I've been looking at the Proverbs with the church lately and thought that it might be worth my time to think through how we read the Proverbs as Christians. I'm not entirely convinced that Christians have a good grasp on what to do with the Proverbs, and even the Wisdom Books more generally.
My interest in the Wisdom Books began when I taught a class to 2nd year seminary students at Moffat College of Bible in Kijabe, Kenya one summer not long ago. As a burgeoning student of biblical theology, I was intensely aware of the difficulties surrounding teaching the Wisdom books to Christians. While my Kenyan students come from a culture where indigenous proverbs are still used, I wasn't so concerned about their ability to understand how to appreciate the Proverbs. Rather, I was interested to help them understand that the gospel has to shape the way that we read the Old Testament. And that especially in a context where so much prosperity preaching and "health-and-wealth" Pentecostalism abounded.
Over the years I've known Christians who have read the Proverbs in ways that are good and bad. Some people read the Proverbs like "rules for living" and almost strangely idolize them. Others think that we don't take the question of biblical wisdom seriously enough and should read them more. When was the last time you cracked open the Proverbs?
As evangelicals we talk a lot about reading the Bible, trusting what God has to say, and applying it to our lives. In all honestly, it's not always a fair thing to say because some parts of the Bible are very hard to understand. And getting training in how to study the Bible doesn't necessarily make it any easier. Rather it creates awareness of all the interpretive possibilities and where the pitfalls lie. I am convinced, however, that we can read the Bible better with thoughtfulness and effort. And good Biblical Theology must be central to that task, no matter what part of the Bible we are in. It's often my lifeline for understanding a text or passage and how it relates to the gospel. And the gospel has to inform how we read the whole Bible.
The extraordinary claim of the New Testament authors is that the person of Jesus, who was executed and raised from the dead by God, is the promised Messiah of Israel. Central to that claim is Jesus' divinity and power to transform the way that God deals with the world. You know, new wine for new wineskins. The apostles claim that in Jesus we find all sorts of fulfillment and transformation. Things like temple, priesthood, atonement, wisdom, creation and covenant all now find a new meaning in Jesus. And it's not so much a new meaning, as much as it is a fulfillment of what those things all originally meant, though now they are perceived of and appropriated by the church through Jesus. Perhaps Jesus as the Lamb of God is the most obvious and oft referenced fulfillment of an Old Testament practice in the New Testament. But there's another one that's extremely important as well.
Inauguration of New Creation
One of the other astonishing claims of the New Testament is that the eschatological promise of new creation has actually been inaugurated through Jesus' death and resurrection. As I am reading the Bible, I'm becoming increasingly convinced that where there is discontinuity with the Old Testament it's largely due to the fact that Jesus inaugurated new creation. By discontinuity I mean where things appear to be very different from the Old Testament. Take Sabbath for instance. Why the change from Saturday to Sunday? I (and others) would argue that because Sunday is the first day of the dawn of new creation, the dawning due to Jesus, the first to rise from the dead, to live everlastingly in the heavens that come to earth (new creation). As Saturday was the day honoring God's creative act, so too, Sunday now honors Jesus creative act. Consider the land promise. The land inheritance promise to the remnant gets written large on the eschatological stage by Isaiah and made not merely the land of Israel, but the whole world transformed, filled with the glory of God. It's the meek, says Jesus, who inherit that earth.
Might the concept of new creation be important for rightly reading Proverbs? I'm not entirely sure if it will be or not, but I have a theory.
The Opening of Proverbs and it's Old Testament Context
The Old Testament begins with the Torah which includes the election of Abraham and his progeny, the establishment of God's covenant with Israel, and all the "commandments, statutes and rules" given by Moses in Deuteronomy, all set within a grand narrative that begins in Eden and ends with Israel camped across the Jordan ready to take the promised land. It's a narrative encompassing a grand movement of people from one sacred place (Eden) to another (Canaan). It's an act of grace. Though Adam and Eve were driven from the presence of the Lord, Israel is being given the gift of the land. Moses provides reasons: (1) it's a place to enjoy the presence of God (Ex 25:8, 29:45-46; Duet 12), (2) it's a place to enjoy blessing from the Lord (Deut 8:7-10, 11:13 ff.; Deut 28:1-14) and (3) it's a place to show the Lord's wisdom in the sight of the nations (Ex 34:10 ff.; Duet 4:5-8, 14).
The Prophets and Wisdom books that follow must be read as two kinds of developments of, or reflections of, Torah. On the one hand, the Prophets show how Israel slowly slips into idolatry and why that's such a problem by making references back to the Torah, especially Deuteronomy. It's appears that the major prophets do this by bringing covenant lawsuits against Israel. The Wisdom books make their contribution as well. The Wisdom teachers use a cooler, calmer and more reflective approach to the questions about how one should live in the world that God has created, and perhaps more specifically, the land that God has given them.
The Wisdom books are replete with the Deuteronomic themes of land, covenant, blessing, cursing, righteousness, equity and justice. Consider these verses from the beginning of Proverbs:
Proverbs 2:21-22These are only a few of course. They relate directly back to covenantal structure of Israel's life established by the Torah.
For the upright will inhabit the land, and those with integrity will remain in it,
but the wicked will be cut off from the land, and the treacherous will be rooted out of it.
Let not steadfast love and faithfulness forsake you;
bind them around your neck;
write them on the tablet of your heart.
So you will find favor and good success in the sight of God and man.
(Cf. to Ex 34:6-7, Deut 6:4-9, 10:16)
Honor the LORD with your wealth and with the firstfruits of all your produce;
then your barns will be filled with plenty, and your vats will be bursting with wine.
(Cf. o Ex 23:16, 34:22; Lev 23:9 ff.; Deut 8:17-18)
The LORD's curse is on the house of the wicked, but he blesses the dwelling of the righteous.
(Cf. Deut 28)
A worthless person, a wicked man, goes about with crooked speech...
therefore calamity will come upon him suddenly; in a moment he will be broken beyond healing.
Proverbs 7 (Warning against adultery)
vv. 25-27 Let not your heart turn aside to her ways; do not stray into her paths,
for many a victim has she laid low, and all her slain are a mighty throng.
Her house is the way to Sheol, going down to the chambers of death.
(Cf. Deut 5:18; 27:15 ff.)
Deuteronomy 7:12ffUnder the Old Covenant God elected Israel to be his people among whom he would make his dwelling, to whom he would give blessing or cursing, and through whom he would make his wisdom known to the nations. It's natural, therefore, that reflection should arise among the wise concerning how Israel should love the Lord and obey him faithfully. That should be our first clue about how to read the Proverbs.
"And because you listen to these rules and keep and do them, the LORD your God will keep with you the covenant and the steadfast love that he swore to your fathers. He will love you, bless you, and multiply you. He will also bless the fruit of your womb and the fruit of your ground, your grain and your wine and your oil, the increase of your herds and the young of your flock, in the land that he swore to your fathers to give you. You shall be blessed above all peoples. There shall not be male or female barren among you or among your livestock..."
"And if you faithfully obey the voice of the LORD your God, being careful to do all his commandments that I command you today, the LORD your God will set you high above all the nations of the earth. And all these blessings shall come upon you and overtake you, if you obey the voice of the LORD your God..."
"But if you will not obey the voice of the LORD your God or be careful to do all his commandments and his statutes that I command you today, then all these curses shall come upon you and overtake you...The LORD will bring you and your king whom you set over you to a nation that neither you nor your fathers have known. And there you shall serve other gods of wood and stone. And you shall become a horror, a proverb, and a byword among all the peoples where the LORD will lead you away."
Reading the Proverbs as Christians
Can Christians seek God and gain wealth? If a Christian sins, and even lives prodigally for a time, is she beyond forgiveness or broken beyond healing? Can Christians make use of Prov 2:22-32 like an Israelite could? What of the sayings intended for kings and royal people (cf. Prov 20:2, 26, 28; 21:1; 23:1 ff.)? I would caution against answering in the affirmative without some interpretive clarity.
I would say, however, that we can read the Proverbs to discover the source of wisdom. The general thrust concerning the teaching of wisdom given in the Proverbs, and perhaps the Wisdom Books more generally, lies in the oft repeated phrase, "The fear of the Lord is the beginning of Wisdom." Wisdom, says the Proverbs, is a supernatural gift from God to those who seek it.
Proverbs 1:22-23Moreover, the source of such Wisdom is God himself and is full of benefits.
"How long, O simple ones, will you love being simple?
How long will scoffers delight in their scoffing and fools hate knowledge?
If you turn at my reproof, behold, I will pour out my spirit to you;
I will make my words known to you."
Proverbs 2:1-15My View
My son, if you receive my words and treasure up my commandments with you, making your ear attentive to wisdom and inclining your heart to understanding;
yes, if you call out for insight and raise your voice for understanding,
if you seek it like silver and search for it as for hidden treasures,
then you will understand the fear of the LORD and find the knowledge of God.
For the LORD gives wisdom; from his mouth come knowledge and understanding; he stores up sound wisdom for the upright; he is a shield to those who walk in integrity, guarding the paths of justice and watching over the way of his saints.
Then you will understand righteousness and justice and equity, every good path;
for wisdom will come into your heart, and knowledge will be pleasant to your soul;
discretion will watch over you, understanding will guard you,
delivering you from the way of evil, from men of perverted speech,
who forsake the paths of uprightness to walk in the ways of darkness,
who rejoice in doing evil and delight in the perverseness of evil,
men whose paths are crooked, and who are devious in their ways.
Jesus must be the source of our wisdom, as the NT clearly directs us to understand. In other words, if we are to gain wisdom promised by Proverbs we must start with trusting Jesus and walking the way of the Cross. But equally importantly, we must understand how to apply the wise sayings in Proverbs somewhat differently than they would have been applied by the first readers , specifically
(1) because our place of life is different,
(2) the stipulations of the covenant are different and,
(3) Jesus has inaugurated new creation.
In other words, I don't think we preach Jesus from the opening of Proverbs and then go back to the rest of the Proverbs and allegorize them to our situation. Nor do we try to apply them in a very literalistic sense. Many of the sayings found in Proverbs would simply make no sense for us. And thus, I would argue, that they can serve only to instruct us as to what was wise for their original audience and give us clarity about Old Testament theology. If we are to use them effectively, we have to interpret them and apply them through the lens of Christ.
Our Place of Life
We live our lives between the first and second comings of Jesus. This has enormous consequences. We are essentially an international pilgrim people waiting for our Lord to return, while enjoying his presence among us by the Spirit as the fulfillment of the temple. We are no longer attached to any particular sacred place or land in this world, like Israel was, where blessing is delivered. Rather, we rightly belong to heaven, the world to come, the Kingdom of God, or the new creation. We're a people who have been prepared before hand for eternal life. And that's good news because God is expanding his reach, so to speak.
Moreover, it appears to me that the kinds of blessings given to Israel were largely blessings that could be delivered in tangible ways. Take for example the list of blessings from Deuteronomy above. They include food, family life, livestock, security in the land from enemies and those sorts of things (though not exclusively). Our covenant is not without tangible blessings, but our supernatural blessings are much more pronounced, it seems to me. Paul, in Ephesians will boldly state that God in Christ "has blessed us with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places" (Eph 1:3). God promised in Isaiah 40-66 that he would forgive sins in a new way (the Cross), pour out his Spirit in a new way (Pentecost), deliver a people to a restored world (new creation), and involve his people in the ministry of the Servant, thereby making them servants as well (Body of Christ).
Think of what Hebrews teaches. That Jesus has died and risen and acts as intercessor on our behalf before God, we have an intimacy with God that the saints of the Old Testament (with the exception of Moses?) couldn't have enjoyed. Jesus dwells in our midst, and in our hearts, through the power of the Holy Spirit. The church is pictured as a place of lampstands (a temple) where Jesus dwells (Rev 2:1). I could go on. But these blessings far outshine the blessings of the Old Covenant. Though Israel dwelt in the Land and had access to God, he was hidden and even dangerous to approach in the Temple.
The New Covenant
The stipulations of the Covenants are different as well. This is important. First, concerning the Old Covenant it is important to understand that blessing and cursing were tied into the fabric of the way that God would respond to his people's behavior. Obedience or disobedience did not determine if God would enter into or remain in Covenant with his people. No. He entered into Covenant with them because he chose them and had purposes for them. But depending upon their obedience or disobedience to the Torah (the commandments, statutes and rules given by Moses) they would receive blessings or curses. This is clear in Deuteronomy and made even more clear in the Prophets who show that God is going to punish Israel for her disobedience, but who will ultimately remain steadfastly faithful and restore Israel again, even despite their terrible idolatry and cruelty.
The New Covenant shares a lot in common with the Old Covenant, but I'm interested in looking at the discontinuity. In the case of blessings and curses things couldn't be more different. For one thing, Paul specifically states that Jesus has taken the curse of the Law on himself when he was nailed to a tree (Gal 3:13). There are no curses due Christians for sin under the New Covenant. But what of the blessings? There's a change here too, I believe. There are enormous blessings found in the New Covenant, perhaps the greatest of which is knowing God, having intimacy with him, and dwelling with him forever. That seems to be what the Apostles are emphasizing. And they go a step further. They emphasize that those blessings are not fully realized in until we dwell in the world to come, the new creation. There we will have bodies like Jesus, and see God face to face (1 Cor 15:12 ff; Rev 22:4).
Consider the way Peter puts it.
1 Peter 1:3-5And he writes this to suffering Christians! I think Peter is trying to emphasize a perspective (wisdom) that recognizes that our Christian lives between the two comings of Jesus in a world that is not yet fully transformed requires that we look longingly, hopefully and expectantly to better things in the world to come. How often in our lives do we want God to remove suffering? And wouldn't we equate that with a blessing? And yet, Peter says that our God gifts us with a grace by calling us to suffer! (1 Pet 2:20-21).
"Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! According to his great mercy, he has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, to an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you, who by God's power are being guarded through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time."
The New Creation
I've said a lot about this above already. But it bears repeating. The land promises made to Israel find their eschatological fulfillment in the world to come. Hence, I would argue that it's necessary to interpret the statements of blessing and cursing, or promises like wealth and long life, or promises like death and destruction against the backdrop of the final judgment and the blessings of the new world that's coming with Jesus return.
So what I am arguing for is a re-appraisal of how we apply many of the individual Proverbs as Christians, and especially those that need more careful interpretation because they reflect the covenantal context of the OT. To be clear, those proverbs that deal with such things as blessing or cursing, or life in the land, or wealth and poverty, can't be appropriated by Christians without applying them through the lens of Christ and his transformative work.
To learn wisdom from Proverbs we must look to Christ and read them with the Christ event clearly in mind.
Thanks for reading.