Spare the Rod and Spoil the Proverb (Part 2)
Where did all proverbs go? To recap, I mention or refer to 778 of the 915 verses from Proverbs in my new book, A Life That Is Good: The Message of Proverbs in a World Wanting Wisdom. On closer investigation, 38 of the missing 137 verses belong in one of my book’s existing chapters (oops). If I had included these texts, only 99 verses would be wandering about with inferiority complexes, wondering why they were not good enough to be included. So, where are they and why didn’t they make the cut?
One group (31 verses) consists of proverbs that I would’ve included if I could’ve slightly expanded or refocused the content of a few chapters, especially those about leadership, speech, and the fool (see details in my prior post). A second group (34 verses) might have also been included in chapter 5 (about God) or chapter 6 (on justice and mercy). The better option, however, would have been to take a little from each of these chapters, add these missing verses, and produce a 12th chapter titled, “Retribution Theology, or What Goes Around Comes Around.” The basic idea is fully stated in several proverbs:
The integrity of the upright guides them,
but the crookedness of the treacherous destroys them. (11:3)
The righteousness of the upright saves them,
but the treacherous are taken captive by their schemes. (11:6)
The light of the righteous rejoices,
but the lamp of the wicked goes out. (13:9)
Whoever digs a pit will fall into it,
and a stone will come back on the one who starts it rolling. (26:27)
The basic idea behind these proverbs is the same:
If you live with righteousness and integrity, you will be blessed,
but if you live a wicked and crooked life, you will be destroyed.
A similar complete statement may also be found in 10:7, 9; 11:5, 8, 27; 12:8, 28; 13:6; 14:14, 22, 34; 15:31; 19:16; 22:5; 24:15-16, 19-20; 28:18; 29:1, and 6. Other texts mention only one part of the equation. Either what happens to the wicked (example #1) or what happens to the righteous (example #2):
#1: When the wicked die, their hope perishes,
and the expectation of the godless comes to nothing. (11:7)
#2: Gray hair is a crown of glory;
it is gained in a righteous life. (16:31)
Similar statements regarding the wicked may be found in 13:5; 15:10; 21:16; 29:27; 30:20; and for the righteous in 15:24; 18:10.
I do address the topic raised by these missing proverbs in chapter 5, “What’s God Got to Do with It? Searching for God in Proverbs.” In fact, this chapter begins with the specific question of God’s role in this “get what you give” system (pp. 80-85). After a quick analysis of texts that explicitly mention God, I make three observations. In Proverbs: 1) the Lord is a source of blessing, 2) the Lord has the ability to control all things, and 3) the Lord is committed to justice.
In these and other ways, the connection between what we do and the results of our actions are swept up into a larger vision of the Lord’s involvement in the world. Yes, the Lord blesses the righteous and punishes the wicked. However, this world is far more complicated than such a simple statement will explain … and ultimately, all of these texts in Proverbs require another chapter.
With the exception of two verses that make editorial comments (22:20 and 30:2), we are left with a third group of missing proverbs (32 verses), which would also require an additional chapter on “Life’s Realities and Mysteries.” These proverbs are primarily descriptive of our world and its complexities. Some are simple and easy to understand, for example:
Where there are no oxen, there is no grain;
abundant crops come by the strength of the ox. (14:4)
Restated: You need a tractor to produce crops.
The appetite of workers works for them;
their hunger urges them on. (16:26)
Restated: Hunger or need motivates hard work.
Others are less simple, but still manageable:
The light of the eyes rejoices the heart,
and good news refreshes the body. (15:30)
Restated: Good news is good for us.
The glory of youths is their strength,
but the beauty of the aged is their gray hair. (20:29)
Restated: Our values change with the passing of time, from muscle to gray hair.
And then, we begin to encounter proverbs that take a bit longer to understand:
Like a muddied spring or a polluted fountain
are the righteous who give way before the wicked. (25:26)
Restated: While good news is good for us (25:25), when the righteous allow (or go along with) the wicked, there is no good news to share. The question is, however, what does it mean, “to give way before the wicked”? Does it mean not resisting wicked behavior? Or does it mean joining with the wicked because we think the objective justifies our actions? As you see, it’s not so easy to summarize this proverb in a single line.
Finally, we reach the mysterious proverbs. These proverbs that openly acknowledge things that are difficult to comprehend:
All our steps are ordered by the Lord;
how then can we understand our own ways? (20:24, see also 27:1)
Restated: the Lord may guide our steps, but it’s often impossible to understand where we are going. Perhaps the point is to stop trying so hard to figure out God’s plan and just take the next step.
There are three things that are too amazing for me,
four that I do not understand:
the way of an eagle in the sky, the way of a snake on a rock,
the way of a ship on the high seas, and the way of a man with a young woman. (30:18-19)
Restated: I will never understand some things—how an eagle soars, how a snake moves, or how a ship gets where it is going. And even if I could understand these, I’ll never comprehend what happens when you put a young man and a young woman together. Life is filled with mysteries beyond human comprehension. For other realities and mysteries consider 9:12; 17:2; 18:3, 14; 19:10; 20:9; 21:8, 27; 22:14; 23:6-8; 24:7-8; 26:2; 27:4; 28:17; 29:10, 21; 30:12, 14, 15-16, 30.
Now, I have accounted for every verse in the book of Proverbs. As I mentioned in an earlier post, I provide this appendix primarily for those who may use A Life That Is Good to study or teach the book of Proverbs. If you teach a class, you may choose to include the missing verses where they should go or add two additional classes on retribution theology and life’s realities and mysteries. Or you may decide, like me, to leave these poor proverbs out in the cold, not chosen, sitting on the sidelines with inferiority complexes. The choice is entirely yours.
Special Note: This is the final week to begin a free subscription to Seasons and enter the drawing for copy of A Life That Is Good. Winners will be announced next week. You can subscribe here; you will have the option of enrolling for all Mosaic blog posts or only enrolling for Seasons (Glenn Pemberton).