Praying with Proverbs
For many of us, our experience of the Old Testament largely lies in listening to the readings and responsorials at Sunday Mass. Given the length and scope of the Old Testament, it can prove difficult to dive in ourselves and find readings that resonate with us and seem applicable to our daily lives. The stories contained can be mystifying and challenging to interpret. The book of Proverbs, however, is one book in the Old Testament to which we can easily return time and again.
The book of Proverbs originates from Solomon, the son and heir to the throne of King David of Israel. An exchange that is critical to understanding the person of Solomon is described in the first book of Kings. In this passage, God appears to Solomon in a dream, asking him what he would most wish to have. Solomon responds unexpectedly with this request:
“Thou hast shown great and steadfast love to thy servant David my father, because he walked before thee in faithfulness, in righteousness, and in uprightness of heart toward thee; and thou hast kept for him this great and steadfast love, and hast given him a son to sit on his throne this day. And now, O Lord my God, thou hast made thy servant king in place of David my father, although I am but a little child; I do not know how to go out or come in. And thy servant is in the midst of thy people whom thou hast chosen, a great people, that cannot be numbered or counted for multitude. Give thy servant therefore an understanding mind to govern thy people, that I may discern between good and evil; for who is able to govern this thy great people?”
It is next written that God is pleased with Solomon’s request, and says that because Solomon has not asked for riches, long life or for his enemies to be defeated, he will grant him his request. God speaks to Solomon, saying: “Behold, I give you a wise and discerning mind, so that none like you has been before you and none like you shall arise after you. I give you also what you have not asked, both riches and honor, so that no other king shall compare with you, all your days.”
Considering the life of Solomon can help us better understand the central themes of the book of Proverbs. The virtue of humility is central and in many ways fundamental to the acquisition of the other virtues, since it was Solomon’s humility in his conversation with God that prompted God to give him the gift of such wisdom. Wisdom is obviously at the forefront of these themes, but there are other ones that are nearly equally prominent. In the beginning of the book, it states that the purpose of this book is so that men may have wisdom, prudence, knowledge, justice, and equity, among others. Remembering these virtues specifically as we read through the book of Proverbs can help us apply the meaning of the proverbs to our own lives and consider how we can grow in virtue ourselves, as we think of the character of Solomon as inspiration.
One way that we can pray with the Proverbs is not simply by reading through many of them, but rather choosing one in particular and meditating on it at length. One way of doing this is called Lectio Divina, a traditional monastic practice of spiritual reading and contemplation. In Lectio Divina, we read a brief verse four times. While reading the verse each of those times, we focus on different things. The first time, we read the verse to obtain a general picture of its meaning. The second time, we meditate on the deeper meaning contained within the verse. The third time, we pray about the possible meaning and application the particular verse may have in our own lives. Finally, as we read the verse the fourth time, we contemplate the integration of the verse, our interpretation of it and our faith in general. Lectio Divina is a wonderful and approachable way to pray with the book of Proverbs. We can even practice a form of Lectio Divina as we go about our day, if the verse is brief enough to memorize: we can live out the proverb, so to speak, as we meditate upon it while going about the business of our daily lives.
A different way of praying with the book of Proverbs is to read a larger amount, such as a few chapters, and consider the overarching themes that are common to the individual verses. One of the most common quotations from the book of Proverbs comes from the first chapter, in which it is said, “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom; fools despise knowledge and instruction.” This shows us what is ultimately the most important thing to remember: what is foundational to our acquisition of wisdom is not anything we possess in and of ourselves, but rather is the fear of the Lord and the worship of Him as Creator of all things.
The first few chapters lead us to conclude several things. As we have said, one of the beginning verses shows the importance of the fear of the Lord in leading a wise and righteous life. Throughout the next several chapters, we come to an understanding of the relationship between ourselves and God. Many of the chapters are addressed as from a father to his son, and evoke an image of God as our Father teaching His wisdom to us as His children. Such an image is exemplified in this verse from the second chapter:
“My son, if you receive my words and treasure up my commandments with you, making your ear attentive to wisdom and inclining your heart to understanding; yes, if you cry out for insight and raise your voice for understanding, if you seek it like silver and search for it as for hidden treasures; then you will understand the fear of the Lord and find the knowledge of God.”
This quotation helps us understand the purpose of our efforts to seek wisdom. In finding wisdom – or at least beginning to find it – we will not only receive the knowledge promised to us by God, but will also understand what it means to be created beings ourselves. One could say that this is what wisdom truly is: the understanding of the world according to God’s will and salvation history. With this interpretation of wisdom, it makes sense that it is described in such a powerful and resplendent way:
“[Wisdom] is more precious than jewels, and nothing you desire can compare with her. Long life is in her right hand; in her left hand are riches and honor. Her ways are ways of pleasantness, and all her paths are peace. She is a tree of life to those who lay hold of her; those who hold her fast are called happy. The Lord by wisdom founded the earth; by understanding he established the heavens; by his knowledge the deeps broke forth, and the clouds drop down the dew.”
It is impossible to recount the true depth of meaning contained in the book of Proverbs, and the suggestions laid out here can only be a beginning to the study of this book, short in length and expansive in meaning. In the turbulent times in which we live, it is worth taking some time in silence to consider what is important in life: the pursuit of holiness, wisdom and the knowledge of God. If we read with an eye towards increasing our own wisdom and holiness, the book of Proverbs can give us many verses and tools which we can use to strengthen our minds and our faith.