scribe.2 This is from a talk given to a chaplains group.

Romans 12:2:  Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.

Since no one has used this verse, I thought I would!  The verse talks about transformation through the life of the mind.  Or maybe it is better to say the new life of the mind.  For this verse follows the previous which references the mercies of God.  We are not talking the power of positive thinking, or a mental exercise, but how God goes about making us over into the image of Christ.

I’d to talk about this with a few stories of how words can be transformative.

In high school I was not in the popular group, we called them “soshes”.  I was not in the smoker group, the shop guys or the jocks.  I was in a group of guys who ate lunch together every day at the same table in the cafeteria.  We did not really do anything all that well except to insult each other. This is a rather common form of male humor.  The point of which is not to be left without a response but to answer every sharp word-strike with a counter blow.  I was pretty good at this.

All this time I was coming to terms with my faith.  It was when I was a junior in high school that I prayed the prayer. I was at a Christian conference in Seattle, and while walking through he hallways of the basketball arena, I tried to imagined a conversation with Jesus.  The thing that struck me was that I had nothing to say – Nothing at all.   Something was wrong.  The speaker gave an invitation to receive Christ.  I took the chance.

Shortly after that I was reading in the book of Proverbs.  I came to this verse Proverbs 10:11:

The mouth of the righteous is a fountain of life,
but the mouth of the wicked conceals violence

Bam!  The verse, more or less, reached out and slapped me across the face.

I realized that my mouth was a fountain of insults, not of life.  So things started to change for my last year of high school. I discovered that I had been friends with these guys for years but did not know anything about them – one guy wanted to go into social work, another wanted to be a radio announcer.  When I quit insulting them I came to see them as pretty interesting guys

The next year I was at the U of Washington and involved with Inter Varsity.  At a conference we were supposed to use a paper bag to talk about what is the difference between what is on the inside and the outside.   From years of insults  I had learned to keep anything very important tucked deeply inside.  As I recall the speaker was making a point from the Sermon on the Mount.  The beatitude which says: Matthew 5:8

Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.

The idea here is not so much spotlessness, but that the out ward and the inward correspond.  Blessed are those who are truly who they are on the inside and outside, who do not pretend to be something. This verse was added to the one before.

The book of James that has a lot to say about the tongue.

When we put bits into the mouths of horses to make them obey us, we can turn the whole animal. Or take ships as an example. Although they are so large and are driven by strong winds, they are steered by a very small rudder wherever the pilot wants to go. Likewise, the tongue is a small part of the body, but it makes great boasts. Consider what a great forest is set on fire by a small spark. The tongue also is a fire, a world of evil among the parts of the body. It corrupts the whole body, sets the whole course of one’s life on fire, and is itself set on fire by hell.

All kinds of animals, birds, reptiles and sea creatures are being tamed and have been tamed by mankind, but no human being can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison.

The tongue has power, would I use mine for good or evil?

Now that I work along truck drivers and construction workers, I see the pattern of communication that I was very much a part of back in high school.   I hope that by a few well spoken words, some of that also might be transformed.

A few years ago I began to get interested in Wisdom Literature in the Bible – these are books such as Proverbs, Ecclesiastes and Job as well as certain literary forms such as parables and proverbs.  I came across the passage in Proverbs 6 that talks about adultery.  It dies not quote the 7th commandment.  It paints a work picture: Pv 6:27

Can a man scoop fire into his lap
without his clothes being burned?

Wisdom Literature is like the music of revelation in another key signature. It does not work so much from commands, but with comparisons.  It observes and puts things side by side for us to notice. The interesting thing is that it can get to some places where the Ten Commandments might not be well received – such as Progressive Madison.  These words tell us that playing around sexually is playing with fire.  These are a lot like James’ point that words themselves are playing with fire.

I believe in the transformative power of words.  Not a flood of them.  Not the same words for every audience.  But in terms of another proverbs, words that are well crafted to the situation:  Proverbs 25:11

A word fitly spoken
is like apples of gold in a setting of silver.

In our work we often only get a few words to share. I believe that these can be transformative, because I believe in the power of the word.

Episodic Proverbs and a Cup of Coffee


The one liner proverbs in life and from the Bible seem to lie dormant until a situation brings them to life.  I thought of this while studying some proverbs on how to listen and how to speak regarding the news.

This week there is a kerfuffle about Starbucks red cups.  someone somewhere declared that Starbucks made war on Christmas.  Now this is clicking all over social media.  In a week or a month this will pass.  No one will remember except that some religious folk are prone to goofiness.

Let me suggest this: read and think before you click, like, forward, paste and otherwise multiply this sort of thing.  Here is a proverb that applies:

The one who states his case first seems right,
    until the other comes and examines him. 

Proverbs 18:17

The news reader should always check the source, and even listen to another point of view. If you only listen to the news you agree with, don’t you wonder if you are getting the truth?  Listen to who who don’t agree and you may get a better sense of the issue.

About 20 years ago, a man become famous in my city by suggesting that a building burning down was God’s judgment on a particular kind of behavior that was associated with that location.  This kind of overstatement occurs around social issues and political campaigns.  It was an overstatement; who can tell us the mind of God in a situation?

In  a political year some prosper by division – their guiding proverb is “divide and conquer.”  Others simply don’t care if their claims are true or helpful.  A biblical proverb that applies here is:

Scoffers set a city aflame,
    but the wise turn away wrath.

Proverbs 29:8

As a teenager my clan rejoiced in well placed insults.  That continued until I read this proverb which jumped out of the book and slapped my upside the head:

The mouth of the righteous is a fountain of life,
    but the mouth of the wicked conceals violence.

Proverbs 10:11

Violence seems strong.  Words are not supposed to hurt, like sticks and stones.  Yet words can do violence to a community, to good will, to the chance of getting a hearing in the larger public, to friendships, to reputations and to friendships.  The righteous produce words that give life, like a fountain of fresh water.


Scholars Compass – Wisdom Literature

306px-Wisdom_-_Google_Art_Project-191x300 I recently posted three pieces in an online devotional called Scholars Compass, which is part of the Emerging Scholars Network with IVCF.

Post 1 – How I Discovered Wisdom Literature

Post 2 – How I Fell in Love with the Library

Post 3 – How Wisdom Calls Out in the Streets

A Proverb is like a Punchline



One scholar said that a proverb is like the punch line of a joke where the rest of the joke is missing.  So you have to think of what kind of story fits the punch line.

Here is a punch line:  “Pastor Dave’s feels longer.”

That does not make a lot of sense.  But when it comes after the first part of the joke it does.


Q: Which is longer, a World Cup game or Pastor Dave’s sermon?

A:  Pastor Dave’s feels longer.





Proverbs 3:5-6 – A Fresh Look

scenes 040.smThis is one of the Favorite Verses I am preaching on this summer.

5 Trust in the Lord with all your heart,
and do not lean on your own understanding.
In all your ways acknowledge him,
and he will make straight your paths.


Heart – the whole inner person is in view – not just sentiment as in English.  Compare to two other verses in context. Among the range of meaning is:  inner man, mind, will, heart, understanding, conscience, soul (Step Bible).

3:1   My son, do not forget my teaching,
    but let your heart keep my commandments

3:3  Let not steadfast love and faithfulness forsake you;
    bind them around your neck;
    write them on the tablet of your heart

Understanding – one of the meanings of this word is the capacity to understanding.  If you read it as “information” it can sound as if one should not know anything. but the Wisdom theme of Proverbs is very much about learning wisdom and discernment. We are not, in the words of Psalm 32, to be like a pack mule that needs constant external direction by a bit in our teeth, but we are to be instructed so we can make wise decisions. (Psalm 32:8-9).  If we accept the word as “capacity to understand” it speaks of not finding our wisdom only from ourselves.

Notice that Heart and Understanding are somewhat parallel words on the inner person.

I have summarized this line of thought:

 Trust with your heart; Don’t trust in your heart.

That is, the object of trust and direction is the Lord, not the inner life.

All – With all of your heart (v. 5) and in all of your ways (v.6) live by faith.  There is no room here for holding back a reserve of non-trust.  That is, the verses does not permit us to think that one part of our life is spiritual and the other is going along to get along in life.  We are to live a categorically faithful life, not life of categories.

Path/Way – Two words are used for path, both can be literal or metaphorical.  “In all your paths acknowledge him” this word for path is “derek” which is used over 700 times in the OT.  “and he will made straight your paths” this word for path is “orak” which is used about 70 times.  The idea of a path or way is commonly used in Wisdom literature, the prophets and in Deuteronomy to talk metaphorically about the course or direction of your life in a moral and spiritual sense.

Smooth/Straight – the translations divide evenly on translating this word.  Smooth suggests straight in a vertical dimension, and similar to Isaiah 40 on making a smooth path.  This is the path that is easy.  Straight suggests straingt in a horizontal direction and fits with the frequent command that one turns neither to the left or to the right. This is the path that is true.

I wonder if this “straightening” of our path is a rescue operation:

 “So you find your way in life hard?  Are you lost?  Is it because you are divided in your faith and selective in your willingness to be instructed?  Trust him fully and he will remove the potholes and direct you out of your lost condition.”

 see Isaiah 40:3-5; Psalm 1; James 1:2-8; Matthew 5:8; Deuteronomy 6


Harmony Circle –

block party

    Tom and Beth lived on Harmony circle in a quiet and friendly neighborhood.  It was the kind of place where the neighbors kept an eye on each other’s kids when they were playing outside or in the cul-de-sac.  They held a block party every 4th of July weekend.  They grilled their food and lit their fireworks. There was Harmony on this circle until it all fell apart.

This is how it happened.  Al and Des lived two houses over.  Al was a contractor and his garage had every tool and gadget that a man could love.  Al was hard to shop for on Father’s day, he didn’t need any of the tools that they advertise and he never wore a neck tie.

Tom asked if he could borrow Al’s chop saw so he could use it to build a deck.  Al agrees and even brought over the new contractor quality saw.  He joked a bit by saying that the tool makes the carpenter – usually.

Tom started to work.  Things when south fast.  He decided to use recycled lumber and as he was cutting, he hit a steel spike.  In a shower of sparks the blade was as dull as a butter knife.  Tom was not put off by that so he continued to work with the dull blade and did not notice that the saw overheated from the extra work and starting to smoke.  “Oops” he said then it stalled out.  I guess I better take it back to Al.  So he took it over and put it by Al’s front door with a thank you note. He did not replace the blade or admit to the error.  And it rained that afternoon. Al came back to a broken tool that was soaking wet.   Tom was a Lawyer, very successful, so he could have bought a couple of saws, but he did not think about that, or even of replacing the blade.

Al was pretty nice about it.  He just said, “Hey Tom, I guess you owe me a new blade.”  Tom said, “What?’ and walked away.  Then next day Al got this note in his mail box from Tom.  “Dear Al, thanks for the tool, though the blade is not very sharp. You really ought to replace it. Your friend, Tom.”

Al decided to keep his distance from Tom and not to lend him tools any more.  When Tom asked about a power nailer, he just said his was not available.  Tom looked kind of mad.

A little later Tom decided to see for himself.  He noticed that the garage door was not shut and he went in. There was the nailer.  So he took it.  “I won’t say anything and he won’t miss it.”   While he was at it he also borrowed with a shop-vac and a power painter.

Al called the police thinking he had been robbed.  This makes Tom laugh and he decided to play along.  He thought, “If Al gets the insurance, I’ll just keep the tools. Well the police simply followed the scrape marks that the tools made as Tom dragged them from Al’s house to his.  So they came and took him in for questioning.  He had to pay bail and hire a lawyer for a $10,000 retainer.

A funny thing happened.  Harmony Circle became Security Circle – the neighbors became worried. They beefed up their security.  Some put up cameras and one got a pit bull.  Another family moved away.  The Kids started to get into fights over name calling. It went like this: “Your dad is a thief.” “Well, your Dad is a wiener.” “Oh yeah”, “Yeah…”  The barbecue was canceled.  In the end, no one talked to each other; they just drove into their garages and shut the doors with their automatic garage openers.

This story illustrates the decline into chaos that can occur with our neighbors. It is written to illustrate the five prohibitions in Proverbs 3:27-31 (NIV)


27 Do not withhold good from those to whom it is due,
when it is in your power to act.
28 Do not say to your neighbor,
“Come back tomorrow and I’ll give it to you”—
when you already have it with you.
29 Do not plot harm against your neighbor,
who lives trustfully near you.
30 Do not accuse anyone for no reason—
when they have done you no harm.

31 Do not envy the violent
or choose any of their ways.


`In the story and in the verses the progression is from withholding good to envying the violent.



Wisdom Literature – bibliography

scribe.2I am posting this in response to a Face Book conversation about Proverbs.  I find Wisdom Literature to be scripture in another key signature, it tends to be observational, not doctrinal in the strict sense, inviting to outsiders  sometimes borrows from outsiders.  We can fall into making it kid stuff, or simplistic rules and regulations   It is best to realize that a proverb, “mashal” in Hebrew, means to lay one thing next to another and see what can be learned.  It is writing to help us notice, think and consider all things but most importantly the “fear of the Lord” before we act.

There are a number of posts on FRESH READ tagged with Wisdom.

Bibliographic Notes on Wisdom Literature

Modern Sensitivites – Proverbs 6




In looking for a text for Mother’s day, which the author considers to be a conspiracy by card and flower companies, a text was found  – Proverbs 6:20ff.

20 My child, keep your father’s commandment,
    and do not forsake your mother’s teaching.
21 Bind them upon your heart always;
    tie them around your neck.
22 When you walk, they will lead you;
    when you lie down, they will watch over you;
    and when you awake, they will talk with you.
23 For the commandment is a lamp and the teaching a light,
    and the reproofs of discipline are the way of life… (NRSV)

So far so good.  It would be nice if it mentioned flowers I suppose.

Then read on, it is a warning from mom and dad against prostitutes:

24 to preserve you from the wife of another,
    from the smooth tongue of the adulteress.
25 Do not desire her beauty in your heart,
    and do not let her capture you with her eyelashes;
26 for a prostitute’s fee is only a loaf of bread,
    but the wife of another stalks a man’s very life.
27 Can fire be carried in the bosom
    without burning one’s clothes?
28 Or can one walk on hot coals
    without scorching the feet?
29 So is he who sleeps with his neighbor’s wife;
    no one who touches her will go unpunished.
30 Thieves are not despised who steal only
    to satisfy their appetite when they are hungry.
31 Yet if they are caught, they will pay sevenfold;
    they will forfeit all the goods of their house.
32 But he who commits adultery has no sense;
    he who does it destroys himself.
33 He will get wounds and dishonor,
    and his disgrace will not be wiped away.
34 For jealousy arouses a husband’s fury,
    and he shows no restraint when he takes revenge.
35 He will accept no compensation,
    and refuses a bribe no matter how great.   (NRSV)

So there are interesting things here. The advice against adultery and prostitution has a practical feel – you will get burned!  Wisdom looks at consequences of choices, and here at least, does not quote the law’s prohibitions.

So will this work as a discussion on Mother’s day?  Well, probably not.  Not in the Midwest, among a people who like greeting cards and flower shops.

It does amuse the be jabbers out of me.

Proverbs 30:1 – Textual Variants

At the start of this passage is a difficult textual problem.  If you have the NIV translation (or one of several others) you will read this:

The sayings  of Agur son of Jakeh—an oracle :

This man declared to Ithiel,

to Ithiel and to Ucal


            I am preaching today from the English Standard Version, because it reads verse one this way.

The words of Agur son of Jakeh. The oracle.

The man declares, I am weary, O God;

I am weary, O God, and worn out.

            When the Hebrew of the Old Testament was first written down, they wrote down only the consonants, not the vowels.  And further, they did not put spaces in between words.  Paper, animal skins and stones were hard to come by, so they used up all the space.  Later, scholars put in the spaces and added vowels to help people read the text.  However that could lead to different understandings.  Don’t get me wrong, almost all the time, the sense of the text is clear, but sometimes you can get more than one reading.

            A traditional reading was that Agur spoke to a man named Ithiel, and Ithiel spoke to someone named Ucal.  (Ucal is the only person in the bible to be named after an American university.)

            Along with many scholars, I prefer the reading in the ESV.  I do so because the traditional reading makes no sense – we don’t know who these people are!  The ESV reading fits the text well.  Agur is a scholar at the end of his endurance.

The man declares, I am weary, O God;

I am weary, O God, and worn out.

            Why was Agur so weary?  We will see in the text.  Basically because he was a seeker of wisdom, and he had been looking – not just for knowledge, but for wisdom that explained life and gave it meaning.  He had been seeking, but he had not found.  No mater how far he ran, or walked or crawled, he could not get to this place of wisdom. Look at Proverbs 30:2-3

Surely I am too stupid to be a man.

I have not the understanding of a man.

 I have not learned wisdom,

nor have I knowledge of the Holy One.

            This is the irony of human life.  On the one hand we are created in the Image and Likeness of God.  We are “a little less than the heavenly beings.”  On the other hand, we are always seeking, but never finding.  In the words of Ecclesiastes 3:11

    He has made everything beautiful in its time. Also, he has put eternity into man’s heart, yet so that he cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end.

            Despite his search, Agur could not discover wisdom and further he could not acquire knowledge of the Holy One.

            This is the history of human understanding.  We have discovered and created many things.  The grand total of human knowledge increases daily and no one person can understand even 1% of it.

            However, the more we know, the less we are certain about the meaning of life, or when life begins, or what happens after someone dies.  Further, philosophers have argued for the existence of a Designer, a First Cause, a Prime Mover, but none of them have been able to find God.

            So at the end of what we know, there is a question mark surrounded by a cloud.

Tying up Proverbs – Looking Forward

So this is the last week in the Proverbs series.  In the words of Dan Patrick, what have we learned.

  • Wisdom is  knowing how to live well and please God in your life.
  • The Fear of the Lord is the starting place to gain Wisdom.
  • Choose carefully who you listen to for advice.
  • Wisdom is calling for you to listen to her and receive her gift of life.
  • There are two paths: Wisdom and Folly.  Choose Wisdom.
  • Wisdom is a Tree of Life –
  • Wisdom connects us to God and to our Neighbors.
  • The kingdom of Ants reminds us to work diligently.
  • The Simpleton listens to bad advice and comes to a bad end.
  • God created the world by Wisdom; Let’s live by Wisdom

Now then, Chapter 9 lays out two banquets – one by Wisdom, this time seen as a Hostess, inviting the unwise to come and feast on her Wisdom.  Folly is calling the unwise to enjoy the pleasures of things stolen and hidden in the darkness.  We note that the appeal is the same (v. 4 and v. 16) but the consequences are far apart – life or death.  So the the idea that all ideas, word views, wisdom, religions, cultural practices and the like are the same, Proverbs says “Poo poo”.  (See Madeline for literary reference.)

Some suggest that verses 7-12 are in insertion.  Well, yes, but by whom.  Much of proverbs is a collection of received wisdom, run through the screen of “the Fear of the Lord”.  We think the verses offer a sampling of Wisdom’s table, with a particular emphasis on teach-ability and reverence.  Folly only gets one verse for her sample (v. 17) because we don’t need to study folly, and because that verse makes it clear that she is appealing to our baser instincts.

So here ends our Proverbs discussion.  Our next topic will be a year entitled “We Believe” where we follow selected texts each month on the topics found in these two sentences:  We believe that God created and Spoke to Us about Jesus our Savior: The Spirit Unites us in Faith, in Hope and in Mission.  That is: Creation, Revelation, Humanity, Jesus, Jesus’ work, The Holy Spirit, the Church, Love of God, Love of Neighbor, The Future and the significance of Choice and of telling the Gospel.

We might throw in observations from Walter Kaiser’s new book, “The Promise-Plan of God” that seeks to unify the themes of OT and NT under the rubric “Promise”.  This is a reworking of his book from 30 years ago, “Towards an OT Theology”.