The Proverbs contains many “Better is…than…” passages. The format of the Proverbs (with their short, concise phrases) seems especially suited to this kind of comparison. Following is a more or less complete table of such comparative statements, with the “better things” in the first column and the “worse things”in the last column.
Better things #1: The “better things” include: understanding, wisdom, the fear of the LORD, love, righteousness, patience, peace, quiet, a blameless walk, and a good reputation.
Better things #2: But — more surprisingly — the “better things” ALSO include: poverty, a simple meal, a dry crust, lowliness, oppression, living in the desert, and living in a corner, and an angry mother bear.
Worse things #1: The “worse things” include: pretense, pride, folly, lying, hatred, strife, injustice, and a quarrelsome wife.
Worse things #2: But — again, surprisingly — the “worse things” also include: great wealth (gold, silver), and fine food.
- All the “Better things” #1 are easily seen to be desirable, while all the “Worse things” #1 are easily seen to be undesirable. Some parts of the lesson are, in fact, very easy to perceive — and to accept.
- But let’s be honest: when we look at “Better things” #2 alongside “Worse things” #2, do we really believe that, for example, poverty is better than great wealth, or that a dry crust is better than fine food?
- And IS poverty really better than great wealth? Some very great and righteous men and women have been very wealthy, and it didn’t do them any harm, did it? As Tevye says in “The Fiddler on the Roof,” “Dear God, you made many, many poor people. I realize, of course, that it’s no shame to be poor. But it’s no great honor either!”
- But then we realize that there is no “comparison proverb” that says, simply, “Poverty is better than wealth.” Rather, these comparisons occur in combination with other things on the list. For example, take Prov. 15:16: there “the fear of the LORD” is better than “turmoil” — and that’s probably easy to accept. But then we add the second part of each comparison: “A little PLUS the fear of the LORD” is better than “great wealth PLUS turmoil.” And we see that the point is this: NOT that “poverty” alone is better than “great wealth,” but that “the fear of the LORD” is SO MUCH BETTER than “turmoil” that, even when we add “great wealth” to “turmoil,” it still doesn’t tip the scales in favor of turmoil!
- Apply the same logic as above to Pro 15:17.
- Other “combination comparison proverbs:” Prov. 16:8: Plainly “righteousness” is better than “injustice.” But the whole proverb tells us that it is SO MUCH BETTER, that even if we add “much gain” on the scale, “righteousness” is still better than “injustice.” This is God’s reckoning! Do we understand it? Do we accept it?
- Plainly again, “peace and quiet” is better than “strife;” in fact, it’s SO MUCH BETTER that even if we sweeten the pot with “a house full of feasting,” even then… “strife” just isn’t worth it! Do we SEE this? Or are we tempted to “sell our souls” (or maybe just a little piece of ourselves) to get the wealth, the feasting, the “good life.” Proverbs says, “NO! Don’t do it!”
- Some “better things” are plainly NOT really better – e.g., an angry bear (Prov. 17:12)! They can only seem “better” because that which is set off in the scales against them – i.e, “a fool in his folly” — is so terribly, terribly “worse.”
- And if you are tempted, young man, to find a wife at any cost (or young woman, to find a husband at any cost)…then remember these “better things” too: Clearly, to live in a little corner of the roof, or alone in the desert, is far from desirable. But it is still BETTER than living with the wrong spouse. And it still BETTER than living with the wrong spouse, who brings to the marriage great wealth, fine food, and prestige. Because, sadly, the wrong spouse brings — also — herself or himself to the bargain! And a bargain it isn’t!
- One thing, at least, is found on each side of the comparative table. One of the “better things” is “love” (Prov. 15:17). And one of the “worse things” is “love” (Prov. 27:5). What is the modifying factor? In the second case, it is a “hidden love:” a pretense of “love” which says nothing in rebuke or counsel or advice or help, for fear of offending the “object” of that “love.” This is no real love at all. And an “open rebuke” from someone who never proclaims great love is so very much better than Christmas presents, and birthday gifts, and hugs and kisses, and empty professions, without any hint of discipline or correction.
- What oddities we find in this table! A patient man, a lowly and quiet man, a poor man, a “nobody” living in a desert…is BETTER THAN a great and wealthy and proud warrior, who has conquered a city. How can this be? Because the poor man, the man with nowhere to lay his head (Prov. 21:9; cp Matt. 8:20; Luke 9:58), lived “in the desert” (Prov. 21:19; 25:24) for 40 days (Matt. 4:1,2; Mark 1:13; Luke 4:1,2), and there he met and conquered an enemy far greater than a walled and armed city. There he conquered himself, and that victory — in God’s sight — is of infinitely more worth than all the blood-and-“glory” military victories of all the generals that ever marched, and all the navies that ever sailed. In the battle in that desert — which culminated on a cross — he earned a treasure of infinitely more worth than all the silver and gold, all the gilt-edged investment portfolios, and all the five-star real estate developments accumulated by every Rockefeller, every Carnegie, and every Bill Gates the world has ever seen.