04 April 2008

Proverbs 18:1 — the isolationist (another multi-layer proverb)

by Dan Phillips
Whoever isolates himself seeks his own desire;
he breaks out against all sound judgment (Proverbs 18:1)
One of the points I try to make when I introduce Proverbs is that studying this book both requires and produces wisdom. Solomon's mode of writing can give a first impression of stating the obvious. This impression has led shallow readers to accuse the book of banality — a more descriptive of them than of it.

Some proverbs are like many-faceted diamonds. Though one unit, they are so designed as to apply validly on many levels. This verse is such a proverb.

[UPDATE — Grr, I looked and looked for this reference before publication, but couldn't find it. Here's where that image came from: “Thus the proverb, like a polished gem, may be turned now in one direction and now in another; it is to be regarded as a many-sided fact” (Delitzsch on Proverbs 20:12, 6:299.)]

The proverb is asyndetic, meaning no conjunction (such as "and" or "but") binds line B to line A. The form of this proverb has line B completing the thought of line A, as opposed to common instances where the two lines are synonymous (Proverbs 17:28), antithetical (10:4), or form a comparison (25:14).

But what was the matrix of the proverb? What sparked this thought in the wise man's mind?

Did Solomon observe some young would-be noble, hanging about the edge of his court, too full of himself to mix with his "inferiors"?

Or did he see people who came to worship, but shuffled in and shuffled out, never making contact with anyone else, caring about anyone else, making themselves vulnerable to anyone else?

Or was it a whole family that isolated itself from the whole of society, aloof loners, too lofty to lower themselves to the level of the common rabble? (Or too terrified to risk exposure?)

Or was it an individual of obsessive interests, too bizarre and solipsistic to survive exposure to the light of society?

Or was it a highly meticulous soul, who shaved each hair and split each atom with such microscopic precision that he eventually defined himself into a solitary corner, where even "us four, no more" would have been a crowd?

Or was it a sect that formed odd and idiomatic views, formed a single mind and single community, withdrawn from any of the refining give and take of community (Proverbs 27:17)?

Did it apply even within an individual family, to the family member with the guarded heart, always among others, yet always alone?

Regardless of the context, Solomon cautions that isolationism is not the way of wisdom; it is at violent odds with God's intelligent guidance.

Now, on the one pole, there are limits to this counsel. It is possible to be spread so socially thin, and so unwisely so, that socializing leads to disaster (Proverbs 18:24).

People who need people are not necessarily the luckiest people in the world. But people who shun people may be among the most foolish. So says the older covenant, and so says the newer (Hebrews 10:24-25).

Think about that this Lord's day, and beyond.

Dan Phillips's signature


donsands said...

Good study. Thanks.

Yeah, I don't want to be a,
"Solitary man".

Daniel said...

<snark>You mean the verse isn't talking about the virtues of ecumenicalism?

Seriously, proverbs is a book that keeps on giving; and this proverb in particular is giving a lot in our day. ;-)

Daniel said...

Donsands - I totally wish I had made the "solitary man" remark - I am (of course) a Neil Diamond fan...

DJP said...

I am (of course) SOOOOO not.

Johnny Dialectic said...

But you'd look great in those pants, Dan.

Michelle said...

Thanks for the exposition, Dan. Amazing how the verse applies on so many levels. You've got me thinking about the importance of living in community with other believers and the accountability and vulnerability that goes with it.

I also think of Arthur W. Pink. I haven't read Iain Murray's biography of him but I believe that in his latter years he became a complete recluse. With respect, what a paradox of faith and foolishness.

DJP said...

Yep. As I used to preach, all the "one another's" lead me to conclude that tendency of Christ's life in us is centripetal, not centrifugal.

Anonymous said...

Oh, donsands, that was such a "Cherry" comment. It deserves a "Sweet Caroline" this morning.

Speaking of Neil Diamond, ever considered the theological implications of his old song "I Am I Said"? I think that's not an original line, seems to me that Someone else made that claim, and rightly so, a long time ago.

DJP said...

One of the most gaseous, pretentious, overblown songs EVER.

My clock-radio woke me up one morning in the late 70's, JUST at the melodramatic pause preceding ole Neil bellowing out "I am, I said" (or "cried" or "lied" or whatever).


Anonymous said...

Sooo...Dan doesn't care for Neil D. Point taken. :-)

Re: the point of your post. The community aspect of the Body of Christ is something I have come to learn and treasure over the years. God Himself expresses unity in community in His nature, and we as His people are to do so as well. The worst faith shipwrecks I have seen were by those who separated and isolated themselves from the fellowship of other believers. They became stragglers off the back of the flock, and were ripe for the evil one to snag. Pictured so graphically in 1 Peter 5:8 - "Be of sober spirit, be on the alert. Your adversary, the devil, prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour." But then in the next verse we're told that we are not alone, or should not be alone - "But resist him, firm in your faith, knowing that the same experiences of suffering are being accomplished by your brethren who are in the world."

P.D. Nelson said...

Thanks for the thoughtful post on proverbs you left me much to ponder.

And on another matter as a Neil Diamond fan I of course must send you his greatest hits so that you can change your mind about this great troubadour of this country.

Hadassah said...

I've seen a current of thought among some young people lately that is all about how unnecessary being a member of a church is. There is this idea floating around (and maybe more than floating around, I don't pretend to know the full extent of the problem) that you can seek God much better by pursuing Him on your own. That church is somehow a distraction from seeking and knowing God.

Thanks for the excellent verse from Proverbs that speaks directly against the idea.

donsands said...

"It deserves a "Sweet Caroline" this morning."

I wish I could, but I have to
"Pack up the babies
And grab the old ladies", and go.

That was bad I know.

I not even sure what that song was about, the " Brother Love's Traveling Salvation Show" song, though it was a big hit. I guess it was about tent revivals, or something.

Strong Tower said...

But what was the matrix of the proverb? Inevitability...

Where there is no guidance, a people falls, but in an abundance of counselors there is safety.

Every word of God proves true;
he is a shield to those who take refuge in him.

The Word is a multitude of counselors. Reflecting on yesterdays post...

Solomon writes that he set to work and put many things in order. In reflecting on James a man is to ask for wisdom and God is gracioius to respond. But, it is foolishness to think that there is no answer and ask, or that one cannot be sure, so that any answer to any question, is no answer. No, to the contrary, we are to ask single-mindedly, knowing that it is the Father's good pleasure to give good gifts. There is an answer, but the man who has no such confidence will not even bring the food to his mouth though it is set before him.

In the pomo world, uncertainty is the millstone round the neck that rejects counselors as all blind guides. But, what man will trust the fools word when the fool says that no man's word is trustworthy?

Whoever speaks the truth gives honest evidence, but a false witness utters deceit.

Strong Tower said...

What goes around goes around and around and around...

And it's dan's fault!

DJP said...

And it's dan's fault!

Gee... this is like being home!


SolaMeanie said...

Just as long as no one brings up the theological implications of Holly Holy, I think we're safe. Although, it does sound like something Brian McLaren would preach.

gatogordo said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Frank Turk said...


Rates a "booyah", dude.

Anonymous said...

Y'know, I went and looked up all the songs that Neil has written. And I think he must be a brother in Christ. Seems very missional to me. Consider these titles:

- I'm a Believer
- Thanks the Lord for the Night Time
- Brother Love's Traveling Salvation Show
- Dear Father
- Heaven Can Wait
- Guitar Heaven
- Leave a Little Room for God
- Call Me His

Who knows, maybe ND will surface as the next U2 for the emerg*** bunch. In a retro sort of way.

DJP said...

And he did a Christmas special.

Anonymous said...

I read that Proverb and I think of Solomon's son Rehoboam. He wasn't an isolationist, per se - but he pulled away from those who offered unwelcome advice and surrounded himself with sycophants. I can't help but wonder how much of that Solomon saw coming.

Anonymous said...


Being in the midst of a study thru 2 Chronicles, I had the same thought re: Rehoboam and several other kings of Judah. Not isolating themselves from the counsel of others, but rather isolating themselves from Godly counsel.

To put that in today's terms (is that contextualizing?), I can get counsel from the pagan guy in the cubicle next to me at work - but it won't be the kind of counsel that I need, that would come from relationship with faithful brothers and sisters in Christ.

Caleb Kolstad said...

Thanks alot for this Dan!


gatogordo said...

is there a difference between self-imposed isolation, and just plain shyness?


if i'm honest with my (shy) self, I have to admit that this reasoning is only valid to a certain point, after which shyness becomes self-imposed isolation ("It's terrifying to talk to people, I don't want to be terrified, therefore I will be lead by fear all my days" etc. etc)
it's hard to open up to people (however one may reason that out), I confess.

DJP said...

Gatogordo — that's a great question, and I think you nail your own answer. I mean, I could talk more, but I don't think I'd at all improve on it.

I think of it as the "note-from-my-Mom" phenomenon — the way people concoct excuses for not, well, practicing their Christianity. They're shy, so they never show love to others; they're quiet, so they never bear witness; they're not studious, so they don't really study the Bible; and so forth.

But it gets sillier if we put it in other contexts, doesn't it? If a guy tries, "I'm not really monogamous by nature, so you can't expect me to..."? Or if a woman tries, "I'm really an independent-minded person, so I can't be expected to...."

Oh, wait. I have heard that second one.

Stefan said...

Speaking of community, there is nothing more wonderful than fellowship [ = companionship, = breaking bread (pan) together (com)] with other saved sinners at the Lord's Supper, all of us (who have been truly saved) commemorating Jesus Christ's sealing of the new covenant by His blood.

Sure beats the post-service coffee clatches at the mainline churches I used to attend (before I myself was saved, mind you).


I was a pretty shy guy for most of my life. I find it's been during the times in my life when I've been close to God that I am able to break through that barrier of shyness. Heaven knows that "overcoming shyness" should never be used as an evangelistic tool, but now having been saved, I can testify that the indwelling Holy Spirit gives me confidence—in matters of both faith (profession) and daily living (application)—as one aspect of the daily sufficient grace God provides to believers.

Have confidence in fellowshipping with fellow believers and interacting with non-believers, praying for and knowing that God will give you the grace sufficient for every situation—and that you have nothing to fear except God (just as we all need to remember, whatever our particular worries and fears are).

Stefan said...

P.S.: Dan, thanks for the short (<1000 words) post. I could barely keep up here for the last couple of days!

Matt said...

So you're not advocating in favour of lone-ranger Christians?

Strange. Because I'm pretty sure that McLaren and the Emerging crowd were going around endorsing "community" in the absence of its promotion among orthodox evangelicals.

However, DJP, your version of community seems a lot less exciting and heretical than McLaren's. Maybe "community" and "biblical orthodoxy" aren't the polar opposites that some imply they are...

SolaMeanie said...

I myself am a horribly snooty, aloof person. I am known for my regal bearing and imperial behavior. You wouldn't believe how often it gets me in trouble. Thus far, I've been spared the ignominy of Nebuchadnezzar eating goldenrod in the pasture, but that could well happen.

Kidding aside, there are those of us who are more reserved by nature. I can be friendly enough, but I am not the gregarious type who will wither away and die if I don't have human contact. The main thing is being available to others in Christian love, and allowing His love to motivate you out beyond your comfort zone in mixing with other people. I'm still learning how to do it.

John said...


Some can't help being solitary. It may not be because they are too lofty. It may be because they are shunned. Move to a small rural Texas town, be reformed, and see if you don't become somewhat isolated, whether you want to or not.

Not a complaint, just an observation.

Remember, the Pilgrim was isolated in Vanity Fair. (Oh, that's lofty; sorry.)

John said...

PS, I don't think Pink was foolish. God had a special purpose for him; different personalities for different tasks.

Rick Frueh said...

Look, I don't want to be an isolationist but when I invite no one comes.

DJP said...

FWIW, I just made an update to the article. It will probably only matter to borderline OC's like myself.

Gene said...


Neil who??

You came too close with #5. I get very uncomfortable when anyone enters my personal zone. Would you please back away a little? I don’t want to have to remove myself from Pyro.

candyinsierras said...

Sometimes I think God may place us in an isolated wilderness experience in order to woo us to Himself. After I went through a divorce some years ago, I spent much time in solitary mode. It was what God used to draw me much closer to Himself. I did have fellowship, but it was my alone time with much struggle and pruning that God was able to really work in my life for a loooong season.

Because that season was so bittersweet (I actually spent a lot of time in real wildernesses), I still fight the tendency of preferring to be alone rather than with people, with the exception of my husband. I like being with him a lot.

During the 4th of July fireworks in town, the loudspeakers play "Coming to America", and have for the past umpteenth years. Isn't that a Neil Diamond song? Well, if it is, I am SO over it already!

DJP said...

Can't hear him without feeling that I'm drowning under wave after wave of schmaltz and kitsch and excess.

SolaMeanie said...


If you ever start posting links to the Bay City Rollers or Bo Donaldson and the Heywoods, I'll know that TeamPyro is in deep trouble.

DJP said...

Me?! Never!

(Chicago, maybe....)

Theophilus said...

Neil who?

Theophilus said...


Gene beat me to it.

I'd read ALMOST all the comments, and thought I could get away with it.

Carlo said...

The link, "when I introduce Proverbs" does not work.

DJP said...

Thanks, Carlo. Fixed now.

Brendan said...

I realize I'm about a year late on commenting, but I've been studying this proverb and I had a question.

Read the KJV and read Adam Clarke's commentary of it...it seems as though everyone in Clarke's era took this verse COMPLETELY differently, and their point was that you gain wisdom by getting away from the crowd, shutting yourself up with God alone, and seeking Him.

That's just as true as saying that isolating yourself from fellowship is a really bad idea. Is it possible, since many say that the Hebrew in this passage is hard to translate, that both can be true at the same time? This is more of a hermeneutical question than anything, I suppose.


DJP said...

Actually sounds like more of a linguistic or exegetical problem. I'll try to Hebrew it up when I'm back at my tools.

DJP said...

Hi Brendan,

No, the Hebrew isn't that hard. And check the versions: I don't find any that follows the KJV in this.

The KJV doesn't catch the Hebrew right, and I can't find anyone who would take it that way.