Are Proverbs an Ancient Form of Tweets?
Are Proverbs an Ancient Form of Tweets?
The trouble with Twitter, people say, is that it is simply too short. 280 characters just cannot express the nuance that is necessary for giving advice or expressing opinions. It reduces everything to extremes—first because it oversimplifies, and second because extremes are what grabs attention.
Kind of like a proverb.
“The early bird gets the worm,” so the saying goes, but what about all the times the early bird doesn't? What often bothers us about proverbs, including the proverbs found in the Bible, is that they seem to express a rule without paying attention to all the exceptions. “The righteous will flourish like a green leaf”—but what about all the times they don't? “The hand of the diligent will rule”—then why so many people who haven't worked a day in their lives are so rich? It's enough to make many of us rush through the book of Proverbs, or set it aside and not read it.
Obviously proverbs are not exactly the same as a tweet, but they do rely on a form of viral communication that embeds them in people’s memory, and allows them to be passed on to others. It’s actually illuminating to think about how they’re similar to tweets—and even more illuminating to see how they’re different. It might even help us feel more comfortable with biblical proverbs. So let’s take a look:
They're "Terse" (Short and Efficient)
The most significant feature of tweets is that they're short, which means they can be ambiguous. Strangely enough, this is a features of Proverbs as well!
Proverbs are “terse,” which means a short and efficient use of words. Take, for example, this proverb: “Better the poor whose walk is blameless than a fool whose lips are perverse.” This is a “better than” proverb, where one half of the proverb is contrasted with the other. However, it's the “poor” contrasted with a “fool” rather than what we'd expect—the rich. Even though it's not stated, we can take the implication that a rich fool might be what is meant. Efficient use of words!
But being too efficient can make a statement harder to understand. Tweets have a problems where their short length increases their ability to be misunderstood. AP could probably have used more characters to explain what they were trying to say in this tweet:
Of course, in contrast to tweets, proverbs’ ambiguity is intentional. Their compact messages mean that turning proverbs over in your mind can bring more depth of meaning. Though they're short, they're something you can "chew on" for a while, like you can meditate on a poem. And that brings us to a major difference between tweets and proverbs—proverbs are much more poetic.
Proverbs frequently use metaphors and literary devices, which increases the ambiguity of their meanings. Anyone who was made to study poetry in school knows how frustrating it can be to pin down the meaning of poetic language! Half the arguments on Twitter are started because one tweet was not enough space to fully express someone's ideas, or enough space to capture all the nuances of an argument, but it's rarely useful to engage in discussion about the precise meaning of a tweet. But it's far more worthwhile to discuss proverbs! Like a poem, layers of meaning can reveal themselves.
Tweets very rarely contain poetry, and as a result proverbs carry more weight and the feeling of literary value.
Proverbs Lack Context, Which Mean You Need Wisdom to Apply Them
Tweets exist essentially without context—take any Twitter account that tweets out famous quotes and look for the debate about what that author really meant "in context." Every discussion is worse because people rarely understand the full picture of the topic is being discussed, and yet they're still willing to give their opinion.
Proverbs can appear to lack context too—unlike other biblical chapters, a series of proverbs can look like they have very little relation to each other. This can make it a bit frustrating to read a chapter of Proverbs. It feels like one idea after another. But proverbs exist as more than disembodied tweets for people to argue over; they are actually meant to be embodied—in our own lives.
Everyone knows the famous pair of proverbs: "Answer not a fool according to his folly, lest you be like him yourself. Answer a fool according to his folly, lest he be wise in his own eyes." (Proverbs 26: 4-5).
They contradict each other—or maybe it just takes a wise person to know which fool requires which proverbial solution.
After all, we know proverbs are not always true. The righteous don’t always prosper. The hardworking don’t always get rich. But they're true in the right context.
Proverbs puts into words principles of living well that “the wise” have figured out from observing life. To live well before the face of God, you should strive to be righteous, hardworking and wise. Generally, this results in blessing. And while real life is complex and the “good life” of the righteous can be hard for us to see from our perspective, the book of Proverbs does hint at the deeper complexity of life as well. (For example, "There are those whose teeth are swords, whose fangs are knives, to devour the poor from off the earth, the needy from among mankind." Proverbs 30: 14)
This means that you don’t take all the principles of Proverbs all at once and apply them to every situation. No, rather as you grow in wisdom and as you grow in your walk in the fear of the Lord, you will also grow in your ability to apply the right principle to the right situation.
Proverbs are for Developing Wisdom
The most significant difference between Twitter and Proverbs is obviously the end result of reading them. A sea of various opinions does not naturally float the wisest ones to the top, as our several-decade-long experiment in social media has proven. But Proverbs have carefully been selected, arranged and preserved with one specific goal: to make the reader wise. It offers a route to developing wisdom.
I recently took a course on the book of Proverbs and someone asked me to summarize it. I replied, "Well, Proverbs is basically about developing wisdom," and she said, "Developing wisdom? That's interesting." I guess the simple view is that Proverbs just contains wisdom. But a closer look reveals it's about growing in wisdom. You don’t just memorize the contents of the book and automatically become wise. You use the proverbs as guides to navigate life, applying the right principle in the right situation.
After all, the book starts off with a father's teaching to his son, and closes with a mother's teaching to her son. The book doesn't expect the reader to start off already wise, but develop it through becoming familiar with these words of wisdom. You grow in it as you progress through life, and ideally you'll learn from the experience of the wise who've gone before you rather than learning each and every painful lesson for yourself. As David Bland summarizes it, Proverbs helps “the people of God is to grow into the character of God.”
Growing in wisdom goes hand-in-hand with growing in the fear of the Lord. As you mature in faith, it becomes clearer how to apply biblical wisdom. Wisdom, ultimately, is living your life in relationship with your covenant God.
All in all, those are some of the reasons Proverbs are not an ancient form of tweets! This was mostly a fun topic for me to explore, and I enjoyed working out the comparison.
One note in conclusion—one of the lesser known authors of Proverbs is Agur, whose contribution to the book is a masterful exploration of the limits of wisdom and the complexity of life on earth. I hope to explore his chapter (Proverbs 30) a bit more in the upcoming months, so stay tuned for more!
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