Reading Proverbs Canonically

Reading Proverbs Canonically November 11, 2013

Last SundayI promised a solution to the three common errors people make when readingProverbs: 1) Absolutism, i.e., treating the proverbs as promises; 2) PracticalAtheism, i.e., applying Proverbs without regard for God; and 3) Moralism, i.e.,assuming that Proverbs is primarily about us and what we must do, rather thanabout Jesus and what He has done.

Thankfully,we can avoid all three errors if we will follow one basic rule of interpretation:read the whole context.

In the caseof the book of Proverbs, its immediate context is the Old Testament wisdomliterature, specifically, the books of Job and Ecclesiastes. These booksillustrate what happens when we make either of the first two interpretivemistakes.

Jobdemonstrates what happens when we try to apply Proverbs unilaterally andwoodenly—the error I’ve called “absolutism.” This oversimplified way of readingProverbs might lead one to believe that wisdom and virtue invariably produce a lifeof health, pleasure, and prosperity. But Job reminds us that proverbs aretruisms, not promises. In our fallen world, things do not always work out asdescribed in the perfect cause-effect scenarios of the book of Proverbs.Sometimes righteous people suffer, and wicked people prosper. Nowhere is thisseen more clearly than in the book of Job, where Job’s three friends areutterly convinced that his suffering is a sure sign of his sinfulness.Unfortunately for them, their absolutistic interpretation earned them a sternrebuke from the Lord. Fortunately for us though, the lesson of the book of Jobcomes through loud and clear: absolutism will not do.

Ecclesiastes,on the other hand, demonstrates what happens when we make the mistake ofassuming we don’t need God to understand His world or to apply Proverbs toit—the mistake I’ve called “practical atheism.” If we do not begin with thefear of the Lord, we will end our pursuit of wisdom with Ecclesiastes’ futilecry: “All is vanity.” There’s too much pain, too many mysteries. Ecclesiastesreminds us that we need an interpretive principle more satisfying thanpractical atheism.

But howshall we address this third error: the problem of moralism? It’s the “Workharder! Do better!” syndrome. It’s based on the apparent assumption that thesolution to our problems is better information, more motivation, and greaterapplication—in short, the answer is in us, if we could just work it up. Staytuned…