Mysteries Of The Bible: What Do Proverbs, Riddles, And Enigmas Have To Do With Wisdom?

A few weeks ago, I enjoyed a wonderful dinner on Erev Shabbat at the home of one of the deacons in our congregation, and another man who gives sermonettes in our local congregation was there with his two young adult children, and we were playing one of our usual Bible trivia games, and after being stumped about the location of one of the obscure verses chosen, we saw that what appeared to be fairly generic but otherwise non-identifiable Biblical wisdom ended up being in the Proverbs. It struck many of us, and certainly struck me, that the Proverbs may be notable for being fairly generic in their meaning, unlike the far more context-based wisdom that is found in other books of the Bible, and that the generic nature of a given piece of apparent wisdom may mark it as a proverb, with a certain sort of treatment that seeks to view it on an abstract level, since its smooth surface as a parable as opposed to the more rough appearance of wisdom that comes from a specific and more complicated larger context, like Paul’s epistles or the blogs of certain verbose contemporary writers, is an important element in the universal nature of proverbial wisdom, which still must be applied in our lives to specific contexts which determine the sort of proverbs that are most appropriate [1].

Proverbs 1:5-6 gives wise but typically enigmatic advice concerning the use and purpose of proverbs, saying: “A wise man [or woman] will hear and increase learning, and a man [or woman] of understanding will attain wise counsel, to understand a proverb and an enigma, the words of the wise and their riddles.” The next verse gives an even more ominous warning: “The fear of the Eternal is the beginning of knowledge, but fools despise wisdom and instruction.” These statements occur next to each other, but their meaning is often not connected. All too often people approach proverbs, regardless of their origin, with the sort of cynicism that comes from being clubbed over the head with statements like “Early to bed, early to rise, makes a man healthy, wealthy, and wise,” which comes off as being particularly unjust to those of us who are insomniatic by nature and simply cannot get to bed early very easily at all. Yet a proverb does not care about context, but is rather phrased as a universal. It is up to a wise person to reflect on the proverb and think about the principles that are embedded and assumed within the proverb that are applicable (or not) in a given situation.

How does this help to make one wise? And why would a fool despise the learning that comes from proverbs? What makes one wise is not a wooden application of a proverb, but rather a meditation and an unpackaging of the proverb to discern was it meant by it. Proverbs, riddles, enigmas, and parables are all similar types of word pictures that present food for thought and reflection, and it is that thought and reflection, translated into action and applied to one’s life and behavior and the way one perceives the world within and the world without, that leads to wisdom and understanding. For example, to take the Poor Richard’s parable that was subjected to criticism earlier, we can see that going to bed early and rising early is related to living one’s life productively, sleeping well enough to go through the day with energy and focus, at one’s peak performance, and using one’s time in a productive fashion. Similar instruction can be found in the book of Proverbs when Solomon points the sluggard to the industriousness of ants (Proverbs 6:6-8) or when Paul tells us to redeem the time because the days are evil (Ephesians 5:16-18). The wisdom of the proverb is not meant to club people over the head if, for various reasons, they do not tend to sleep well by nature, but rather is a call to use one’s time well, to realize that it is a precious gift and should be used with wisdom and understanding, for good purposes, and not wasted unproductively. This is advice that we all can take heed to, and apply, whether we are going to bed and rising early or going to bed and rising late, and using a different set of hours productively, as is the case with many of the creative people I know who write and code particularly productively at night.

In one memorable parable Jesus Christ compared the Kingdom of God to a pearl of great price (Matthew 13:45-46), and in general the sort of wisdom that parables and enigmas and riddles provide can be comparable to the process by which a grain of sand that bothers or irritates an oyster is smoothed over until it becomes a precious natural pearl. Many proverbs and riddles and enigmas and parables come at us roughly, and do not appear to have a meaning that is entirely straightforward. We wonder how a given piece of wisdom can be applied in our lives, and often find that the proverbs that people tell us irritate us because they hit close to home and appear to be meant in a critical or corrective fashion. Let us not feel too badly about this, for the same was true of the original intended recipient of the biblical Book of Proverbs, the notoriously and indeed proverbially unwise crown prince Rehoboam [2]. However unwise most of us are, we may rest assured that are at least no more foolish than the person to whom Proverbs was originally written, and at least we know that the original author of Proverbs was not writing it directly to prod us into seeking wisdom for ourselves, so that whatever sting its wisdom contains is accidental and not maliciously or directly meant. It is only those who have reason to believe that someone is writing for them personally that have the right to feel prickly about the stinging comments that writers often include out of their own personal context that is being written about, after all. When someone quotes a proverb to us, it is for us to unpackage it and see how it applies, to see what principles are embedded or assumed or presupposed in it, and to apply it to our conduct and our own lives accordingly. It is this process of reflection and application that leads to wisdom, both in knowing and in doing.

We may see for this that the wisdom is not in the words themselves, which is why a mere wooden and unthinking application of proverbs does not aid one in becoming more wise, but rather in the process by which that wisdom becomes embedded in a context of understanding when and how it applies. It is the work that is taken in smoothing over the rough edges of the proverb, and in rooting timeless wisdom that appears as airy and insubstantial as a cloud in one’s own life and context, that leads to wisdom. This process is similar to the way that our own character is refined through testing and trials—so too we become wiser by refining our behaviors and testing and trying the wisdom that we receive from others in the light of experience. The words of the wise are confusing and enigmatic because those who are wise look to their observation and experience to draw nuggets of wisdom from the seeming randomness and chaos of life, and by discerning patterns where others see only random chance, they are able to act in more thoughtful ways that are nevertheless mystifying to others. A proverb is merely the giving of patterns to others to apply, allowing other people to gain from the insight of wisdom, and to become wise not in noticing the pattern for the first time, but in determining whether and to what and extent and how a given pattern applies in one’s own life. The existence of proverbs allows for the distilled wisdom of those who came before to influence our own lives and to reflect on the patterns that exist in our lives that we may not even recognize, and to respond to those patterns thoughtfully and reflectively rather than merely reflexively and defensively, allowing us to be more wise, and successful, in our endeavors. That is why wise people delight in riddles and proverbs, and why a respect for the Eternal is the foundation of wisdom, in the knowledge that our universe is constructed rationally, no matter how irrationally we behave by nature as fallen and rebellious humans, and why fools hate knowledge, because it requires them to accept God’s rule and to admit painful truths about themselves, and change the way they behave, all of which fools are reluctant to do. The question to ask ourselves, is are we wise or fools? The proof is in the way we live our lives, and the way that we approach the riddles and puzzles and enigmas that exist in our lives.

[1] See, for example:

https://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2014/02/08/opposite-proverbs/

https://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2015/05/07/proverbs-141-the-wise-woman-builds-her-house/

https://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2012/08/10/proverbs-227-the-borrower-is-slave-to-the-lender/

https://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2012/02/08/proverbs-31-1-9-lemuels-mother-and-the-duties-of-kings/

https://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2011/07/06/samson-proverbs-25-and-honey/

https://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2011/01/29/portrait-of-a-wicked-man-proverbs-612-19/

[2] This crown prince was so foolish, despite having had decades to prepare for ruling, that he ended up losing most of his kingdom in one disastrous move. See, for example:

How To Lose Your Kingdom

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
This entry was posted in Bible, Biblical History, Christianity, Church of God, History, Musings and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

7 Responses to Mysteries Of The Bible: What Do Proverbs, Riddles, And Enigmas Have To Do With Wisdom?

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