I am reading a commentary on the Book of Proverbs which postulates that the book was most likely written to young men from wealthy backgrounds who had servants, property and businesses as well as contact with the king. Certainly the book is written to give knowledge and discretion to youth (Prov. 1:4), and viewing its primary audience as rich young men in positions of potential leadership would explain the book’s emphasis on justice (Putnam 8).
I am not a wealthy young man living in ancient Israel who has contact with the king. But I don’t think it’s too much of a stretch to draw a few principles from this text that would behoove me to dwell on. What strikes me about Proverbs is that it is not only pro-wisdom, but pro-leadership and pro-greatness. Greatness is something to be desired and sought after. Ambition is good as long as it is guided by wisdom. When some think of a monarch, ruler or leader, perhaps the image of a self-serving, money-hungry, fame-loving potentate is the first image that comes their mind. This is not the sort of “leadership” described in Proverbs. The young man in Proverbs is to love justice and mercy and to rule humbly with wisdom, eschewing what is evil and clinging to what is good.
My point is that desiring greatness is good, if it is the kind of greatness described in Proverbs. As Evangelicals, we often use the rhetoric of “desiring to serve the Lord” and I suppose this has some merit since we do desire to serve God. However, I think what we are really expressing is a desire to be truly great. Think about the language we use in Christian youth groups. Despite the huge emphasis in many youth groups on the Gospel as a kind of “free gift, clean slate, no questions asked, you don’t have to do anything,” there’s still a pull to do something. We say, “God has a plan for your life,” to inspire a sense of calling and impress upon them the necessity of human response. And whether it involves “witnessing” to your friends at school or being a nice older sister, there is always the matter of decisive action.
Now, I could write an entire blog post on the subject of youth groups, but that’s not my purpose here. I’m saying that there is biblical precedent for viewing ambition and the cultivation of leadership skills as a good and holy thing. (Perhaps the problem we often come up against in youth groups is that we present greatness as something automatically endowed to the Christian by the Spirit instead of presenting the idea that greatness must be pursued and cultivated. Solomon may have received his wisdom from God in a day, but if most others could have become wise in the same way, why did he arrange wise proverbs for their instruction?)
This is not to say that there is only one kind of greatness or that one must be an influential world leader or prolific bishop in order to be great. There are many varieties of greatness and many different forms. There is the greatness of the husband and wife quietly exercising justice and mercy in their home. There are many great people who will never go down in history books. The instructions in Proverbs are, I think, still applicable to those who will never govern a city or manage an estate or rule a country. There is honor in doing all things well, not just those things which are noticed by the world. At the same time, it is appropriate to pursue credibility with the world, to pursue just leadership in such a way that makes the world respect your Lord and Master, Jesus Christ.