I preached the last in our series of sermons in Proverbs on Sunday at Cowley Church Community. We've only covered the first nine chapters, which function as a sort of prologue for the whole book. The prologue serves to eulogise wisdom, and to urge us to get it - get it now, before it's too late. There are three statements about the beginning of wisdom, presumably designed to get us started. In chapter 4, the beginning of wisdom is this: get wisdom! The first step on the path to being wise is to desire wisdom above all things. In chapter 1 and chapter 9 the beginning of wisdom is fear of YHWH. The gateway to wisdom is standing in awe of God, because wisdom is first of all his quality and possession. Creation conforms to his wise design.
The overall impression I've taken away from these chapters is that the question of how we ought to live is vitally important, and that this question simply can't be abstracted from the question of who God is. The pursuit of wisdom is the pursuit of (the knowledge of) God. In fact, it only really makes sense to ask the question about how we ought to live if there is a wise God; otherwise, life is meaningless and the question is arbitrary, as are any answers that might be given.
Another impression that will stick with me is the stark black-and-whiteness of Proverbs. In Proverbs, good people get good things, and bad people get bad things. In Proverbs 9, Wisdom's feast gives life, but the party at Folly's house is full of corpses. I'm struck by how quickly I want to rush to nuance this picture: we all know it's not that simple, and the Bible acknowledges that (and even Proverbs sometimes hints at it). Nuance is good, but I do want to suspect my motives! Am I just trying to blunt the point that Proverbs wants to make? Do I actually think that God's way is intrinsically better? Do I agree with the testimony of Proverbs (and indeed all of Holy Scripture) that all other roads lead to death? Am I a bit embarrassed by the intolerance of it all?
A third thing that struck me is that Proverbs assumes there are people who are beyond correcting. There is no point trying to teach a scoffer. My first instinct is to insist against this on the power of grace to overcome all opposition - perhaps this is just an Old Testament view point. But then I remember the blasphemy against the Holy Spirit, and pearls before swine, and the sin that leads to death. Perhaps this is a New Testament theme as well, and perhaps it should warn us against cheap optimism.