Proverbs: The Foolishness of Christ’s Wisdom
What is the key to success in this life? What does it mean to be wise? The book of Proverbs provides a clear and resounding answer that is perhaps summed up well by Proverbs 3:5-6: “Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not lean on your own understanding. in all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make straight your paths.”
That seems simple enough; trust in the Lord and his wisdom, and he will bless. Fear him and follow his ways, and everything will turn out well. That theme is a persistent one in Proverbs. The righteous are lifted up with success and blessing, but the wicked will falter. Those who rely on God’s wisdom will stand firm.
Some of the wisdom in the book of Proverbs is fairly conventional and obvious. The truth that working hard generally leads to better outcomes is no surprise to anyone. The benefit of seeking advice from wise counselors is a matter of common sense. Yet, there is also a host of wisdom found in Proverbs that is not as overtly practical or generally accepted. For instance, Proverbs teaches us that it is better to be poor and have integrity than it is to be a rich person who is crooked (15:16; 19:1; 28:6). While this is not too difficult to accept for us as God’s people, this is not wise by the world’s standards; if it was, then the world would live this way. Yet, the world often pursues wealth and fame and status without giving much consideration at all to integrity. And we see many successful people who are devoid of righteous character. So is it really better to be poor and righteous? Is it truly better to trust in God?
Wisdom that is even more shocking and counterintuitive is offered in passages like Proverbs 20:22:
“Do not say, “I will repay evil”; wait for the Lord, and he will deliver you.”
Doesn’t it just make good sense to get even with your enemies? To protect yourself from future harm by showing them that you mean business? Isn’t that a good thing? Isn’t it fair and just to repay evil? Not according to Proverbs. Proverbs 25:21-22 takes this even further:
for you will heap burning coals on his head, and the LORD will reward you.”
Do not simply refrain from returning evil to enemies; rather, actually serve them and show them intentional kindness. Forgiveness and love is better than revenge. Certainly, that seems to be foolish on the surface. What if your enemy is deceiving you? What if he will take advantage of your kindness? This advice from Proverbs does not seem to be primed to help things go well for someone who follows it. It seems to actually empower enemies to do greater damage. What is wise about that?
Another radical teaching concerns humility. In the book of Proverbs, humility is the true way to honor and success:
“The reward for humility and fear of the Lord is riches and honor and life.” (Proverbs 22:4)
“If your enemy is hungry, give him bread to eat,
and if he is thirsty, give him water to drink,
This nugget of wisdom is particularly questionable, at least from a worldly standard. Who has ever gotten rich by being meek and serving? Who has ever preserved their life by lowering themselves? What about survival of the fittest? What about taking what is mine?
Does the world really work the way that Proverbs says that it does? Proverbs 19:22-23 tells us, “What is desired in a man is steadfast love, and a poor man is better than a liar. The fear of the Lord leads to life, and whoever has it rests satisfied; he will not be visited by harm.” However, life seems a little murkier than the black and white picture that the book sometimes presents because things don’t always seem to work out for the righteous. Those who fear the Lord do face harm. Most people seem to desire qualities besides steadfast love. The wicked prosper, the poor are abused, and the humble are trampled upon. Sometimes the bad guys win, and the poor person stays poor. What are we to do with Proverbs?
Although there are no specific Messianic prophecies or references to Jesus in Proverbs, I cannot help but think about him as I read through the wisdom provided in this book of Spirit- inspired literature. Jesus perfectly fits the description of the righteous man as portrayed in Proverbs. He turns from evil and love his enemies; he forgives and always clings to the truth. He is generous to the poor and speaks up for the weak. He works diligently and fears the Lord and walks in humility. Even so, Jesus was not a man of riches and life and honor. He was a man of sorrows without a place to lay his head. His integrity and steadfast love did not make things go well for him, and it did not make him desirable. Where did Jesus’ meekness and love of enemies and commitment to truth get him? It placed him on an instrument of torture, executed as a shameful criminal. In the eyes of the watching world, Jesus died a fool. The way of Proverbs did not end in success for him. He gained no riches or honor in this life.
Proverbs 16:1-8 reminds us, however, that our sovereign God is in total control even when the wicked make plans for evil and seem to be winning in the world:
“The plans of the heart belong to man, but the answer of the tongue is from the Lord. All the ways of a man are pure in his own eyes, but the Lord weighs the spirit. Commit your work to the Lord, and your plans will be established. The Lord has made everything for its purpose, even the wicked for the day of trouble. Everyone who is arrogant in heart is an abomination to the Lord; be assured, he will not go unpunished. By steadfast love and faithfulness iniquity is atoned for, and by the fear of the Lord one turns away from evil. When a man’s ways please the Lord, he makes even his enemies to be at peace with him. Better is a little with righteousness than great revenues with injustice.”
The Lord can use even the wicked to establish his purposes. The evil will be punished and iniquity will be atoned for and conquered by steadfast love. Man may plan to thwart God’s wisdom, but God’s will shall prevail. Those who commit their work to the Lord will be established. The cross and the resurrection are the ultimate vindication of this principle. Jesus wholly devoted himself to the work of God and was exalted in power even when the plans of the wicked appeared to have triumphed. While his humility did not result in riches and honor and life on this earth, he was raised to greater riches and honor and glory in his resurrection. The righteousness of his indestructible life prevailed over wicked plans. The foolishness of his love of enemies and his sacrificial humility was shown to be wise beyond measure.
Indeed, Paul reminds us that the way of the cross is foolishness from the perspective of the world: “For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it
is the power of God. For it is written, “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart.” Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world?” (1 Corinthians 1:18- 20).
Trusting God’s wisdom does not always result in vindication and success in this life, but it will surely bring riches and honor in the life to come. The way of Jesus is the true way of wisdom in this world: walking in integrity, pursuing humility and kindness, loving enemies, and serving the weak. So when the Bible tells us that the Lord will make our paths straight when we trust in him, that path leads straight to the cross. That may mean a shameful death or ridicule or poverty or intense suffering. That path may mean being displayed as a fool to the eyes of the world, but that path will also lead to life with Jesus, and it will end in eternal riches of his gracious glory beyond measure or imagination.
“Every word of God proves true; he is a shield to those who take refuge in him.” (Proverbs 30:5)