Proverbs 10:13

Proverbs 10:13 "In the lips of him that hath understanding wisdom is found: but a rod is for the back of him that is void of understanding."
Proverbs 10:13 Christian Church Buffalo NY
Right around 1600, William Shakespeare wrote his longest play entitled, “The Tragedy of Hamlet, the Prince of Denmark.”  In the play, Shakespeare tells the story of a prince seeking revenge on his uncle who murdered his father in order to steal his father’s throne and wife.  The literary work is best known for its line, “to be or not to be, that is the question.”  The prince asks this famous question when debating between life and death; when debating whether to continue in the labor of life or to escape it all together in death.  Hamlet understood that the source of his pain was life itself and in escaping life, he would escape the pain it brings.

I could argue that Solomon, who both preceded Shakespeare and exceeded him in literary accomplishment, wrote his Book of Proverbs with the same question in mind – “to be or not to be?”  While there are thousands of lessons to learn in Solomon’s writing, at the center of his teaching is the urgent need to get wisdom and understanding.  While he addresses much more than wisdom and understanding in the Book of Proverbs, there is nothing more important to Solomon than those two twin virtues.

Many proverbs were written to simply address the symptoms of being wise versus not being wise.  In this literary masterpiece, Solomon spends more time building a case for wisdom than he does introducing other virtues.  He spends more time building a case against foolishness than he does denouncing other vices.  This proverb is a perfect example as it contrasts a person who HAS UNDERSTANDING to a person who does NOT HAVE UNDERSTANDING.  This proverb is not about a person’s lips nor is it about a person’s back.  This proverb is not showing us how to get wisdom in our lips or how to avoid bruises on our backs as much as it is showing us what is the most influential decision for our lips and our backs.  Wisdom in a person’s mouth is the result of one particular decision.  Bruises on a person’s back is also the result of one particular decision and the same decision.  This proverb teaches us that understanding is the deciding factor for what our mouths and backs both look like.  The lesson of this proverb is not how to talk or how to escape beatings; it is seeing what is the common denominator to both sides of the proverb.
 
Over and over throughout the proverbs and certainly in this proverb, Solomon is telling his audience, “to be or not to be, that is the question.”  More specifically, he is confronting his readers with the question, “to be understanding or not to be understanding?”  This book is not a collection of dos and don’ts; it is a collection of statements to help us realize that life comes down to whether we are wise or not.  The Book of Proverbs isn’t a book on how to handle every scenario in life; it is a book explaining how to best set the scenario in life. This proverb isn’t telling us how to avoid getting bruises on our back when confronted with an armed assailant; it is informing us that the lack of understanding will lead to bruises on our back.  It isn’t telling us how to get wisdom for the interview or for when we’re asked hard questions; it is informing us that the presence of understanding will lead to wise words.

The dilemma of this verse is not how to handle tough questions or violent people; it is whether or not we will be wise.  The Bible is much less about how to and how not to and more, “to be or not to be.”  There are a lot of decisions in a lifetime that will influence our quality of life – your choice of friends, activity, entertainment, education, employment, romance, diet, residence, etc.  But in Solomon’s eyes, there is no greater decision than “to be understanding or not to be understanding.”  In Solomon’s Divinely-inspired eyes, there was no greater factor to a person’s success or failure than the decision to BE UNDERSTANDING or to NOT TO BE UNDERSTANDING.  A man can get all of the skills he wants in life but if he doesn’t become understanding, he will experience pain.  A woman can get all of the friends she wants in life but if she doesn’t become understanding, she will never speak wisely and as a result, she will experience pain.  We can get all of the education and all of the money we want but if we don’t become understanding, we will eventually have someone in life beat us down.  We can work as hard as we want but if we never become understanding, we will eventually get fired or laid off.
 
There is no replacement for understanding. There is nothing more critical to the direction and state of our lives than understanding.  While it’s easy for us to look at the numerator in these proverbs, Solomon is circling the common denominator and often, it is understanding.  When I think of understanding, I’m reminded of those airline announcements that no one pays attention to before taking off.  The stewardess tells her passengers that if there is an oxygen shortage, oxygen masks will drop down from the ceiling.  If that happens, passengers are told very clearly that they are to put their oxygen mask on before helping anyone else.  Why?  Because you can’t do anything good without oxygen!  No matter how much you care about your child or loved one sitting next to you, you can’t help them if you can’t breathe.  No matter how much you might know about medicine, you can’t help anyone with your knowledge if you can’t breathe.  No matter how much strength or will-power you have, you can’t use it without oxygen.  With oxygen, you can help others.  Without oxygen, you can’t help others.  It’s that simple and it’s that’s important.  Understanding is to be viewed in the same manner.  It can’t be seen as optional or insignificant in any way.  If you want to do anything substantial in life, you must become understanding.  If you want to accomplish anything lasting, you must become wise.  Without it, you will be inviting pain into your life.

If you have understanding of truth, Biblical principles, virtues and vice, you won’t need to know how to get out of bad situations where you might get bruises on your back.  If you’re an understanding soul, you won’t need to know the “how” because you won’t be in that situation.  You don’t need to know how to weld steel beams two hundred feet in the air when you choose to become an accountant.  What we choose to BE determines the way we talk and the way we walk.  What we choose to BE determines the life we live and, in most cases, the type of pain we feel.  This proverb, as are most, is all about understanding.  “To be understanding, or not to be understanding, that is the question.”

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