Sermon Commentary for Sunday, September 12, 2021
Proverbs 1:20-33 Commentary
In Plato’s dialogue Phaedrus Socrates tells an ancient Egyptian legend about a king named Thamus and a god named Theuth. Theuth, it seems, was an inventor of great tools and new technologies. One day he showed King Thamus a vast array of his inventions, climaxing with his most recent innovation: writing. The inventor proudly told Thamus, “Here is an accomplishment, my lord and king, which will improve both the wisdom and the memory of the Egyptians.” The king, however, felt it would have the opposite effect.
“Those who acquire this skill of writing,” King Thamus said, “will cease to exercise their memory and become forgetful; they will rely on writing to bring things to their remembrance by external signs instead of by their own internal resources. What you have discovered is a receipt for recollection, not for memory. And as for wisdom, your pupils will have the reputation for it without the reality; they will be thought very knowledgeable when they are for the most part quite ignorant. And because they are filled with the conceit of wisdom instead of real wisdom, they will be a burden to society.”
It could be alleged that just such a conceit of wisdom is very much present today, and it is indeed a burden to society. The ability to Google anything—or look up facts quickly on Wikipedia—is not the same thing as having a well-rounded education, much less knowing how to use knowledge in wise ways. Worse, the internet and social media have actually had the effect of making some people less informed not more so due to the circulation of misinformation, conspiracy theories, and the work of trolls who undermine anything and everything they can just to get some kicks out of being contrarian. If writing made us more forgetful with only the conceit of knowledge, the printing press magnified all of that and the invention of hypertext in the internet age has sealed the deal.
Wisdom is the knack for getting along well in life’s many and varied situations. The Book of Proverbs runs the gamut of life situations because wisdom itself surveys the whole of life in order to figure out patterns of wholeness, to see what works and what doesn’t. The wise one observes these patterns and then fits him- or herself into the larger picture of reality. As Proverbs 1:7 claims, the foundational reason why wisdom can be fruitfully pursued is “the fear of the Lord.” Only our core belief in the reliability of God’s orderly universe can encourage us to make coherent sense out of life. If the “jigsaw” pieces of life in a fragmented world did not all come from a single picture in the first place, then there would be no sense in trying to put those pieces back together.
Hence the wise learn to pay close attention to life. The wise pay close attention to what works and what flops in life as a key avenue for gaining wisdom. As the balance of Proverbs 1 makes clear, however, a main artery through which wisdom comes to a person is receiving instruction from older and wiser people. Throughout especially the early chapters of the Book of Proverbs we read a lot of parental lectures. A certain “son” is being addressed by his father and is being cajoled over and over again to accept the advice his parents are doling out. The first nine chapters are loaded with warnings, reproaches, admonitions, and commands. But what underlies it all is the vital need for the son to be willing to take what his father is dishing out. When wisdom calls, we have to listen.
In verses 20-33 Wisdom herself speaks in a striking personification of divine reality. But what Wisdom has to say is not always pleasant. In fact, those verses contain the Old Testament’s single biggest concentration of the word “rebuke”! People who think they can re-invent reality every ten minutes do not take kindly to rebukes.
Fools, it is said, are often in error but never in doubt.
A rebuke is designed to create a guilty conscience in a person in the hopes of helping that person come to a better understanding of why what he did was wrong and how things could go better the next time. “What you did was wrong! You said something that was very hurtful! You should not have done it that way.” Those are examples of rebukes, and yet today your uttering one such sentence out in society would be labeled insensitive, intolerant, judgmental, and parochial.
Such a negative attitude toward your attempt to educate people morally in the art of living wisely will be all-the-more ballyhooed if the primary authority to which you appeal is something traditional and old, much less something ancient (like the Bible). Some of the same impulses that make Americans prefer cohortative forms of speech over imperative forms likewise lead people to resist the notion that the past may well have much to teach us in this present moment as well as on into the future.
At least part of the reason for this disconnect from the past can be detected in that opening illustration about King Thamus. Unlike the inventor who thought that the new tool of writing would make people smarter and wiser, the king was sure it would make them dumber, lazier, less educated. If you can look it up in a book, you don’t need to carry it around in your head. Have you ever heard a young person who is poor at spelling tell you not to worry because before he hands his essay in to his teacher he’ll run it through his computer’s spell checker? The computer can spell, so the student doesn’t have to. As King Thamus said, new technology can give people the appearance of wisdom without its reality–or in this case the appearance of being a good speller without its lexical reality!
As Neil Postman so well pointed out, new technologies have always had the tendency of conferring on the masters of that technology the appearance of an intelligence and wisdom they may not actually possess. The same happens with any successful person in our media-driven age. Why do actors and actresses so regularly get asked to testify before Congress? They spend their lives reading lines written by other people but because they do that so well before the camera, we assume they will be wise when they are unscripted, too. Rich people (no matter how it was they made their millions) suddenly think they can make pronouncements on all sorts of aspects of life.
The conceit of wisdom is everywhere today. Real wisdom is rare. The conceit of wisdom without the reality of wisdom is perhaps nowhere better detected than in our society’s abhorrence of moral rebukes. But the truly wise, though no more enjoying getting rebuked than anyone else, accept reproof and redirection and are, in the long run, glad for it. It adds to their wisdom. But a society characterized by the modern, decidedly unbiblical proverb “Different strokes for different folks” has no patience for rebuke.
But such are the confusions of our society, ostensibly awash in a glut of knowledge and information. People good at accessing information on the Internet confuse being able to look something up with being smart to begin with (worse, they confuse the speed with which they can look it up with having the kind of intelligence which is able quickly to cut to the heart of the matter in wise discernment). As Neil Postman also points out, today we love to quantify everything, assign stuff a number which, since it’s scientific and all, supposedly can tell you a lot about a person. So we float on a sea of numbers: SAT scores, I.Q. ratios, sensitivity scales, GPAs, GRE scores, and personality inventory results. But, as Postman says, that kind of talk would have sounded like gibberish to most of the wisest people who lived before the nineteenth century. Those numbers reveal very little about a person’s wisdom.
Ultimately, there is in and through all of this a disdain for the past. People increasingly have the tendency to believe that unless someone is cyber-savvy and computer literate, they are out of touch, outdated, out of the loop. In some corners of society today people would not bat an eye if you told them you and your wife had an “open marriage” wherein each spouse is free to have sex with other people. But tell someone you don’t have email and they’ll look at you like you had a cow’s horn growing out of your head.
The conceit of wisdom is everywhere. But as people who claim Jesus, the Wisdom of God incarnate, as Lord, we cannot let ourselves settle for wisdom’s facade–we need its reality and its substantive inner depths.
The proper fear of our Lord demands nothing less.
[Here is an idea you could do in a sermon with a kind of call-and-response from the congregation.]
Suppose that about 3,000 or so years ago you had been a student at some Ancient Near Eastern school of wisdom. It is believed that just such schools existed, particularly in Egypt and possibly also in Israel. The teachers in these schools were renowned sages: wise guys whose speech dripped with proverbs, adages, axioms, aphorisms, maxims, and bywords. The students were young men whose job it was to learn at the feet of these older and wiser teachers. But if you were a student in such a school, what do you suppose the final exam would look like? No one is certain, of course, but a number of scholars have found evidence that exams in such schools involved the teacher throwing out the first half of a proverb with the student then being required to complete the wise saying.
Even today probably most of you could do pretty well on such a test. For instance, let me toss out for you the first part of some proverbs and then you respond by finishing the line—just say it out loud.
“Spare the rod . . . spoil the child.”
“When the going gets tough . . . the tough get going.”
“What goes up . . . must come down.”
“A fool and his money . . . are soon parted.”
“If you give him an inch . . . he’ll take half a mile.”
“The grass is always greener . . . on the other side of the fence.”
“With friends like that . . . who needs enemies.”
“People who live in glass houses . . . should not throw stones.”
Even today we live off the font of proverbs and proverbial wisdom perhaps more than we know!
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