“If you reason with an arrogant cynic, you’ll get slapped in the face; confront bad behavior and get a kick in the shins. So don’t waste your time on a scoffer; all you’ll get for your pains is abuse. But if you correct those who care about life, that’s different—they’ll love you for it! Save your breath for the wise—they’ll be wiser for it; tell good people what you know—they’ll profit from it. Skilled living gets its start in the Fear-of-God, insight into life from knowing a Holy God. It’s through me, Lady Wisdom, that your life deepens, and the years of your life ripen. Live wisely and wisdom will permeate your life; mock life and life will mock you.” (Proverbs 9 MSG)
You just have to be on the same page, don’t you? You can’t expect much in the way of conversation if you both speak different languages.
It is, in fact, like two neighbours in the choir singing from a different sheet.It’s never going to work. Even if every now and then something approaches a harmony.
So the writer is describing two general approaches to life and simply acknowledging their incompatibility. If you’re familiar with the Bible, you’ll immediately think of the “two ways” of Psalm 1 (the difference between the one who is rooted in God’s word and the one who is rootless, blown away like dust), or perhaps statements of choice like “I set before you the way of life or death. Choose life.”
But who wouldn’t? (you might ask).
This text offers something of an explanation of that. Clearly, you don’t choose “life” because you don’t recognise that it’s on offer, or perhaps you don’t see just how important the present choice is.
It’s like driving a car to an unmarked junction and deciding which turn to take. Who knows where each may lead?
The Message here uses the marvellous phrase “skilled living.” How do you get to the point of living skilfully? It sounds a great thing. How can I learn to do life skilfully? Or is it already too late for me?
Skilled living, the writer explains, “gets its start in the Fear-of-God, insight into life from knowing a Holy God.”
That’s nothing to do with “cowering in fear and trepidation” or cringing before the abusive oppression of a bully. It means acknowledging that God is God, that He is sovereign and over everything, that He is creator, that He is Father of all.
It’s a question of perspective. If you acknowledge that God is holy, and that life itself is His gift to you, then the choices that you make come out of that perspective.
You might, for example, wait to hear what he has to say about the choice before you!
But you have to develop the skill of listening. In the old story, Nelson put a telescope to his blind eye so that he could not see the distant flags messaging him to break off the action. And so we have the expression “Turn a blind eye.” But equally we can “turn a deaf ear” to things we don’t want to hear.
And that’s the description here of those who do not acknowledge God on their lives. The passage describes them “arrogant.”
Well, I suppose it’s arrogant to believe that you’re in charge, in control, in command, that you’re the head of the food-chain. Someone actually said that to me! “The food-chain starts here”! Wow. They meant, I guess, “Look after Number One.”
But even the numbering system sounds breathtakingly self-centred.
Another description is “cynical.” The OED gives: “believing that people are motivated purely by self-interest; distrustful of human sincerity or integrity.
…. concerned only with one’s own interests and typically disregarding accepted standards in order to achieve them.”
I’ve decided I don’t want to be cynical.
And the third descriptor is “scoffer.” It means someone who jeers or mocks or treats something with contempt or calls out in derision. flouter, jeerer, mocker. – what an awful list.
I used to work with a guy who turned everything he heard into a joke about sex. Every word that was used within his earshot was immediately retranslated into a sentence heavy with innuendo, accompanied by a knowing smirk or leer.
It was really boring.
The trouble was that you began to anticipate the innuendo, and then to figure out what he was going to say, until ultimately, you were tacitly joining in in this second-hand smut-talk.
The consequence was that you couldn’t have a normal conversation any more, just this verbal minefield of exploding dirt.
The advice in Psalm 1 was not to “sit in the seat of the scornful.” Don’t keep company with “mockers” or “scoffers” or you become like them.
Take it from me. It takes years for those mental processes to grow clean again.
And that’s the point of the passage. “If you reason with an arrogant cynic, you’ll get slapped in the face; confront bad behaviour and get a kick in the shins. So don’t waste your time on a scoffer; all you’ll get for your pains is abuse.”
Jesus even said, in the unforgettable phrase, “Don’t cast your pearls before swine.” Don’t waste things of exquisite value and delicacy on those who won’t -can’t- receive them.
You have the feeling he knew exactly what he was talking about.
Paul said “The natural (or worldly) man cannot receive the things of God for they are spiritually discerned.”
So “Save your breath for the wise—they’ll be wiser for it; tell good people what you know—they’ll profit from it….If you correct those who care about life, that’s different—they’ll love you for it!”
But how do you get wise? How do you get to the point of caring about life? How do I get to be good?
Lord, I really don’t want to be arrogant, cynical or mocking -even talking about it here has made me feel ashamed, half-sick and disgusted with myself.
And here’s the Bible’s starting point: “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.”
Get that perspective sorted, and everything else will fall into place.
Start by believing in God.
Start your day with a consciousness of His loving, creative mastery of the whole of life, and every single conversation will take a different turn.
“Skilled living gets its start in the Fear-of-God, insight into life from knowing a Holy God. It’s through me, Lady Wisdom, that your life deepens, and the years of your life ripen. Live wisely and wisdom will permeate your life; mock life and life will mock you.”