Monday, February 16, 2009

Proverbs (2a) too many cooks make light work

"A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush."
"Look before you leap."
"A stitch in time saves nine."

Proverbs are funny things, aren't they? Handed down from person to person, they're a kind of folk wisdom, observations about how things work best.

But how do you reconcile these:

"Too many cooks spoil the broth."
"Many hands make light work."

Aren't they saying just the opposite? Or these:

Do not answer a fool according to his folly, or you will be like him yourself.
Answer a fool according to his folly, or he will be wise in his own eyes. (Prov 26:4-5)
Did you know that Proverbs was nearly left out of the Jewish canon because these two proverbs seem to contradict each other?

Proverbs are observations about how things usually happen in God's world. Most proverbs aren't universal laws or promises, true in any and every situation. It takes wisdom to know how and when to apply them: when to answer a fool, and when not to. Proverbs can be dangerous when misapplied:

Like a lame man's legs that hang limp is a proverb in the mouth of a fool. ...
Like a thornbush in a drunkard's hand is a proverb in the mouth of a fool. (Prov 26:9)
Most proverbs aren't universal truths, although it's tempting to treat them this way. "Train a child in the way he should go, and when he is old he will not turn from it" (Prov 22:6). Does this mean that if you raise your kids well, they're guaranteed to become Christians? I know people I greatly respect who hold this view, but I can't read the proverb this way, given the nature of Proverbs. What it's saying is that an adult will generally follow the path of the teaching and training they received as a child: a great encouragement for parents, but not a promise.

In Proverbs you'll find:

  • observations, sometimes detached from morality - "A bribe is a charm to the one who gives it; wherever he turns, he succeeds." (17:8)
  • moral observations - "A wicked man accepts a bribe in secret to pervert the course of justice." (17:23)
  • common sense - "Seldom set foot in your neighbour's house - too much of you, and he will hate you." (25:17)
  • consequences - "A sluggard does not plow in season; so at harvest time he looks but finds nothing." (20:4)
  • comparisons - "Better a meal of vegetables where there is love than a fattened calf with hatred." (15:17)
  • good advice - "Finish your outdoor work and get your fields ready; after that, build your house." (24:7)
  • truths about God - "In his heart a man plans his course, but the LORD determines his steps." (16:9)
God provides the framework for wise decisions in the Bible, but he doesn't do the thinking for us. We have to work out how to live wisely in the nitty gritty of everyday life. Wisdom is the ability to make good and godly decisions in every ordinary moment of every ordinary day. Proverbs are memorable sayings which help us do that.

Wisdom, anyone?

image is from stock.xchng

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