We need to be careful when we read Proverbs out of context and pick only the verses that promise us wealth, success, and a blessed life. That is the trap of the prosperity gospel. They lift Proverbs out of context and do not preach the whole Gospel. Too often we have turned Scripture into something that reads more like Ben Franklin’s “Poor Richard’s Almanac.”
Remember when Paul encountered the believers in Ephesus and they had only heard the gospel of John and repentance but not the gospel of the resurrection? They had ethics but not spiritual power. They had a church that valued the benefits of John’s example and stern teaching but not the power of the Holy Spirit. That is what happens when we cherry pick OT verses and turn them into formulae for success.
It is what happens when the desire of our hearts is wealth, reputation, health, long life, and favor. A relationship with God we respect and revere becomes a transaction. Those blessings are not things to be rejected but they are not the marks of faithfulness now that they might have once been. They are blessings but they are not essential for our faith and they are not proof of our righteousness before God. We should welcome them when they come but they are not the sources of our contentment. As we have seen in the last few months, those things can go away in a moment.
We need to read Proverbs in the context of the New Testament teaching about our lives. Life is not about material success or even being well thought of by others as it was in Israel with its incomplete understanding of God. There are principles in Proverbs but we cannot make them into ironclad promises. It is better to live a life of integrity. It is better to be a person of character. It is better to be known as a person of faithfulness. Especially if we are in positions of influence. However, that is superseded and completed by the coming of Christ
Jesus did not come to destroy the Law but to fulfill it. He did not come to say Proverbs is wrong but to say that is not the whole story. Jesus created a much larger context for the purpose of the Law and Paul went even further. The Law and the Old Testament way of looking at life was our tutor. It brought us up to a certain point but while we do not throw it out it is no longer in charge of us. The new Law has superseded the old. Look how often Jesus says, “You have heard it said…but I say unto you.” That is how we need to read Proverbs
Look at 2 Corinthians 11:
“I am speaking like I am out of my mind, but I am so much more: in harder labor, in more imprisonments, in worse beatings, in frequent danger of death. Five times I received from the Jews the forty lashes minus one. Three times I was beaten with rods, once I was stoned, three times I was shipwrecked. I spent a night and a day in the open sea.
In my frequent journeys, I have been in danger from rivers and from bandits, in danger from my countrymen and from the Gentiles, in danger in the city and in the country, in danger on the sea and among false brothers, in labor and toil and often without sleep, in hunger and thirst and often without food, in cold and exposure.
Apart from these external trials, I face daily the pressure of my concern for all the churches. Who is weak, and I am not weak? Who is led into sin, and I do not burn with grief?
If I must boast, I will boast of the things that show my weakness.”
Look at Hebrews 11:
“There were others who were tortured, refusing to be released so that they might gain an even better resurrection. Some faced jeers and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. They were put to death by stoning; they were sawed in two; they were killed by the sword. They went about in sheepskins and goatskins, destitute, persecuted and mistreated— the world was not worthy of them. They wandered in deserts and mountains, living in caves and in holes in the ground.”
The Apostle Peter says we are not to be surprised when we encounter suffering and trials but we are, aren’t we? We don’t expect it oftentimes because we have read into Proverbs what we wanted to believe. We have done our part and expect God to do his.
Look at the Beatitudes:
“Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.”
We are not promised an easy or prosperous life. That is not the goal. The goal is maturity.
Alexander Solzhenitsyn understood this when he wrote:
“Bless you prison, bless you for being in my life. For there, lying upon the rotting prison straw, I came to realize that the object of life is not prosperity as we are made to believe, but the maturity of the human soul.”
The goal is being a witness. “I will make you witnesses” is what Jesus says before his return to heaven. The goal is not satisfaction but serving. In fact, we should expect suffering, misunderstanding, hardship, and even persecution because the world does not always reward integrity and character. Sometimes it does but, in fact, it often rewards just the opposite and it looks to get rid of the virtues we read about in Proverbs. Instead of love and faithfulness the world values expediency and using people. Instead of a good name based on character the world will be satisfied with fame and outrageous behavior that attracts attention. Instead of trusting in the Lord, the world trusts power, dominance, manipulation, lies and bullying. Instead of honoring the Lord, the world finds ways to use the name of the Lord for their own purposes. Instead of discipline, the world values those who are undisciplined and love creating chaos and turmoil.
But, that said, the guidance the father is giving his son is invaluable. It is much better to live inside these principles than without them. It is much better to pursue the principles of Proverbs – especially as a ruler or leader – than be a fool.
We not only have the assurance of God’s love and faithfulness but those should be marks of our own lives. Are we faithful or fickle? Are we steadfast or always blown about by the winds of changing circumstances? Are we persevering or do we fade when hardships or rejection comes? Faithfulness is what remains when everything else has been eroded away.
Do we trust in the Lord or other things? We don’t really know until we lose those other things, do we? I have often thought I trusted in the Lord with all my heart only to discover that I trusted Him with certain things in my life but not with others. I did not have the trust of Job who said in the midst of the worst trials, “Though he slay me yet will I trust him.” My trust was built on blessings but faded quickly when hardships came.
Do I honor the Lord with my wealth or do I use my wealth to honor my social standing by giving? How does my giving honor God? What do people say about God or do they talk about me? Does my giving make them feel obligated to thank me or does it turn their eyes toward God?
Look at 2 Corinthians 9
“This service that you perform is not only supplying the needs of the Lord’s people but is also overflowing in many expressions of thanks to God. Because of the service by which you have proved yourselves, others will praise God for the obedience that accompanies your confession of the gospel of Christ, and for your generosity in sharing with them and with everyone else. And in their prayers for you their hearts will go out to you, because of the surpassing grace God has given you. Thanks be to God for his indescribable gift!”
Finally, do I welcome discipline? Discipline is not the same as punishment, is it? It is structure and correction with the intention of improving and making more mature and wise. We need to remember that we are being prepared not just for this life but for the life to come. God is guiding us toward that and not just toward a good life now.
Proverbs has value as principles but not as guaranteed promises of prosperity and success. It is one of God’s tools for shaping us but is not the whole of God’s word for us.