10 February 2006

Dealing with Proverbs, and dealing with faith: part two

by Dan Phillips

In Part the First of this series, we began approaching the interpretation of biblical Proverbs. We noted that a proverb is a compressed parable or allegory. The point of this series is to illustrate how a proverb might be formed, and to reflect on its interpretation.

So, this being Part the Second, we'll consider a couple of illustrative stories; and on the basis of them, I'll share a proverb I composed after some reflection. In the course of doing that, the particular proverb will provide some insights about growing in faith.

On the third installation of a little series on proverbs, the great Old Testament scholar Bruce K. Waltke dwelt on the importance of memorization of Scripture, drawing from Proverbs 2:1. You can listen to Waltke's sermon here, and find others in the series here. Waltke is always worth listening to, though of course he's all wrong about prophecy.

(BTW, real men do not fear emoticons.)

First, Waltke talks about the Magi, in Matthew 2. Here are men to whom God had graciously given a sign in the heavens, to lead them to His Son. Somehow the Magi knew about Messiah. What led them to Israel was the supernatural star that went before them. But they had no Scripture, and did not know specifically where to look. So they turned to Herod, and Herod turned to the scribes.

Waltke notes that the scribes probably had memorized the entire Torah, the entire Hebrew Old Testament, every letter. So they knew the answer right away. "But you, O Bethlehem Ephrathah, who are too little to be among the clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me one who is to be ruler in Israel, whose origin is from of old, from ancient days" (Micah 5:2 ESV). Armed with that one Scripture, the Magi took off in a hurry, and they did find the Messiah. They knew very little, but they took 100% of what they knew to heart, and acted on it with everything they had.

But the scribes, who "knew" far more than the Magi, who "knew" it all, did not trouble themselves to get off their rear ends and take the four-kilometer, 30-minute trip from Jerusalem to Bethlehem to find Him for themselves.

So the ones with one verse found the Lord, while those with everything never did.

This led Waltke to a second story, this one from his own life. The good doctor was in Israel on an archeological scholarship, and wanted to work on his modern Hebrew. Modern Hebrew has 30,000 words not in Biblical Hebrew. So every day, Dr. Waltke got together with a Jewish neighbor, who had been trained as a rabbi.

Sometimes they'd hit on a word, and Waltke's friend would say, "Bruce, you should know that word. That's in the Bible." And then the man would quote, from memory, not just the verse, but the entire psalm -- and "drive this poor Gentile straight under the table," Waltke confessed. Finally Waltke said to his friend, "I think you know the entire Tehillim [Psalms] by heart, in Hebrew." His friend acknowledged that he did.

Waltke said he'd love to hear him chant it, so they got together once for that purpose. Waltke sat down and opened up his Massoretic text, and read along for two hours, as his neighbor chanted the Psalms in Hebrew, letter-perfect, from memory. In fact, it turned out that the man claimed to have the entire Torah memorized. (Torah ["law"] can narrowly refer to the Pentateuch, or the entire Old Testament; in context, I'd guess Waltke meant the latter.)

Here's the kicker: the man knew the entire Old Testament, by heart, in Hebrew -- and he was an atheist. Not only did he not believe in the divine Messiah foretold in the Old Testament, not only did he not even believe in the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, but he believed in no God at all.

I reflected on both of these stories, and of course they resonated with me on a personal level. There's always been a gap between my academics and my heart-faith, between what I acknowledge as true and what I fully embrace and personalize as true. One's reach always exceeds one's grasp. (John Piper is the man God has most singularly used to help me see the extent and specifics of that gap. )

So I cast about, not for the first time, for a concise way of expressing this. I wanted to sum it up and boil it down, at the same time. I sought to compress what I was thinking into something more bite-sized and memorable.

My mind turned to the form of Biblical proverbs. I finally hit on a way to say it. My first version went like this:
Better is he who knows a little truth, and believes it all,
Than he who knows much truth, and believes it little.
That said what I wanted to say, and was in fairly classic mashal (Hebrew for "proverb") form. I could even translate it into Hebrew! Problem was, I wasn't creating it for a Hebrew culture. So I worked it over, polished it, and came up with this shorter, more memorable, more American version:
Better to know a little truth, and believe it deeply,
Than to know a lot, and not.
I'll let that sit for a while, and then in part the third I plan to discuss its meaning. The point will not be how poor or, well, poor my literary product is; the point will be to gain and flesh out insights that we can apply to doing better justice to the book of Proverbs.

So, to prime the pump, here are some suggestions and questions:
  • Pretend you met that verse with no backstory, no context to the proverb itself. How would you approach interpreting it?
  • What is the point of the proverb?
  • Is the proverb meant to disparage the use of the intellect?
  • Does the proverb exalt experience over doctrine?
  • Does the proverb divorce faith from knowledge?
  • Is there any way to have certainty in one's interpretation?
UPDATE: this way to part three.

Dan Phillips's signature


    FX Turk said...

    Dan has threatened me with personal, physical violence if I post today and bump him from the top slot.

    Should I contact the FBI, or are you people just going to start rioting until he apologizes?

    Forgiven Sinner said...

    It's mind boggling how people could quote all that and have all the GOOD STUFF memorized and STILL NOT BELIEVE!!!! It's AMAZING.

    Castusfumus said...

    Better to post not on top,
    than to fall from thine call.

    Gordon said...

    I have a question, were the wise men wise because they sought Jesus, or did they seek Jesus because they were wise?

    BTW, that's a pretty cool proverb you have there, Brother.

    Friar Rick said...

    Frank, don't sweat it. Since I haven't posted in a week, I have the perfect excuse to top him. So when I do, we will have accomplished our purpose and at the same time you will be able to maintain your innocence.

    Am I devious or what?

    Daniel Portela said...

    sad is the man who doesn't use a :-),
    :-) is the man who does.

    FX Turk said...


    I think he's still mad about not having a nickname.

    donsands said...

    Once the Truth is tasted, and savored, though it may be the smallest portion, it can never satisfy.
    The Truth is vast and deep, and the heart that has tasted it will want to aggresively pursue it.

    "But he that doeth truth comes to the light, that his deeds may be made manifest, that they are wrought in God." John 3: 21

    Thanks for another thought provoking post. It's good to think.

    Darel said...

    That is fantastically clever. Like a modern proverb.

    That's all I got. I can't write proverbs, since I have no ability to be pithy.

    Jennifer said...

    Many people believe deeply in a little truth and then that little bit of truth becomes twisted and misunderstood and they are then led astray. I wonder if it wouldn't be more accurate to say it is "Better to know a little truth, and understand it deeply, Than to know a lot, and not."??

    Phil Johnson said...

    I agree with Mahaney about emoticons. (Don't tell Mahaney I said this, but emoticons annoy me almost as much as people who can't talk without gesturing with their hands every time they say a syllable.)

    Nickname for Dan....

    Shall we sponsor a contest?

    DJP said...

    This could get... scary.


    DJP said...

    Gordon Cloud -- I have a question, were the wise men wise because they sought Jesus, or did they seek Jesus because they were wise?

    The Greek sophos ("wise") isn't used here, by Matthew. Rather he calls them magoi, which ultimately seems to come from a Persian word.

    It's more noun than adjective; I mean, Matthew's not so much describing them as wise, as he is saying that they're of a caste, a class, known as "Magi." The word has various uses, more and less formal. It described astrologers, and the ancient equivalent of scientists, as well as philosophers of sorts, or even magicians.

    I hope that helps, and thanks for the kind words.

    Screaming Pirate said...

    Dan i would love to hear what your oppinoin about the personification of wisdom, in the proverbs. I have had it explained to me that wisdom, even though it is called a she, is
    Christ him self. Or is this just simply a personification. I would love to hear your thoughts on this issue. though i am sure it would take a whole new post.

    Screaming Pirate said...

    Oh yea and i agree with you on emoticons there is nothing un-manly about them. specaly certain ones. they have the overly girly ones and then the non-girly emoticons ;-). i use them all the time when I chat online.

    DJP said...

    To start with the lighter one, your last point about emoticons makes me think about poetry, a bit. I don't as a rule love poetry in English ("I am a tree..." -- no, you're not), except Kipling. But I love Biblical poetry. One of the beauties of it is its connotative and economically evocative impact.

    For instance, which has more impact -- to say, "The communication You have revealed provides knowledge I wouldn't otherwise have, so that I can make practical decisions in the light of Your wisdom"? Or to say, "Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path" (Psalm 119:105).

    So, you could say, "Now, what I just wrote, I wrote in a light tone, not really meaning to be harsh and cuttingly sarcastic, so please don't be offended, okay? Just a light dusting of humor."

    Or you could say... (c;


    Mickey Sheu said...

    This is pretty cool. Thank you for this series and I'm looking foward to the last part.

    Thank you for this post. I've linked to it.

    Unknown said...

    Check out these "Modern Proverbs"

    One is:

    When you try to lay blame you are missing the point.


    Unknown said...

    Check out these "Modern Proverbs"

    One is:

    When you try to lay blame you are missing the point.



    Quintin said...

    Link to part 3 is bad... Love the series!

    God bless!