The word of the day is “better.” Are the choices that people make in their lives based on reason? The “Rational Choice Theory” claims that people choose the options they believe are in their best interest. That is, they select the most reasonable choices among alternatives.
Our reading of Proverb 15:7-19 rejects this presupposition. The wise sage of Proverbs writes, “Better is a dinner of herbs where love is than a fatted calf with hatred” (NKJV vs. 17). This saying suggests that the theory that people make reasonable choices fails to consider the role of the passions in human decisions. Today we look at the basic choice between the freedom of wisdom and the folly of slavery to the passions. The first enables us to make reasonable decisions, and the second binds us to irrational attitudes and behavior.
The Choice Between Two Options
In our reading, the sage suggests that human decisions are choices between two options. One is better than the other. For example, he observes, “a dinner of plain vegetables where there is love is better than a five-course meal where there is a hatred (vs. 17).
With the question of the rationality of our choices in mind, let’s probe into the sage’s adage. Given the choice of love or hatred, which would rational persons pick? We would say “love.” But what price would we give for love? Would we pass up all the worldly attractions that the image of a scrumptious meal pictures? Or, for the sake of love, would we settle for a life that is metaphorically restricted to vegetables?
Choosing the indulgences of life over love sounds like a reasonable decision. Consider the rewards of the finer things of life. But let’s probe deeper into the choice. Why would we want a life that is characterized by fine wine and luxuriant meals?
Choice Based on Appetite: Esau
The sage would say our choice is not based on reason but on our appetite. For instance, Esau traded his birthright when he came in from hunting and was famished (NKJV Genesis 25:29). At that point, an overwhelming desire for the lentil stew that Jacob was making controlled him. Because he yielded to that passion, Esau lost his birthright.
But we can probe still deeper. Most people would not consciously choose hatred over love. But like irrational and uncontrolled eating to satisfy one’s hunger, hatred is a passion. Like all the passions, it is not a reasoned choice at all. It is a compulsion that coerces us to gratify it.
Choice Based on Hatred: Joseph’s Brothers
For instance, Joseph’s brothers seemed to act with the thought of their self-interest when they sold him into slavery (Genesis 37:18-350). First, they plotted to kill him. But hoping to rescue him later, Reuben convinced them to throw Joseph into an empty cistern. But when a caravan headed for Egypt passed by, the brothers sold him. Thus, they acted with shrewdness. They not only got rid of their brother, but they gained money for it.
But what was driving this “rational’ choice? It was not reason but hatred. Hatred finds reasons for itself. And therefore, hatred seems reasonable to those who hate. Indeed, there were things to dislike about Joseph. For one thing, he was conceited. For another, their father favored him above all of them. Thus, Joseph’s behavior deserved their animosity. But that passion bore fruit in immoral action. To satisfy their hatred, the brothers stripped him of his many-colored robe, sold him like an animal, deceived their father, and profited from their wickedness.
Better With Little Than Trouble With Treasure
These stories illustrate that the basic choice in life is between freedom and slavery. The sage observes, “Better is a little with the fear of the Lord than great treasure with trouble” (NKJV vs. 16). If we respect the Lord and honor His ways, then the passions will not control us. And if the passions are not in charge of thinking, then we can make reasonable choices.
However, if we let the passions manipulate us, then our choices may seem reasonable. But they seem practical only because our passionate desires corrupt our reasoning. And yes, this way of living has its treasures. It rewards us with the temporary satisfaction of our passions.
Yet each set of choices has its consequences. In the fear of the Lord there is liberty. But the giving awe and respect of the Lord promise us little more.
In contrast, slavery to passions offers the reward of the gratification of the passions. Yet, it also comes with “trouble.” The Greek word means disruption, unrest, and turmoil (Strong’s #4103). The passions will not allow those they rule to rest. Satisfaction incites more hunger. Gratification stirs up the need for more indulgence. The fulfillment of desire enflames more craving. In the end, the yearning of the passions is self-destructive.
Therefore, according to Proverbs, wisdom must strive to free itself from the temptations and troubles of the passions and to choose with reason what is in the best interest of the soul.