22 November 2011

Proverbs 21:3 — true and false dichotomies (excerpt from God's Wisdom in Proverbs)

by Dan Phillips

In God's Wisdom in Proverbs (still available for 50% off, but not for long), I develop the nature of proverbs at some length, providing what I see as important tools for reading and understanding them. One of the insights that has been immensely helpful to me, and which I unfold at length in pp. 23ff., is the compressed nature of proverbs. I define a proverb as "truth dressed to travel. It is wisdom compressed, compacted, stripped down to its essentials, and ready to go" (24).

Specifically, while some proverbs are ideas squeezed down to their memorable essentials, it is valid to see in others a full story summarized in a pithy proverb. We are immensely helped in detecting such proverbs if we accept the canonical ascriptions of authorship, a point I develop briefly in pp. 2-5, and then at great length in Appendix Two (pp. 317-336).

This excerpt focuses on Prov. 21:3, which I categorize as an evaluation proverb (explained on pp. 30-31), and comes from pp. 152-153. It begins with my ad hoc translation of the verse, marked as DJP in the book.

Proverbs 21:3—
To do righteousness and justice
is chosen by Yahweh above sacrifice. (DJP)
This proverb may be another example of a narrative being condensed into two lines. Specifically, it could also be a compression of 1 Samuel 15:22–23 into six little Hebrew words.

Clearly, Yahweh is not saying that He utterly negates sacrifice. He is the one who created the sacrificial system of Israel. This verse is not a denigration of sacrifices offered in believing obedience.

The principle behind this proverb should be easy for parents to understand. We always teach our children that they should apologize when they break or spill something, or if they wrong someone. If we are responsible, we also teach our children that it is better still to be more careful and wise, so as not to have to apologize in the first place. In fact, you might say, “To be wise and careful is chosen by parents above apologies.”

This verse, I think, says the same thing: God does not want people who heedlessly do wrong and blithely commit injustice, because they know they can just pop by the Temple later and slice a lamb. Rather, God wants people who so believe in and love Him that they obey Him, and “do righteousness and justice.”

Therefore, a godly walk is one part of acceptable worship to God.

[End excerpt]

To expand on that a little, I have heard this same idea expressed by Christians in many false dichotomies. For instance:
  • It is more important to be loving than to be orthodox
  • It is more important to be loving than to be truthful
  • It is more important to care about people than to care about ideas
  • It is better to walk with Christ than to attend church
  • It better to be kind than to be right
  • It is better to live the Gospel than to tell it
  • Etc. ad infinitum et ad taedium
On the surface, who could argue with any of these statements? The problem is that, unfortunately, they are usually used to evil ends, and they're diabolically clever. Disagree with any of them, and you seem to be arguing against love, practical Christian living, caring, kindness, Gospel living, Mom, puppies and everything wonderful. Who wants to do (or be accused of) any of that?
However, what all of these statements have in common is that, if pressed, they form false dichotomies.

Going back to Proverbs 21:3, liberals in years past have taken such statements in Proverbs and in the prophets as indicating an anti-Temple faction. One can only get there, however, if one rejects the canonical ascriptions of authorship, which requires (at least de facto) rejection of the inerrancy and authority of the text.

Accept the authority of the text, and we go in another direction: the intent is to help readers/hearers evaluate and identify what most matters to God. One knows at the outset that God cannot be saying "Don't do sacrifice," because it was He who enjoined sacrifice in the first place. Likewise, no Bible-believer can imagine that God wants us to reject the teaching of His word in doctrine and theology, or to disdain wrestling intensely for the faith or casting down ideas that oppose themselves to the knowledge of Christ, or refuse to attend church — because it is God Himself who commands that we do such things; and, if we believe Him, we do them, to the best of our ability.

Perhaps we can understand Solomon's wording and thought better if we can get a better idea of the soil from which this proverb was brought, by God's Spirit. What lay behind the composition of this particular proverb? Did Solomon have in mind the narrative of Saul, who disobeyed God, then tried to smear the whole over with a gaudy religious act of sacrifice (1 Samuel 15)? Very possibly.

If so, then Solomon is saying to us what God told Saul through Samuel (1 Sam. 15:22-23):
And Samuel said, "Has the LORD as great delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices, as in obeying the voice of the LORD? Behold, to obey is better than sacrifice, and to listen than the fat of rams.  For rebellion is as the sin of divination, and presumption is as iniquity and idolatry. Because you have rejected the word of the LORD, he has also rejected you from being king."
...only he said it in a single, pointed, pithy proverb.

Wisdom, and its balances, is hard.

Guess that's why there's a whole book in the Canon devoted to it, and to grounding it in the fear of Yahweh.

Dan Phillips's signature


Anonymous said...

"It is better to be kind than to be right."

Don't you just HATE it when they say, "I think you feel righteous indignation over heresy because deep down you feel pride over being right. C'mon, admit it!" Sadly, I saw Dr. Russell Moore pulling this just yesterday. He said "Jesus never, not once, seeks to prove he is right." I posted Mark 2:8ff in response, where Jesus heals the lame man to prove he has the power to forgive sins, and announces as much beforehand. People are so wrapped up in their little leftist knee-jerking that they forget what the Bible actually SAYS.

Charlie Frederico said...

This reminds me of Jesus' statement to the woman at the well when the Lord said that it would be neither on their mountain (Gerizim) nor in Jerusalem that people would worship but worshipers would do so in spirit and truth. God Himself said that true worship would occur in Jerusalem in the future (Zech. 14). So, surely, Jesus is not denying the centrality of Jerusalem for worship. But, isn't He doing the same thing as this proverb? He seems to be saying that the real issue in worship is the condition of the heart in response to truth. However, that does not deny the reality that God has chosen Jerusalem as the place to be worshiped. Isn't this principalized in Matthew 23:23 where Jesus says that the Law should have been kept with the correct heart?

DJP said...

Thanks, guys.

I'm going to start a Twitter hashtag on this.

BTW, don't forget the stars if you like the post.

Robert said...

I don't see how people manage to split things apart like that. How can one love God without knowing Him as He defines Himself in the Bible? And Jesus said that if we love Him, then we will obey His commandments...that is one of the overarching themes throughout the book of John. And, as you state, the book of Proverbs is rooted in the fear of Yahweh. If we fear Him, then we'll want to know Him and obey Him more and more every day.

I am reminded of Isaiah 66:2 - "'For My hand has made all these things, thus all these things came into being,' declares the LORD. 'But to this one I will look, to him who is humble and contrite of spirit, and who trembles at My word.'"

When somebody replies to one of the false dichotomies listed (or any others) when presented with the truth of the Word in response to something they (or somebody they like) says or does, how can this person be said to be humble and contrite in spirit and trembling at the Word of God. It sound more like such a person is being proud and haughty in spirit, bowing out his/her chest at the Word of God. I've been there and done that...can't say I won't ever do it again. However, by the grace of God, I have also been humbled shortly thereafter as He worked through other believers around me.

May God work through us to help bring people back to the Word of God in humility. And may our boldness be supplied by God through His Word so that we preach the Word with courage.

Scot said...

I for one do not want to be on the wrong side of loving puppies, or chinchillas for that matter.

Maybe it's because I found this blog early in my Christian life, but I don't really understand the utter necessary of some to bifurcate doctrine and action. I can just imagine a god without doctrine but lots of love. Can this god describe his actions as good, loving, and just if he can't describe or let his creation know how he acts?

Love without doctrine just lets you make up love on your own terms and doctrine with love sides you with the demons.

Tim Bushong said...

Great post, Dan. I can't count the number of times that some people have used these exact same fallacious lines of reasoning to try to skirt the whole council of God.

And a big loud 'amen' to the short prayer that Robert offered as his last paragraph in his post.

DJP said...

Scooter, it was J. Gresham Machen who, in my young Christian life, killed, pulverized, bottled, and disintegrated that false dichotomy for all time. The book: What Is Faith? Pretty much still reads with spine-tingling relevance, some 70 years after publication.

Michael B. said...

Have you ever considered that maybe not all the Bible's authors agree with one another is every aspect?

DJP said...

Well-put, Tim. It would be equally wrong to say that it's the full counsel of God, or that it is NO part of the counsel of God.

DJP said...

Here's Michael B., shocked out loud yet again (as he is regularly at my blog) to find that Christian believers are, well, Christian believers.

Tim Bushong said...

Michael asked:

"Have you ever considered that maybe not all the Bible's authors agree with one another is every aspect?"


Michael B. said...

"It is better to be kind than to be right."

I used to have a co-worker who was morbidly obese, and was in self-denial about it. He consumed something over 10000 calories a day. He visited one doctor who very frank about his condition. The doctor told him he was lazy, looked horrible, and should be thinking about his funeral arrangements. The doctor's "rude" comments ruined his day, but later on he started taking his condition very seriously and eventually lost a great deal of weight. Doesn't the doctor have an obligation to tell the truth? What if the doctor would have not said anything, or said, "well, some schools of thought think being over 450 pounds is okay, and who am I to judge?"

Being right is being nice. If hell is on the line, not telling the entire truth is the most evil thing you can do.

Anonymous said...

Every single Christian should read...no, memorize this post.

donsands said...

Very edifying Dan. Gracias mi amigo.

I think as an example to this post, I thought of Amy Grant's latest hit song, where she says: "Hallelujah's are not as important to God as sinners being accepted by Him." (paraphrased)

It's the: ---"Wisdom, and its balances, is hard."

Here's Amy in her own short and sweet words, if that helps:


Tom Chantry said...

I'm not sure that Charlie's example is on point, given that Jesus specifically says a day is coming when she would worship in neither place - in other words, worship in spirit and truth in her case would be elsewhere than Jerusalem.

However, many times we do impose an "either/or" on scriptural truth where there ought to be a "both/and." (Even in Charlie's example there is a modicum of this - what always mattered was that worship be in spirit and in truth, whether at Jerusalem before the temple fell or elsewhere at another time.)

What is fascinating is that when we impose this false dichotomy, we wind up with "neither/nor." If you think that love trumps truth, you will have neither love nor truth.

Stefan Ewing said...

This is a good verse, because it ties so deeply into the biblical concepts of righteousness and justice. One is reminded of the commentary on Jesus Christ's pronouncing of the Great Commandment:

"Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.' The second is this: 'You shall love your neighbor as yourself.' There is no other commandment greater than these."

To which his interlocutor replied:

"You are right, Teacher. You have truly said that he is one, and there is no other besides him. And to love him with all the heart and with all the understanding and with all the strength, and to love one's neighbor as oneself, is much more than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices."

That is from 12:28-33; in Matthew 22:40, Jesus Christ added that "On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets."

It would seem that if to do righteousness and justice is to walk in fear and the commandments and the statutes of God (as the Old Testament attests) and these are summed up in the Great Commandment, then indeed, to love God with all one's heart, soul, mind, and strength and to love one's neighbour as oneself is greater than all the sacrifices—except one (surely!): that of Jesus Christ Himself upon the Cross.

And who among us can do this perfectly? I certainly cannot. I fall far short every single day. Thank God that He has provided the ultimate sacrifice that trumps all other ones, our once-for-all Atonement, our Passover Lamb, Jesus Christ.

Steve Drake said...

What a classic reminder as well from the mouth of God through the lips of the prophet, applicable to all:
'For rebellion is as the sin of divination, and presumption (insubordination in other translations) is as iniquity and idolatry'.

Oh, how I forget. May I learn obedience and not rebellion to the word of God, and may I 'not' presume in human power for understanding it, but on divine power for it's illumination.

Always Reforming said...

I just bought another copy to give as a gift!

DJP said...

You rock. I may have to rename my kids "Always Reforming" for a day.


Solameanie said...

"Don't forget the stars if you like the post."

I have a strange feeling that this phrase is headed for quotable immortality. It just has that "ring" to it. ;)

Anonymous said...

Still on sale!

Two more ordered!

Rich LaPierre said...

Great post. It's like the old, "Have you stopped beating your wife?" trick question.

"Yes," pause. "Uh...no!" pause. "Wait a minute! I've never beat my wife!"

No matter how you answer, you're wrong.

Anonymous said...

The way I handle such questions is to inform the inquirer that they have asked a compound question and that I would be happy to answer/address one question/issue at a time.

Anonymous said...

"It is better to live the gospel than to tell it."

I remember being at my uncle's wedding and listening to the prayer my grandfather (uncle's dad) prayed over them. He prayed that they would proclaim the gospel "not only by life, but by lip." That struck me at the time because I often hear it the other way around---as the General Thanksgiving in the Book of Common Prayer says it, "Not only with our lips, but in our lives." However, Grandpa's little twist reminded me of the importance of speaking the gospel as well. That little false dichotomy brought it vividly back to mind.

David A. Carlson said...

I concede I have not gotten far in your book so far, but I do like it.

I also concede that I am surprised that I like it

one might call that world tilting.......

DJP said...

Okay, now, let's not get all crazy.


Pierre Saikaley said...

Thanks for dealing with the false dichotomy of praying/waiting versus seeking/working for wisdom, in the excellent book you wrote.

trogdor said...

It's easier to get forgiveness than permission. Antiproverbs 21:3, cf Jude 4.

one busy mom said...

Great post Dan, btw I'm totally enjoying your books. Started with TWTG - excellent! Will be ordering some more for Christmas presents.

Tom Chantry - you said

However, many times we do impose an "either/or" on scriptural truth where there ought to be a "both/and."

perfect! I've been looking for a quick comeback for these false dichotomies ..now I've got it.

The next time I get hit with one in the form of:

It's more important to be "A" than "B".

I'm going to comeback with:

Actually, it's more important to be BOTH "A" and "B", than either just "A" or just "B".

Then they have the fun of trying to argue why "A" and "B" need to be split. :-)

Linda said...

Dan said "Think about it, biblically. Make yourself, if your feelings aren't "there." Pray for God to help you think about it."

We cannot "make ourselves" do anything. Didn’t we come to the cross that way?

In Jeremiah 32:40 The Lord says “I will make an everlasting covenant with them: I will never stop doing good to them, and I will inspire them to fear me, so that they will never turn away from me."

In that verse it is God who inspires us to fear him not us making ourselves fear God. He is the Creator the one who grants the increase and God our Father is the Gardner and Jesus is the Vine.

Yes we should pray for God to cultivate our hearts and read His word to inspire us to Fear Him~~ and our responsibility is that we should act upon what we pray for by faith in obedience to Christ.

I think the hang up for many Christians is that we don’t remain in his love-John 15:9-10 and we don’t keep ourselves in God’s love-Jude 1:21.
Romans Chapter 8:34-39 gives us a long golden chain of assurances that nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus and (nothing can). However, you and I can remove ourselves from remaining in God’s love within His love.

If I'm misunderstanding you I deeply apologize

A false dichotomy of God's word is to fear the Lord and forget that “AND” “knowledge of the Holy One is understanding. They go together.

Pastor David Pitman said...

Well said Dan.

Bifurcation is a common logical fallacy - also called a false dilemma. To posit a false dilemma is to attempt to force your listener to choose one course because the other offered is unpalatable. Logical fallacies and historical fallacies are rampant.