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Proverbs 3:1-35

January 20, 2015

Chapter 3 contains a number of sayings I would like to comment on:

Verse 5 is easily misused by those who think we should choose biblical literalism over scientific knowledge, or faith without reason. The author is not referring to scientific information when he says not to rely on our own “insight.” Verse 6, with its reference to straight paths, makes it clear that the author is talking about moral behavior. Should we make moral decisions based on our own calculations of what will serve us best, or should we rely on universal ethical principles that transcend my own limited interest? Trusting in the Lord means, among other things, trusting that justice and compassion should always be pursued despite the apparent advantages of taking short-cuts. Should we live by “invisible” transcendent values, or by our own calculations of self-protection and self-enhancement? Should we sometimes sacrifice an advantage for the sake of doing what is “good”? This is always the fundamental ethical debate–on both an individual level, community level and international level. For those who trust in God, we base our ethical commitment in our commitment to God–that which is the ground of all being and is always true regardless of our own circumstances. For those who do not trust in God, abiding by ethical ideals is harder to rationally justify and requires its own leap of faith.

Being wise in our own eyes (verse 7) means being impressed by our own cleverness, our own ability to outwit someone else to our own advantage. It also refers to pride. But the truly ethical person seeks humility, not personal advantage, and relies on a source of guidance that transcends self-centeredness.

Verses 9-10 are problematic. Is it true that charitable giving (to the temple) will result in personal wealth? No. And even if it were true, would this be a legitimate basis for charity? No. But it is true that, in general, a generous life leads to an abundant life. The author, however, is well aware that life does not proceed from a simple calculation of charity=wealth, and that may be why the very next saying balances this one. Verses 11-12 acknowledge that even those who are loved by God suffer pain and loss. Of course, these verses are also problematic since they seem to assume that any suffering in life is a form of discipline from God. We have rightly moved away from such notions. On the other hand, these verses take seriously the fact that if this universe is God-made, then God has to be responsible for the “natural tragedies” that happen within it. That doesn’t mean God purposes and causes each tragedy. Rather, God sustains a natural system that involves randomness combined with orderliness. The result is freedom and creativity in nature. It hurts us and it causes us to grow. It leads to pain and it leads to delight. Would we want nature to be fundamentally different, or do we accept it as being for our best good? Indeed, without nature having its underlying principles, we could not exist at all.

Verse 18 calls wisdom “a tree of life.” The tree of life was planted in the Garden of Eden, but after human disobedience, humanity was barred from access to the tree. But this verse affirms that wisdom–wisdom based on trusting in God’s way–leads us back to the tree of life.

Abiding in justice and compassion and other ethical principles that are at the heart of God means that we are also abiding in principles that are in the fabric of existence. Verses 19-20 affirm that such ethical commitment is not foreign to the universe but with the grain of the universe. Social Darwinism–an ethic based on the survival of the fittest–is not the deepest reading of nature.

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From → Proverbs

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