Wednesday, July 22, 2009

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The Turning Away of the Simple


Will you turn away at my reproof?” (Pr. 1:23, ESV margin)
It’s what you learn after you know it all that counts.” (John Wooden)

The Book of Proverbs lends itself to an instructive daily reading program, due to having 31 chapters of accessible length. A big advantage to doing this is that, after repeating the course for a while, one begins to get a feeling for some of its important characters, ones whose names may cause us to misinterpret them at first.

One such character is “the simple”, and the motivation behind this post is a widespread tendency in the church to fail this fellow: He is in our congregations, and is in great peril, but not only do we often not “move heaven and earth” to rescue him, but we may even praise him for the very traits that endanger him!

The proverbs of Solomon, son of David, king of Israel:
...
to give prudence to the simple,
knowledge and discretion to the youth - ...
.” (Pr. 1:1,4)

We are told at the outset of Proverbs that one of the purposes of the book is, “... to give prudence to the simple, knowledge and discretion to the youth”. The association of “simplicity” with youth in this verse gives some of its flavor. Expositors and translators often search for other words than “simple”, because of our tendency to misinterpret it. I have heard “naive” used. But, in the end, I think that only frequent reading of Proverbs really gets the message home:

A “simple” person is wont to “turn away”, as the citation above from Pr. 1:23 indicates, when given advice. He doesn’t believe that life is as serious as his counselors tell him it is, or that things won’t just naturally work out as he wants them to do without all that much trouble. Alfred E. Newman’s mindset is his, “What Me Worry?” The John Wooden quote above also captures much of him - he already “knows it all”.

That this state of mind is often characteristic of the young is hardly a surprise. Most parents have experienced the rolling eyes, the muttered, “Yeah, yeah” (or worse, “Yadda, yadda”) and all the other signs that they’re really “not getting through”. Many have also seen the consequences, since this mindset is pregnant with trouble:

The simple believes everything,
but the prudent gives thought to his steps.
” (Pr. 14:15)
The prudent sees danger and hides himself,
but the simple go on and suffer for it
.” (Pr. 27:12)

However, while the young are prone to thinking this way, the trait is not limited to them. Most of us can think of people we know who have persisted into adulthood with it, and have continued, “believing everything” and “suffering for it”. And yet, while this happens, it happens without the lightness that accompanied it when they were young. Life has caught up with them, and they have, as Derek Kidner points out in his book on Proverbs, found that simplicity is an inherently unstable state:

The simple inherit folly,
but the prudent are crowned with wisdom.
” (Pr. 14:18)

In other words, a simple person is poised on something of a knife-edge: He can listen to the exhortations of his elders and turn to wisdom, or he can fall into folly - that is, become a fool.

With this, we come to another character in Proverbs that we may misinterpret, unless we take the trouble to get to know him. He comes in at least two manifestations there which are of interest here: One of them, “the fool proper” is violent and opinionated:

A fool’s lips walk into a fight,
and his mouth invites a beating.
” (Pr. 18:6)
A fool takes no pleasure in understanding,
but only in expressing his opinion.
” (Pr. 18:2)

A man like this rejected advice and counsel when he was young, consequences caught up with him, and his response has been anger: It hasn’t been his fault. “The system” was stacked against him:

When a man’s folly brings his way to ruin,
his heart rages against the LORD
.” (Pr. 19:3)

The other manifestation is the character in Proverbs called “the sluggard”. Our first inclination may be to think that this fellow is something like Beetle Baily, but that’s far from true, and we do better if we think of “the sluggard” as being someone we might call “depressed”. He has a thousand excuses for inactivity, and, indeed is paralyzed by it:

The sluggard says, ‘There is a lion outside!’
I shall be killed in the streets!
” (Pr. 22:13)
The sluggard buries his hand in the dish
and will not even bring it back to his mouth
.” (Pr. 19:24)

Like the “fool proper”, this type of fool would not listen while young, but his response, instead of “raging against the LORD” is a sort of befuddled whining against Him. He will spend his days, closeted uselessly somewhere, all the while wondering why things haven’t turned out better.

The sluggard does not plow in autumn;
he will seek at harvest and have nothing.
” (Pr. 20:4)

What should be clear to us as we consider these two manifestations of folly is that they are spiritually deadly: These characters are sinking (the sluggard) or charging (the fool) into perdition! And this is the risk that faces the simple as he confronts his choice early in life: Will he listen and seek wisdom, or will he “turn away”:

For the simple are killed by their turning away, ....” (Pr. 1:32)

But, as I asked at the beginning of this post, do we in the church really take the urgency of this situation seriously? Do we really see the simplicity of the young as Scripture sees it, a sinful and dangerous state? Do we respond as the Book of Proverbs does with frequent and frank exhortations to change?

Leave your simple ways, and live,
and walk in the way of insight.
” (Pr. 9:6)

Or do we instead, ape the fads and fashions of the young, and corrupt our teaching and worship in order to attract those caught up in “the youth culture” (including a lot of so-called adults, who should know better by now)?

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