Reading Proverbs Wisely

In Scripture on November 21, 2011 by The Spillover

Dan Phillips from the Pyromaniacs Blog discusses Proverbs:

Proverbs appeals to most Christians, but in some cases for the wrong reasons.

We have to remember that the Bible is one book in that it tells one (very complex) story and reveals one God, who speaks through it all (Heb. 1:1-2). At the same time, we must remember that this one God has spoken “in many portions and in many ways” (Heb. 1:1 NAS). It is a book, and it is a library of books.

It is or should be evident that we’d do the book a great disservice if we read a parable the way we read the narrative of Samuel and Saul. We would go astray if we read the poetry of the Psalms the same way we read the codes of Leviticus. God is not honored if we flatten the book, and iron out all the bumps and curves He built into it.

And so with Proverbs, a superficial and uninstructed reading may lead to the impression that it is a book of formulas and methods for extracting from God the sort of life one wishes to live. Do A, and B is the result; ta-daaa. Many button-down minded Christians love it for that reason: they see it as a manual for achieving their desired results in life.

So, you work like A, and you’re rich like B. Treat your wife like A, and prosper like B.  Work God like A, and He will give you B. Raise your children like A, and they will turn out like B.

To approach Proverbs this way is to do it violence and head for serious shipwreck.

Now, you knew I was going to say this, and in fairness how can I not? The subject is deep and complex enough that I have in fact written a whole book on it, which some of you have read or are reading (thank you!). The pastors and Bible teachers who read it said it would become their “go-to” book in teaching or preaching Proverbs, and for use in counseling — which, of course, didn’t ruin my day much, and sent me to God in thanks and praise.

So I can’t reproduce that whole book, and the entire chapters on reading it and understanding it and raising children, in this post. But I can say that we get a clue from the famous juxtaposition of Proverbs 26:4-5.

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.

Well, which is it? Folks have felt the tension for millennia. You see this in the NAS, which inserts words that blur the fact that the wording is identical.

Which is true? Both, of course. One in some circumstances, the other in other circumstances. Because Proverbs is not a book of legal formulae, but rather a book of (hel-lo?) proverbs.

Think about it. If Job’s “friends” had possessed Proverbs, and had read it as a book of legal formulae, they might have Tweeted “Best. Book. EVAR!!!” Wasn’t this exactly their position? If we live righteous life A, it will extract from God blessings B, C and D. Job was experiencing misery E, therefore he must have lived sinful life F. In fact, F-. Remembering what God said about their words, it is distressing to see Christians use this portion of Scripture to be the same sort of miserable comforters.

The key to understanding Proverbs’ intent is to note the device of inclusio, a literary feature that frames and contextualizes a work by key repetition or framing. To be specific, for Proverbs there is a central thought which we find at key junctions: at the beginning of the book (1:7), at the end of the opening series of discourses (9:10), and at the end of the book (31:30). That framing truth is the fear of Yahweh. Proverbs, then, is not a book about how to get Yahweh to give us the life we want by the execution of certain methods. No; Proverbs is a book about skill for living in the fear of Yahweh.

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