The book of Proverbs is, among other things, a book about choices. Wise teachers offer their students advice on hundreds of different topics, but most of them are ultimately about choosing righteousness over wickedness, choosing wisdom over foolishness.
And often these choices are presented as different ways or paths. Was it the recently departed Yogi Berra who said, “when you come to a fork in the road, take it”? In Proverbs, the road of life is full of forks, and wisdom is about knowing which fork to take in each situation. So we find in the vocabulary of Proverbs words having to do with guidance, navigation, steering as well as words for paths and roads and so on. Listen again for those kinds of words in today’s Scripture lesson, this time from Eugene Peterson’s paraphrase of Proverbs 4 in The Message:
Dear friend, take my advice; it will add years to your life.
I’m writing out clear directions to Wisdom Way, I’m drawing a map to Righteous Road. I don’t want you ending up in blind alleys, or wasting time making wrong turns. . . Don’t take Wicked Bypass; don’t so much as set foot on that road. Stay clear of it; give it a wide berth. Make a detour and be on your way. . .
The ways of right-living people glow with light; the longer they live, the brighter they shine. But the road of wrongdoing gets darker and darker—travelers can’t see a thing…
Keep your eyes straight ahead; ignore all sideshow distractions. Watch your step, and the road will stretch out smooth before you. Look neither right nor left; leave evil in the dust. (Prov 4:10ff)
Throughout Proverbs, wise teachers describe for their students what the different paths look like and where they’re headed. Which paths lead to success, and which to failure. Which paths lead to happiness, and which to misery. In each case, both ways are presented as real options, but there’s clearly a smart and a not-so-smart way to go. Be smart, urges Proverbs. Think through the consequences of your decision before you take any old fork in the road that comes along.
So much is felt to be at stake that the sages employ every teaching method at their disposal to drive their point home. So to the fork-in-the-road metaphor is added the choice between bright light and deep darkness (4:18-19), the choice between laying hold of a great treasure and coming up empty –handed (3:14-15), the choice between a fountain of life and the snares of death (14:27) and so on.
And in case this whole host of analogies still doesn’t pack enough punch, stories are told in Proverbs too, more detailed illustrations of the consequences of following particular paths. One that crops up a number of times is the story of the young man who wanders off to his ruin after an evil seductresses. Not on the whole my favorite metaphor in the book, but the teaching strategy reminds me of the difference between quoting the law “thou shalt not commit adultery” and showing the movie “Fatal Attraction.” Or between the counsel to “just say no” and the famous egg-in-the-frying pan commercial from years back: “this is your brain on drugs.” Powerful visual imagery, consequences clearly illustrated. Again, Proverbs urges us to choose the way of wisdom because it’s the smarter way to go.
Granted, Proverbial wisdom implies that good choices are always rewarded and bad decisions always lead to bad consequences. It simply ain’t so, of course. Sometimes it feels like the more fitting proverb is “no good deed goes unpunished!” If you’ve ever entertained that thought, you’ll definitely want to stay tuned when we turn to the book of Job next week. You may find a kindred spirit there.
But for all my inclination to temper the simplicity of its system, I still find much more in Proverbs than a sort of quaint old-fashioned book about life being perfect for those who walk the straight and narrow. There’s a realism here too. No, good choices aren’t always rewarded in the ways we expect. But there clearly are good and bad choices in life, and I expect we’ve all made some of each. Life is all about making choices. Some of them trivial – what to have for dinner, what color to paint the living room. Others with more lasting consequences—like which career to pursue, or when or whether to marry. We make choices every day of our lives – what we purchase, where we live, how we vote. And in some cases, we sense we are making a really significant choice. So we ask ourselves, our friends, wise mentors, if we have them: which path is likely to end in success, and which in failure? Which path will be life-giving, and which one draining? Which choice is the smart choice? Which way is the way of wisdom?
With this question in mind, let me read you another brief passage from Proverbs 26:4-5. This one’s a little tricky, so listen closely:
Answer not a fool according to his folly, lest you be like him yourself.
Answer a fool according to his folly, lest he be wise in his own eyes.”
OK, so which is it? Are we supposed to answer fools according to their folly or not? Do we or don’t we? Yes. Both. Wisdom is about knowing when to apply which piece of advice. The art of steering along life’s path involves not only choosing between right and wrong, but between right and right. Because it depends, doesn’t it? Depends on the person hearing the advice. Depends on the fool. Depends on the timing. Depends on who else is standing around. The wise person will steer her way down the right path at the right time.
One of the more intriguing qualities of the book of Proverbs is the way it sets contradictory sayings side by side like this – to make that very point, that different pieces of advice apply at different times.
When you think about it, we pass around bits of contradictory advice outside the Bible too. “A stitch in time saves nine,” but “haste makes waste.” . . . “Look before you leap,” but “he who hesitates is lost.” So which is it? Both. It depends on the situation.
Each piece of advice is worth adding to our toolbox. But they’re not universally useful or their opposites wouldn’t be just as popular. Wisdom is about steering our way along life’s road, choosing not only between right and wrong but sometimes between right and right. Sometimes the road forks, and the way of folly is dark and creepy and overgrown and the way of wisdom is clearly marked with brightly colored signs and a yellow brick road. Those are the clearer choices between right and wrong, between wisdom and stupidity. But sometimes the road forks and each path could be a way of wisdom – it all depends on who’s walking the path, and when, which way they should go. The right path for me to take might not be the right path for you to take. The right path for me to take today might not be the right path for me to take a year from now, or next Tuesday. Wisdom as the art of steering involves all kinds of choices.
Bits of biblical truth are sometimes dispensed like fortune cookie sayings – just crack one open and it’ll automatically apply. But life is much too varied, and the Scriptures are too varied too, for that approach to work very well. Certainly some things are true always and everywhere. The Bible is quite clear, for instance, that wisdom is always better than folly, and righteousness is always better than wickedness, and we are always, always to remember our place before God. But some pieces of wisdom simply don’t apply in every situation. So we need to apply wisdom to the task of determining which good word to apply when.
It can be a little daunting to be faced with choices at every turn, not always knowing how things will turn out in the end. In the movies, people sometimes get a chance to sneak a peek at the road-not-taken. In “Me, Myself, I” for instance, a single 30-something businesswoman runs into a parallel version of herself, the version that said yes to that marriage proposal 13 years ago, and gets a chance to see what her life would have been like if she had chosen to get married and start a family at that time. At the same time, the married-with-three-kids version of herself also gets a chance to see what the single life would have been like. The movie “Family Man” told essentially the same story from a male perspective. In the real world, of course, we don’t get those opportunities. We can only do our best to imagine where each road will take us, when we’re faced with a decision; then we have to dive in and make our choice.
And let’s face it, if wisdom is the art of steering, there are times we’d just as soon keep the car in park. But what keeps us from becoming paralyzed by the complexity of it all is the assurance that we have more than a collection of useful words of wisdom, we have more than a guidebook full of directions – we have the promise of a Companion on the way.
As we read elsewhere in Proverbs, if we trust in the Lord with all our hearts, God will be there to direct our paths. (Prov 3:5-6). Life is complex, and there are all kinds of choices to be made. But we can step out in confidence and hope knowing that we never face life’s decisions alone. Thanks be to God. Amen.