Review: Hear, My Son: Teaching & Learning in Proverbs 1-9

Hear, My Son: Teaching & Learning in Proverbs 1-9
Hear, My Son: Teaching & Learning in Proverbs 1-9 by Daniel J. Estes
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Proverbs 1 to 9 is an extended address on the value of wisdom from a father or elder teacher to a son or student that introduces the wisdom sayings of the remainder of Proverbs. Daniel J. Estes has taken a novel approach to this literature and written a monograph exploring the philosophy and practice of teaching and learning reflected in this instruction given in these chapters. It is part of the New Studies in Biblical Theology series of monographs.

That may sound like dry, stodgy stuff but what Estes does is outline in a very straightforward fashion what we might learn from these texts about teaching and learning. The book is not an exposition of Proverbs 1 to 9 but rather a study of this discourse through the lens of what it teaches about education.

Here is the outline of the book. After an introduction describing and giving a rationale for this study, Estes looks first at the worldview underlying Proverbs as one seeing the universe as God’s creation, one with a moral order and rationality that reflect the character of God, and thus implying a proper reverence for God by humans and other creatures. He then turns to values for education, of which the top one is wisdom which is understanding how to live well and in accord with God’s order in the world, teachability, righteousness and life. Then follows a consideration of education’s goals: commitment on the part of the learner, growth in character, competence in living, protection from folly and its consequences, prosperity and the knowledge of God.

The next sections turn to the nuts and bolts of education. Proverbs 1-9 describes a threefold curriculum of learning through observation of the world, through instruction in traditional wisdom passed along, and through revealed truth from God. He then turns to the educational process evident in this discourse which includes an address (“hear, my son”), description of the wise and foolish, various forms of commands, incentives, and an invitation to embrace the teaching. This then leads to a consideration of the role of teacher and learner in this process. Because the teacher alternates between expert authority and the role of facilitating wisdom’s embrace, he sees the teacher as functioning as a knowledgeable guide in the learning process. Conversely the learner must receive, respond to, value and assimilate wisdom. Estes then concludes the book by summarizing these chapters and outlining avenues for further exploration as well as by offering few comments on contemporary education.

What I most appreciate about this book is that it articulates an approach to education that integrates faith and rigorous study of the world rather than bracketing these off into separate ventures. In fact, the earliest scientists studied the world as well as theology to understand God’s order. Similarly, tradition, history, literature, and philosophy need not be opposed to either theology or science but all function together as a comprehensive curriculum to teach the fear of God, the order of creation, the cultivation of moral character, competence and common sense in the conduct of life. Competence and character, reason and faith walk together.

In sum, this book is a concise work that gives fresh insight into an aspect of Proverbs–teaching and learning–that has relevance for anyone engaged in the educational enterprise and particularly those who want to think Christianly about how education is done.

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Lady Wisdom’s Unheeded Call

I’ve been reading a bit lately about a subject I don’t hear much about these days–wisdom. My hunch is that we don’t like this idea of wisdom because it seems to suggest that there are ideas of how to live well that are already “out there”–that might have a certain “fixed” quality about them that aren’t subject to our own “make it up as we go” kind of life. It seems to me these days that our preferred method of gaining wisdom, if we care about this at all, is learning from our mistakes. And I have a hunch that many of us do learn this way (I have) and yet it seems that this way is fraught with lots of pain for not only ourselves, but that it leads to inflicting pain on those around us. And sometimes, we don’t live to profit from the lessons–we are merely an object lesson for others. Is there a better way?

Hear my son

One of the books I’ve been reading recently is Hear, My Son by Daniel J. Estes, which looks at the first nine chapters of the book of Proverbs. One of the interesting truths that it has reminded me of is the notion that there is a certain wisdom and order that has been woven into the fabric of creation.

“By wisdom the Lord laid the earth’s foundations, by understanding he set the heavens in place; by his knowledge the watery depths were divided,and the clouds let drop the dew.” (Proverbs 3:19-20, NIV)

Wisdom tells us that despite how “empowering” it was for Thelma and Louise to drive over a cliff into the Grand Canyon, that this all would end very badly.

Thelma and Louise

It is often times not nearly as dramatic. The laziness that fails to clean out a gutter leads to overflows that damage walls and structures. Water has to go somewhere! The neglect of sleep and the abuse of my body lead to illness and other physical problems. Pulling nutrients out of the earth without replacing them depletes soils and makes good land useless until replenished.

A teacher observed to me once that we not so much break God’s laws as break ourselves against them. And as I think about it, I’m struck that such “wisdom” may be the Creator’s gracious means to save us a good deal of pain in life, rather than a mean-spirited attempt to take all the fun out of life.

I think where this is really hard for me is my own self-will. I want to live life in the words of Frank Sinatra, “my way”. Even though Lady Wisdom in Proverbs 8 makes a compelling case, it is often my own self-willed notion that I know better that closes my ear to her voice, even though her pleas come with promises of blessing:

“Blessed are those who listen to me, watching daily at my doors, waiting at my doorway. For those who find me find life and receive favor from the Lord.” (Proverbs 8:34:35, NIV).

The last word in this quote is the hardest for me, even though I believe in God and have followed Christ for many years. While I don’t mind someone watching over and helping me when I’m sick, or needy, or in trouble, the truth is most of the time, I don’t want God’s help or even to admit that my life is being lived before someone who can be called “Lord.” Yet Proverbs suggests that this is the most profound wisdom of all, foundational to everything else:

“The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge,
    but fools despise wisdom and instruction.” (Proverbs 1:7, NIV)

Some fears are healthy. Proverbs says that the recognition that my life is lived for God is actually a healthy fear. I think how that works for me is that it leads me to cry for God’s help to live wisely before him in all the nooks, crannies, and crevices of my life. Everything matters, and God would spare us unneeded pain–there is plenty of pain without that which we bring on ourselves. If there is a choice between living well and making life hard–do I really want the latter? Better to listen for the voice of Lady Wisdom…