The Hebrew word mashal (מָשָׁל) means “proverb” or “parable.” It’s a brief statement of truth intended to help us make wise decisions. When used as a verb, the term means “to rule” or “to govern.” A mashal is a tool to help us govern ourselves wisely.
The books of Proverbs and Ecclesiastes are both collections of mashals, mostly attributed to Solomon (Proverbs 1:1, 10:1, 25:1, Ecclesiastes 12:9). The compilers made no attempt to organize the content by topic, so both books read like a random collection of aphorisms about a small number of topics, in no particular order.
Ecclesiastes has a decidedly more negative tone. The narrator’s insists that we remember the futility of life because of the certainty of death. But the mashals in both books cover a common set of topics, including the preeminence of wisdom, the foolishness of pride, the importance of governing our speech and thoughts, the destructive nature of sexual immorality, the value of corrective feedback, and the importance of hard work.
Here are some of the lessons I’ve learned from these two books, with corresponding Book of Mormon passages and links to relevant blog posts:
1. Wisdom comes first.
Just as Solomon chose to prioritize the acquisition of wisdom over wealth and power, we will also find that if we put wisdom first, other blessings will follow. Abinadi taught the priests of King Noah that wisdom doesn’t automatically accrue as we experience life. We have to apply our hearts to understanding, a phrase which appears multiple times in Proverbs and Ecclesiastes.
Why do we so often fail to “walk in wisdom’s paths?” Both Limhi and Mormon explain it as an aversion to being “ruled over,” a desire to maintain our independence.
But in the end, we need to recognize, as Nephi did, that knowledge has eternal value, whereas worldly conveniences have only fleeting significance. As Solomon explains, wisdom “is a tree of life to them that lay hold upon her” (Proverbs 3:18).
2. Give and receive correction well.
“Despise not the chastening of the Lord,” says Solomon, “for whom the LORD loveth he correcteth; even as a father the son in whom he delighteth” (Proverbs 3:11-12). God’s corrective feedback is evidence of His parental love for us. Granted, corrective feedback isn’t easy to hear, and it requires self-discipline to receive it with grace. But as Alma recognized, we make better decisions when we seek counsel from others, and admonishing one another helps us repent.
When we give corrective feedback to others, we would be wise to follow God’s example, speaking with a soft voice, a voice of mildness.
3. We need to govern our words and our thoughts carefully.
King Benjamin told his people to watch their words (Mosiah 4:30). Alma said that, at the Final Judgment, “our words will condemn us” (Alma 12:14). Solomon advises us to limit what we say: “He that hath knowledge spareth his words” (Proverbs 17:27), and, “Let thy words be few” (Ecclesiastes 5:2).
But Solomon also says, “A word spoken in due season, how good is it!” (Proverbs 15:23). And Nephi promised that, when we receive the Holy Ghost, we can “speak with the tongue of angels” (2 Nephi 31:13-14, 2 Nephi 32:2). Clearly, the goal is not to avoid talking altogether, but to recognize the power of our words and use them to do good.
And it all begins with our thoughts. Jacob told his people that they were beginning to labor in sin because of recurring inappropriate patterns of thought. Jesus told us not to suffer improper thoughts, feelings, and desires to enter our hearts. As Solomon observed, “As [a person] thinketh in his heart, so is he” (Proverbs 23:7).
4. Follow the agenda. When it’s time to do something, do it.
The most quoted passage from Ecclesiates appears in the third chapter: “To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under heaven” (Ecclesiastes 3:1-8). We can become so frustrated when we try to do the right thing at the wrong time! As my friend John Shamanis has taught, “The Lord knows with perfectness what is best for us and when.”
An important corollary is that we should avoid procrastinating high priority activities, including repentance and service to others. Some opportunities have a shelf life, and it’s important to take advantage of them while they are still available to us.