'A dog is for life, not just for Christmas.' In the same way, 'Proverbs is for life, not just for VCF conferences.' This was the main idea of the northern weekend – trying to examine Proverbs so that we are able to grapple with it for the rest of our lives.
So how can we get into the book of Proverbs? First by realising the tone or atmosphere of the book – that this isn't a courtroom where we are being slammed for not living up to standards, nor a coaching session where we are being motivated to change our ways. The tone of Proverbs is of a good father talking to his beloved son, longing for the best for him, teaching him in skilful living. So as we look at Proverbs it is in an atmosphere of our good Father in heaven, who dearly loves us as His sons and daughters, teaching us in wise skilful living. This love relationship is the starting point for getting into Proverbs.
Next we put on a new pair of glasses to look at Proverbs. We remember some things about it which enable us to see Proverbs in a different light. We see that proverbs are not promises but principles – patterns that usually work in life, like general rules. We also see that proverbs are not prose – statements in sentences – but poetry, meant to be read as poetry and enjoyed as poetry.
Because proverbs are poetry we will be helped if we have a toolbox for working on and getting to grips with them. This toolbox contains characteristics of Hebrew poetry, so enabling us to understand proverbs better. Our toolbox has 3 tools in it – imagery, parallelism and terseness. As we examine these aspects of Proverbs the writer's intentions and meanings open up.
Seeing the imagery of proverbs opens our eyes to the 'pictures in the mind' that they are forming in our brains. We see the vividness of what they are saying. They become full of life as they open up new views on the world, and us, and God and others.
Starting to grapple with the parallelism of Proverbs brings the book into a new light. This 'rhyming of ideas', where one line relates to the next line, perhaps by saying much the same again, or by adding more, or by saying 'but' in contrast – this helps us see the structure of each Proverb and the point each is trying to make.
And knowing that proverbs have 'terseness' – that they are taking a lot of thinking and condensing it down into a few short lines – this persuades us to soak in proverbs, and chew them over, getting everything we can out of them, turning them this way and that. The fact of terseness also helps us to realise that each proverb isn't trying to say everything about a subject, and that comparing of proverbs together can sometimes help us build up a fuller picture.
Once we have our toolbox we can look at the foundation of Proverbs, and what it considers to be the foundation of skilful moral living – the fear of the Lord. We can see that Proverbs is painting a picture of life where routine everyday matters really matter - like work, emotions, family, what we say. But Proverbs is also saying that the centre point round which all these revolve is to be an affectionate reverence for God – an awe and respect mingled with a delighting love for our good Father in heaven.
Finally we can see the major theme of Proverbs – wisdom and folly – personified as two potential lovers chasing our hearts and desiring us to pursue them. We can see that the whole book presents the choice between the path of wisdom and the path of folly, and opens our eyes to see that every hour and every minute, at work and at home and at church, we are constantly choosing. The choice is between the way of folly that leads to messed up lives now and after death, and the way of wisdom – the way of skilful moral living flowing out of affectionate reverence for God – that leads not necessarily to an easy life, but to a God-honouring joyful life, that extends even beyond death.
So we see Proverbs as our good Father saying to us in love, 'Pursue wisdom son, go after skilful moral living daughter – because it is and will be worth it, for this is the way of life.'