Ep.050: Proverbs on Prayer

Hello, I’m Daniel Westfall on the channel “Pray With Me.”

Today we look at the Book of Proverbs. First, some context.

There are five books of poetry or wisdom literature in the Old Testament. They are Job, Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and Song of Solomon. Here’s a summary of their themes.

I call the Book of Job “The Mystery of Faith” because God and Satan agreed to take away everything Job had except his life, to see if his faith would stand up. But nobody told Job or his friends about the plan, so they were in the dark, trying to figure out the meaning of Job’s string of disasters. They were stuck in a living mystery. The friends’ simple explanation that God rewards good and punishes evil simply did not apply to Job. Job’s angry demand that God explain himself was met with silence. Today, God still does stuff without explaining it to us, and too get confused. This is the mystery of faith.

The next book, Psalms, are “The Emotions of Faith” because they express the full range of human emotion — anger at God, fear of enemies, feeling discontent, sad, abandoned, depressed, despairing. They also express joy, wonder, excitement, thankfulness, hope, and love. The books of Job and Psalms display all the wonder and diversity of creation and the mystery of human experience in a random collection of metaphors and word pictures, a wide assortment of stories and pictures.

Another book of poetry is Ecclesiastes. It begins, “Meaningless, meaningless. Everything is meaningless” (Eccles 1:2). That is a harsh statement about life. I think the original meaning is a bit softer, like this: “A puff of air, a breath of wind. Everything is vapour, just smoke and mirrors. What do we gain from our labor?” (1:3). The answer given is, “No matter how hard you work and how much stuff you collect, you end up buried in the ground, a meal for worms” (Eccles. 2:18-21). Who wins? You or the worms? Ecclesiastes teaches that neither work nor wisdom nor wealth nor pleasure will change our lives from that elusive breath of wind into something substantial. Not even faith will change the reality that your next breath could be your last. I call Ecclesiastes “The Fragility of Faith”. Faith receives a breath or a spirit we do not see to sustain an inner life that cannot control. Ecclesiastes’ advice for such a life is: “Don’t take yourself so seriously, don’t get depressingly philosophical, don’t be a workaholic. Life is short. Spend it with the people you love, enjoy good food, work hard, worship God. He will sort it out in the end”  (Eccl. 7:15-18; 9:7-10).

The last book of poetry is Song of Solomon, which I call “The Ecstasy of Faith” — the enjoyment of faith, that is, not the drug. It starts out, “let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth — for your love is more delightful than wine.” Sounds like someone is headed for ecstasy. Even though God’s name does not appear in in this poem, the Christian church interprets it as an allegory of the love between humans and God.

You may have heard someone say, “All religions are basically the same because they all say, “Do good to others and worship God.’” Countering this reductionist view of religion, the books of poetry describe the Mystery of Faith, the Emotions of Faith, the Fragility of Faith, and the Ecstasy of Faith. Clearly, the poets promote an experience of God that is more complex than the simple command to do good.  

That’s how the books of poetry present religion . . . until you read the Proverbs, the book in the middle, after the mystery and the emotions of faith, before the fragility and ecstasy. Proverbs paints the religious life as black-and-white, good-and-evil, wise-and-foolish. No mystery here, no unnecessary emotion, nothing fragile or exciting. Just simple commands to do good and avoid evil. Reading only the three proverbs that use the word “pray”, we hear:
– The Lord detests the sacrifice of the wicked, but the prayer of the upright pleases him (15:8)
– The Lord is far from the wicked, but he hears the prayer of the righteous (15:29).
– If anyone turns a deaf ear to God’s instruction, even their prayers are detestable (28:9).

Clear, simple, straightforward, black and white moral teaching. God listens to you if you’re good, he rejects you if you’re bad. I call Proverbs “The Behaviour of Faith.” Yes, like other religions, the Bible promotes a moral standard. But in biblical religion, it’s only one part of the deal, not the central tenet of faith.

Let’s pray.
Our father, we have imagined that the most important thing in our faith is good behaviour. But the wisdom literature promotes not just a moral code, but a lifelong journey of faith, facing into the mystery of God, experiencing the depths of human emotion, bringing fragility and ecstasy and moral behaviour into a living relationship with you. Help us reject the religion of behaviour management. Help us embrace the many complexities of faith. And as we embrace a life of faith, may we discover that we are embracing you, and that you are embracing us.

I’m Daniel on the channel “Pray with Me”.

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