Instruct the wise and they’ll improve, increasing what they know; and teach the righteous carefully, and they will surely grow.” (Proverbs 9:9)
This is the ninth in a series of posts on Proverbs, which I am translating into common meter. The following contains my rendering of Proverbs 9, preceded by a brief reflection.
Proverbs 9 is the final chapter in the extended wisdom poem of Proverbs 1-9, which collectively serves as an introduction to Proverbs. In this chapter Wisdom (verses 1-6) and Folly (verses 13-18) each makes her final appeal. The appeals themselves are so wrapped in metaphor that it is hard to extract much practical advice for the spiritual life, except to hear once again that the way of Wisdom leads to life, and the way of Folly leads to death.
Sandwiched between these two appeals are three verses that speak deeply and practically to our human condition. “Correct a mocker and it’s sure that you will be maligned; rebuke the wicked and you’ll find abuse is close behind. For if you chide the ones who mock, it’s you that they will hate; but if you chide those who are wise, their love for you is great. Instruct the wise and they’ll improve, increasing what they know; and teach the righteous carefully, and they will surely grow.” (Proverbs 9:7-9) In short, a wicked person will not accept correction and will attack the one correcting them; whereas a wise person will welcome correction and grow as a result. And in this, Solomon gives us one of the most critical components of spiritual growth, namely, the importance of being able to receive correction well.
I wonder whether Solomon was thinking about the prophet Nathan who confronted Solomon’s father King David after his adulterous affair with Bathsheba and the murder of her husband Uriah. You remember the rebuke – Nathan tells David the story of a rich man who killed the only ewe of a poor man. David was outraged, and then Nathan says to him, “You are the man!” (2 Samuel 12:7) David did not get mad at Nathan, rather, he said, “I have sinned against the Lord.” (2 Samuel 12:13) Because Bathsheba was Solomon’s mother, it seems likely that Solomon would have known about this story. Indeed, David himself wrote of his remorse, “Have mercy on me, O God, according to your unfailing love; according to your great compassion blot out my transgressions. Wash away all my iniquity and cleanse me from my sin. For I know my transgressions, and my sin is always before me. Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight; so you are right in your verdict and justified when you judge.” (Psalm 51:1-4)
All of us make mistakes, no one is perfect. But the essential posture of the wise person when confronted is to repent, to change. The fool, on the other hand, becomes defensive. This is a hard teaching because who among us likes to be corrected? Or rebuked? Or chided? These words of Solomon are words of confrontation and challenge. They are words that we hear as “you are wrong,” “you made a mistake,” or perhaps even “you are stupid.” When I hear words like these my defense shields are fully engaged and I am ready to fight.
Defensiveness though, comes at a dear cost, because it silences the truth. “Correct a mocker and it’s sure that you will be maligned; rebuke the wicked and you’ll find abuse is close behind.” (Proverbs 9:7) Who among us when confronting another person will continue to speak the truth in the face of being maligned and abused? Certainly this can be a big problem in a marriage, where defensiveness effectively silences the one offering correction. I wonder sometimes at how my marriage survived in the face of my defensiveness over the years. I recognize today that my pride and insecurity would rarely allow me to be corrected. It must be extremely challenging to live with someone who cannot receive correction. Solomon tells us that the righteous grow as a result of correction. The implied opposite being that those who are unwise will never grow.
Beyond relational damage though, there is the potential for deeper spiritual harm when a person no longer recognizes their need for correction. The risk is that of losing sight of one’s sin. The inability for us to recognize when we have sinned is a uniquely dangerous spiritual disease. Ronald Rolheiser writes,
“This proclivity to rationalize and not admit weakness and sin is, singularly, the most deadly temptation facing each of us. Failure to admit weakness and acknowledge our sin as sin is infinitely more damaging than weakness and sin themselves. Failure in self-honesty is the start of the sin against the Holy Spirit, the only sin that can never be forgiven” …
“Simply put, it is the sin of lying to oneself until one becomes so warped that one believes one’s own lie. Falsehood becomes truth. The reason this sin cannot be forgiven is not that God does not want to forgive it, but rather that the person no longer sees the need for forgiveness. Living in darkness is seen as living in light; sin is seen as grace; perversion as virtue.” (Forgotten Among the Lilies, 105-106)
Near the end of his life, Solomon himself became like the fool he wrote about in Proverbs. God told him not to marry foreign women or worship their gods. Whether this correction came through a prophet or directly from God, we do not know. But we do know that Solomon did not repent and obey God. Rather Solomon married those outside his nation and worshipped their disgusting gods (1 Kings 11:5,7) Indeed, “He sinned against the Lord and was not true to him as his father David had been.” (1 Kings 11:6) As punishment, God split the kingdom apart.
The irony should not be lost on us. Here we have Solomon, whose “wisdom was greater than the wisdom of all the people of the East, and greater than all the wisdom of Egypt. He was wiser than anyone else.” (1 Kings 4:30-31) And yet he who wrote with such great insight about correction, was himself unable to receive it himself.
Nonetheless, Solomon’s advice is sound. And it is achievable if our hope is in the Lord. Or as we read, “Trust in the Lord … and he will make your pathways straight.” (Proverbs 3:5-6)
1 It’s Wisdom who has built her house
where all can gather round;
She’s carved out seven pillars strong
to firmly set it down.
2 She’s skillfully prepared her meat,
she’s mixed her finest wine;
She’s laid her table carefully,
so everything is fine.
3 She’s had her servants lead the way,
as she sets out to go;
She calls from high above the town
to everyone below.
4 “Let anyone who is naïve,
and has no commonsense;
Come now and enter where I live,
come now and listen hence.
5 Come, have your fill of what I’ve made,
come freely eat my bread;
Come drink the wine that I have mixed,
partake of what I’ve spread.
6 Forsake and leave your simple ways,
and life will come to you;
Seek understanding for your walk,
and insight that is true.”
7 Correct a mocker and it’s sure
that you will be maligned;
Rebuke the wicked and you’ll find
abuse is close behind.
8 For if you chide the ones who mock,
it’s you that they will hate;
But if you chide those who are wise,
their love for you is great.
9 Instruct the wise and they’ll improve,
increasing what they know;
And teach the righteous carefully,
and they will surely grow.
10 To fear the Lord is wisdom’s door –
the start of what is true;
While knowledge of the Holy One
is understanding too.
11 For wisdom will extend your days
by giving many more;
Your years will surely multiply,
increasing by the score.
12 If wise, you’ll gain a just reward,
and keep it for your own;
But if you mock, you’ll suffer much,
and bear it all alone.
13 Now Folly is tumultuous,
unruly and naïve;
She’s gullible and ignorant,
and eager to deceive.
14 She’s at the doorway of her house,
the place where she sits down;
Her vantage is the highest point,
that’s far above the town.
15 She calls to everyone she sees –
whoever’s passing near;
Those walking straight along their path
without concern or fear.
16 “Let anyone who is naïve,
and has no commonsense;
Come now and enter where I live,
come now and listen hence.
17 Now stolen water’s sweeter than
whatever else you drink;
And food that’s gathered secretly,
tastes better than you think.”
18 But simpletons are unaware,
it’s there the dead reside;
For those who enter Folly’s house,
become like those who’ve died.