14 February 2006

Dealing with Proverbs, and dealing with faith: part three

by Dan Phillips

This is the conclusion of a three-part series -- unless I feel like writing a fourth! (DOING PROVERBS: THE FINAL CHAPTER!) In Part the First, we noted that a proverb is a compressed parable or allegory. Then in Part the Second, I discussed a couple of illustrative stories, and then shared a proverb that I composed after reflecting over those stories.

Okay, it's not Shakespeare. Worse, it's not Solomon. But we can make it work, as a test-case.

So let's pretend that we find this couplet all by itself, divorced from any context. That, by the way, is how to approach most of the Solomonic proverbs beginning with chapter ten: each verse is its own thought. Solomon wrote chapters one to nine as well (cf. 1:1), but the style is very different. The first nine chapters might better be termed mashal-odes, or extended proverb-discourses. You can easily discern sections within this portion of Proverbs, such as 1:1-7, or 1:8-19, or 1:20-33. By contrast, there is no similar, obvious thought-flow from Proverbs 10:1 to verse 2 or verse 3.

What, then, does my proverb mean? In form, it's like the evaluation-proverbs that we find in the Bible: "Better A than B." The aim of these proverbs is to highlight the best, the wisest, the most blessed course. Solomon holds up two stark contrasts, and asks in effect, "Given these two choices, which is the better?" In so doing, he highlights a particular trait of godly wisdom.

Take as an example a pair, in Proverbs 15 --
16 Better is a little with the fear of the LORD
than great treasure and trouble with it.

17 Better is a dinner of herbs where love is
than a fattened ox and hatred with it.

Is the intent here to praise poverty, or vegetarian meagerness? No. In these proverbs, it isn't the incidentals that are the focus; it is the singular quality that makes the reader say, "Clearly A is better." We have to ask, "Why is 'a little with the fear of Yahweh' better? Why is 'a dinner of herbs where love is' better?" Solomon is holding up the values of fearing Yahweh, and of filling a house with love.

Or again, think of 21:19 -- "It is better to live in a desert land than with a quarrelsome and fretful woman." Is Solomon praising the hermit life? No; but he is warning against marrying a particular kind of woman. He is vividly pressing the truth that there are worse things than being alone.

This is that kind of proverb. It is contrasting two extremes, to make one point.

But what does it mean?

Interpretation #1. Well, it could be meant to disparage the use of the intellect. It could be saying that head-knowledge is of little or no value. One should just aim at learning a little bit, stop there, believe that little bit fervently, and be content. That fits the words themselves passably, taken in isolation: "Better to know a little truth, and believe it deeply, Than to know a lot, and not." It is a possible interpretation of the words, as they stand alone.

Interpretation #2. Another possible interpretation is the exaltation of experience over doctrine. "I don't know much, but what I know, I believe. Don't talk to me about doctrines, about creeds, about divisions and oppositions and controversies. I have my experience of Jesus, and it's deep and real, and that's all I need." This could be praising that experience-exalting, existentialist stance.

Interpretation #3. Or another, similar interpretation could be that the proverb divorces faith from knowledge. "It isn't what you know that matters, it's what you believe in your heart. Don't trouble with analyzing the Bible theologically; steer clear from debating election and predestination and all those doctrines like sanctification and Christology and eschatology and all those other -ologies. Just believe, have simple faith, and be content to stay there." This is a possible interpretation.

Interpretation #4. Or another possible interpretation of the proverb's intent is that it highlights the importance of faith, of taking truths to heart in a lively, vital, daily, practical faith. In itself, the proverb neither praises nor denigrates doctrine nor intellect. Its sole aim is to trumpet the point that theoretical knowledge, held at arm's length and in the abstract, is of no value. Truth must be held close to the heart in a vivid, lively faith.

Well, now, there are four possible interpretations. Left to the words themselves, it would be awfully rough to single one out as The True Interpretation. How can we choose? Is there any way to have any kind of confidence?

It isn't a small question, as anyone who has done much Biblical interpretation can tell you. Often, a passage can, taken in isolation, honestly admit of more than one possible meaning. This is often the case in Proverbs. Is there any way out of the subjective swamp of "What it says to me is..."? I think so. Let's lay out some steps.

"And I should care about your stupid proverb because...?" Before we dig in, forgive me for flogging what may already be obvious to you. The reason why I'm dwelling on something I wrote, and will refer to other stuff in my background, is that it's my proverb, which makes it a solid-lock test case. I'm the author, so I hope know what I meant by it! I can step outside myself, put on my Hermeneutics Hat, and apply some principles; then I can step back in, and say whether or not those principles worked. In doing so, my hope is that we'll all gain some good tools for doing the same with Solomon's incomparable and God-breathed wisdom.

  1. Ask the author. With my proverb, you could do that -- you could email me. (But I'd just tell you to read parts one and two, so don't bother.) We can't directly do the same with Solomon, though. We're simple Biblical Christians sitting around well this side of Rome, not knowing better than to respect God's consistent discouragement of all attempts to "reach out and touch" deceased sinners, saved or unsaved (cf. Deuteronomy 18:10-12; Isaiah 8:19-22). So we won't try to ask Solomon's shade.
  2. However, behind Solomon is the Spirit of God, who does still live. It would insult the truth of the sufficiency of Scripture to ask for further direct revelation, but it honors that same sufficiency to ask God to open our understanding. It is as we think hard and analytically about Scripture that the Lord gives us understanding (2 Timothy 2:7). We won't ask for new law, but we will pray that God opens our eyes to behold wonders out of the revelation already given (Psalm 119:18).

  3. Honor the genre. Not only does that sort of rhyme, it makes good sense. Your mother says, "A watched pot never boils." Five minutes later, you return from the kitchen with a bubbling pot, and announce, "Does too, liar!" -- and are properly bonked for your smart mouth. We all know that this proverb makes the point, vividly and memorably, that processes always seem interminable when we're too intently focused on them.

    The proverb-forms of our culture differ from Solomon's day, but this principle is a constant. A proverb communicates a truth. It does not characteristically communicate all truth. It is a sage insight; it isn't a legal contract.

    We get ourselves in trouble when we try to make a legal formula, or an all-embracing guarantee, out of a proverb. For instance, Proverbs 16:7 says, "When a man's ways please the LORD, he makes even his enemies to be at peace with him." A rigid formulizer takes that and runs with it, from here to Pluto. It is the key to all relationships, he says. Get your walk right with God, and you will be right with everyone else. By the same token, if you are having any frictions in any relationships, you must be displeasing God. You are in sin. Repent, miserable sinner, and then everything will work out. Until it does, you must still be in God's doghouse.

    These are the sorts who lay down the law that, if there is friction in a marriage, it must be the man's fault. If he were pleasing God, his wife would fall right in line. Or, again, if there are troubles in a church, if it is experiencing strife or isn't growing, it must be the pastor's fault. If he were pleasing God, God would "bless" (i.e. give harmony and numeric growth to) his church.

    We will start, then, with the assumption that this proverb has one main point to make, and not assume that it is meant as an exhaustive statement on everything.

    Further, we will remember the nuance of this particular kind of proverb. Evaluation proverbs simply say "A is better than B." They are not generally declaring that A is best, or even good. The intent is to hold up a transcendant value.

    What is the transcendent value here? What is it in my proverb that makes A better than B? Is it the amount of truth known? No. It is the element of faith. Therefore, we will not assume that this proverb is saying that it is best, or even good, only to know a little truth. Nor will we stray off to the assumption that it is bad to know a great deal of truth. The proverb isn't about knowing truth; it is about believing the truth one knows.

  4. Establish the author's context. Has the author ever written anything else? Let me readjust the supposition about my little proverb. Rather than totally isolating it, let's say that you're aware that I wrote it. You may not have any context for the proverb itself -- that is, it isn't a sentence plucked out of a paragraph -- but you do have a context for me.

    Have I written anything that gives you any clue as to where I stand on the place of the intellect, or the importance of doctrine or theology. Sure; scads. In this very blog, I just wrote something about that very subject. Or over on my own blog, I wrote a scathing little essay comparing Christians who refuse to grow in doctrinal and Biblical understanding with a real-life individual called "baby man." Or elsewhere, in writing to encourage new Christians, I stressed the importance of Bible study, growth in doctrinal understanding, attending a Bible-teaching church. If I didn't care about doctrine, would it have been worth the trouble to write a doctrinal statement? You could go on and on, if you wanted to. The point is, once you started looking at the context of my own writings, you'd immediately begin to doubt interpretations 1, 2, and 3, above.

    This is where the Bible-believer has a terrific advantage over those to the left. In affirming the Bible's witness as to authorship, we have an objective field of Solomon's writings. The liberal has to make it up. Sadly, that's pretty much OK with them, since it makes it easier to come up with something unique and different. If truth doesn't matter, creativity sells nicely and makes a name for oneself.

    But by affirming Solomonic authorship, we have an objective fix on him and his place in the flow of redemptive history. So, do Solomon's writings give any clue to the understanding of Proverbs 16:7? Does he think that godly, wise folks will always be popular folks -- and vice-versa?

    For starters, Proverbs 6:19b does describe a person who "sows discord among brothers." It is that person who Yahweh hates (v. 16), not those divided by his malicious efforts. Again, Proverbs 9:7-8a says, "Whoever corrects a scoffer gets himself abuse, and he who reproves a wicked man incurs injury. 8 Do not reprove a scoffer, or he will hate you." Abuse, injury, hatred -- all this coming to a presumably wise and godly man, with no hint that it is a sign of Yahweh's displeasure. Or again, 15:12 says, "A scoffer does not like to be reproved; he will not go to the wise." He does not like the wise, but it is because they tell him what he does not want to hear, not because they displease Yahweh.

    Solomon also knew that having a lot of friends was not always a good thing. They might be "bought" friends (Proverbs 14:20; 19:4). He also warned that there are friends who can lead to the destruction of character; far better to have one loyal, true friend (18:24 -- notoriously difficult Hebrew).

    An aside: as I remarked, it is fashionable among the left to reject Proverbs' claim to Solomonic authorship. What is surprising is the degree to which evangelicals (i.e. Kidner's otherwise absolutely wonderful little commentary, and many others) are ready to shrug off Proverbs 1:1, while at the same time affirming 10:1. But it matters, as you can see just above, and as will recur under the next point. Do chapters 1 - 9 provide a context as to Solomon's thought-world, or don't they? To my mind, a high view of Scripture -- which is to say, Jesus' view of Scripture -- demands a "Yes."
  5. Find the larger context. Now here, the parallels will be a little broader, but work with me on this. To start with my little proverb, you'd ask: what is my tradition? What thought-world formed the matrix for that little observation? Would it make a difference whether my own theological tradition were Charismatic, or neo-orthodox, or Roman Catholic, or liberal Protestant, or Quaker, or Word-Faith? Of course it would.

    So when you know that my tradition is Calvinistic, baptistic, dispensationalist, very strong on inerrancy and on stressing the study of Scripture in the original languages, you can start to form a grid. If you further learn that my heroes, to varying degrees, include Machen, van Til, Owen, Calvin, Luther, and Spurgeon, more of the picture fills out. You might be puzzled by the eclectic range, but you'll see that the case against interpretations 1-3 continues to grow, and #4 looks increasingly likely.

    So when we apply this to Proverbs 16:7, we gain further wisdom. When we affirm that Solomon wrote this proverb, we have a date and an idea of the thought-world from which this insight sprang. In all likelihood, Solomon would have known of the book of Job, for instance. If any book shatters the notion that good behavior always results in a happy life, or that misfortunes are always divine punishments for sin, it would be Job.

    Solomon would also know his father's psalms, and may well have heard him sing of enemies who hid a net for him "without cause" (Psalm 35:7), or of the innumerable foes who "who hate me without cause" (Psalm 69:4) , or again of enemies who "encircle me with words of hate, and attack me without cause" (Psalm 109:3). So he would have known that pleasing Yahweh and sanguine relationships are not always inseparable realities.

  6. Put it all together. So in my case, you have a proverb from someone who you know values the systematic and doctrinal study of Scripture, who affirms the role of the mind in love for God (Deuteronomy 6:5), but also embraces the role of a lively, vibrant, dynamic faith (cf. Galatians 5:6; 1 Thessalonians 1:3). It can't be a tirade against truth, doctrine, or knowledge; it can't be praise for ignorance, mysticism, or seizing on one truth to the expense of all others. What is it, then?

    It is a proverb highlighting the importance of integrating knowledge with faith. It is a proverb aimed at striking home the vital necessity of believing the truth you know, to the point where believed truth shapes, grips, and motivates all of life -- attitudes, thoughts, decisions, actions, emotions. Remember the two stories that were compressed into this proverb. Remember the Magi giving their everything to the one Scripture they knew, and finding Christ, versus the scribes with their fatuous acres of knowledge lying fallow and dead. Remember the atheist who had the entire Hebrew Bible in his memory, but did not have its truth in his heart.

    • And so similarly in the case of Proverbs 16:7, the point is much the same as that which David's greater Son will make later, when He says "seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you" (Matthew 6:33). Our relationship with God is our primary relationship. When that relationship is right, God has the power to put all other relationships right -- and He ultimately will, whether by reconciliation or by judgment.
    I hope this bit of field work helped you as it did me. There is a vast array of wisdom arranged with great sagacity in the book of Proverbs. Handling it right both teaches, and requires, wisdom.

    Dan Phillips's signature


    puritanicoal said...

    I really enjoyed your "series." It somewhat shakes the recommendation by some to read a chapter of Proverbs every day (not saying that is a bad thing). It made me think, "how about dwelling on one verse a day, or even a week?"

    What is your take on whether within a given series of proverbs there is a contextual link between seemingly unrelated proverbs? I know there would be with, say, Proverbs 31. But, how about Proverbs 10, for instance?

    DJP said...

    Sharp observation, and very sharp (and tough) question.

    As to the first, as you'd expect, I'd say there is no bad way to read Proverbs. What matters is to get it into the heart as best we can (Proverbs 2:1; 3:1; 6:20-23). I've done that, I've read slower, I've tried memorizing the first verses of each chapter to get the chapters sorted. As the kids say, it's all-good, as long as you're reading.

    The other is a tough question. It's been known for some time that there do appear to be clusters of proverbs here and there on given subjects -- like the focus on the sovereignty of Yahweh in chapter 16. But recently, in their commentaries Duane Garrett and then Bruce Waltke have found very involved arrangements all through the book, and made their cases (Garrett more briefly, Waltke more fully).

    Sometimes I see it on the head-slapping "Oh, yeah!" level, sometimes I sort of see it on the "Oh... okay, I guess, maybe" level, and sometimes I just don't see it. Some of these arrangements are so intricate, that one is pulled in two directions: is it too intricate to be coincidental, or just too intricate, period? IOW, is it the author's genius, or the commentators?

    BTW, that's why I phrased it rather carefully when I said that there was "no similar, obvious thought-flow."


    Rick Potter said...

    I like it! It clearly spells out all 4 methods of hermeneutical task (romanticist, existential, ontological, and socio-critical) and ends by wrapping them all up together. A very well defined exposition.


    Kent Brandenburg said...

    I started with "What does it mean to me?" and I came to the same conclusion, so that method must be correct. Why use a pick axe, shovel, and miner's hat when I have a joystick?

    Matthew Henry said...

    At what point does this become a webBOOK versus a webLOG? :)

    Rick Potter said...

    Hey Kent,
    Well, I suppose that would work if you could get it right like that every time but it just seem a little too relative and subjective. I mean, what if the guy standing next to you think about the same thing came to an entirely different conclusion. Who's to say who is right? Do you see my meaning. I think that is part of the problem in our universities today. Our kids are being taught by professors saying "What does it mean to you?" and then handing out praise for each ones individuality of truths arrived at by what seems "relative". To me, hermenutics MUST be the principle we as Christians live by. Now, having said that I realize the example may not have required the entire force of Dan's exposition but I believe his point (he can correct me if I'm wrong) is to get a system in place whereby we can interpret correctly every time.

    DJP said...

    Kent... you're killing me....

    Rick Potter said...

    Ok, just for the sake of hermeneutics, I think I may have missed something in Kent's last post. After posting an answer to it I have thought it over. Kent said "Why use a pick axe, shovel, and miner's hat when I have a joystick?" Maybe Kent was referring to some "other" type of hermenutical skill. IF his reference to a "joystick" makes some kind of reference to a mechanical means of digging deeper and faster and more thouroughly - say like a backhoe (which I believe the newer models require a joystick for operation. If this is the case, Kent, I would be very interested in know this means - besause digging with a pick axe, shovel, and miner's hat is truly hard work...and I like to be lazy.


    Kent Brandenburg said...


    Just for your information, my little post was a joke...smiles. I don't believe in a "What does it mean to me?" hermeneutic, the kind of logic that says "since I got it that way, it must be right," or using a joystick instead of a pick axe, especially since digging for God's wisdom is compared to mining in Proverbs. It probably isn't much of a joke now that I have broken it down into minutae. I truly am sorry it was lost on you, and I mean that. It was an attempt at an original compliment to Dan on his work, also letting him know that I read it. This comment might get him up to double figures in comments, an important blog landmark.

    Rick Potter said...

    Oh...Well, then I owe you an apology. I'm new to this and should have realized that you guys have been at this a while and have nuances amongst each other that I am not privy to. I should have been more astute. I too am sorry that it your comment was lost om me and promise to be more careful. My humoristic senses are somewhat dull. I initially came here because I am not currrently getting answers to questions which have deep relevance to me. I deal almost constantly with the same kind of comment you made on that particular post in a larger group where I am probably the only "reformed" thinker. It gets hard sometimes and at times people have left my class (SS)because I am trying to teach the truth (to the best of my ability). When you teach a lesson on regeneration, for instance, and 8 people begin to question the fact that it is entirely a work of God...well, I hope you can see where I'm coming from. Regardless, I should have known that if you are on this site that you probably, in fact, much more astute than myself on the matters..so, again, please accept my apology and be assured that it won't happen again.


    PS - thanks for answering back - otherwise I could not have known and would have been left hanging out to dry....and still looking the fool.

    Kent Brandenburg said...


    I appreciate your desire for the truth, digging, doing what it takes. The meaning of proverbs is often missed. And the information here is helpful for that, so you were right to look. Actually, I haven't been on here that long myself either.


    DJP said...

    rick potter -- thanks for the encouragement. I had no idea my essay was so cool! Now I'll be (more) completely impossible to live with.


    Matthew Henry -- too long? I groaned when I saw the length of my own past, and when comments were few, feared I'd killed the blog singlehandedly. But I really didn't want to go to four. Probably should have.

    And Kent, I got it, and thought it was funny.

    DJP said...

    CORRECTION: while I do groan at the length of my own past, I actually meant my own post.

    dogfreid said...

    Excellent series. My favorite on the new group blog thus far.