Yes indeed!! It is not often that I come across published texts written seemingly with me in mind, but this week's
Good Book is an exception. It is part of a series I have mentioned before in BTW, the Grove Biblical series, and is a 24-page booklet entitled 'Reading Proverbs with Integrity', by Craig Bartholomew (Cambridge: Grove Books Ltd., 2001). I am due to preach a series of sermons on Proverbs later this year, and was delighted to find that one of the questions the author set himself on the first page was: 'How would one go about planning and preaching a series on Proverbs?' What a helpful sort of question to address, I thought! Nor was I disappointed as I read on.
The author begins by discussing how not to read Proverbs, setting out various approaches to the book which in various ways ignore or seriously misunderstand key features of Proverbs. This is his discussion of the dangers of taking individual proverbs out of context:
Separated from their context in Proverbs, the sentences are more open to having different views read into them. Take Proverbs 3.9, 10 for example. Do not these two verses teach prosperity theology? And does not Proverbs 12.21 prove that calamity and sickness come about as a result of individual sin? Do not these verses underwrite the sort of pastoral practices that drive ministers crazy when their parishioners are visited by well meaning zealots who probe the life of the cancer sufferer for unconfessed sin, confident that there must be some wickedness underlying this calamity? (p. 5)
We need to understand that the book of Proverbs is more than a random collection of sayings, and that individual proverbs are meant to be read within the context of the book as whole. In short, unnatural though this may seem from some points of view, we need to learn to read Proverbs as a book.
What might such a reading of Proverbs look like? Bartholomew goes on to give details.
Proverbs 1-9 gives us a framework for understanding the entire book, setting out a view of the world as a 'creation ordered by God's wisdom' (p. 11). Everything that takes place in the world, every activity in which men and women engage, is to assessed against the fundamental criterion set out in 1:7 ('The fear of the LORD is the beginning of understanding, but fools despise wisdom and discipline'; cf. 9:10 and 31:30). Does this action, this attitude, this word I am about to say respect the Creator or does it go against his ways? Does it in this sense reflect wisdom or folly? Wisdom will bring blessing, folly will lead to ruin.
But is this two-fold rule always true? It is often true, and the next major section of Proverbs, chapters 10-15, describes many examples of wisdom and folly each bringing their expected consequences. But then, having established this basic point, the next section (chapters 16-22) starts to include examples which show that there are exceptions to the general rules: the 'better than' sayings which show that wisdom and prosperity do not always go together (15:16-17; 16:16, 19), in fact often do not do so. Bartholomew comments:
The sequence of 10-15 to 16-22 embodies a 'developmental pedagogy'. Readers need first to be instructed in the basic rules and then they can be taught about the exceptions. Indeed, the mature, wise individual will learn through instruction from the book of Proverbs when to use which proverb… The fear of the LORD does not close down the mind but engages it fully.
A beautiful example of the way in which Proverbs aims to stimulate thought rather than give ready-made answers is 26:4-5:
Do not answer a fool according to his folly, or you will be like him yourself. Answer a fool according to his folly, or he will be wise in his own eyes.
Well, which are we to do? Should we answer the fool according to his folly or not? The answer is: it depends. You must think, you must understand the situation, and then you may see what it appropriate. Sometimes in life there are no obvious guidelines to be applied. (This is also a prime example of the way in which failure to read individual proverbs in context leads to misunderstanding.)
And so the booklet goes on. There is a helpful chapter setting out guidelines for preaching Proverbs which I, as you might expect, particularly appreciated. But perhaps more important is the understanding of Proverbs the author leaves us with.
Proverbs may seem at first sight to be a jumble of assorted sayings, but it is not. Rather it sets out a vision of God's world in which all of life, the 'secular' as well as the overtly religious, is to be set in the light of our understanding of God.
No member of BGST, staff or student, ought to ignore Bartholomew's closing call to engage seriously with this vision:
We should not underestimate the profundity of Proverbs. Certainly, in our preaching and teaching of Proverbs we must alert hearers to the comprehensive range of wisdom; it relates to all of life and calls to us in all areas of life to heed 'her' voice. In today's world we need to imagine Lady Wisdom calling out in the malls of our towns, in parliament, in our schools and universities, in our businesses and law courts, in our sports stadiums and leisure activities, in our airports and train stations, and in our homes. (p. 21)
I recommend this booklet highly. It does indeed show us how to read Proverbs 'with integrity', in more than one sense: how to read Proverbs as a literary whole; and how to interpret Proverbs, and the world which it so memorably describes, with an honesty which recognises the complexity and fullness of life lived before God.
(Review by Dr Philip Satterthwaite)