“A soft answer turns away wrath,
but a harsh word stirs up anger.”
~Proverbs 15:1 (NRSV).
We know it when we’ve upset someone and they arc back at us just about how they feel. They often seem intent on upsetting us as much as they themselves are upset, not realising in that moment that their “harsh word” will usually create an angry response in us. So much for hopes of quelling the situation!
This is the final chapter of predominantly contrastive “but” proverbs. Chapter 16 and onwards features a range of different styles of proverbs. It’s almost as if Proverbs is maturing more and more in structure over the 31-chapter journey, or certainly perhaps leading the reader onto the maturity it hopes to instil that way.
The themes of Proverbs 15 are grouped as follows:
A Patient Tongue Prevents Anger and Promotes Life
The “tongue” is a keyword and theme in the undercurrent of this chapter, and this is concentrated in verses 1-4. Patience exacted in life brings life to others. It is a quality that features subsidiary virtue, like compassion, for instance. In other words, patience is made manifest via compassion (as one example – kindness would be another).
Verses 23, 28 and 30 also illuminate the earlier portion. Timeliness of reply, for example, is a great feature of the discernment in Wisdom, and joy is known to both the giver and the receiver of the reply. ‘Weighing our answers’ is also a mark that we care enough to prudently deliver (in patience) our communication.
Issues on anger (wrath) come up in verses 1, 13 and 18. The perfect answer to anger is patience.
Wisdom – A Journey through Discipline
“Discipline” is mentioned in Proverbs 15 three times (verses 5, 10, 32) but its idea underpins some of the other proverbs too. The simple message is we cannot achieve a heart known to Wisdom until it goes through various disciplining experiences along that journey. Tough but true. Then, at last, there is “treasure” to be had in it, once we’ve acquired a good measure of Wisdom (verse 6).
Discipline is a necessary goad. It is training us in our ways, and those toward life—the abundant life.
Allusions to ‘Living’ and ‘Dying’
There is a vacillation between a couplet of proverbs (verses 10 and 11) that speak on death for those wandering from God’s ancient path—that Wisdom alone commands the destiny of all, even to the deeper reaches of that place known as the Sheol experience—and many allusions to life for the upright, and particularly the imagery of the “tree of life”.
This thoroughly gorgeous “tree of life” image is only known to Proverbs other than Genesis and Revelation. Proverbs is perhaps the only one, however, that provides us with a description of what the tree of life looks like i.e. the real tree is not a tree at all—it’s pointing us back to Wisdom... Wisdom is the tree of life.
“Better with Little” Contrasts
Hearkening back to Psalm 37 (and other places) we find a couplet of proverbs (verses 16-17) which speak of the rationale against covetousness. These implore us beyond the things of the world to instead gain the things of true spiritual significance—and therefore of great worth for actual life, joy, peace and happiness.
The fact of the matter is we all struggle very much with the conquest for acquisition, and envy for things we don’t have or for those we would rather not have. Wisdom tells us to guard our hearts against the trespass of things besides God first and foremost. This is the most important basic message for the spiritual life.
Three discreet proverbs raise family concerns (verses 5, 20 and 27). They speak to the need of children (of all ages) to respect a parent’s correction and thought. The good son or daughter will hardly ever compromise faithfulness in terms of family.
Family is to be a blood-bond reality not easily broken; one that issues constant respect for elders. But, equally, elders should also be respectable, so younger ones can actually be free, in a devoted way, to respect them.
More on Advice
The final three proverbs (verses 31-33) refresh that ever-vibrant message in Proverbs to take advice and be in receipt of wise counsel for plans.
The longer we go into Proverbs the more we find the chapters—structurally at least—blossoming gradually in maturity, presenting us with an aged, seasoned and appropriately-divergent collection of truth philosophies the longer we go.
Like opening a bottle of fine wine, Proverbs 15 suggests the remaining chapters will reveal even more subtle nuances about Wisdom to us.
© 2010 S. J. Wickham.