We are now well into our study of Proverbs. This seems like a good time to take stock. Accordingly, this short essay isn’t really on the subject of this week’s lesson: instead, it’s a reflection on the point of studying Proverbs, or the genre of “wisdom literature” at all. (Wisdom literature is the term Biblical scholars use for Job, Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and Song of Solomon.) Does a collection of aphorisms from the late Bronze/early Iron Age have anything to offer spiritually and theologically to people living in the post-Industrial Revolution, post-Information Revolution, 21st-century world? I’m going to suggest that the answer is “Yes”, but that we have to understand what we’re dealing with.
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Recently I discovered that the General Conference Archives Department’s website has a list of all the topics and authors of the Adult Sabbath School Lesson Quarterly (as it used to be called and as some of us still think of it!—“Bible Study Guide” is the current official jargon) since 1886. (1) It’s fascinating to see what has been studied each quarter, who the frequent authors have been, and who wrote on what topics.
According to the list, this is the fourth time the Seventh-day Adventist Church has made Proverbs the subject of a quarter’s Adult Sabbath School study. The first occasion was in 1950, when was on both Proverbs and Ecclesiastes; the second time was in 1991; and that lesson was then recycled in 2000—the last time that the Adult Sabbath School focused on Proverbs. Ecclesiastes and Job have only been studied twice each (including in 1950 when Ecclesiastes was studied in conjunction with Proverbs). This doesn’t seem a lot, and that impression is only reinforced if we look at the frequency of studying other books or themes. It’s hard not to conclude: SDAs are not so interested in “wisdom literature” as other types of Biblical literature.
The hands-down winner of the “most studied Books” category is what I expect every Christian would want it to be: the Gospels. Matthew, Luke and John have been the focus of the Lesson six or seven times each, and Mark (the shortest gospel) four times, but there have also been a remarkable 47 lessons on aspects of the life of Jesus, which synthesized the four gospels. The last of these lessons was in 1967. There are those who claim that Adventists weren’t Christians before, say, the 1950s, or the 1970s, yet actually we studied the “life and teachings” of Jesus forty times between first quarter of 1899 and the third quarter of 1947—almost once a year on average. So as far as collective Bible study went, SDAs were more Christ-focused in the first half of the twentieth century!
But of course it’s natural and to be expected that the gospels are heavily studied. What is interesting to look at other much-studied books of the Bible: interestingly Acts tops this list, with 25 quarters devoted to it; Hebrews is next, having been the subject of study 14 times; Galatians and Revelation are equal third, with eleven quarters each; Romans has been studied ten times; and Daniel and Ephesians six times each.
Of course, long-time Adventists will understand why Daniel, Romans, Ephesians, Galatians, Hebrews, and Revelation feature relatively heavily, since these books, in different ways, are central to Adventist Biblical understanding (though perhaps the number of times Acts has been singled out may come as a surprise—like the life of Christ, with which it was once studied, it has been studied less frequently in recent years, with twenty of the quarters dedicated to it coming by 1941). Nevertheless: I find it striking that the Bible Study Guide for this quarter is just the second ever new Sabbath School lesson devoted to the Book of Proverbs. And all wisdom literature has only had seven quarters devoted to it (the same as seven thematic lessons on the Sanctuary) in 129 years.
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Some might ask: does it matter? But here’s a thing: since Proverbs isn’t a short book. It totals 15,038 words in English, at least in the King James Version: the 23rd longest book in the Bible, in terms of number of words in the KJV. So there are 22 longer books, but 43 shorter books—including every New Testament book except Matthew, Luke and Acts. Of course, it’s quality not quantity, right? But if we say that, we are making a value judgment about the Word of God. And if we truly believe that “all scripture is God-breathed and is useful” (2 Tim. 3:16 NIV) then doesn’t Proverbs (a substantial book) deserve to be studied?
So, why don’t we care about wisdom? I think many 21st-century Christians do have doubts, even if they don’t verbalize them, about whether the nostrums of Solomon have much to say to us today. That conclusion can be reinforced by just sampling a few proverbial sayings.
Look at a text from last week: “The Lord does not let the righteous go hungry, but he thwarts the craving of the wicked” (Prov. 10:3, NIV). Is that really true? (And that’s not a hypothetical question, it’s one that was asked in at least one Sabbath School class last Sabbath morning!) Aren’t there many Christians in Africa, people who believe in the Bible, who have suffered from starvation during famines, even died? Weren’t believers subject to the cravings of the wicked during World War II?
Or consider one of the most oft-quoted proverbs of Solomon, from a chapter we are studying this week: “A soft answer turns away wrath, [we are told] But a harsh word stirs up anger” (Prov. 15:1, NKJV). Now, here I would guess many people might say “Right on”, as that would fit with their personal experience. But hang on, just think about it: aren’t there times that a “soft answer” doesn’t deter, dissuade or sooth the wrathful ? “Gentle words” don’t always bring “life and health” (10:4). Sometimes vindictive, fierce, angry, or just frustrated or indignant people are made only more irate by a soft answer—they feel they’re being fobbed off. Or in the case of wicked people, it gives them license to demand more. Chamberlain’s soft answers to Hitler at Munich ultimately didn’t do anybody any good. I don’t doubt that “The Lord is watching everywhere and keeps his eye on both the evil and the good”; but it doesn’t always seem to do “the good” much good.
So are the aphorisms of Solomon, the apothegms of Agur the son of Jakeh (Prov. 30), and the axioms of King Lemuel’s mother (Prov. 31) of any value to us today?
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The doubt that some may feel arises partly, I want to suggest, because too often we misunderstand the nature of wisdom literature.
In the Bible, we find much that is prescriptive and much that is descriptive. The Ten Commandments, for example, are prescriptive: Do this. The historical books of the Old Testament and Acts in the New Testament are descriptive: they relate how God has worked for His people in their history, and how they have related to Him. Some of the epistles are also prescriptive: Paul gives practical advice to new Christians on how to form communities of believers, live together, and witness to the world.
Prescriptive and descriptive literature are straightforward—or so they appear, at any rate, though when one starts to unpack the Ten Commandments, there are all kinds of levels to be plumbed! But we not only can usually recognize it, we also instinctively understand what it is trying to do, even if we don’t entirely grasp all that is bound up in it.
However, not all of the Holy Scriptures are prescriptive or descriptive. People have always, I suspect, struggled with the very extensive parts of the Bible that are poetic. (Some may wonder whether Adventists in particular struggle with Biblical poetry because we have a historical tendency towards literalism.) And Proverbs is poetic, rather than prescriptive.
Poetry does not define things—it does not attempt to answer precise questions or prescribe exactly how one should respond to any given situation or stimulus. And yet it doesn’t simply narrate, either. If we treat Biblical poetry the way we treat the prescriptive and descriptive sections of the Scriptures, we will not understand it.
Poetry expresses emotion and feeling. It is a way of exploring—of thinking aloud about—human problems, perceptions and feelings that are great, complex, solemn, and confounding: that cannot be quantified. Poetry expresses experience and allows others to share in joy, sorrow, anguish, grief, enchantment, bewilderment, confusion and contentment. It cannot tell others how they will feel or respond to the same stimuli. But it allows readers to learn from the author’s self-knowledge without having a course of action prescribed, and to dig deeper into their experiences and their significance.
Thus, Solomon is not saying that, when we meet wrathful people, if we respond not in kind, but gently or quietly, not by upping the ante and raising the stakes, then always, inevitably, invariably, the anger will be defused. He is saying that this is a commonplace of his experience and perhaps of human experience. Many of us would resonate with this, from what has happened to us and what we have seen in our own lives.
And when he observes that God cares for those who have a relationship with Him, he is not offering a guarantee for affluence, abundance, or peace and quiet for us if we start to walk with God. But he is saying that based on what he has experienced and observed, God helps those who trust in Him. Again, very many Christians would affirm that this has been their experience; and I would be among them.
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Understanding what the “wisdom literature” of the Bible offers should prompt us to study this section of the Scriptures more. Speaking personally, I find Proverbs more interesting because it isn’t a set of simple, prescriptive solutions, to either the little trials and difficulties or the profound dilemmas and conundrums of human existence. Indeed, if it were, we wouldn’t need to study it; we’d just need to read the bits and pieces of it that we think apply—cherry picking from it based on whatever we are currently experiencing. But if we do that, I think we would be missing Solomon’s point. The Book of Proverbs doesn’t begin with a collection of epigrams (they start in chapter 10) but with a discourse on why wisdom is important. Wisdom, can indeed by garnered from Proverbs, but not by trying to apply each individual proverb individually to a specific situation. Instead, what will reward us is engaging with Solomon’s experiences, observations, and feelings; considering how they apply to own experience of brokenness in this sin-wracked and wrecked world; and thus learning more about ourselves, as well as about the human condition.
Seeing the Book of Proverbs for what it is (and the proverbs for what they are), and then prayerfully engaging with this sometimes-enigmatic Biblical poetry: that will indeed be the beginning of wisdom.