Living smart & safe
A WORD fitly spoken is like apples of gold in pictures of silver, says Solomon, reputedly the wisest king in his days. Rulers and statesmen gathered in Jerusalem to listen to his counsel and admire his construction of a temple that was as grand as any in Egypt, Babylon and other neighbouring super powers. Best of all, Solomon left behind the Book of Proverbs to live by.
Once upon a time, as an idealistic teenager, I was charmed and inspired by what he had written, as were his own contemporaries (including his thousand wives and concubines), and the many people today who quote him frequently in speech and writing. I used to encourage myself to follow the moral maxims and exhortations in Proverbs. However, even today at mid-middle age, I still find most of Proverbs to be a challenging aspiration.
We live in a dangerous world. We're being led and misled by amoral people – politicians, media celebrities, big business leaders, management consultants, born-again preachers, and our own workplace bosses and colleagues – so that it becomes easy for us to get into trouble, just listening or interacting with such people. An angry remark, a thoughtless act or a moment of weakness could land us in jail for years, particularly in today's regulation-forested environment.
Consider some of the most powerful men in American politics, like Lewis Libby the mastermind behind US Vice-President Dick Cherney who in turns controls George W. Bush. Libby has deep knowledge of power and geopolitics and was feared and admired by almost everyone in the US establishment, except the special prosecutor who has charged him for several crimes.
Being clever, knowledgeable and able to outsmart your enemies is not good enough. The operative word is “good”. Machivallian geniuses are simply no good individuals – in fact they are the epitome of pure evil. Their only purpose in life is to acquire power and control over their fellow humans. In the process, these predators manipulated and destroyed everything and everyone they touched, and finally they destroyed themselves.
We who are not so ambitious, we just want to get sufficient knowledge to guide us on life's tricky path. We want to walk straight on this path, and not give an excuse to the people with brute force to destroy us.
To live smart and play safe, we bone up on Solomon's prudent strategy for life, and if possible, learn them by heart, so that they are always at the tip of the tongue to remind, restrain and re-align our actions, speech and general conduct. I suspect Solomon himself too needed all the proverbs he could muster to help him manage and please his thousand wives!
With technology and the Internet, we now have too much information overloading our lives. We know how to manage our job, run our business and acquire material ease and comfort.
What we lack is wisdom, which is knowledge plus moral insight. I believe King Solomon's Book of Proverbs will provide that crucial understanding to transmute the raw chunk of knowledge to the gold of wisdom. Without wisdom, all our knowledge and cleverness make us no better than the Lewis Libbys, Karl Roves and other predators of political and corporate America.
Below are excerpts to guide us in living prudently and peacefully.
The numbers indicate the chapter and verse in which the text is found in the book of Proverbs. I quote only from the King James Bible because of its expressive text, so much more alive than the insipid modern-day English translations.
Good speech & wicked tongue
Do not bad-mouth people, do not repeat malicious tales and gossips. Do not show how stupid your mind is by opening your mouth. When you've got nothing good to say, don't! He who keeps his mouth shut, preserves his own peace of mind.
And avoid talking to stupid, malicious, gossipy people. They are identified as anybody who wears a broad grin when they tell you someone else's difficulty or suffering.
4:24 Put away from thee a froward mouth, and perverse lips put far from thee.
17:4 A wicked doer giveth heed to false lips; and a liar giveth ear to a naughty tongue.
17:9 He that covereth a transgression seeketh love; but he that repeateth a matter separateth very friends.
11:13 A talebearer revealeth secrets: but he that is of a faithful spirit concealeth the matter.
17:10 A reproof entereth more into a wise man than an hundred stripes into a fool.
17:22 A merry heart doeth good like a medicine: but a broken spirit drieth the bones.
17:27 He that hath knowledge spareth his words: and a man of understanding is of an excellent spirit.
17:28 Even a fool, when he holdeth his peace, is counted wise: and he that shutteth his lips is esteemed a man of understanding.
19:1 Better is the poor that walketh in his integrity, than he that is perverse in his lips, and is a fool.
23:9 Speak not in the ears of a fool: for he will despise the wisdom of thy words.
People who tell tales are trouble-makers and liars. We all know who they are. Avoid them.
20:19 He that goeth about as a talebearer revealeth secrets: therefore meddle not with him that flattereth with his lips.
26:20 Where no wood is, there the fire goeth out: so where there is no talebearer, the strife ceaseth.
26:21 As coals are to burning coals, and wood to fire; so is a contentious man to kindle strife.
26:22 The words of a talebearer are as wounds, and they go down into the innermost parts of the belly.
26:24, 25 He that hateth dissembleth with his lips, and layeth up deceit within him; When he speaketh fair, believe him not: for there are seven abominations in his heart.
Alcohol – including “harmless” wine and beer – destroys both the physical body and the mind, too. Drinking any form of alcohol is simply suicidal.
20:1 Wine is a mocker, strong drink is raging: and whosoever is deceived thereby is not wise.
23:29, 30 Who hath woe? who hath sorrow? who hath contentions? who hath babbling? who hath wounds without cause? who hath redness of eyes? They that tarry long at the wine; they that go to seek mixed
Wisdom & understanding
Here are the positive aspects – the joy and riches we get when we acquire and internalise knowledge and wisdom through the discipline of study and application.
3:13, 14 Happy is the man that findeth wisdom, and the man that getteth understanding. For the merchandise of it is better than the merchandise of silver, and the gain thereof than fine gold.
3:15 She is more precious than rubies: and all the things thou canst desire are not to be compared unto her.
3:16 Length of days is in her right hand; and in her left hand riches and honour.
3:17 Her ways are ways of pleasantness, and all her paths are peace.
4:5 Get wisdom, get understanding: forget it not; neither decline from the words of my mouth.
4:6 Forsake her not, and she shall preserve thee: love her, and she shall keep thee.
4:7 Wisdom is the principal thing; therefore get wisdom: and with all thy getting get understanding.
8:10 Receive my instruction, and not silver; and knowledge rather than choice gold.
8:11 For wisdom is better than rubies; and all the things that may be desired are not to be compared to it.
8:12 I wisdom dwell with prudence, and find out knowledge of witty inventions.
9:9 Give instruction to a wise man, and he will be yet wiser: teach a just man, and he will increase in learning.
10:14 Wise men lay up knowledge: but the mouth of the foolish is near destruction.
23:12 Apply thine heart unto instruction, and thine ears to the words of knowledge.
Good works, charity
The practical side of wisdom is charity. We give freely, not just advice but time, money and commitment, to those in need. The more we give, the more we enrich ourselves (perhaps not financially but spiritually and mentally).
3:27 Withhold not good from them to whom it is due, when it is in the power of thine hand to do it.
11:24 There is that scattereth, and yet increaseth; and there is that withholdeth more than is meet, but it tendeth to poverty.
11:25 The liberal soul shall be made fat: and he that watereth shall be watered also himself.
25:21, 22 If thine enemy be hungry, give him bread to eat; and if he be thirsty, give him water to drink: For thou shalt heap coals of fire upon his head, and the LORD shall reward thee.
– spoken by wise old Solomon, mulled over by Francis Chin, Oct 1, 2005