Lecture 8: Does Proverbs Promise Too Much? (3:1-12)
Lecture: Does Proverbs Promise Too Much
I. Do the Proverbs Promise Too Much? 3:1-12
My son, do not forget my teaching, and let your heart guard my commands,
for they will add length of days and years of life and bring you shalom [peace and prosperity].
- Let hesed and faithfulness never leave you; bind them around your neck, [write them on the tablet of your heart; cf. 7:3].
- Then you will win favor and a good name in the sight of God and man.
- Trust in the LORD with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding;
- in all your ways know him, and he will make your paths yashar [straight and smooth].
- Do not be wise in your own eyes; fear the LORD and shun evil.
- Let there be healing to your body [lit., “navel”] and nourishment [refreshment] to your bones.
- Honor the LORD with your wealth, with the first fruits of all your crops;
- then your granaries will be filled to overflowing, and your vats will brim over with new wine.
- Do not despise, my son, the LORD's discipline, and do not resent his rebuke,
- because the LORD disciplines those he loves, as a father the son he delights in.
A. Are The Promises of Proverbs Real?
We have gone over the human obligations in respect to the parents and their teachings. We have listened to the father’s commands and the teaching of hesed. Then it is to trust in the Lord, Fear the Lord and Honor the Lord and then it talked about discipline and the promises of life and prosperity, a good name with God and people, a smooth path and physical prosperity with a barn that is full, along with an over flowing new wine. That raises the question whether or not the Book of Proverbs promises too much. We all know people who live really blameless lives. They don’t necessarily live long, nor have prosperity and are rejected by people and often poor. So these promises seem detached from reality, and whether it is permissible or not to say that they seemed to be detached from the life of Christ, I’m also not sure. But he didn’t have a long life and he was a person of sorrows, suffering and then on the cross, he was in psychological distress, sweating drops of blood. He didn’t have a place to sleep sometimes. He was despised by people and ended up with nothing but being hung on the cross. Can we say that he was an example of the problem? Or should we say that he suffered because of our sins. I think his rejection has something to do with the reality of the Christian life of suffering. I have no problem with the consequences of chapter 2 in receiving a religious and ethical education which is a safe guarding measure. The result of the consequences in the health, wealth and prosperity doesn’t seem to compare with reality.
One of my students at Dallas Seminary was an outstanding person from Kenya and he had a great prospect ahead of him. He came to Dallas by scholarship money from people in Africa. The mission field depended on him. He was brilliant, Godly and a great Christian. After one year, he went swimming and simply drowns and that was the end of him. This is a reality of life. So how do we resolve this tension between health and wealth and the reality we see? I want to engage in this, first dividing it into two parts: unacceptable solutions and toward a resolution. I’m brainstorming what are unacceptable solutions to see if I can come up with something that will help me understand better.
In regards to unacceptable solutions, the one I reject is that our sins are due to suffering. I don’t accept that idea that we don’t have a long life, peace and prosperity, favor with God and man, etc. is because none of us really measure up and keep human obligations. And therefore since you didn’t keep those obligations, no one will ever realize the divine promises. I think there is an element of truth to the idea of keeping the covenant verses not keeping it. If you do, there will be blessings and if you don’t there will be cruses. I think that is the point of Proverbs 3:11-12, Do not despise, my son, the LORD's discipline, and do not resent his rebuke, because the LORD disciplines those he loves, as a father the son he delights in. The rebuke is because we are not living the way we should be living. So there is validity to this. The problem is when you universalize that and say all suffering is due to sin, then I have to back off and therefore we have to go to the alternate wisdom literature of Job and Ecclesiastes.
B. Job Debunks Health and Wealth Theology
Look at Job particularly, he really debunks the simplistic idea of doing well and get good attitude of health and wealth theology. The Book of Job is very clear with the narrator stating that Job was a blameless man. Even though he wasn’t sinless, he walked with a total commitment toward God. Job was whole heartedly committed to the things of God. You know this by his own theology and understanding of God. If the covenant promises weren’t working, it wasn’t because Job failed. Even God acknowledges that Job was blameless to Satan. But the three friends tell him that all suffering is due to sin and they go against what they said, trying to fit this theology further into it. Job 4:1 ‘Then Eliphaz the Temanite replied: if some ventures a word with you, will you be impatient? But who can keep from speaking?’ He then comments Job, ‘think you have instructed many, how you have strengthened feeble hands. You words have supported those who stumbled, you have strengthened faltering knees. But now trouble comes to you, and you are discouraged, it strikes you, and you are dismayed; should not your piety be your confidence and you blameless ways your hope? So Job had blameless ways. But this changed in chapter 22; he continues ‘Can a man be of benefit to God? Can even a wise person benefit him? What pleasure would it give the Almighty if you were righteous? What would he gain if your ways were blameless? Is it for your piety that he rebukes you and brings charges against you? Is it not your wickedness is great? You demanded security from your relatives for no reason? You stripped people of their clothing, leaving them naked. You gave no water to the weary and you withheld food from the hungry, though you were a powerful man, owning land – an honored man, living on it. Etc. In the beginning Eliphaz admits his piety but now as you see, he changes what he said to Job earlier to fit his theology making him an evil man. So the Lord became angry at Eliphaz for speaking lies to Job in Job 42:7. So God rejects Eliphaz’s theology and discredits it. God rejects that solution and so that can’t be a solution to this kind of theology. The lack of sin or the righteousness doesn’t necessarily merit prosperity.
C. Young and Old Wisdom
A second solution shows itself with the sage being confused. Ken Aitken writes that there is a strong suspicion here that Israel’s sages are confused to what ought to be the case and what actually is the case. The sage is characterized by keen observation and cogent reflection. In academia this resolution in the Book of Job is simply wrong. Academia distinguishes between what they call old wisdom and young wisdom. By old wisdom they mean, the traditional wisdom by the Book of Proverbs; do good and you get good and therefore like Proverbs three you will receive health, wealth and prosperity. This is the old wisdom. The young wisdom is represented by Job and Ecclesiastes and this goes against the idea of health, wealth and prosperity and rejects it. The truth of the Old Wisdom of Proverbs is not right; it’s the younger wisdom that is reality and the truth. Ecclesiastes accuses the sages of becoming entangled in a single false doctrine as per Von Rad on Wisdom in Israel. If you keep covenant you get covenant blessings is false. James Williams says that Ecclesiastes’ primary mode of presentation is in order to contract traditional wisdom. So the traditional view of academia shows contradiction between old and young wisdom; between Proverbs and that of Job and Ecclesiastes. But for me as an evangelical, that is not tenable because I don’t believe that God is confused or contradicts himself. At this point I have to go back to my systematic theology; all Scripture is inspired and God-breathed. If the source is without error and contradiction, it will not hold together. So if God inspired proverbs and if God inspired Ecclesiastes and Job and if they are correct that one contradicts the other, then God is confused and thus God is contradictory. Therefore which God do I believe? You can’t have this contradiction in the Bible and God cannot be a God of contradiction. This is bad theology and I can’t accept it. So again in 2nd Timothy 3:15 all Scripture is God-breathed. We read in Proverbs 2:6 that the Lord gives wisdom; from his mouth come knowledge and understanding. So the parents’ mouth is Solomon’s mouth which is God’s mouth. Agru says in Proverbs 30:5 that ‘every Word of God is flawless; he is a shield to those who take refuge in him.’ So I cannot agree with this academic root of young and old wisdom being at odds with each other.
D. Are they Probabilities?
Evangelicals say that these are probabilities, not promises. This is very common teachings. The proverbs are not to be interpreted as prophecies or their statement about effects and results as promises. For instance, 10:27 says that the years of the wicked are cut short, while the righteous live long and prosperous live… While such statements are generally true, there are enough exceptions to indicate that sometimes the righteous suffer and wicked prosper. So they are not promises, they are probabilities. But again, I can’t go there for three reasons: First of all to me it is bad theology. For good theology, 1st Timothy 2 says, if I am faithful, he abides in me faithfully. I know that I am unfaithful but God is faithful and God is always faithful; these are not probabilities here. God is not unfaithful. The second reason is; I think it is bad math. In committing my life to this, I need to know that it is one hundred percent true, not partially true. Paul preached throughout Asia Minor; they were stoned, jailed and ran out of towns; but they acknowledge that they had to go through many hardships for the sake of the Gospel. So hardships are normal, not health, wealth and prosperity. Hardships are normal before you enter the kingdom of God. Paul will say in 1st Corinthians, if for only for this life we have hope in Christ, we of all people most to be pitted. So I reject the idea that they are simply probabilities.
E. Proverbs Must Be Holistically Considered
But they are partially validated by experience and they are often true. The sober, not the drunkard, the cool tempered, not the hot head, the diligent not the sluggard usually experience health, wealth and prosperity. So there is an element where it is true to experience and I’m not discounting that at all. It is partially validated by experience but not totally validated. My second point is the epigraphic (epigraphic has to do with the study of inscriptions or epigraphs as writing; it is the science of identifying graphemes, clarifying their meanings); the epigraphic nature of Proverbs. Von Rad writes that it is of the nature of an epigram that a truth is expressed with the greatest concentration on the subject-matter and with a disregard of any presuppositions, attendant circumstances, etc. In themselves these short epigrams of truth don’t express the whole truth. You have to put them altogether. Van Leeuwen says that there are many proverbs that assert or imply that the wicked prosper, while the innocent suffer but treasures gained by wickedness have no lasting value, but righteousness delivers from death. The Lord does not let the righteous go hungry, but he thwarts the craving of the wicked. So the idea of health, wealth and prosperity doesn’t take in the whole truth. So these are treasures gained by taken advantage of the innocent. So the disadvantaged are the innocent and even the righteous. So we are told that the wicked gains treasure but God thwarts the craving of the wicked. They have it for a while but it doesn’t last and so eventually they end up hungry.
(One of the students ask a question in regards to Proverbs 26:4-5 which says not to answer a fool according to his folly, or you yourself will be just like him. Answer a fool according to his folly or he will be wise in his own eyes. Here the fool talks rationally, hot headed so don’t answer in the way the fool answers or you will be just like him or guilty as he is. Answer or not answer when it is appropriate but you really never answer a fool in the way the fool talks but you always answer a fool because of what he is saying.)
In Proverbs 3:9-10 it says honor the Lord with your wealth, then your barns will be filled to overflowing. This is contrasted with 17:1 saying, better a dry crust with peace and quiet than a house full of feasting with strife. So the epigrammatic nature of the material presents a truth but not the whole truth. So this prosperity must be considered in light of the whole Book of Proverbs, indeed, in light of the whole canon. The book states the whole truth considered in its entirety. I conclude that the book has to be read holistically. Look at Psalm 2:8, ask of me my son, pray and I will give you the ends of the earth for your possession and then Psalm 3:1 Lord, how many are my foes! How many rise up against me! Many are saying of me God will not deliver him. Thus, you can ask of me but you may find yourself with difficulties. So Psalms is a truth but it is not everything; it is not the whole truth. There is a balancing factor. The same with Proverbs 3, it is a truth but not the whole truth or rather it is not all of the truth.
II. The Genre of the Book of Proverbs
A. Primer for Young People
The Book of Proverbs is a primer on morality for young people. It looks at how it all turns out in the end. We see in 24:15-16 an example, ‘Do not lie in wait like an outlaw against a righteous man’s house, do not raid his dwelling place; for though a righteous man falls seven times, he rises again, but the wicked are brought down by calamity. Seven times here is the divine number for perfection so here he has completely fallen, yet he rises again and it is the end that counts. Job and the Qoheleth (The Hebrew name for Ecclesiastes) are looking at the interim, before the final calamity of the wicked. You have the same thing in 23:17-18, ‘Do not let your heart envy sinners, but always be zealous for the fear of the Lord. There is surely a future hope for you, and your hope will not be cut off.’ Or again in 24:19-20, ‘Do not fret because of evildoers or be envious of the wicked, for the evildoer has no future hope, and the lamp of the wicked will be snuffed out.’ But for the righteous, there is a future hope and he is pointing you to that end and that future hope transcends clinical death. He looks for a future that is beyond death. You can see this is 12:28, ‘in the way of righteousness there is life; along that path is immortality.’ There is immortality and it was Christ’s resurrection that brought immortality, thus being clarity of life after death. The sage knows that there is something beyond it. Note that in the very first lecture, the innocent guy was killed, ambushed and they plundered him. Where is justice if there isn’t something beyond the poor person’s death? Another example here, at the very beginning the righteous Abel is put to death. The story is all occupied with Cain and it kind of drops Abel but yet the book is about justice but Abel is killed and is that the end of it? So even here, if there is no future it undercuts the whole Biblical message.
B. Immortality or Death
This tells us that there has to be a future hope beyond death. However for 12:28 there is a textual problem as the MT and ancient versions differ. The ‘al-maweth should be ‘lo-maweth where the former means immortality and the latter means no death. Maweth is a noun and al is a negative with a verb. So here they have a negative that goes with a verb and puts it with a noun which is against Hebrew grammar which in turn creates a textual problem. Now, referring back to the Septuagint which works with an un-pointed text; it changes the vocalization to normal Hebrew grammar and it reads ‘el-maweth and here it means unto death so, ‘in the ways of righteousness if life; but the ways of those that remember injuries lead to death ‘el-maweth. So what do I use the Masoretic text or the Greek tradition of the Septuagint? The Septuagint has no oral tradition; it is like when you read a modern newspaper without pointers or vowels. You have to supply the vowels. So you would never read it with the ‘a’. But this isn’t an impossible reading. So the negative from the Ugaritic language with the noun means immortality and so this now always means immortality. I know that the NIV has this right. The RSV of 1952 reads, ‘in the path of righteousness is life, but the way of error leads to death.’ This follows the Septuagint. In 1989 they changed it back to the Hebrew, rejecting the Greek. Thus, it reads in the NRSV, ‘in the path of righteousness there is life, in the walking of its path there is no death. They are using ‘lo-maweth with the meaning ‘no death.’ This is better but it is still not correct. So in the Ugaritic of 1400 BC and post-Biblical Hebrew ‘al-maweth is the ordinary word for ‘immortality’. So this is a clear assertion; there is no death, only immortality. Note also that part of the problem we are facing here seems to be a bias that there is no life after death in the Old Testament by different scholars.
Look at Proverbs 14:32, ‘When calamity comes, the wicked are brought down, but even in death the righteous seek refuge in God.’ The wicked that perishes through his evil, does not trust in the Lord even when dying; but the righteous people who trusts in the Lord when dying, is not thrown down by any evil, including clinical death. When he dies, he is confident that he will come to the Garden of Eden. The righteous sees a refuge that lies beyond the limits of death (Meinhold). In 15:24, ‘The path of life leads upward for the prudent to keep them from going down to the realm of the dead.’ The ‘path of life’ refers to the state or condition that affects everlasting fellowship with the living God. And ‘leads upward’ refers to the antithesis of Grave. We also have the ‘realm of the dead, Sheol’; salvation from the grave is more than being spared an untimely death, for otherwise the path of life is swelled up by death, an unthinkable thought in Proverbs. In other words, if clinical death has the last words, then dead wins, but the Book of Proverbs says life is the last word which is brought to light in the resurrection of Christ. For the idea of long life, look at Isaiah 53:10, ‘yet it was the Lord’s will to crush him and cause him to suffer, and though the Lord makes his life an offering for sin, he will see his offspring and prolong his days, and the will of the Lord will prosper in his hand.’ In prolonging your days, death is only a shallow along eternal life.
Proverbs is the promise of future blessings that outlast death. And in that life it teaches health, wealth and prosperity. And in trusting in the Lord with all your heart; this trust is complete. Then in all your ways; this is done exhaustively without any reservation. This involves both qualitative and quantitative, every aspect of your life as you are depending upon him. And finally we have the word, ‘exclusively’, do not lean on your own understanding; be blameless. A student comments about life after death and then asks is their death after life? The student says, ‘I see a lot of language in here that involves two paths; one leading to life and one leading to death. My understanding is that hell is real and it will be experienced but in all this language about death, it’s not an end in itself. In Romans 2, we can try to get immortality, but some people will not, by nature we are not mortal. So why is it so hard for people to get rid of the death language?’ In replying, the lecturer answers, ‘if I had just the Old Testament or just the Book of Proverbs I would be an annihilationist; in other words there would only be death with no future. And that is what it talks about, it is death. They do not rise from that and there is no mention of a realm where there are spirits or suffering in that next world. They are dead and that in itself is suffering. I am sympathetic to the annihilationist for thinking that death is final. But because of the teachings of Jesus, I can’t be an annihilationist. Matthew 25 between the sheep and the goats, some go to eternal punishment and some to everlasting life. So it seems to me that my eternal life is eternal and meaningful, that punishment must be consciously eternal also. That is what keeps me from becoming an annihilationist. John 3:16 has both life and perishing. Other writings of John tell us that we will stand before the judgement seat. I would rather stop at the grave, quite frankly, but you can’t because there is life and death for all of us. Perishing is losing eternal life. It is real death and Jesus adds to it eternal punishment. And we have the parable of the rich man and Lazarus where the rich man was in torment. I know that this is a parable but it is speaking of what Jesus himself says about eternal punishment. Note that eternal is eternal, everlasting.