Healthy, Wealthy, and Wise: Living Ethically in the Light of the Bible
Luke 14:1-6; 2 Timothy 2:14-26; Proverbs 10:1-16; Esther 9-10
Proverbs 10 is the beginning of the first collection of what are typically viewed as proverbs. These are short, pithy sayings that resonate with the audience. They appeal to something more familiar than abstract concepts like wisdom and justice. Proverbs ask listeners to imagine the similarity between their situation and what the proverb describes, and then pass judgment on their behaviour, attitude or moral character. Much like Jesus asks his audience to picture what they would do if their ox fell into a well on the Sabbath (Luke 14:5), a proverb is a parable expressed in a concise statement intended to rapidly illicit a literary picture and lead to a moral conclusion. Proverbs are antithetical to rote memorisation and mindless application, but are designed to encourage careful reflection and the development of wisdom.
One of the difficulties with interpreting Proverbs is how to apply what they say. For one thing, some proverbs seem to contradict one another. For example, Proverbs 26:4 says ‘Do not answer fools according to their folly’ while the following verse says ‘Answer fools according to their folly’! Other proverbs appear to promise life and well-being to those who trust in the Lord, yet our experiences show that this does not happen for many faithful believers. Some claim that Ecclesiastes and Job had to be written to counteract the excessive and unrealistic promises of Proverbs. That view would undermine any notion that all Scripture is inspired.
However, the promises of proverbs can be reconciled with life’s realities when a few principles are kept in mind. First, the promises are only partially validated by experience. For example, Proverbs 10:4 should be taken to mean that diligent workers are more likely to be better off than the lazy, not as a promise that hard work always leads to financial wealth. Second, Proverbs was primarily written to youths to encourage them to pursue wisdom. It takes a long-term view on the eventual results of a life lived in the fear of the Lord. In contrast, Ecclesiastes and Job address those dealing with suffering and misfortune in their present-day experience. Third, and related to this, life and death in Proverbs cannot refer solely to this earthly life. This will become clear as we examine other passages, but much of what is promised in proverbs cannot be seen and measured in this life. Hence the need to trust the Lord for what is not seen.
Fourth, although frequently overlooked, sections in the proverbs are structured to provide a context to help their interpretation. Each of the proverbs in chapter 10 compares and contrasts the wise and the foolish. It begins and ends with a section addressing wealth (vv. 1-5 and 15-16), with the intermediate section examining our use of words. This section is divided between proverbs addressing the impact of words on the speaker (vv. 6-9) and on others (vv. 11-14), with a pivot verse in the middle (v. 10). The wise use of words is one of the major themes in proverbs and throughout the Bible, as exemplified by today’s passage in 2 Timothy. We will examine this in more detail when we get to Proverbs 11.
The structure and context of individual proverbs have to be taken into account as they are interpreted. For example, Proverbs 10:3 might seem to suggest that the Lord prevents the wicked from getting what they crave. Experience shows that this, at least sometimes, is not the case. This is completely in keeping with verse 2 which notes that treasures are sometimes gotten in wicked ways. The point is not that the wicked never prosper, or that the righteous never suffer. Rather, certain treasures have no lasting value, while righteousness delivers people from death and thus has eternal value. Listeners or readers should then reflect on whether their lives are characterised by the pursuit of temporal or eternal riches. In the broader context of Proverbs, true riches that should be diligently pursued are wisdom, understanding and knowledge, which ultimately lead to the fear of the Lord and the knowledge of God (Proverbs 2:1-5; 8:18-21). At the same time, other proverbs do counterbalance an excessively optimistic outlook such as acknowledging that the righteous are sometimes poor (e.g. Proverbs 19:1).