30 July. Proverbs chapters 13-15
Another three chapters of the short sayings of Solomon. One of the Bible readings in church this morning (from the Revised Common Lectionary which many churches use) was from 1 Kings chapter 3 (see my notes for 13 April). In that reading, the Lord appears to Solomon at Gibeon, the principal place of worship in Judah in those days, and offers him anything he wants. Rather than “absolute political power” or great wealth, or the death of his enemies, Solomon requests “an understanding mind to govern your people, able to discern between good and evil”. Although obviously already a respected ruler (he had just married the daughter of the Egyptian Pharaoh) he was aware that many skills are needed to become a great leader, with discernment of people’s motives among the most important. That is one of the aspects of “emotional intelligence” that I suggested in my introduction to the Proverbs are what this book is really about. God commends him for this wise choice and adds riches and honour as a bonus.
Again, it is difficult to single out particular verses, but let’s look at those that refer to relationships between parents and children. To our culture in which corporal punishment is frowned on or even illegal, “Those who spare the rod hate their children, but those who love them are diligent to discipline them” (13:24) seems shocking, but at the time it would have seemed sensible advice. Even now, the dangers of over-indulging children are evident in rising obesity, children addicted to smartphones and youngsters attacking their teachers. That leaves us with the question of how children should be disciplined if physical chastisement is ruled out. It only leaves leading by example, which is tough, but ultimately the best way to pass on a pattern of righteous living.
Take another verse: “A fool despises a parent’s instruction, but the one who heeds admonition is prudent” (15:5). No mention there of the rod, but the emphasis here is on the child’s responsibility to accept instruction and correction, rather than on the parent’s responsibility to teach them. It’s not clear in Proverbs what the age of the intended audience is, but there are many references to “young men” so probably teenagers are in mind – in later Judaism, 12 is the age of Bar Mitzvah when a boy becomes an adult and responsible for his own actions under the law of God. I guess these sayings may have been taught in classes for boys approaching or following their initiation as young adults.
Another relevant verse is 15:20, “A wise child makes a glad father, but the foolish despise their mothers”. Why does on half of the saying refer to fathers and the other to mothers, other than to make a literary symmetry? Maybe the point is that fathers rather than mothers were responsible for discipline, while the mother provided emotional support. Many young men find their relationship with their father difficult in adolescence, but retain an affectionate relationship with their mothers, and who would go so far as to say they despise their mother?
Lessons learnt as adolescents are, of course, still relevant in later life, so whatever age you might be now, these teachings are still worth hearing. A good relationship with your parents is still to be prized, even when they are elderly; and most people as they grow up will sooner or later be parents themselves and will need to put these lessons into practice.