The Wisdom of God
If you are current in our church’s daily reading plan, then you have moved from the “Parent-Child Talk” of Proverbs 1-9 and are well into the proverbs of the title.
The proverbs are interesting things. In some way, they are very much like what we call sayings or adages or maxims, things like “a stitch in time saves nine” or “an apple a day keeps the doctor away.” They are like these sayings but superior to them. Like these sayings, they are wisdom statements, that is, statements that contain and communicate insight on reality (how things work) and response (how people should act in light of how things work). but the wisdom they contain is far greater than that of the sayings. It is, in fact, the wisdom of God.
God’s Gift to Solomon
That wisdom comes to us through Solomon, but it was and still is really God’s wisdom. Solomon wasn’t born with this wisdom nor did he earn it. God gave it to him. He was inspired by God. So the proverbs don’t contain the general wisdom the generations before us stumbled upon. Rather, they contain the ultimate wisdom God has revealed to us.
The proverbs are also poetic. Our sayings are poetic, too; there certainly is a vivid image in sayings like “more than one way to skin a cat”. But the proverbs are far more poetic. They don’t just use imagery and alliteration and the other techniques we find in our sayings, but they also use many of the same Hebrew poetry techniques the psalms and the prophetic writings use: repetition, contrast, comparison, hyperbole, and the like. And the proverbs are short. As I reckon it, the proverbs are just two lines each. There will be some proverb-like statements towards the end of the book that are longer than that, but most proverbs are just two lines.
There Are a LOT of Proverbs!
And beyond all that, there is one more fact about the proverbs that you are probably well-aware of by now: there are a lot of them. Most every chapter from chapter 10 on has between 25-35 proverbs in it. If we are reading three chapters a day (which we usually are), that means we are covering around 100 proverbs every day.
Now I don’t know about you, but for me this creates a little bit of anxiety. I have this nagging fear as I read, the fear that I am not absorbing every proverb. Nor will I remember every proverb after I have read it. This fear is a legitimate one. I did my reading of the psalms six or seven hours ago at the time of this writing, and I can only remember a few of the psalms I read. To make matters worse, I think all of those were psalms I already knew. This fear, then, isn’t just legitimate. It is fairly well proven.
What I have come to understand, though, and what I would like to share with you today is that this fear is unnecessary. It is unnecessary because the Bible is not meant to be a book that we read and remember. The Bible was never intended to be a “one-and-done” book (a book you absorb in one reading and then leave on the shelf). No, the Bible is something other than that.
The Bible is “contemplative literature.” I can’t remember where I learned that term, but I like it and the idea behind it. What it means is that the Bible is literature that is meant to be contemplated, to be not just read multiple times but also considered, thought about, dwelled upon for lengths of time.
You don’t contemplate a novel like this; you just read it and move on. You don’t even contemplate our sayings like this. Has anyone really thought much about the intricacies of “the early bird catches the worm”?
But you do contemplate the Bible. You have to contemplate the Bible. Every section of the Bible, whether it is history or wisdom poetry or prophetic poetry or Gospel or epistle, is far too nuanced and layered to be understood, applied, and/or appreciated with just one reading. Every passage of the Bible is meant to be both read over and over and mulled over and over.
Coming Back Again and Again
That being the case, we don’t need to approach Proverbs as something we are desperately trying to absorb during this one reading. Instead, we can approach it as something we are simply surveying at the moment, something we will be coming back to again.
I think that is the way to approach every book of the Bible; I think we should always have both a “big picture” understanding of the books of the Bible as well as a verse-by-verse understanding of the Bible. More than that, I think that our big picture understanding of the Bible enables our verse-by-verse understanding of the Bible.
This was made clear to me during my evening devotions the other night. I use an app that gives me just one randomly-selected Scripture for my evening devotions. The Scripture it gave me that night was Zechariah 8:23, which says, “Let us go with you, for we have heard that God is with you.” For me, this was a great reminder of the value of a relationship with God; I could say that Zechariah was saying people will one day respect those who have a relationship with God, and that encouraged me. That was a verse-by-verse understanding.
But I wouldn’t have been so encouraged by that if I didn’t already have a big picture understanding of Zechariah which came from previous readings of the book. When I did those previous readings of Zechariah, I didn’t absorb this particular verse; I didn’t remember it until I read it that night.
What I did absorb, though, what the general structure and style of Zechariah. I learned from those readings that Zechariah 7-8 is the prophet’s lengthy response to people who had tried to get him to allow them to skate by on religious practices without having a true devotion to God.
When I did this evening devotion with this one verse, then, these two understandings of the Bible came together; my big picture understanding joined with my verse-by-verse understanding, and I heard a true, encouraging word from God.
You Need Both
What I am saying is that we need to have both approaches to the Bible. We need to have those verse-by-verse times, but we also need to have those big picture times. And that is what our daily Bible reading is. It is the big picture time that is going to fuel the verse-by-verse times. So let it be that without any anxiety or fear.
Don’t try to learn every proverb as you read these three chapters a day; you can’t do it, so don’t even attempt it. Instead, attempt to learn Proverbs itself. Learn the sections of the book, the style, the flavor. That is the reading that will enhance your more devotional use of the book in days/months/years to come. That, I believe, is the real way to read the proverbs.