Thursday, December 6, 2012

Who Am "I?"

In asking this question, I’m not looking for a theological answer — although the answer, if there is one, certainly has theological implications.

I’m not asking, for example, “Who am I in the mind of God?” — a question that expects an answer something like “You are a child of God made in his image.” Nor am I asking “What is my identity as a person?” — a question that wants to be answered in terms of my self-perception in relation to social roles, cultural identity, or personal values.

The question “Who am I?” can be answered that way, and the answers are important. But notice that my question isn’t really “Who am I?” The question is “Who am ‘I’?” with quotation marks around the “I.” In other words, despite all the possible answers to the question about who I am, I still haven’t answered the underlying question: What is that “I” that asks the question in the first place?

Presumably each one of us who can think about the question experiences an “I,” but can any of us tell where that “I” is located? “I” am not the same as my physical body, because “I” can experience that body as an “outside observer.” That is, if my body is in pain it isn’t my body that feels the pain; rather, “I” experience the pain as an issue my body is raising for me. The same is true for pleasure I enjoy through my body. My physical body is an expression of, or a sensory vehicle for, my “I,” but it’s not coextensive with the “I” who I am. So my “I” isn’t located in any part of my body, including my brain or nervous system. It can’t be localized in any cerebrum, neurons, ganglia and the like. Whoever “I” am, I have no physical location that I can pinpoint.

Does this suggest that if my physical body should cease to function — if it dies — the “I” who I am is not lost, since it isn’t part of that body? People through the ages have thought so, and have posited the idea of immortality for what has been termed the “soul.”

The biblical words for “soul” (Hebrew nefesh, Greek psyche) refer to an individual life, as lived through the body. But for the Israelite — and the biblical perspective is throughout Israelite at heart — the soul is more than the isolated individual. A person’s soul includes all that he experiences as a concern — family, property, reputation and the rest. It is roughly equivalent to what one psychologist has called the “psychological environment” (and note that the word psychology is based on the Greek word for the soul). Once again, however, who is the “I” that lives within the realm of the soul? Once the “soul is poured out” (Job 30:16), as in death, is there still an “I” that endures? If so, where is it?

Christians have spoken of heaven as the abode of that enigmatic “I,” but what and where is heaven? Certainly heaven has never been located astronomically, or cosmologically, within the vastness of this physical universe (though I once heard a preacher claim it was a planet somewhere!). Moreover, authentic biblical Christian theology doesn’t speak of immortality, or of “going to heaven,” but rather of resurrection — when that elusive “I” once again manifests itself through a body in the restored creation. As to where that “I” is in the interim, the Scriptures are mostly silent; the Apostle Paul suggests only that if he departs he would be “with Christ” (Philippians 1:23).

So the question “Who am ‘I’?” can’t be answered within the confines of four-dimensional space-time. The most real thing to me — the “I” who I am — is not equated with any material entity that can be detected with physical instruments. My experience of who “I” am coincides with what the Bible says about the foundation of reality: that which is visible, experienced within the space-time universe, originates out of that which is invisible: “What is seen was made out of things which do not appear” (Hebrews 11:3). It’s not the things we see as physical entities that will endure, but that which is to be found beyond the four dimensions of our perception: “The things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal” (2 Corinthians 4:18).

Although I can’t put my finger on the “I” that I am, that “I” is more enduring than what is visible around me or that which I can experience through bodily sensation. As the Apostle Paul stated, “even things that are not” are able to “bring to nothing things that are” (1 Corinthians 1:28). All of these thoughts relate me to the Creator who brought all into existence. From ancient times perceptive thinkers have recognized this, including the Greek poet the Apostle Paul quotes in Acts 17:28: “In him we live and move and have our being.” We derive our being from the One who calls Himself “I AM WHO I AM” (Exodus 3:14).

Thursday, October 11, 2012

What Jesus Said About Homosexuality

Recently I happened to be attending a Sunday service in a very liberal congregation — in fact, one not even claiming to be Christian. The minister’s sermon was an attempt to explain away all the biblical passages condemning homosexuality — the “clobber passages,” he called them. Essentially he had two ways of getting around them. Either they don’t really refer to homosexuality, but to some other type of abuse; or they are irrelevant, because the Bible isn’t an authority for people today. Or both.

In the course of his sermon the speaker mentioned having seen a pamphlet entitled “What Jesus Said About Homosexuality.” When he opened the pamphlet, it consisted of a set of blank pages. The back cover explained that, of course, Jesus said nothing about homosexuality. The minister’s story got a good laugh from the congregation, but it got me thinking: Why didn’t Jesus have anything to say on this topic? Why did that pamphlet have nothing in it but blank pages?

Well, suppose the speaker had seen a pamphlet called “What Jesus Said About Partial Birth Abortion?” That would be empty, also. There are many things Jesus never spoke about. I doubt that he ever said anything about smoking, drug abuse, computers, the Hubble telescope, Einstein’s theory of relativity, the printing press, or flush toilets. I think you can figure out why Jesus never mentioned these things.

Why didn’t Jesus talk about homosexuality? It wasn’t an issue in the cultural setting in which he moved. Homosexuality was common in the Graeco-Roman world, but for the world of the Jewish people the issue had been settled by the Law of Moses — the Law from which Jesus said nothing would be removed till it had achieved its purpose (Matthew 5:18). Passages such as Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13 had resolved the question for the community which Jesus was addressing; there was no need for him to bring up the subject. The New Testament community accepted the same attitude toward homosexual practice, as reflected in passages such as Romans 1:26-27 and 1 Timothy 1:8-11.

Listening to the sermon in this liberal congregation (they don’t even use the word “church”), I had some ideas about why Jesus never taught about homosexuality, and wanted to discuss them with the minister. However, he had something else to do after the service and I didn’t get a chance to speak with him. Our conversation wouldn’t have made a difference, anyway, because this particular group seems to be all about supporting the gay community, and not much else. In fact, the previous evening the church had hosted a fund-raising spaghetti supper for the local LGBT group (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender). I was brought along as a visitor, but when someone asked me about my stance I made it clear that I was present as a guest, not a supporter. (The spaghetti was good, anyhow.)

If I had been given the opportunity to discuss exactly why Jesus didn’t mention homosexuality, I would have tried to go deeper into the question of why the Bible contains passages forbidding it. I would have attempted to get at the biblical view of humanity, as created in the image of God “male and female” (Genesis 1:27). The human body is obviously designed in such a way as to promote a form of activity that is heterosexual. Using that body in another way is to deny that design, and in fact to deny the image of God. Indeed, it is to deny God himself, which is why Paul names homosexuality first in listing those practices that display a refusal to acknowledge God (Romans 1:18-28).

Of course, if one denies that God is real, or that there is any design to the universe, then my arguments carry no weight — as they wouldn’t have done in this liberal congregation. But from what scientists are learning today about the origin and structure of the universe, and about how living organisms are able to reproduce their own kind, the denial of God’s design makes less and less sense. It is sad to see people who think they are “progressive” still stuck in the science of a generation or two ago.

Monday, September 3, 2012

Choosing an English Translation of the Bible

In choosing which English version of the Bible to use, one is wise to consider the differences between various translations. These differences might include (1) the Hebrew and Greek manuscripts, or whatever other version, upon which the translation is based; (2) the time period in the development of the English language during which the translation is made; (3) the “philosophy” of the new translation, i.e. whether the translators opted to stay as close to the original wording as possible, or whether they opted to use expressions more in keeping with current cultural usage; and (4) the theological-cultural bias of the translators. Here are some considerations:

(1) The King James translators of 1611 used the “received” or Alexandrian text of the Greek New Testament that was transmitted through the Middle Ages. Since then other, more ancient, manuscripts such as the Sinaiticus and Vaticanus have been rediscovered and made the basis for printed editions of the Greek New Testament. The Hebrew Masoretic text was stabilized in the early Middle Ages, but since the King James was issued new discoveries, such as the Dead Sea Scrolls, have in some cases suggested that the ancient Greek translation of the Old Testament (the “Septuagint”) may preserve an earlier version of some passages than what appears in the Masoretic text. Additionally, some English versions for Catholic use were translated from the Latin text, not directly from the Hebrew and Greek. These differences in the “original” texts used for the English translation will occasionally produce differences between translations, although in most cases the differences are not theologically significant.

(2) Obviously, the time period in which the translation is made also governs the choice of English words used, because the meaning of English words can change over time. For example, today the word “should” suggests an “ought to,” whereas originally it meant simply a future possibility. As an example, when we read Proverbs 22:6, “Train up a child in the way he should go,” the meaning originally was not advice to bring up a child in the correct way, but a warning that a child must not be allowed to grow up however he wishes. “Prevent” today means to restrict or hold back something, whereas originally (in the King James) it meant simply to “precede,” or ”go before.” Thus when we read, in Psalm 119:147, “I prevented the dawning of the morning,” the meaning is not that the speaker kept the sun from rising, but that he arose before sunrise.

(3) The translation philosophy also produces differences between translations. Some translations try to hold closely to the original language's wording and word order, as far as that makes sense in an English sentence. Examples of such translations are the King James (KJV), the Revised Standard Version (RSV, 1952), the New American Standard Bible (NASB), and the English Standard Version (ESV). Other translations pursue the “dynamic equivalence” philosophy, trying to reproduce not the original wording but the original idea as it might be expressed in today's culture. This often results in paraphrase that doesn’t reflect the wording of the original languages. Examples are the Living Bible, the New Living Translation (NLT), and Peterson’s“The Message.” The New International Version (NIV, TNIV) seems to try to strike a medium between these two approaches.

(4) Finally, theological and cultural bias of the translators produces differences in English versions. The prominent example of this is the use of “gender-neutral” language where the original text might use a word we, today, consider “male.” Such versions will use “they,” for example, instead of “he” in a verse describing a recommended action or behavior, in order to generalize the application. (Never mind that “they” is plural, not singular!) Or they will read “brothers and sisters” where the original uses the word for “brothers,” which was understood to be all-inclusive. The New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) is an example of this type of translation, though the gender-neutral approach also shows up in the TNIV, NLT and elsewhere. “Liberal” denominations, obviously, prefer such versions because they fit into their particular cultural agenda.

My personal preference is to use a more literal modern version (RSV, ESV) for personal study and public reading, and to do the cultural transition to the possible meaning in today’s world through teaching and preaching. The Bible was not written in casual, conversational language but was written for public use in worship, or proclamation within an assembly of people. The writings of the prophets, for example, were largely composed orally as poetry and then presented in a public setting as a word of judgment or encouragement for the community. Jesus’ teaching was probably composed for repeated declaration in the various places he went during his ministry, which is why we have variations of the same teaching in the different Gospels. Even the letters of Paul were meant to be read in the churches and circulated among them. So the Bible, when read publicly as in a worship service, should have a certain “ring” to it that elevates it above ordinary conversational speech. The RSV-ESV type of translation is better in that setting. For individual reading to supplement that, the “dynamic equivalence” versions can be helpful as long as the reader keeps the translators’ bias and intention in mind, and does not take the translator’s wording as an indication of the precise meaning of the original text. (Admittedly, the precise meaning is, in many cases, a matter of interpretation regardless of the operative translation philosophy.)

In some ways the particular English version doesn't matter that much if the interpreter (teacher, preacher, private student, etc.) has a concept of what John Wesley called “the whole scope and tenor of Scripture.” It is always a temptation to over-interpret specific verses, or even specific words, and neglect the sweep of the Bible's overall message. That message comes through regardless of the particular translation used. Certain biblical themes need to be kept in view regardless of which passage we are trying to expound. Examples of these over-arching themes are creation-restoration, covenant, mission, promise, blessing, dominion — and, of course, these themes all overlap.

The Bible is a witness to the long-range purposes of the Creator, as expressed through these themes. Focusing on differences between translations, verse by verse or word by word, can take our eyes off the big picture, in the same way that focusing on issues that divide denominations or doctrinal traditions can divert our attention from the overall thrust of Christian faith.

Saturday, August 4, 2012

Idiom and Translation in Christian Music

The question of musical style or idiom for Christian worship can be a complicated issue. Within the same culture there can be a variety of musical expressions, some of which are less suited for use in worship than others. In any culture, including that of the West, music that fails to convey the distinctive difference between biblical faith and prevailing values can be counter-productive when used during worship.

For example, Christian faith sees God as Creator acting through history to bring about the redemption of his people whom he loves. Music that is only cyclical — repetitive, not beginning and ending but going nowhere, such as New Age — runs counter to the biblical principal that history and events have a purpose and goal in God’s redemptive plan. Or music that is consistently harsh, dissonant and disjointed, as with some contemporary types both popular and symphonic, can be taken as a statement that the universe, and human life, are meaningless. Such music is a denial of the biblical perspective, which sees a coherent and purposeful universe created by divine intelligence.

Some music from other cultures seems to be of the repetitive sort — not progressing from beginning to ending as we know them from “classical” music — and I wonder what message this conveys about biblical faith. On the other hand, we don’t know much about Israelite or early Christian music. It was probably closer to traditional African or Asiatic music than to the modern Western idiom. As I said, it's a complicated issue.

There is something to be said for having Christian music, anywhere, different from what is heard in the streets or popular media. The holy God, Scripture is clear, is “set apart” from the profane; the true sense of his presence partakes of the “numinous,” or a mysterious otherness. Music that is just like what people hear on the radio or download to their iPods cannot convey this transcendent mystery. Worship music needs to bear a certain “exalted” quality, especially where it is directly addressed to the Lord — as far more of it should be. Some types of music just cannot bring across this sense of exaltation and mystery. For that reason I feel that popular Hispanic or American country music, to mention just a few examples, are inadequate media for Christian worship.

I had an experience once of “translation” in 1998 when I was invited to teach a class on the Psalms in a seminary in Croatia (my nephew was acting dean). As part of my course I wanted the students to sing some Psalms, so obtained a New Testament and Psalms in Croatian. I studied the language some and got so I could handle a little of it, and attempted to match the words to various styles of psalmody such as chant, Geneva or English psalter, or psalm-paraphrase hymn. The biggest challenge was to set Croatian words to contemporary choruses.

My effort wasn’t very successful for various reasons. Not knowing the language well enough, I don’t think I adequately matched the speech accents with the musical stress points. And I tried doing the chorus “The Lord Reigns” (Psalm 97) as a Croatian text with local help from a woman from Serbia, since Serbian is supposedly the same language. It turned out that “The Lord reigns,” for which I had Gospodin caruje, was a Serbian way of saying it while the Croatians said Gospodin kraluje. The best work was done when I invited students in the class to make their own contemporary Psalm settings.

I also visited a few Croatian Reformed churches in the area (eastern Croatia, near Osijek) and discovered that they sang only Psalms. They sang in Hungarian, since the Reformed had been ethnic Hungarians, though in their daily speech they used Croatian. And except in one new church plant where the pastor was young and “on fire,” they sang laboriously slow, dead settings of the Psalms. No wonder these congregations were down to a handful of older people.

Friday, May 18, 2012

Who Do You Think You Are?

As a young man he painted pictures in Vienna, Europe’s cultural capital, and made a meager living selling postcard paintings to small shops. He saw himself as a man of sensitivity and aesthetic appreciation. People supposedly hired him to hang wallpaper to decorate their homes. Throughout his life he identified as an artist, even when his career took another turn and he eventually consigned millions of his fellow human beings to unspeakable horror and death.

I refer, of course, to Adolf Hitler, a man who didn’t understand who he really was. His false idea of himself as an artist — representative of the most refined form of humanity — blinded him to his own cruelty. It allowed him to regard whole classes of his fellow human beings as sub-human, worthy only of concentration camps and gas chambers.

Hitler’s example reveals the harm we inflict when we fail to grapple honestly with the question: “Who do you think you are?” Ignoring that question can result in misery, for others and for us.

Perhaps we regard ourselves as gifted with the right solutions to all the problems of life. People should take our advice, we feel, because we’re endowed with superior knowledge. Other people are ignorant, and we wonder why they avoid us since we could explain to them exactly where they’ve gone wrong, what they should believe, and what they need to do. (Interesting, isn’t it, how people with such all-encompassing wisdom often gain political office? Why are we not thrilled about that?)

Or, we may view ourselves as unemotional people who never yield to anger, or to tears. Since that’s who we are, we can never “fly off the handle” or rip into someone.  When things happen that we don’t like, we never express our disappointment or disgust. We give ourselves credit because we’re not hurting others. But because we won’t cry or complain, we won’t laugh either. Someone in our life is starving for a sign of real emotion — good or not so good — on our part, but we’re not showing it because we’re “not that kind of person.”

Finally, maybe we see ourselves as victims of life circumstances, or the nasty behavior of other people. As someone who’s been mistreated or ignored, we’re entitled to clamor for attention and for our “rights.” We act selfishly because, if we don’t, somebody will take advantage of us. Or we may be only too aware of our shortcomings, and think so little of ourselves that we believe nothing we do could ever hurt anyone. As a result we hurt many people, especially those closest to us.

“Who do you think you are?” The truth is that we’re not the perfect example of humanity. As St. Paul said, “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” On the other hand, we’re not miserable victims either. Scripture teaches that we’re made in the image of God, responsible agents in managing our lives for good. Balancing these two truths, in the light of the guidance God gives through Christ and the Scriptures, can clarify who we really are.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Which Church Is the “Right Church?”

In a discussion forum I belong to, a member introduced this topic and it provoked, of course, a spirited response from other participants. I decided to put my own oar into the water, with the following comments.

In one sense, there is no "right church" as an institution, because all human institutions are flawed. Even the New Testament church had its flaws (read Paul's letters!), so the attempt to identify one "right church" or denomination is futile. The question needs to be rephrased to something like, "What are the characteristics of a church (or other identifiable body) that would mark it as faithful to the intent of Jesus and the apostles?" Then ask, further, "Where can we find those characteristics operative today?"

The answer will not lead us to any specific denomination or, perhaps, any specific local congregation. Recall that denominations are not based on belief or practice, but on historic association and tradition. Therefore one finds a spectrum of belief and practice within any denomination, so that individual members of any church may very well find people of like faith in another church. It is a misconception to think that official doctrinal statements normally divide one denomination from another in actual practice, because the membership and leadership of those groups may in fact have beliefs that differ from the official statements.

However, there is a core of Scriptural criteria that would identify a grouping of Christians (across denominational lines) as being faithful to the apostolic intent for the church. These criteria would include (1) adherence to the Bible as the authority of faith and practice; (2) the conviction that Jesus Christ is the only way to the genuine understanding of God and to communion with Him, and all other supposed ways are partial or false; (3) the understanding that being a Christian has implications for the pattern of personal attitude and conduct, in relationship to other believers and to people and the culture in general.

Once such core criteria are identified — and some other traditional criteria that have historically divided denominations are seen as peripheral or irrelevant — then the way is open to search for the "right church" among people who might officially (or habitually) identify with any specific Christian church or denomination. This allows Christians to cooperate in significant ways across denominational lines, recognizing the common "core" while granting each other the freedom to pursue distinctive traits of their particular tradition without controversy. Such an attitude permits the existence of movements like "Evangelicals and Catholics Together," united in common cause because of common core beliefs. Evangelicals do not have to endorse all Catholic practices, nor do Catholics have to endorse all evangelical tenets, in order for this to occur. In this way the "right church" can begin to emerge not only as an ideal, but as a specific thrust in the world.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

The Agony of Truth

They have neither knowledge nor understanding,
they walk about in darkness . . .
(Psalm 82:5)

Knowing the truth about things can bring a certain satisfaction, but it can also be agonizing.

I am confident that I know the absolute truth about many things through exposure to evidence and the application of common sense and rational reflection to that evidence. Further, by these means I am capable of perceiving the truth in other areas that have not yet come within my field of concern. Indeed, I have no doubt about my ability to understand the truth despite the claims of postmodernists that truth is relative and each person has his own “truth.” (In fact, if you claim we can’t know the absolute truth, my question to you is, “Is that true?”)

But knowing the truth can result in severe discomfort. It’s annoying to have to deal with Facebook posters, for example, who are wilfully ignorant of the truth about certain political, economic, theological or scientific questions. People who actually know the truth are pilloried for their opinions that don’t fit into the politically correct falsehoods that make up today’s cultural paradigm.

Take the question of evolution. There is no way that “natural selection” could result in the rise of a new species, since the genetic reproductive information built into the DNA code is already present in every reproduced organism. Dogs can be bred for size or other traits because the genetic information for largeness, smallness, etc. is already present in every dog’s DNA. Breeding can produce a small dog by minimizing the genetic information for largeness, but the offspring will still be a dog. It will never become an octopus, and any mutation that would make a dog more octopus-like would kill it. But just try to persuade the willfully ignorant that evolution is a myth, and that belief in evolution isn’t science but a philosophical commitment. Because of their brainwashing they won’t understand you, and that’s frustrating.

The same applies to many other areas. In the field of the economy, the truth is that the more the wealthy are demonized and taxed the fewer people will be wealthy and able to pay the taxes that support people receiving government benefits. Eventually everyone will be poor, and there will be no tax money available to provide benefits for anyone. But the willfully ignorant, who support the policies of the current Administration, can’t grasp this truth because they have an ingrained prejudice against allowing some people to be wealthier than others — except people like them, of course, who are allowed to be wealthy because they’re the elite. Knowing the truth about the economy is discouraging, because there’s such mindless resistance to the truth.

When you know that Christianity is the only true religion, because the teachings of Scripture correlate with the design of the universe (see Romans 1:18-25), it’s disheartening to hear public figures apologizing for the accidental destruction of “sacred” texts of a false religion. Every religious movement that isn’t based on the Bible — and the Bible alone — is a false ideology. It is not the truth, and there’s nothing sacred about it. It’s painful to have to deal with people who refuse to recognize the Christian Scriptures as presenting the only true world view.

And, along those lines, when you know the truth about what a passage of Scripture really means it’s disconcerting to hear false interpretations from the pulpit, or from television or radio preachers. The meaning of a Bible passage is what it meant to those who first uttered it and heard it, in their historical and cultural setting. Twisting it to mean something else, because “that’s what we’ve always believed,” grates on the sensibility of those who know the truth.

It would be more comfortable to accommodate prevalent falsehoods and simply coast along in blissful ignorance of the truth. But I find I can’t sacrifice my understanding of the truth to my personal comfort. Like Jeremiah, I find the truth is “a burning fire shut up in my bones” (Jeremiah 20:9) that I can’t put out.

Some will accuse me of arrogance for claiming that I know the truth, while so many others are ignorant. It is not arrogant, my friends; it is agonizing.

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.