How much better to get wisdom than gold!
To get understanding is to be chosen rather than silver.
It just hit me.
Anyone following me on Twitter knows that I’ve been spending a lot of time in Psalms and Proverbs lately. The other day as I was plowing through statement after statement from Solomon on “wisdom and folly” thinking, “So many confident statements about how the world works or is supposed to work! Can all this be right?” As I read, I realized I was having a pretty skeptical reaction, “The world just doesn’t work like that!” Also ringing in my mind was what James MacDonald (along with a few others I’ve heard) has said about the Book of Proverbs: that is not intended to be taken as infallible truth claims the way the rest of the Bible is, but rather as the way things are supposed to be. In his mind, Proverbs are guide posts, but don’t necessarily represent the way things always are. In other words, when conservative Evangelicals say that the Bible is “inerrant” (without error), they (we) are explicitly “grading” Solomon’s proverbs (e.g. Proverbs 11:24 — “One gives freely, yet grows all the richer; another withholds what he should give, and only suffers want.”) differently than the truth claims of Jesus, Moses, or Paul (e.g. Romans 6: 23 — “For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.”).
What is Biblical Inerrancy?
Dr. John Feinberg — a well known systematic theologian, who represents a learned and respected segment of modern conservative evangelicalism — has described the “inerrancy of Scripture” by saying that the Bible is “infallible in all that it asserts to be true” (there are a few other disclaimers in there too, but they are off topic for today). This creates an unavoidable distinction between nit-picking at Scripture and honestly evaluating its truth claims. For example, one passage I’ve heard skeptics reference when claiming that the Bible is riddled with errors is 1 Kings 7:23, where God is instructing His people how to create one of the implements of worship for His tabernacle. Look closely; there seems to be some fuzzy math going on…
He made the Sea of cast metal, circular in shape, measuring ten cubits from rim to rim and five cubits high. It took a line of thirty cubits to measure around it. (1 Kings 7:23)
Whooooaa! I took geometry! I’m quite sure I remember that the circumference of any circle (C) divided by its diameter (d) equals π (pi) = 3.1415…, not 3.0000. But the Bible says right here that C / d = 3, not 3.14…, doesn’t it? What gives!? Is the Bible in error? Aren’t we, from this, forced to re-evaluate everything Jesus ever said?!
At this point, conservative Biblical scholars like Dr. Feinberg would ask what the Bible is actually trying to claim here. Is Scripture really attempting to assert a mathematical equation? Or, is it trying to give instructions to a group of people on what size to make a bronze bowl? Do you see the difference? The Bible doesn’t claim to be a math textbook, so to read it like a math textbook and then criticize the math it “teaches” is to setup a straw man scenario. And even if the standards for precision weren’t totally different in their pre-enlightenment age (which they were), we wouldn’t assess this as an equation to be learned but rather as God’s instructing His people to complete a task in a specific way. In Dr. Feinberg’s eyes (and mine), this is not a legitimate argument to support the claim, “The bible has errors!”
Or in another example, when the Apostle John records in his gospel that “Jews do not associate with Samaritans” (John 4:9), this should be read in a certain way. The Bible is relaying a historic fact, not asserting a claim about what Jews and Samaritans should or shouldn’t be doing. On this basis, to argue that somehow the Bible is erroneous — because we in our culture see it as obviously wrong to create divisions between Jews and Samaritans (as implied by this statement) — isn’t really putting our focus in the right place in studying this passage.
And so on.
(BTW, there are many far more difficult apparent contradictions than these. My purpose is not to blithely ignore them, but rather to make a point about how inerrancy is currently being defined by the larger Evangelical community so that we can talk about Proverbs in a certain way. The larger debate is … well … much larger. )
How do we interpret Proverbs?
I believe both Pastor James and Dr. Feinberg would likely say that much of the Book of Proverbs should be “categorized” with these kinds of statements … that Solomon’s proverbs are not statements that the Bible “asserts to be true,” but rather, they are wise observations that instruct us in the best course of action, given that our world is broken and imperfect.
However, in my experience with Proverbs, this explanation has left me wanting more. And since I feel God graciously granted me an insight on this the other day, I wanted to share. Let’s start by seeing if we can categorize Proverbs a little further and come up with a beneficial lens through which view them in our studies.
Proverbs teach us about God
You can learn a lot about who God is from studying Proverbs. They show us important qualities in His character, as we see it reflected in the physical world. Consequently, they teach us how to live — in step with His righteousness, and out of step with the sinful world around us. Of course, you have to read them in faith and carefully watch for glimpses of God as He passes by on the page.
A few examples…
The wicked accepts a bribe in secret to pervert the ways of justice. (Proverbs 17:23)
Solomon is observing that bribes are ultimately a perversion of justice. We know God loves justice (partially even from passages like this), so we work with integrity and refrain from offering or accepting bribes.
The name of the Lord is a strong tower; the righteous man runs into it and is safe. (Proverbs 18:10)
God is revealing Himself here as a place of strength and shelter for any person who loves God’s law and seeks to obey it.
Many are the plans in the mind of a man, but it is the purpose of the Lord that will stand. (Proverbs 19:21)
Whereas I might have all kinds of things planned for my life, it is God’s sovereign will (not mine) that will ultimately be done and be seen to be done. It’s not about God’s getting on my program, it’s about my getting on His.
Some proverbs are explicit observations of a broken world. They describe how things work, even if they aren’t supposed to work that way. They also teach us how to live, but often by counter example or by calling out some really bad behavior.
The poor use entreaties, but the rich answer roughly.
In our world, the poor are typically weak. They have to ask nicely, even beg, and still might not get what they want or need. In contrast, the rich are typically powerful. They tell other people what to do, and expect to be deferred to both regularly and automatically by those of lesser station.
Wine is a mocker, strong drink a brawler, and whoever is led astray by it is not wise. (Proverbs 20:1)
Because our world is broken and the tendency of the heart is to abuse and overindulge, Solomon warns us about the dangers of alcohol (and the like). If the world were a perfect place, this wouldn’t be necessary, but…….
It is better to live in a desert land than with a quarrelsome and fretful woman. (Proverbs 21:19)
As much as anywhere else, our sinfulness surfaces in our relationships, especially marriage. Proverbs like this one come directly from the curse of sin on the marriage relationship (Genesis 3:16-19) — opening the possibility for the man to love his wife poorly, and for the woman not to respect her husband as she should. Add a “healthy” dose of worldly fear into the mix, and you get a “quarrelsome and fretful woman” … and a very challenging marriage relationship.
Proverbs teach us what should be true
Some proverbs are describing the world the way it was supposed to be, but isn’t. Here’s an analogy I find helpful…
Much of the book of Proverbs is like the manual for a beautifully intricate clock that was severely broken in your last move. Just as you wouldn’t expect that clock to work correctly (since it’s broken), neither should you expect our broken world to work the way it was designed to either. And when we read Proverbs, some of it reads like the user’s manual for this broken clock. The descriptions of many of the clock’s function in the manual don’t (and won’t) exactly match the function of the clock itself … precisely because the clock is broken. Some match, because the clock isn’t completely destroyed, but many don’t. But in either case, you can get a really great idea of how the clock was designed to work by reading the manual.
And I think if this analogy were to really hold, we would have to see the clock’s user manual as one to which a junior clock worker (Solomon) tried to make some meaningful revisions after he discovered the clock was busted. In other words, some of Solomon’s proverbs are giving instruction in light of the brokenness of the world — they are less about “the way it should be,” and more “the best way to deal with how it actually is”. But that really applies more to the 2nd kind of Proverb discussed above; at the moment, we’re focused on the “how it should be” group.
Let’s look at a few of these…
A little sleep, a little slumber, a little folding of the hands to rest, and poverty will come upon you like a robber, and want like an armed man. (Proverbs 24:33-34)
Solomon is observing that laziness typically leads to poverty; so be diligent. But this isn’t always true. Sometimes lazy people get rich, and sometimes very wise, hard-working, diligent people become or remain poor. Why? Because our world is broken. Life isn’t fair. But a diligent work ethic is still the best way to live. To observe in the brokenness of this world a counter example or two (or even many counterexamples), and conclude that it doesn’t matter if you work hard is … well … foolish … and an excuse for laziness. It’s like finding the 1 car accident per year in which a person was saved by not wearing their seat belt, and concluding that seat belts are bad … which requires ignoring the thousands upon thousands of lives (~13,000 according to the NHTSA) saved every year by wearing seat belts. Like I said, foolish.
No ill befalls the righteous, but the wicked are filled with trouble. (Proverbs 12:21)
We wish! But unfortunately ill often does befall the righteous, and sometimes the wicked clearly live on easy street. Should we therefore consider the Word of God to be in error? Is God lying? Is He too weak or apathetic to bring about the result he “promises” through His Word?
Or, another classic example (with which I know people often struggle):
Train up a child in the way he should go; even when he is old he will not depart from it. (Proverbs 22:6)
Are we to assume that this guarantees a happy, fruitful, pain-free life for any child whom we Christian parents work diligently and prayerfully to raise well? Good job, high salary, amazing husband, etc? Does this mean that if I am deeply devoted to Christ and work diligently to pass that faith along to my kids, then they will live long lives devoted to the Lord as well, with no intrusion of sin or failure? Certainly no defiant unbelief, right? Does it mean that the son or daughter of every Christian inevitably dies a Christian someday (even if they backslide a little in the middle)?
To respond to both of these banks of questions… Sadly, no; it means none of these things. Just as the prior example doesn’t guarantee physical protection in this life for those who trust in God, neither does good parenting guarantee anything. Children of devote Christians become prodigal sons and daughters every day, and not all of them return. And there is certainly no shortage of Christians who are being persecuted, even murdered for their faith around the world. If our world were unbroken by sin and we saw these results, we might very well conclude that something is horribly wrong with Solomon and his “wisdom”. But in our sin-twisted world, we view his wisdom writings more as a way to plot the best course possible in this life — the theoretical true north. It’s what we should do, what we desire to be true, what we should pray for. And it’s God’s heart for us as well. But the Genesis 3 shattering of our world means that those bets are all off. Our reward — life as it is supposed to be — is not in this world, it’s in the next.
Proverbs are ultimately true
So, where does that leave us? In some proverbs, we see God. In some, we see our broken world. And in some, we see how the world was supposed to be. But I want to throw out a theory that might tie it all together. Maybe Solomon’s proverbs ARE always true … just not necessarily in this life. Here’s my thinking…
In this life, Solomon’s proverbs are instructive, but not necessarily true in an absolute sense. But in the life to come, in the New Jerusalem, I contend that they are either absolutely true or absolutely meaningless. To whatever extent they depict God’s character or the way the world was meant to, they serve as a prophetic voice that will be consummated and fulfilled in heaven. To whatever extent they depict sin and the brokenness of our world system, they serve as valuable instruction for navigating that system today, but they will be wholly obsolete and unnecessary once this world has passed away and those who love God dwell with Him in heaven.
Therefore, we are not left wondering if the Proverbs are “true”, or if the Biblical author intended they be taken as “truth claims” — something the Bible asserts to be true. In both cases, they are. Some are transparently, obviously true in this life, given they describe sinful man’s behavior, but they will fade away in the next. Some are true now, dealing primarily with God’s character and revelation of Himself, and their wisdom will be realized even more fully when the Kingdom of God invades this world. And some are true sometimes, should be true all the time, but won’t be absolutely and consistently true all the time until we get to heaven. One might say that interpreting these different kinds of proverbs require different “frames of reference”, but each is always true in some sense.
Maybe that’s a great insight, but now what?
So, instead of asking, “Are they true?”, we should assume they are definitely true (as we do with the rest of Scripture, knowing that it’s God’s Word) and ask, “By what means do we interpret / apply a given proverb?” How do we know which frame of reference to use so that it can be instructional for our lives?
Well, it may seem cliche, but interpreting the Proverbs — or any other passage in Scripture for that matter — requires context. How does a proposed interpretation jive with the rest of Scripture, starting “locally” with the rest of the Book of Proverbs? Does that interpretation tell you the same thing that other passages tell you? Having studied the gospels, can you picture Jesus giving that interpretation? For that matter, how have NT authors interpreted that passage or similar OT passages — given that NT authors quote the OT more than 200 times (1 out of every ~23 NT verses references the OT), and are said to “allude” to it more than 600 times. What would they say?
As we are increasingly steeped in the overarching redemptive message of Scripture, we will be increasingly able to see in some proverbs the character and glory of God, in some the sinfulness and desperate need of man, and in some the expectation of what heaven will be someday be like. And in all of them, wisdom for how best to live today in light of the coming Kingdom.
Does not wisdom call?
Does not understanding raise her voice?
On the heights beside the way,
At the crossroads she takes her stand;
Beside the gates in front of the town,
At the entrance of the portals she cries aloud: …
“Take my instruction instead of silver,
And knowledge rather than choice gold,
For wisdom is better than jewels,
And all that you may desire cannot compare with her. …
For whoever finds me finds life
And obtains favor from the Lord,
But he who fails to find me injures himself;
All who hate me love death.”