When The Proverbs Don’t Work

We’re going to be in Proverbs 13 today.

Actually we’re going to be reflecting on a number of proverbs today, 
but Proverbs 13 is going to give us a “home base” for our reflection.

We’ve been exploring the book of Proverbs
(one of the Bible’s central treasure chambers of wisdom)
for almost two months.

For several weeks we tried to practice “chewing” on a proverb—
because that’s one of the primary ways we can begin recognizing the depth and brilliance
that’s been intricately folded up inside these micro-poems.

This week, I want to wrestle with a problem—
a problem with the proverbs.

Well, actually, 
it probably isn’t so much a problem with the proverbs as it is a problem with us—
with how we read and understand the proverbs.

The problem is this:
The trouble, the struggle, the difficulty, is this:

A lot the proverbs don’t seem to work.

And to help us wrestle with this, Proverbs 13:

(13.9) The light of the righteous shines brightly,
    but the lamp of the wicked is snuffed out.

There’s a recurring theme throughout the book of proverbs 
that if you do the right thing, good things are going to happen.
The light of the righteous shines brightly—
and it’s the lamp of wicked that gets snuffed out.

Here’s a handful of other proverbs
that sound this same theme.

[slide 2]

If you do the right thing, good things are going to happen.

(13.25) The righteous eat to their hearts’ content,
    but the stomach of the wicked goes hungry.

(14.11) The house of the wicked will be destroyed,
    but the tent of the upright will flourish.

(16.3) Commit to the Lord whatever you do,
    and he will establish your plans.

(22.6) Start children off on the way they should go,
    and even when they are old they will not turn from it.

How are we supposed to understand these proverbs?

Because based on these proverbs,
it might be reasonable for us to expect 
that health and stability and prosperity could be ours
if we would just get our act together and follow God well enough.

If the proverbs are a treasure chamber of wisdom that we’ve been invited into,
I feel like these are probably the proverbs that we should latch onto.

It sounds like if we could just be the right kind of people—
if we could do the right kind of things—then…

[slide 3]

(13.25) we’ll have all we can eat,
(14.11) our “tent” would thrive and flourish,
(16.3) our plans and activities will be established,
(22.6) and then our children to follow in our footsteps.

That sounds like a pretty good groove to find ourselves in.

If we could just find the sweet spot—
the place where we are the right kind of people (“righteous”)—
then we’re going to be set when it comes to food and provision and plans
and then generations of our family after us are going to be set too.

(Because our children will be in this sweet spot too, and they will not turn from it.)

There’s a problem here.

Because that doesn’t seem to work.
For anyone.

The sweet spot just doesn’t exist.

Sometimes you do the right things, but the grocery budget is tight—
or in some parts of the world, you and your family 
struggle with malnutrition and are literally starving.

Sometimes you commit you commit your plans to the Lord, and things fall apart—
it doesn’t feel like anything is established.

[slide 4]

Sometimes you try to start children on the right path—
well, let’s tell a story.

Growing up in church, 
I heard multiple sermons
about a priest named Eli from the book of Samuel.

Somehow the sermons were always about Eli’s bad parenting.

[slide 5]

(1 Sam 2.11b-12) …[Samuel] ministered before the Lord under Eli the priest. Eli’s sons were scoundrels; they had no regard for the Lord.

And scoundrels they were.

If you read that chapter, these guys abused their positions as priests
to get the food they wanted and to get the girls they wanted.

If you were writing a history of religious abuse of power,
the ancient account of Eli’s sons might make chapter one.

“And you don’t want your children to wind up like Eli’s sons, do you?
“Then you need to set your children on the path they should go—
otherwise they might fat, selfish scoundrels taking the choice parts of every sacrifice,
sleeping around with whoever they want,
and just generally abusing people
until God smites them dead.”

A difficulty with reading the text that way, though, 
is that Samuel’s children wind up corrupt too:

[slide 6]

(1 Sam 8.1-3) When Samuel grew old, he appointed his sons as Israel’s leaders. The name of his firstborn was Joel and the name of his second was Abijah, and they served at Beersheba. But his sons did not follow his ways. They turned aside after dishonest gain and accepted bribes and perverted justice.

The story of Eli—the old, corrupt leader of Israel—
is followed up by the story of Samuel.

A Yahweh-devoted leader par excellence.

But Samuel’s sons “did not follow his ways.”
They were corrupt too.

Not even Samuel could find the sweet spot.

Sometimes you do your best parenting children—
you start them on the way they should go—
and they wind up wandering from the path and making all wrong choices.

[slide 7]

And so we’re left with a problem.
With a struggle.
With a difficulty.

A theme through the proverbs is that
if you do the right thing, good things are going to happen.

But the proverbs don’t always work.
At least not the way we think they should.

This is one of the main themes, actually, 
of the entire book of Job.

Job is someone doing the right thing—
he’s the right kind of person.

If there’s someone who should be shining brightly—
who should be finding the “the sweet spot”—
with plenty to eat and a flourishing tent 
and established plans and prospering children
it should have been Job.

He’s an upright man—a blameless guy.

But the story of Job is the exact opposite:
Job’s income dries up,
his houses collapse,
his plans are ruined,
his children killed.

Job is left destitute and childless and chronically ill,
and most of the book of Job is this grand conversation (almost like an opera)
between Job and his friends about God and justice and the way the world works.

[slide 8]

At the beginning of chapter twelve Job says:

(Job 12.1-6)
“I have become a laughingstock to my friends,
    though I called on God and he answered—
    a mere laughingstock, though righteous and blameless!
Those who are at ease have contempt for misfortune
    as the fate of those whose feet are slipping.
The tents of marauders are undisturbed,
    and those who provoke God are secure—
    those God has in his hand.

It’s like Job is saying:
“I’m a laughingstock but I was doing all the right things. I was righteous and blameless.
“It was my tent that the proverbs said should have flourished,
but the tents of marauders and those who provoke God—
they’re the ones who are secure.
God has them in his hand.”

[slide 9]

And then a couple of chapters later,
one of Jobs friends (Bildad) quotes a proverb to him:

(Job 18.5)
“The lamp of a wicked man is snuffed out;
    the flame of his fire stops burning.”

Job, you’ve got to have done something wrong—
something to deserve all of this.

You’re experiencing all of this…
but haven’t you read the Proverbs?

It’s the lamps of the wicked that are snuffed out.
The righteous shine brightly.

And the opera continues—
the conversation keeps bouncing back and forth between Job and his friends—
and the whole time we (as the readers) know the truth.
Job really is an upright man—
a blameless guy.

That’s the point.

Job has done everything he’s supposed to—
he’s living the Proverbs’ life of wisdom—
but the marauders are flourishing 
while good, wholesome people are falling chronically ill.

He’s doing everything right—
he should be shining brightly.

Instead he’s being snuffed out.

[slide 10]

One biblical scholar puts it this way:

Proverbs says,
“These are the rules for life. Try them and you will find that they work.”

Job and Ecclesiastes say,
“We did, and they don’t.”

That might be oversimplifying it a little, 
but only a little.

The proverbs don’t always work—
not in the way we want them to.

And that’s because the proverbs aren’t karma.

Job and Ecclesiastes sit right near Proverbs
to make sure we always remember that.

The proverbs aren’t karma.

And that’s what we want a lot of times.
We want tried-and-true formulas for getting life right.

If we’ll just do these things—
go to church, pray, read the Bible, advocate for the poor, 
then our lives will work out the way I want.

Our lives will shine.
They won’t be snuffed out.

[slide 11]

But the proverbs give us any guarantees.
The proverbs don’t make any promises.

They give wonderful principles. 
They give incredible practical guidance.

They us recognize the likely patterns in everyday life—
If you’re lazy and consistently avoid work, 
it’s likely you’re going to end up in poverty.

If you do the right thing and act with integrity,
it’s likely that your tent will flourish.

If you start a children on the right path,
it’s likely they’re going to stick to the right path.

The proverbs give us helpful, insightful, practical guidance—
in the same way that parents give their children practical guidance.

Maybe that’s why Proverbs kept saying in its opening chapters,
“My son, my daughter, listen to my words.”

The proverbs are practical guidance.
But they aren’t karma

They give no guarantees.
They make no promises.

Our hope does not rest with our ability 
to apply tried-and-true formulas to our lives.

They don’t always work.

Our hope does not rest in our ability 
to find life’s sweet spot by perfectly practicing the proverbs.

Our good groove can come crashing down 
with one mistake, with one bad decision, with one phone call.

Our hope does not rest in our ability at all.
Our hope does not rest in us at all.

The center of the life of faith is not in our ability 
to practice the proverbs or obey the law or anything else.

The center of the life of faith is coming to Jesus—
or better: letting Jesus come to us.

The living person of Jesus is the center of our faith.

The second week of this series,
we said that there is a person who is always calling us, always loving us, 
alway inviting us into the life of wisdom.

That’s the way the book of Proverbs begins.

It’s worth remembering that the hand who leads through the chambers of wisdom—
the hand of the One who calls us and loves us and invites us—
that hand is scarred.

Pockmarked by piercings.
Disfigured by nails.

The center of our faith is not 
that we find some tried-and-true formulas or some magical proverbs
and that they help us effortlessly coast through life.

The center of our faith is this table.

The wisdom of the proverbs totally collapsed at the cross—
because the only truly blameless one, 
the only truly righteous one
was snuffed out.

The wicked won, and darkness shined brightest.

And yet the light of righteous was relit.

The life of Jesus was restored.
Jesus has been resurrected from the dead.

And now Jesus—Wisdom himself—
is always inviting us to enter into his death
and participate in his resurrection.

This is what the life of wisdom looks like. 
This is what the truly alive kind of life looks like.

Sometimes life has suffering.

Sometimes the income dries up and the houses collapse.
Sometimes our children wander from the path despite our best efforts.

Sometimes the good and the upright fall chronically ill and die.

But God raises the dead.
God loves raising the dead.

And the resurrection of Jesus—
the strangest, most unexplainable event in human history—
testifies that God will raise the dead.

[slide 12]

Jesus is where we go for guarantees.
Jesus is the One who makes us promises.

And he invites every single one of us
to take his hand every single day
and enter into his life of love.

That’s what true wisdom is.

Learning to receive the love of a God who is always calling out to us,
and learning to participate in this love—to extend this love—to those around us.

Sometimes even the best of wisdom 
won’t feel like it’s working.

But praise be to God—
the wisdom of God means the resurrection of the dead.

The life of Jesus is relit—
our lives will be too.

The Lord Jesus, on the night he was betrayed, took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, “This is my body, which is for you; do this in remembrance of me.”

In the same way, after supper he took the cup, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood; do this, whenever you drink it, in remembrance of me.”

In just a moment you’ll be invited to come and and receive from this table—
receive some bread, dip it in the cup, and return to your seat.

Father, it’s in remembrance of these your mighty acts in Jesus Christ,
we offer ourselves in praise and thanksgiving as a holy and living sacrifice,
in union with Christ’s offering for us, as we proclaim the mystery of faith:

Christ has died; Christ is risen; Christ will come again.

Pour out your Holy Spirit on us gathered here,
and on these gifts of bread and wine.

Make them be for us the body and blood of Christ,
that we may be for the world the body of Christ,
redeemed by his blood.

As we come,
may we not despair when the best of wisdom seems to fail us,

may we you give us sight to see our Brother and our King,
your Son Jesus, risen from the dead,

may we share in his death and his resurrection,

may we heed your voice
and learn to practice lives of love in the world.

In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit, Amen.