Whoever corrects a scoffer wins abuse; whoever rebukes the wicked gets hurt. A scoffer who is rebuked will only hate you; the wise, when rebuked, will love you. Give instruction to the wise, and they will become wiser still; teach the righteous and they will gain in learning. The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, and the knowledge of the Holy One is insight. For by me your days will be multiplied, and years will be added to your life. If you are wise, you are wise for yourself; if you scoff, you alone will bear it.
Correcting someone; criticising their behaviour when they are being unpleasant, unreasonable and even boorish can be perilous and often counter-productive. It can result in a defensive and even aggressive response from the person being taken to task. When someone reacts negatively and even violently to such criticism it may mean that it has struck a nerve, that deep down its accuracy has been recognised.
In this Proverbs passage we are exhorted to beware of correcting a “scoffer”. A scoffer is one who jeers and treats something with contempt. In this context it is someone who is treating God’s word or wisdom in this way. It is contrasted with “the wise” who welcome critique, who accept that fear (or respect) of the Lord is the bedrock of true knowledge, a place where you are open to correction and guidance, providing fertile conditions for growth.
Perhaps one of the great exemplars in the Old Testament of such wisdom is that of David. Lauded by subsequent generations as the king of the Golden Age, David actually did some pretty disreputable things! This included sending Uriah into the front line of battle where he would be killed, leaving David free to move in on Uriah’s wife. But David is so beloved because when confronted with his awful behaviour by the prophet Nathan he didn’t scoff and deny but recognised the enormity of his crime with full contrition.
Although this Proverbs passage appears to place the wise & God-fearing and the scoffers & wicked in opposing camps, I wonder if the powerful message for each of us is that in our lives we are like David – flawed beings, a complex mixture of all these behaviours – at times reactive and defensive when faced with our failings; and at other times humbly accepting and wisely repentant. As walkers of the Way we are reliant on God’s grace to keep us on track.
God, you see what lies beneath and within each of our hearts. When we would want to hide, deny and cover up, your shining light reveals, burnishes and redeems. Teach us to be God-fearing and to grow in wisdom. We ask this through Jesus Christ our Lord, Amen.
Professor Graham Handscomb is a member of Christ Church URC, Chelmsford.