We have all grown up with aphorisms that are thought to distill some guidance for how to live our lives. "An apple a day keeps the doctor away," says one. "A penny saved is a penny earned," says another.

The Bible has an entire book of such aphorisms, called Proverbs. And, of course, there are other places in the Bible, such as Jesus' teachings ("the sabbath was made for humankind, not humans for the sabbath"), where we find such compact forms of wisdom.

The question that is raised by all such forms of advice is--What sort of authority and application should such materials have in a believer's life? Is it really and always true that if you train up children in the way they should go that they will not depart from it in their old age? Does sparing the rod really always spoil the child? In order to address these questions, several things must be kept in mind.

First, most modern proverbs or aphorisms come under the heading of what we might call common sense. They are the sort of wisdom distilled from years of human experience. They may also come from keen observance of nature.

Biblical wisdom, on the other hand, is not always of this variety. It comes from reflecting on God and on his Word. Modern aphorisms tend to be someone's ideas for how to "live long and prosper," but only some biblical wisdom is of this ilk---particularly some of the material in Proverbs. But even Proverbs stresses that the beginning of all wisdom is reverence for God.

Second, within the Bible there are several sorts of wisdom utterances. Some teaching, such as most of Proverbs, is intended for a setting where life is going on as normal, and the social context provides a network of support. But such truisms are not, in fact, confirmed in human experience when there is a war going on or some other kind of major social upheaval.

For example, the book of Ecclesiastes assumes a very different social context from that of Proverbs and suggests that in that context, it is as likely to be the wicked as the righteous who live long and prosper. (See Ecclesiastes 2:18-19, which reads, "Thus I hated all the fruit of my labor for which I had labored under the sun, for I must leave it to the man who will come after me. And who knows whether he will be a wise man or a fool? Yet he will have control over all the fruit of my labor for which I have labored by acting wisely under the sun.") The wisdom that Qoheleth (the "Preacher/Teacher" whose observations comprise Ecclesiastes) offers goes against the prevailing grain of society and its character.

Thirdly, there is eschatological wisdom, the sort of wisdom Jesus and his followers spoke of, which is revealed truth that must be enacted by an intervention of God into the fallen world's normal processes. When Jesus tells us that the least, last, and lost will one day become the first, most, and found, he is hardly spouting common-sense wisdom. No, he is speaking of an end-time reversal that only the saving action of God can bring about. The wisdom he offers does not, by and large, come from keen observation of nature or human conduct. It comes from knowing the mind of God.

Which brings us back to the book of Proverbs once more. What Proverbs teaches us about sloth, or temptation, or child-rearing, or handling money is indeed wisdom if one lives in a situation where hard work has an opportunity to pay off, or there actually is such a thing as disposable resources. For example, what happens if you're a desperate refugee living in a camp in the developing world? It's not always so easy to make moral choices or even simply good decisions.

Proverbs are not magical formulas that are true in any and all circumstances, but they do express some wisdom about certain kinds of circumstances in certain kinds of contexts. This must be borne closely in mind when studying biblical wisdom, lest a truism become a falsehood falsely applied, or even worse, a cliche that rings hollow.
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