Proverbs are kitchen talk.
It matters whose kitchen you’re in. Maybe you’ve experienced this with a parent or relative that has shaped your world through proverbial expressions. They teach you how to live skillfully in the world of the proverb-teller. In my home it was quoting Melloncamp, “I fight authority / authority always wins.” I heard it every time I didn’t like a decision. The proverb reminds you of the person, and the setting. When you hear, “A man is not finished when he is defeated, he is finished when he quits.” It’s inspiring. But when you know that Richard Nixon said it, the only president to resign the office, it takes on more meaning. Proverbs work within their own ecosystem. Within their own “kitchen,” so to speak.
The proverbs in Scripture are the same. They were never intended to work alone, though they are good advice for anyone. They were intended to be lived out within the ethical world God had created for his people. So the proverbs make greater sense at the kitchen table created by a redeeming, self-giving, sovereign king and Lord. And so when we read the Proverbs we are learning about life in the world where God is King. Proverbs tells us how to live with skill in that world.
Proverbs 16 is a killer. You’ll notice all sorts of familiar sayings, but one that caught my eye this morning is verse 19: “It is better to be of a lowly spirit with the poor than to divide the spoil with the proud.” There is one sense in which this is terrible advice. In the world at-large it makes sense to divide the spoil, to get while the getting’s good. But the shocking truth here is that God’s ecosystem is so different that what makes a person poor is not their possessions but their pride, because only the humble can hear God as He is, and only the humble can cling to God in desperation. And the person who clings to God inherits everything, according to Jesus (Mt. 6.33, 13.44); which means that, in the ethical world God has created, only the humble can be rich.