Thursday, January 11, 2001

GET WISDOM: Address 5: Meet Sister Prudence (Prov 10)

Address 5: Meet Sister Prudence (Proverbs 10)

There is a saying from Rwanda and Burundi that goes like this: Proverbs are the daughters of experience. This seems to me a good description of the body of teaching which we find in the second half of the Book of Proverbs, beginning with chapter 10.

The first nine chapters of the book are in the form of a series of parents’ instructions to a young person leaving home. In these instructions, the son learns over and over that there are two and only two ways to lead one’s life: according to Lady Wisdom or according to the Wicked Woman. One way leads to honour, success and happiness; the other way leads to dishonour, degradation, and death. The student has a choice, and the father or mother urges: Choose life, choose wisdom.

In Proverbs, chapters 1-9, we meet Lady Wisdom in her finest gomesi, dressed to win over new students. But in chapter 10 and following, we meet her in her everyday working clothes. Indeed she is not now so much Lady Wisdom as Sister Prudence.

Prudence is an English word that has fallen out of fashion somewhat. It is associated by many people with being a prude. A prude is someone who is fussy, humourless, and moralistic. In the West today, sophisticated people can tolerate all sorts of foul talk and foul ideas, but they cannot tolerate prudishness. These same people often identify Christian prudence with Christian prudishness, and to be honest there are Christians who are excessively negative and moralistic (that’s not the same a moral), and they give prudence a bad name.

But prudence is not really prudish. Prudent people can laugh at the odd things that happen in the world. Indeed some proverbs are not only clever but a bit naughty. Try this one from Zimbabwe: The monkey does not see his own hind parts; he sees his neighbours’. Now the point of the parable is similar to Jesus’ teaching about people see the speck in another person’s eye but not the log in their own eye (Matthew 7:3). Both these proverbs cleverly catch your attention by analogy and exaggeration.

If proverbs are the daughters of experience, then prudence is their sister. Prudence means practical wisdom. We might even call it “applied science” if by science we include all areas of knowledge. Applied science involves a person in learning certain principles on the job or in the laboratory. Applied science is not learned so much from theory as from experiment. The same is true of prudence.

Prudence, however, is the mistress of all other applied knowledge. We might think of it this way. The President of the country may not himself be an engineer or a doctor or a agriculturalist. But as President, he must know how to organize the various departments of government to see that the building and medical and food needs of the country are met. And that skill is prudence: the art of wise leadership. Prudence then is the particular virtue of a Solomon, and so it is appropriate that the second section of the books is titled: The Proverbs of Solomon

The first characteristic of prudence, not surprisingly given the source of wisdom, is teachableness, and the first teachers are parents. Solomon begins by describing not the benefits of prudence to the student but the emotions of the teacher. Thus he says: A wise son makes a glad father, but a foolish son is a sorrow to his mother (10:1).When parents send their children away from home, they hold their breath to see if they fly or if they fall. However hard the parents may try, they cannot be sure their children were listening with “ears to hear.”

A prime motivation for a child to learn is the desire to please its parents. As a child gets older this desire weakens. The father describes this moment of maturity or immaturity when he says: He who heeds instruction is on the path to life, but he who rejects reproof goes astray (verse 17). One of the most painful things for a parent is to see the back of their prodigal son or daughter as they walk away from good advice. On the other hand, a young person who can transfer the original child-like desire to please to his later teachers will be a successful learner. I have found as a teacher that there is an immense difference between the student whose primary attitude is “I want to learn,” and the student who has determined in advance, “I can’t” or “I won’t.” So an Ashanti proverb says: When a man is coming toward you, you do not need to say, “Come here.” Again a Nigerian proverb puts the same truth this way: Not to know is bad; not to wish to know is worse.

So if the beginning of wisdom is the fear of the Lord, the beginning of prudence is a willingness to learn from the experience of others. The whole idea of proverbs is to collect nuggets of wisdom from various anonymous teachers of every age and every culture. There comes another stage in the school of prudence when one moves from being a learner to being a teacher, from listening to teaching. At this stage, prudence is concerned with the manner of one’s speaking to others. Hence the observation that The wise of heart will heed commandments, but a prating fool will come to ruin (10:8).

The particular vice of the fool is “prating” or “loose lips.” The imprudent mouth reveals a heart that is not right with God or man: His teeth are smiling, but is his heart? says a proverb from Congo. I am sure you know the “hail fellow well met” person who tells amusing stories about other people in your presence, but you suspect that he will tell amusing stories about you in others’ presence when you are away.

By contrast, the second characteristic of prudence is honest speech. It should come as no surprise that the God of the Bible, who carefully created everything in the world according to his Word puts a premium on clear and straightforward speech. Solomon often refers to a straight-talking person as “righteous”: The mouth of the righteous is a fountain of life, but the mouth of the wicked conceals violence (verse 11). Similarly Jesus taught: “Let your yes by yes and your No be No. And he warned against those who said “Lord, Lord” but did not act according to their profession.

According to Scripture, we are to speak boldly, for the sake of kindness. He who winks the eye causes trouble, but he who boldly reproves makes peace (verse 10). Many people have the idea that only “fools rush in” to difficult situations and that prudent people are cautious and even devious, that they will not risk themselves for their conviction. That is not the correct picture. One of my dear friends was a lawyer who simply placed a Bible on his desk. He did not force his religion on his clients, but they knew where he stood and if they asked him about the Bible, he had a ready answer for them.

Honest speech builds up a community, but devious speech undermines it. Hatred stirs up strife, Solomon says, but love covers all offenses (verse 12). Reconciling words can “defuse” a volatile situation. A few caring words can turn an enemy’s heart, just as Jesus’ words from the Cross, “Father, forgive them,” struck deep into the apostles’ consciousness.

The third notable characteristic of prudence is discretion. A person’s words are to be straight, and they are also to be few. Wise men lay up knowledge, but the babbling of a fool brings ruin near (verse 14). The Baganda make a similar point when they say: Akamwa k'omuntu: si ka nte. A man's mouth should not be a cow's mouth. A cow turns his cud over and over, but a human being should speak briefly and not idly.

Modern society, I fear, is overly impressed with “talking heads,” commentators on television who give “instant analysis” of every current event. Some years ago, a United States Presiden was campaigning and said: “Read my lips: no new taxes.” Then when he won the office, he raised taxes and his words came back to haunt him. In the present age of video, it is good to remember that every word you speak may become an “instant replay” on the silver screen. More importantly, remember that your words are spoken not just before men but before God, who knows the heart, “For we shall all stand before the judgment seat of God (Romans 14:10).

Idle talk or gossip is one of the most insidious practices, the Devil’s own way of subversion. Too much discussion means a quarrel says a proverb from Ivory Coast. But no one has warned about gossip as powerfully as James, the Lord’s brother, when he says:

So the tongue is a little member and boasts of great things. How great a forest is set ablaze by a small fire! And the tongue is a fire. The tongue is an unrighteous world among our members, staining the whole body, setting on fire the cycle of nature, and set on fire by hell. For every kind of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by humankind, 8 but no human being can tame the tongue – a restless evil, full of deadly poison. (James 3:5-8)

If gossip is close to godlessness, then prudence is close to silence. Very seldom will a person tell a lie by keeping silent. More positively, thoughts precede words, and so thoughtfulness begins with meditation. Another Luganda proverb says this: Abuulira alowooza: asirika akira. One who talks, forms opinions: but one who keeps silent, does even better.
The Germans have a similar saying: Reden ist Silber, Schweigen ist Gold. Speaking is Silver, but Silence is Golden.

Not to say that stone silence is a virtue. Remember Job’s comforters. They were examples of thoughtlessness. They said nothing for a week, and then when they spoke they poured out judgment on poor Job. The prudent person says the right word at the right time: The lips of the righteous know what is acceptable (verse 32). Sometimes this is a word spoken with a caring squeeze of the hand. Sometimes it is a sympathy note or a thank you note. I must confess this part of prudence has not been my strong gift, but my wife has covered a multitude of my indiscretions by hand-written notes to many, many people.

Perhaps you have now made a first acquaintance of Sister Prudence, whom Solomon so highly praises. And not only Solomon but many other cultures of the world recognize her merits in their traditional sayings. In so doing, they recognize indirectly that God is the Father of prudence, that God directs the way of the person who is teachable, who speaks honestly, and who exercises discretion. I trust you shall learn to know her better as we read through the Book of Proverbs and also as you live your life here at Uganda Christian University.

Take sister Prudence as a friend and store up some of her nuggets of wisdom.

Proverbs, Chapter 10


The Proverbs of Solomon
A wise son makes a glad father, but a foolish son is a sorrow to his mother. (10:1).

The wise of heart will heed commandments, but a prating fool will come to ruin (verse 8).

He who winks the eye causes trouble, but he who boldly reproves makes peace (verse 10).

The mouth of the righteous is a fountain of life, but the mouth of the wicked conceals violence (verse 11).

Hatred stirs up strife, but love covers all offenses (verse 12).

Wise men lay up knowledge, but the babbling of a fool brings ruin near (verse 14).

He who heeds instruction is on the path to life, but he who rejects reproof goes astray. (verse 17).

The lips of the righteous know what is acceptable. (verse 32).

African and Other Proverbs

Proverbs are the daughters of experience. Proverb from Rwanda and Burundi)

The monkey does not see his own hind parts; he sees his neighbours’. (Zimbabwe proverb)

When a man is coming toward you, you do not need to say, “Come here.” (Ashanti proverb)

Not to know is bad; not to wish to know is worse. (Nigerian proverb)

His teeth are smiling, but is his heart? (Congo proverb)

Akamwa k'omuntu: si ka nte. A man's mouth should not be a cow's mouth. (Baganda proverb)

Too much discussion means a quarrel. (Ivory Coast proverb)

Abuulira alowooza: asirika akira. One who talks, forms opinions: but one who keeps silent, does even better. (Baganda proverb)

Reden ist Silber, Schweigen ist Gold. Speaking is Silver, but Silence is Golden. (German proverb)



Revised 4 November 2006

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