We’re in a series exploring the Book of Proverbs right now and today we’re going to be chewing on a proverb from Proverbs 16.
We’ve said that the proverbs are micro-poems.
They’re like verbal origami—there’s often so much truth folded into these sayings—
that a good way to approach them is to take one proverb and just chew on it for a while.
I want to do that today with Proverbs 16:20:
(v20) “Whoever gives heed to instruction prospers,
and blessed is the one who trusts in the Lord”
This proverb seems pretty self-evident on face-value—
it comes across as like an IKEA proverb.
If we’ll give heed to the instructions then we’ll prosper— we’ll be able to put together that entertainment unit that said “some assembly required.”
I read this initially and thought,
“This is so obvious, do we really need a proverb for this?”
We all know as we grow up.
From a very early age, we give heed to our parent’s instructions, so that we can be safe and healthy and not get put in timeout;
As we get older, we give heed to our teacher’s instructions, so that we can make it through our classes and hopefully get into college or find a job or whatever,
and we give heed to our driving instructor so we can learn to get where we’re going without killing people
and we give heed to our parachute instructor
so that… well you get the picture.
But then I started examining this proverb a little more closely, and it’s actually a really good example of how poetic the proverbs are.
In Hebrew this proverb is a mere eight words.
A five words line followed by three word line.
Eight words elegantly folded together into a micro-poem— and these eight words can be translated and interpreted a number of ways.
The NIV translates and interprets the Hebrew with sixteen words this way:
(v20) “Whoever gives heed to instruction prospers,
and blessed is the one who trusts in the Lord”
and in context, that sounds like it fits right in with the rest of Proverbs.
Give heed to the instruction—to the wisdom—here in this scroll,
give heed to these IKEA instructions for life… and you will prosper.
But if you start reading other translations of the Bible,
you can see that (like any foreign language) translations vary widely.
and (like any poem) interpretations vary widely.
New American Standard puts it this way:
(NASB) He who gives attention to the word will find good,
And blessed is he who trusts in the Lord.
It starts almost the same:
“give heed”—“give attention to”—
but then it sounds a little different.
It says the person who pays attention “to the word will find good.”
That still makes sense.
After all, that’s kinda what instruction is, right?
Most instructions are words.
Our parent’s words, our teacher’s words,
our driving instructor and parachute instructor and the book of Proverb’s words—
that’s what we’re to pay attention to and we’ll find… “the good.”
And I can see that too—because I think that’s what we mean by “prosper.”
A lot of time “prosper” makes us think of success with finances and money—
that’s a primary definition in English dictionaries— but the idea here is something like “flourish.”
That we’re entering into the “flourishing life”— the good life.
Maybe not the wealthiest life,
certainly not the pain-free life,
but the best kind of life.
We find “the good” as we pay attention to “instruction” or to “the word.”
But then the New Revised Standard melts my brains when it says:
(NRSV) Those who are attentive to a matter will prosper, and happy are those who trust in the Lord.
“Attentive,” “giving heed,” “paying attention,” everyone kinda agrees on what the beginning of the proverb—but what do we pay attention to?
That can make a big difference, right?
But that word “dabar” in Hebrew is infuriatingly vague— it can mean “word” or “instruction” or even just “thing”— whatever is “the matter at hand.”
This translation says that “those who are attentive to a matter will prosper” and that sounds like even more common sense.
Whatever you find in front of you— pay attention to that.
your free throws,
your chess game,
pay attention to it—and you’ll prosper.
You’ll find the good. You’ll get better at it.
And that’s pretty good advice— pretty true advice.
But that seems like a far cry from where the NIV started us.
Why would God inspire wisdom as poetry that could be understood so many different ways?
Which translation is right?
What if wisdom isn’t always about giving us neat-and-tidy instructions?
Not about giving us IKEA instructions for assembling our lives?
What if God inspired and preserved these wisdom sayings of ancient Israel precisely as poetry precisely because they can be taken in many different ways?
What if part of the life of wisdom is learning to hold our opinions and interpretations with an open hand and becoming kind of humble people who can say, “There might be more going on here than I originally thought”?
Maybe that’s why one-third of the Bible is written in poetry.
Maybe that’s why the proverbs are micro-poems.
Maybe it’s to keep us humble.
And maybe it’s to keep us awake and thinking and feeling and paying attention.
Paying attention—that’s definitely what this proverb is about.
There are a lot of ways to translate and interpret this proverb, but it’s not a free-for-all.
It can’t just mean whatever we want it to mean.
There’s something consistent through it.
The beginning is consistently about giving heed—paying attention—
and that leading to prospering, to flourishing, to the good.
And the end is consistently about the luckiness, the happiness, the blessedness, of someone who trusts in Yahweh.
Last week we chewed on a proverb that invited us to examine what we’re doing with our mouths—with our words.
I think as we chew on this proverb,
I think it’s inviting us to examine what we’re doing with our attention.
Where are we putting our thoughts?
How are we using our energy to focus on certain things and what are the things that we’re choosing to focus on?
Because how we use our attention—and how what we pay attention to— makes all the difference in the world.
Last week the speakers at the school’s spiritual life retreat showed an ingenious video to the school’s secondary students about paying attention and I thought I would show it right now.
That’s pretty awesome, huh?
And the genius of that video is that it’s interesting on multiple viewings because you start paying attention to other things.
The first time you see the scene, and you’re immediately paying attention to try to figure out who murdered the old codger on the floor
but after you know what the video really is—and if you watch it again— you’re immediately paying attention to try to spot as many set changes as you can.
I love this because what it says at the end of video is so true:
“It’s easy to miss what [we’re] not looking for.”
And I think something we see throughout the Proverbs is our need to look for something we’re not looking for. The nine chapter poem that welcomes us into the Proverbs’ chamber of wisdom, explicitly emphasizes the importance of “paying attention” five times
with wisdom herself lamenting people who don’t pay attention in chapter one (v24),
to a father-figure telling us to “pay attention” twice in chapter four, and again at the beginning of chapter five, and once again in chapter seven.
And then throughout all of proverbs, the proverbs are trying to help us pay attention to the obvious things in life that we take for granted.
We’re invited to live attentive lives,
because it’s easy to miss what we’re not looking for.
A lot of the art of human life is about the lost art of paying attention.
I mean, paying attention—it’s a lost art isn’t it?
We thought it was bad a couple of decades ago with the invasion of televisions into our homes,
but I think it’s reached crisis point now with the invasion of smart phones into our pockets.
Now we multi-task,
we switch between apps,
we bounce from Twitter post to Facebook status to Vine Video,
and we do all of that while the light is red.
How often are we in the middle of having a conversation with someone when this happens?
[Check text, and type something real quick.]
Most of the time our attention is either stretched or exhausted.
We’re either trying to give our attention to so many things,
that we’re stretched to the breaking point and not really full engaged in any of it,
or we’re so worn out from the frenzy and franticness of our culture that we just sit down in front of a computer or TV and veg out— trying not really give attention to anything.
It’s a rare person who is tries to practice being fully present in the moment.
It’s a rare person who is tries to practice paying attention to where they are, who they’re around, and what they’re doing.
It’s a rare person who can direct their attention and intentionally choose what they’re going to give heed to:
“I’m going to pay attention to this person right now and not that message.”
“I’m going to pay attention to what is good about this situation
and not what’s wrong with it.”
“I’m going to pay attention to what I am feeling and not be enslaved by them.”
I think this proverb—at the very minimum—is helping remember the obvious:
the good is found when we give heed—when we pay attention.
The flourishing life is found when we pay attention not only to the IKEA instructions
but to the voice and the words of the person right in front of us,
and to the whatever the matter at hand is.
But then the second part of this proverb, I think, builds on the first—because I think that trusting God is—to a large degree—a matter of paying attention.
The life of faith is largely a matter of where we give our attention.
Our every day lives are an endless sandbox of options on where we can put attention.
When I wake up in the morning,
as I’m getting ready for the day,
as I’m driving my car and doing my work and with others,
I have endless situations vying for my attention.
All kinds of things crowd our vision.
What’s dominating your attention recently?
Over the last week, what have you been giving your attention to?
It’s probably whatever jumps to your mind first.
I think most of the time we give most of our attention
to what is pressing and what we’re feeling.
We pay attention to what is pressing— to that smelly diaper, to the buzzing phone in our pocket, to that deadline looming over us.
And we pay attention to what we’re feeling— to whatever the weather inside of us is doing.
We feel a certain way—we feel that pain, that hurt, that anger, that anxiety—
and so of course that’s what we give our attention to.
But the wisest voices who have walked before us—including the Proverbs— suggest that there are better things (deeper truths) that we can pay attention to.
That’s ultimately what trusting the Lord is about.
It’s about grounding ourselves in something deeper than what is pressing and what we’re feeling. It’s about orienting our lives in certain way and in a certain direction so that we are learning to give a deeper kind of attention to what is reliable and stable and true.
Faith is form of paying attention.
Of paying attention to what is truest.
This is one of the best ways that I know of wrapping my head around reading the Bible and praying.
What a lot of evangelical churches have taken to calling having a “quiet time.”
Reading the Bible and praying is just practice at paying attention.
When we approach the Bible,
we’re trying to learn to pay attention to a deeper story that we’re all living in.
The story of a God who created us
who continually, constantly pursues us even in our darkest moments,
and who will one day resurrect the dead and renew all things.
That’s all we’re doing when we’re reading the Bible.
We’re learning to pay attention to this story.
Paying attention to the long story of the people of God,
and paying attention to what God is like.
And when we come to God in prayer we’re practicing paying attention to the presence of this God.
Paying attention to the reality that this God is always— quietly, subtly, mysteriously, lovingly—present with us.
This God is always with us, always speaking to us— and carving out time to pray is really just practicing life before him.
Sometimes it’s beautiful and profound and stirring.
Sometimes it’s boring and awkward and frustrating.
But so are the rest of lives.
Listening to the Scripture and learning to pray
are two of primary ways we can practice paying attention.
Two ways we can practice paying attention to the deepest realities that will anchor our lives when they feel dominated by whatever’s pressing and what we’re feeling
How we practice paying attention to what God is like— and how we can learn to trust him.
And blessed, happy, fortunate is the person who learns to trust God.
Do you want to practice paying attention right now?
We’re invited to come each week to this table— and this table wants to us help us pay attention.
This table tells us what God is like, if we’ll pay attention.
This table helps us trust God, if we’ll pay attention.
Because it tells us
that God himself has entered into our struggle and suffering and sin
and that God himself is always giving his life to all who hunger for it.
If you want to practice paying attention to this God, and want to practice receiving grace and love and life from him, then you’re invited to this table.
As we come to this table this morning—
as we come and receive the bread and dip it in the cup—
may we pay attention.
Let’s bow our heads and bow our hearts,
as we prepare to come to the table. On the night in which he gave himself up for us,
Our Lord Jesus took bread, gave thanks to you, broke the bread
gave it to his disciples, and said:
“Take, eat; this is my body which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.”
Likewise, when the supper was over, he took the cup,
gave thanks to you, gave it to his disciples, and said:
”Drink from this, all of you, this is my blood of the new covenant, poured out for you and for many for the forgiveness of sins. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.”
And so, in remembrance of these your mighty acts in Jesus Christ, we offer ourselves in praise and thanksgiving as a holy and living sacrifice, in union with Christ’s offering for us, as we proclaim the mystery of faith: Christ has died; Christ is risen; Christ will come again.
Pour out your Holy Spirit on us gathered here, and on these gifts of bread and wine.
Make them be for us the body and blood of Christ, that we may be for the world the body of Christ, redeemed by his blood.
By your Spirit make us one with Christ, one with each other, and one in ministry to all the world, until Christ comes in final victory and we feast at his heavenly banquet.
In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit,