Big Ideas in Small Packages
Note: Because of the complexity of its topic, today's sermon relies heavily on PowerPoint. Thus, it is better to watch the video rather than only read the transcript, if possible.
Proverbs are like haikus. For the uninitiated, haikus are three-line Japanese poems that roughly go five syllables, seven syllables, five syllables. The goal of haikus is to convey as much beauty and truth in the restricted space you’re given. Haikus display the poet’s skill at blending philosophy and art. One samurai reflected on his mortality: “In the cicada's cry / No sign can foretell / How soon it must die.” The poem uses the familiar—bugs chirping—to provoke deeper reflection on the unknown, in this case our own mortality. Bad haikus are less profound but still fun: “Haikus are easy / But sometimes they don’t make sense / Refrigerator.”
Biblical Proverbs are like haikus. They are intentionally kept short and simple but packed with rich meaning. They are not meant to be devoured all in one sitting. They’re more like a hard candy that starts off sour and slowly turns sweet: you have to sit awhile with a single Proverb to truly “get” it. Originally, believers memorized one Proverb in the morning—since they’re short—and then throughout the day reflect on it to see what other truths it hid. Too often we see a Proverb, say “X is good, and Y is bad. Done,” and so miss out on all the Bible offers us. Most of what Proverbs says makes obvious sense on a surface level. That’s not the point: they’re meant to enhance your existing awareness, like binoculars focus what you already see. Most Biblical Proverbs are two-line sayings, and they’re built for you to slowly discover the interplay across and within those tight lines. Today we’re exploring seven sayings from Proverbs 12, but the goal of this sermon is to learn how to unpack all other proverbs on your own at home.
So let’s get Proverbs 12:1 on screen. “Whoever loves discipline loves knowledge, but those who hate to be rebuked are stupid.” Makes sense, but let’s go deeper. My first trick is that most Biblical Proverbs can be broken into chunks, sometimes six but usually four. Each of those chunks says something about the other ones. One you have your chunks, figure out how they relate to each other or compare and contrast them. So if we click forward, we have two kinds of people: those who love discipline… or those who hate to be rebuked. A slight translation note: discipline in the Bible is not “go to your room” punishment. It’s more like an athlete’s discipline: a disciplined athlete has a goal and works hard to reach it. Biblical discipline is more about shaping right behaviors than punishing bad ones. Click again, we get a description of each person: loves knowledge… or stupid. Easy. Next click, I like to see how each half of a line impacts the other half. Here each line is a way to identify foolish or wise people: see how they react to criticism. Wise people accept it; fools get angry. But last click, I think we learn the most here by comparing each chunk with its opposite line. So let’s compare and contrast the two lines. “Discipline” sounds nice, but “rebuke” is more like an insult. Discipline is giving encouraging feedback. Rebuke is scolding or arguing. But Proverbs links the two. So though rebuking is often unpleasant and unhelpful, a wise person still learns from it. Even badly-given feedback can teach you something. And on the second half, “loves knowledge” and “is stupid.” That link suggests something. “Is” is static, unchanging: is means it’s part of your being. But “loves knowledge” implies growth and change. So maybe everyone starts off dull… but if you’re open to criticism, you love knowledge… and become wise. Wisdom is not inborn: you slowly gain it. So if you feel foolish, you have the God-given power to change that… by opening up to feedback so you can improve. We still end up at the same basic lesson: be open to criticism. But by sticking with this one proverb, we learned a bit more: that even bad criticism can teach you, that this is how we all learn, that nobody has to be unwise forever. Big ideas hidden in just two lines of scripture.
Let’s speed up for Proverbs 12:2, next slide. “The good obtain favor from the Lord, but those who devise evil God condemns.” Makes sense. Click forward: we get our four chunks again. Click again. Each line is cause-and-effect. Cause: be good. Effect: obtain God’s favor. Cause: devise evil. Effect: God condemns. Proverbs reveals a rule of the universe. Click forward, let’s contrast the lines. “The good” is fairly static: it’s just what these people are. “Those who devise evil” could also translate as “those who scheme,” which implies intention and work, with evil being abnormal. So goodness is natural: wickedness is being too clever for your own good. Contrasting the back half of the lines, “obtain favor from the Lord” and “God condemns” are both kingly images, where God sits as a monarch doling out favor and punishment. Plus, God-as-king here condemns those who scheme, which means their secretive plots are not hidden form God’s sight. We may think we’re being sneaky, but God is too great to be fooled. And there’s my second big trick to unlocking a proverb: lean into the descriptions and imagery. Visualize the scenes Proverbs paints. Proverbs often explains heady, abstract ideas with real-world scenarios to help us understand more easily. Here, Proverbs uses images of royalty… to help us understand God rewarding good and punishing evil. So all in all, we’re told God is in control, that crafty plots to take advantage of others are never hidden from God’s sight, that evil is not inborn within us but something added instead, that evil is work and scheming whereas good is simple and straightforward in demeanor. Next slide.
Proverbs 12:3 is a bit trickier. Its plain meaning is clear: righteous living provides a calm life. That makes sense: if you stir up trouble for others, trouble is bound to find you. Let’s divvy up this proverb. Next click, let’s see how each line evolves. Here each line has two parts: a moral part and a stability part, with how moral you are determining how chaotic or calm your life is. But note my arrows: the pattern flip-flops between lines, so we need to careful. Let’s contrast stability parts first: “does not find security” and “will never be moved.” The wicked person never comes close to a stable life: they can’t even find it! But the righteous person’s life is so tranquil that it can never be shaken. That’s a big contrast: each line of the proverb strengthens its twin. Second in the contrasts, we’ve got a person seeking security “by wickedness” and also “the root of the righteous.” The wicked person is presented alone: they can’t even find security for just themself. In the Bible, “the root” is a way of saying family line or family tree. So a righteous person finds security not only for themself but for their entire family! Evil cannot satisfy even one person, while goodness overflows in peace and stability for whole groups! Next slide.
I’ve already chunked up Proverbs 12:4. “A good wife… is the crown of her husband… but she who brings shame… is like rottenness in his bones.” A small translation note: the Hebrew word “good” here is better translated as “strong, effective, or worthy.” So a great wife is like the cherry on top for her husband. And honestly, that’s true for all spouses: a good one makes their beloved ever better. But a bad partner is like a cancer, we’re told: they sap your strength from the inside until you cannot stand. Again, to understand Bible proverbs, visualize their imagery. A crown on top; rottenness in bones. See how the Bible uses what we can touch or see to elucidate what we cannot? Here the images highlight how much a good or bad partner can affect their spouse. Now let’s compare and contrast. Proverbs puts “bringing shame” opposite a “strong, effective, worthy” wife. Remember that in the ancient world, while husbands farmed and politicked, women managed the household, which meant overseeing slaves, tutors for the kids, selling craft goods at market, and much more. An ancient woman was like a small business owner, principal, socialite, mother, spouse, and more. Obviously if she was strong and effective, everyone around her benefited. And we also contrast “crown of her husband” with “rottenness in his bones.” A crown and rottenness do not add anything new: they merely change what was already there. A crown adds existing dignity, rottenness in the bones adds to existing weakness. So too with spouses: they cannot add what is not there but can indeed enhance it.
My goal today, however, was not to merely explore four Proverbs. My goal is for you all to be able to explore Proverbs on your own. For Proverbs 12:5, I’ve given you my breakdown of the Proverb, but I’ll leave it to you to unpack what its lesson is. I’ll give you roughly a minute. Try to figure out what its patterns are, visualize its imagery, examine its contrasts, and then circle back to appreciating the proverb’s lesson. Have fun. Go.
For me, I learned that if I want to be righteous, even my thoughts must be virtuous, whereas you cannot even rely on the words of a wicked person. Kind of ups the ante there, I suppose. Let’s try verse 6. No more arrows from me here, but you know the drill. One minute.
For me, I noticed that line one never says who the ambush is for: perhaps the wicked’s words trap themselves as much as others. They try to trap others with deceit and trap themselves in webs of lies too. Whereas the upright are pulled out of such ambushes by their direct, simple honesty. A reputation for honesty is a shield against lies about you. I’ll leave Proverbs 12:7 for you to try out on your own over lunch. Have fun chewing on it the rest of the day.
As we wrap up our time in Proverbs, I’ll leave you with a few conclusions. Proverbs are not end-all-be-all rules to how everything always works. They’re more rough guidelines to living a good life. The next book in the Bible—Ecclesiastes—is actually all about exceptions to these guidelines. Proverbs isn’t giving a rigid code of laws but trying to teach you to be self-restrained, honest, thoughtful, and God-centered in your living. And remember that proverbs seem simple on the surface. But as we learned from Shrek, just like parfait, onions, and ogres, proverbs have layers. They’re little poems offering big ideas, so explore every detail: each proverb was built to pack in as much meaning in as little space possible. Visualize the imagery it paints. Compare and contrast the different parts of the proverb. Feel its tensions. Finally, know that Proverbs is a scripture for days when there are no angels or miracles… just ordinary, unexciting life. These little wisdom sayings are guideposts to living that ordinary, everyday life… as well, wisely, and faithfully as you can. So keep learning. Good luck. Amen.