Our church has a number of study groups that meet to discuss the Bible, and this year it has been our dubious pleasure to study the wisdom books. [I say ‘dubious’, because although I love the wisdom literature a great deal, it’s remarkably difficult material to dissect and digest (to make a disgusting mix of metaphors) in weekly studies. It’s easy enough to discuss something that has a storyline or that makes an argument, but what does one do with pages and pages of pithy one-liners?]
In our studies, I have been reminded of an aspect of wisdom literature that should surprise us, but doesn’t. In fact it usually passes unnoticed. I’m referring to passages in these books that seem extremely obvious, or even silly. We tend to gloss over these sections exactly because they seem too obvious to bother dwelling upon. We should be surprised by them, however, because if the great minds of history have seen fit to preserve something for posterity under the category of ‘wisdom’, we should find it strange if such content is banal. This should alert us to the likelihood that we’ve not properly understood what the sages were on about and that we need to stop and think, rather than skipping on to something else.
The best example of this comes from the NT book of James:
But if you harbour bitter envy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast about it or deny the truth. Such wisdom does not come down from heaven but is earthly, unspiritual, of the devil. (James 3:14-15)
Nothing would seem more obvious than to say that ‘bitter envy’ and ‘selfish ambition’ are not characteristics that have descended to us from heaven. We would call these attributes vices, not virtues. Duh, James. Move on. Yet the fact that James has said this clearly means that there are circumstances in which we might think that these attributes are good. Or perhaps what James calls ‘envy’ we would dress up under a more pious-sounding name? Either way, unlocking the power of this passage depends on you stopping and figuring out how these things could ever be confused with divine wisdom.
Some similar examples emerged from our most recent study, in which we examined the first 10 chapters of Proverbs. In these chapters, there are repeated warnings against violent robbery and adultery. There are plenty of observations in these passages that are evidently wise and less than obvious. For example, the idea in both themes that these practices are self-destructive — that violent plots amount to lying in wait for one’s own blood — is uncommonly insightful. Nevertheless, our studies of these texts tended not to rise above the obvious moralisms that murder and adultery are both bad and we shouldn’t do them. This conclusion sadly robs these texts of their bite.
The Wisdom behind the Obvious
Both these themes are accompanied by the assumption that the sinner’s appeal is enticing (‘My son, if sinners entice you, do not give in to them.’ Proverbs 1:10), but the form of their invitation is clumsy and ridiculous. Immediately following Proverbs 1:10, the violent man says:
Come along with us; let’s lie in wait for someone’s blood, let’s waylay some harmless soul; let’s swallow them alive, like the grave, and whole, like those who go down to the pit; we will get all sorts of valuable things and fill our houses with plunder…
The adulteress says ludicrous things too, such as that she is ready for sex because she’s fulfilled her religious duties:
“I have fellowship offerings at home; today I fulfilled my vows. So I came out to meet you; I looked for you and have found you! … Come, let’s drink deep of love till morning; let’s enjoy ourselves with love! (Proverbs 7:14-18)
In other words, the sage has laid bare the stupidity of sinful enticements by putting them in crass terms. He does point out, however, that the adulterous woman is a successful hunter (‘Many are the victims she has brought down; her slain are a mighty throng,’) which means that her clearly foolish offer surprisingly finds many takers!
If such clumsy enticements seem so obviously avoidable to us, why then do so many fall prey to them? Because the writer is exposing them for what they really are; the actual enticements are not so indelicate. The real-life invitations to join in self-destructive evils seem like wisdom to us, not the obvious foolishness of their Proverbial forms. When we pay attention to this, it becomes easier to see what the sage is trying to do and how he can powerfully expose our own foolishness.
So for Christians now, most of us can steer well clear of adultery and agree with the moralisms against it, yet many of us fall prey far too often to the more discreet, justifiable enticements to sexual sin that are so readily available on the internet for example. Following this path can seem harmless or even (by some ways of reckoning) wise — certainly enough of us demonstrate its ‘wise’ appeal by straying down that road — and yet it has the power to ruin careers (most of all in the pastorate, which is not immune from these follies) and indeed marriages. What’s more, if Proverbs is to be believed, feeding on such things has the power to eat at one’s own self too.
I’m not sure how many subtle ways exist by which the appeal to violence can slip through our defences and make itself appear wise. I suppose enough Christians have trampled upon the poor on their climb to wealth, or exploited their employees, or been involved in conflict and indeed murder, all of which demonstrates that the temptation frequently finds a willing home.
One way or another, when a passage secures our immediate, obvious agreement that its contents are wise, it’s probably waiting for us to wonder why it needs to tell us at all, and to dig a little deeper. It doesn’t take too much reflection upon the warnings against enticement to violence and sex to realise that our verbal condemnation of those acts is often not entirely matched by our actions.