment the Law, the Prophets and the Writings.

What’s fascinating as you read Jesus is that he is very much a wisdom teacher.  Lots of the sayings in the Sermon on the Mount and throughout his teaching are pithy two liners, filled with age-old wisdom.  The Beatitudes leap off the page as words of age-old wisdom …

Blessed are those who mourn for they will be comforted
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst after righteousness
For they will be filled

And then later in the sermon on the mount …

You are the light of the world
A city set on a hill cannot be hid

Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth
But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven

The eye is the lamp of the body

No one can serve two masters:
You cannot serve God and wealth

Do not worry about tomorrow
For tomorrow will being worries of its own
Today’s trouble is enough for today.

It is not that Jesus says, follow to the letter each one of those Proverbs of old.  Rather, he takes the spirit of those Proverbs and shares ones that as far as he is concerned are for all his followers.

This is practical, everyday, life for getting by in a world that is often difficult to make sense of.

The book of Proverbs begins in a wonderful way which comes as something of a surprise.  It presents us with two women – who beckon us enticingly.  One is the foolish woman, Folly;   and the other is the wise woman, Wisdom.

Making sense of life in the midst of its chaos, we not only have words of age-old wisdom to guide us, but we also need to realise there is a choice before us.  The word of the way of wisdom or the word of the way of folly.

It’s fascinating how at the climax to the Sermon on the Mount Jesus echoes that set of choices.  He lays out three choices.  There’s the narrow gate that leads to Christ’s way of wisdom over against the wide, easy road of folly.

There’s the authentic prophetic voice articulated by Christ and borne out in the fruits of those who speak it and there’s the voice of the false prophets who come as wolves in sheep’s clothing. 

And then that most wonderful of choices that so echoes Proverbs – if as throughout the Wisdom literature of the Old Testament the beginning of wisdom is the fear of the Lord … then for us as Christians the key is to hear Christ’s words of wisdom and act on them – for then we will be like the wise man who built his house on the rock.  Woe betide the one who hears those words and takes no notice of them for they will be like the foolish man who builds his house on the rock.

Coming back to that analogy – there’s a big picture that makes sense of Planet Earth in those beautiful patterns seen from a distance.  But down on the ground it’s chaos.

The thing is, however, that to get through the chaos it’s important that the little decisions we make are in accordance as far as possible with the patterns in that bigger picture.  The big picture and all its patterns enables people to predict when the next Severn Bore will be.  But precisely how big and how strong is unpredictable  Be in the wrong place on the bank of the river as the bore rushes in and you will be swept away!

And that’s the most profound of all the insights in the book of Proverbs.  And it is there in that 8th chapter of Proverbs.  The woman Wisdom has been speaking words of wisdom.  But then she speaks of her part, the word of wisdom’s part in the whole creation.

The Lord created me, the word of wisdom, at the beginning of his work
The first of his acts of long ago.
Ages ago, I was set up,
At the first, before the beginning of the earth …

The conviction there is that the ordinary everyday words of wisdom are  effective, and really do help us cope with the messiness of the world, really do help us to live day by day through its chaos, because Wisdom’s Words touch something that is part of the bigger picture.  Wisdom’s Word is in accord with the bigger picture of God’s ordering of creation itself.

And that’s the point at which Christ really is seen in the Gospels as the fulfilment of this Wisdom as much as he is the fulfilment of the Law and the Prophets.  His words truly are words of Wisdom to be heeded and acted on.  He is the Word of Wisdom because his words, his Word, is part of the bigger picture of God’s ordering of creation itself.

John 1 is an exact echo of Proverbs 8

In the beginning was the Word of Wisdom And the Word of Wisdom was with God and the Word of Wisdom was God.
This Word of Wisdom became flesh and dwelled among us
And we have seen his glory, the glory as of the only son of the Father.

Finding it difficult to cope?  Impossible to get by in a worrying world of chaos and seeming meaninglessness.

Hear again Christ’s words of wisdom and act upon them.  For this is nothing less than the wisdom of God’s creation.

This is Wisdom indeed, a wisdom we would do well to heed.

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