Folk Wisdom

This morning, at Southside, we launched our Winter 2012 Church-wide series – “Practical Christianity.” We are studying the book of James through worship and doing application of James through Life Groups. We felt it might be overkill to study James also in our Adult Bible Classes, so in the interest of “Practical Christianity” we are studying the Proverbs of Israel.

I have to admit, I find the Proverbs difficult, and to be honest, overly simplistic. In other words, I find relating to Proverbs challenging. Not a fault of scripture, no doubt, but still the Proverbs are hard for me.

However, I discovered something in preparation for this study. Folk Wisdom. Here is what the introduction to Proverbs says in the “New Oxford Annotated Bible” (an incredible resource and study bible) about the authorship of Proverbs:

The book of Proverbs is traditionally attributed to King Solomon (1:1; 10:1; 25:1), who ruled in the mid-tenth century BCE. Although he had a reputation for wisdom (1 Kings 4:29-34), it is unlikely that this is more than a general attribution to lend authority to the collection. The proverbs in the main section (10:1 – 22:16) have the character of folk wisdom, generated in an oral culture and passed down over many generations. At some point in the pre-exilic period they were collected and written down, a process that may have taken place at the hands of sages or scribes at the court of a king such as Solomon or Hezekiah (715 – 687 BCE), who is mentioned in 25:1. Later sections, such as chapters 1-9, were probably added by scribes in the attempt to bring the collection together.

I find the little bit about folk wisdom to be incredibly compelling. I love folk music. Derek Webb, a singer/songwriter from Nashville that I follow, introduced be to a interesting definition of what folk music actually is. “Folk music is music of the people on the street.” Folk music is not necessarily a “sound,” rather it is a brand. Folk music tells the story of the plight of the common man on the street. In this sense, folk music can take on many styles (rap, hip-hop, country, rock, etc.) and remain firmly in the category of “folk.” One thing, however, that all folk music has in common is something we might call “poetic practicality.”

The collection of Proverbs (in particular Proverbs 10:1 – 22:16) are so unique, because they don’t require (necessarily) the narrative of Israel to understand them. However, understanding the narrative of Israel highlights the poignancy of the Proverbs, because we understand that we are listening to the wisdom of men and women who have lived with Israel’s troubled and tumultuous history. It is not unlike sitting on the back porch after a hard days work and listening to your grandmother and grandfather talk about life – what works, what doesn’t. Folk wisdom.

Now the proverbs have my full attention. When I read them, I am transported back in time. It is sometime in Israel’s history – perhaps during the Babylonian occupation. I am young. I am complaining about how hard life is. My grandparents are with me. They can see through my complaints. They have walked the line. They know what mistakes I am about to make. They want to share with me the wisdom of the ones who have already lived it. Someone has an instrument, perhaps something like a guitar. They play a folk song that reinforces our identity, our common struggle as common people. In the stories, in the wisdom, in the proverbs, I find life. There I discover how to pursue “wise dealings, righteousness, justice and equity” (Proverbs 1:3, NRSV). The only question is, will I heed their advice?

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