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Sunday, November 06, 2011


Dan Phillips over at Pyromaniacs has written a good blog entry entitled Reading Proverbs Wisely vs Harmfully. The entry is a natural, since he recently published a book on Proverbs. Makes sense. Dan hits squarely on a concern I've had for a long time over how people read the book of Proverbs.

A proverb is a wise saying or precept. It is an adage, a statement of an general truth. It has the function of portraying a truism, something that is often true, but not necessarily always. Here, look at a couple of examples:

Look before you leap. ----- He who hesitates is lost.
Nothing ventured, nothing gained. ----- Better safe than sorry.
The only thing constant is change. ----- The more things change, the more they stay the same.
Absence makes the heart grow fonder. ----- Out of sight, out of mind.

I'm sure you see the problem. These are truisms, all of them, but they contradict. Oh, so I suppose they are not true, right? No, that's not the case, either. They are true in their contexts and times. To take "Absence makes the heart grow fonder" as a promise or principle would require that every close relationship -- marriage, family, friend, whatever -- would need to make as a function of good relations separation an integral part. In fact, it would probably just be better if husbands and wives didn't live together. Imagine how fond of each other they'd become! And, of course, that's silly. (No, really, that's silly. I see you over there thinking that one over.)

Proverbs are neither promises nor statements of absolute truth. They are ... proverbs. Thus, when we get to Solomon's book of the same name, we need to remember that they are proverbs. Look at some of these examples.

"When a man's ways please the LORD, He makes even his enemies to be at peace with him" (Prov 16:7). This appears to be a formula, a suitable test. Are your enemies not at peace with you? Must not be pleasing the Lord! Get that fixed. Of course, this is too easily dismantled when we look at the singular person about which it must be said that all His ways pleased the Lord -- Jesus. I hate to break it to you, but His enemies weren't at peace with Him. Must not have pleased the Lord! No, wrong conclusion. It's a proverb. It is generally true. It is often the case. It isn't an absolute truth. It isn't a promise from God.

This one is a real problem for some people. "Train up a child in the way he should go; even when he is old he will not depart from it" (Prov 22:6). Clear as day! So, if, when he is old, he departs from it, you didn't do your job, parents. Can there be any question? And as if that's not painful enough, consider this. If you were supposed to train up your child to have faith in Christ and when he is old he does not, now where do you stand? You are responsible for his/her eternal damnation. And while I know that some would think I'm exaggerating for effect, I'm not. I know people who believe that. Some of them believe it and sternly look at those who failed, and others suffer from self-inflicted guilt because they believe it about themselves. But rather than messing around with questionable fathers to prove that this can't be the case, let's go to the absolutely perfect Father and see how He did. Adam sinned. Israel sinned. God's children haven't been very well behaved. Well, I suppose we know Who to blame, don't we? No, of course not. That was exaggeration for effect.

Then, of course, there is the classic (dare I say "proverbial"?) problem of Proverbs. "Answer not a fool according to his folly, lest you be like him yourself. Answer a fool according to his folly, lest he be wise in his own eyes" (Prov 26:4-5). "Oh, come on, Solomon! What's up with that??!!" If we believe (as we do) that the Bible is God's Word without error or contradiction, then we have a problem here. Which is it? Answer a fool according to his folly or not? This problem goes away when we place the book of Proverbs in the category of proverbs. These are wise sayings about truth in context and time. Sometimes the context would require that you point out the folly of a fool for his own sake and sometimes it's best to ignore it.

Dan Phillips writes, "Proverbs is a book about skill for living in the fear of Yahweh." That's what it's about. It isn't about steps to take to make a happier life, the formula for making your enemies like you, or the 12 step program for raising good kids. These are proverbs with a focus on the fear of the Lord. If we can get that straight, we can avoid a lot of contradiction, misplaced hopes, and heart-rending disappointments. Instead, let's get to work on the fear of the Lord.

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