Wednesday, February 22, 2012

The Gospel in Proverbs

Unlike other biblical books, Proverbs does not often present a connected sequence of thought. Instead, it offers a string of maxims or sayings about life, often scattered in subject matter. These proverbs were collected by the scribes of Solomon’s court, or complied by scribes under King Hezekiah (see 25:1).

Proverbs is a book that highlights contrasts:
· Discretion and restraint are contrasted with thoughtlessness and impulsiveness.
· Industry is contrasted with laziness.
· Honesty is contrasted with devious behavior
· Justice is contrasted with injustice
· Generosity is contrasted with stinginess.

Proverbs covers down-to-earth topics like family life, sex, relations with neighbors, responsibilities of rulers and people in authority, or how to live prosperously and successfully. The basic premise of the book appears in 9:10: “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, and the knowledge of the Holy One is insight.” However, Proverbs doesn’t have much to say specifically about the Lord. Out of 915 verses only 85 explicitly refer the Lord, or about 9 percent.

This reticence in speaking about the Lord should teach us something: Serving the Lord, living the righteous life, doesn’t mean just always talking about God. It involves a deliberate attempt to live by the principles set forth in the Word of God: to “walk the walk,” not just “talk the talk.” But is Proverbs just a book of “dos and don’ts”? Or is there a gospel here — good news for people struggling with life issues, a proclamation of God’s presence and His involvement in that struggle?

The underlying contrast of Proverbs is that between wisdom and folly. What is folly, or foolishness, and who is the fool? Essentially, as Psalm 14:1-4 declares, the fool is the person who says, in effect, “God doesn’t care what I do, I don’t have to pay attention to Him.” So, for the fool, there is no power higher than himself. Proverbs describes the fool in 18:2: “A fool takes no pleasure in understanding, but only in expressing his opinion.” (We all know people who can’t stop telling you what they think long enough to listen to what you have to say.) The fool never learns from his mistakes: “Like a dog that returns to his vomit is a fool that repeats his folly” (26:11). Einstein famously defined insanity as doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result. (Do we see this insane foolishness in our government policies today?)

Wisdom is, of course, the opposite attitude: the wise person takes God and His ways into account in the conduct of life. Proverbs proclaims the blessing that comes to the person who acts wisely: “The reward for humility and fear of the Lord is riches and honor and life” (22:4). Put another way, “He who despises the word brings destruction on himself, but he who respects the commandment will be rewarded:” (13:13).

Thus we see that Proverbs is based on the relationship of actions to their consequences, just as the apostle Paul states: “Do not be deceived; God is not mocked, for whatever a man sows, that he will also reap” (Galatians 6:7). And that relationship between act and consequence is built into the structure of the biblical covenant, the agreement between God and His chosen people. Without going into detail, that agreement involves sanctions. If the people remain faithful to the Lord and obey Him, they will prosper and be victorious. If they become unfaithful to the Lord, however, they will be cursed — they will suffer defeat, impoverishment and all manner of calamity. Deuteronomy 27-28 lays out this contrast in detail. The sanctions of the curse appear elsewhere in Scripture, notably in the judgments of the Revelation to John against the unfaithful city.

So Proverbs’ focus on the connection between act and consequence is part of the structure of God’s covenant with us, His gracious granting of a relationship: “And I will walk among you, and will be your God, and you shall be my people” (Leviticus 26:12, repeated in various forms throughout Scripture and found even at the very end, Revelation 22:3). It is a family relationship of Father to beloved children. It is the very relationship Jesus Christ came to fulfill, and make available to all who enter into His life.

That is the gospel in Proverbs: There is a right way to live, a way that pleases God. And, following His commandments as His covenant people, we can live that successful and prosperous life as members of His family. Does Proverbs understand, as the New Testament makes clear, that we can live this good life only through Christ?

Listen as Wisdom speaks in Proverbs 8: “The Lord created me at the beginning of his work, the first of his acts of old. . . . When he established the heavens, I was there. . . . When he marked out the foundations of the earth, then I was beside him, like a master workman . . .” Does this not remind us of “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God; all things were made through him, and without him was not anything made that was made. . . . And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth; we have beheld his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father” (John 1:1-3, 14)? The Son of God, the Word of God, the Wisdom the Book of Proverbs celebrates, are one and the same: Jesus Christ.