A Plea for Wisdom: Proverbs and the Question of Application

The book of Proverbs (Prov) is one book of all the books of the Bible to which even the most biblically illiterate of Christians turns and is at least somewhat familiar. This book is commonly recognized to fall within the collection of literature in the Bible known as wisdom literature, alongside Psalms, Job, and Ecclesiastes (and, some would argue, the Song of Songs). Yet, given the misuse of various proverbs found in the book, it is our purpose to urge for the use of wisdom when reading the wise sayings found in the book of Proverbs.

I. Literary Form

It is commonly recognized that Proverbs contains a mixture of prose and poetry; and, more important for our purposes, it contains both longer exhortations and shorter sayings. Bruce Waltke distinguishes the former from the latter when he writes, “… the longer poems tend to contain enough extended discourse to protect themselves against misinterpretation; but the short sentence-sayings tend to express a truth that may seem like the whole truth, but in fact these sayings must be qualified by other sentence-sayings” (2004: 58). With this distinction in mind, the need for wisdom regarding the book becomes clearer; that is, it is required in order to properly interpret and apply the sentence-sayings contained within the book.

II. The Nature of the Shorter Sayings

The very nature of these shorter sayings, which are brief and incisive, necessitates the use of wisdom. Perhaps one example that most clearly illustrates this need is Prov 26:4-5, which reads, “Answer not a fool according to his folly, lest you be like him yourself. Answer a fool according to his folly, lest he be wise in his own eyes” (ESV). Although one could argue this is a clear contradiction, it is more likely (especially when one considers that they were placed next to each other) that this hints at the very nature of these shorter sayings.

While they are true, they are not true in a static, fixed, cemented sense. That is to say, context determines how these shorter sayings are to be interpreted and, most especially, applied (Longman 2006: 31-32). If one were to apply Prov 26:4-5 woodenly (i.e., irrespective of context), then we should not answer a fool “according to his folly,” yet, we, at the same time, should. Rather than solve this conundrum (we’ll leave this up to the wisdom of the reader), we’ll turn to some other examples of the need for wisdom when applying the shorter sayings.

III. Two Case Studies regarding the Question of Application

At this point, we will take a look at two short sayings to illustrate how to wisely apply this literary form often found throughout Proverbs. At the outset, it is important to notify the reader that we will spend much more time on the second of our two cases than the first.

A. Test Case #1

The first case is found in Prov 13:24: “Whoever spares the rod hates his son, but he who loves him is diligent to discipline him” (ESV). Clearly, “the rod” and “discipline,” following the parallelism typical of Hebrew poetry, interpret one another. That is to say, “the rod” is another expression of “discipline.” Now, if we read this woodenly, what it could be interpreted to say is that the only form of discipline is the use of the “rod.” Applying this then to our contemporary context, unless one disciples their son with a “rod,” he “hates him.” In other words, discipline is restricted to the use of the “rod,” and all other forms of discipline are unsatisfactory and therefore equivalent to hatred toward one’s offspring.

Perhaps we can take this woodenness in a different direction by arguing that only a “son” needs to be disciplined, with a lack thereof equating to hate, while a parent does not need to be concerned about disciplining their daughter. Or, perhaps only a father (implied by “his son”) should discipline, whereas, when the father is at absent from the home, the mother can let the kids run wild.

We would think it clear to most people that fallacious reasoning would accompany such wooden applications of this passage. Clearly, discipline is not restricted to the use of a rod, nor is it restricted to a son, nor is only the father the one who is to discipline the child. So, in sum, this short, penetrating saying admits of wisdom in application. One is to look for analogous situations for which to apply this saying; one is, also, to read between the lines. To fail to do so is to restrict the very import and thus applicability of this proverbial saying.

B. Test Case #2

Our second test case is found in Prov 22:7: “The rich rules over the poor, and the borrower is the slave of the lender” (ESV). Again, like the prior test case, this demonstrates poetic parallelism. The first line is parallel to the second. We can illustrate it in this way:

Rich – lender

Rules over – slaves of

Poor – Borrower

Although not a typical ‘go-to’ for his writer, the Message captures this parallelism well: “The poor are always ruled over by the rich, so don’t borrow and put yourself under their power.” In other words, the rich, at least in this context, rule over the poor by their financial superiority and the subsequent indebtedness the poor has toward the rich.

This then brings us to the question of application. One must ask: does this entirely rule out borrowing? At first glance, the answer would be in the affirmative. Yet, like our first test case, we need to read between the lines, as it were, bringing us to further lines of inquiry.

First, who are the rich? Are the rich anyone that has any financial advantage over another person? Second, what is lending? Or, more specifically, does lending only specify a certain, narrow activity?

Starting with our first line of inquiry, it would seem that the rich could be anyone who has financial superiority over another, which would presumably be indicated by their ability to give a loan without it causing them significant financial distress. This would distinguish a rich lender from a poor one, for a poor lender, by the level of financial distressed caused, would be as much at the mercy of the borrow to repay as the borrow would be to the lender, at least on the surface.

Moving on to our second line of inquiry, it would seem that a loan is any kind of financial exchange which puts someone under the power or rule of another. Now, ruling over or being a slave to a person requires further nuance. One could give money to a friend without the loan accruing interest, yet an emotional expectation or some unspoken obligation could be underlying this ‘gift,’ resulting in the one receiving the ‘gift’ feeling the emotional freight of something akin to slavery or being ruled over. Arguing from lesser-to-greater, it would seem than that virtually any situation in which a person is financially obligated to another person (or, entity representing a person, i.e., corporation, bank, business) could fit the context of Prov 22:7.

So, with this, it would behoove us to look at two contemporary contexts to see how this would apply, namely, the landlord/renter and the mortgage lender/lendee relationship.

Starting with the landlord/renter relationship, taking the word “landlord” at face value implies that the landlord has authority over the renter. In fact, the very act of renting necessitates that the renter is under some financial obligation to the landlord, with failure to meet this obligation resulting in consequences commensurate with the landlord’s authority. Putting this in the context of Prov 22:7, the landlord is the financially superior (rich) home-owner who is lending his home to the financially inferior (poor) renter, who is borrowing the home from the lender. In sum, the borrower (in this case, the renter) is under the power of or enslaved by the lender (landlord).

Turning now to the mortgage lender/lendee relationship, it is clear that a similar reality exists. The mortgage lender has authority over the lendee and is able to execute consequences commensurate with the mortgage lender’s authority if failure to meet the financial obligations occurs.

At this point, one may wonder if this is in fact a true comparison. Can Prov 22:7 truly apply both to the landlord/renter and the mortgage lender/lendee relationship? We would assert that in fact it can and does. Clearly, whether a landlord or a mortgage lender, whoever is under financial obligation to these are indeed in a state of financial inferiority and obligation (entailing authority) to them. Both entail a power differential; that is, in terms of authority, the landlord is not equal with the renter nor is the mortgage lender equal with the lendee. In sum, only a separation of degrees not of kind exists between these two types of relationships.

This then brings us to the applicatory force of Prov 22:7. If this short saying is basically informing us that one puts oneself under the financial authority and control of the one from whom they receive a loan, then it would seem that, at the very least, it would be wise to not enter into any such relationship, whether it be a landlord/renter, a mortgage lender/lendee or even a family loan with a hidden agenda/obligation. Yet, before we look into the question of whether any such obligation is a sin, we will turn to the broader biblical context pertinent to this.

There are numerous laws in the OT which deal with owning, lending, and treatment of the poor. National Israel was constituted so that each tribe, with the exception of Levi, was allotted an inheritance, namely, a portion of the land of Israel. This portion was meant to be a permanent possession of the tribe. In other words, ownership was a given for those belonging to the nation of Israel. If they were in a dire situation in which they needed to sell their land, thus forfeiting a portion of their inheritance, there was protection via the year of Jubilee (Leviticus 25:10), which, further, released slaves from bondage. The law which required landowners to allow the poor to glean from their fields (Leviticus 23:22), prohibition of charging interest (Deuteronomy 23:19-20), and other related laws, serve a similar function of preventing or at least curtailing the master/slave relationship (cf. Prov 22:7) that can so easily occur, which, in turn, enforced the inheritance relationship that Israel was to have with the Lord as a son. Thus, in sum, an implication of this could be that anything short of true and complete ownership is less than desirable or, perhaps, even sinful.

Yet, the NT takes a different tact with regard to land, possessions, et al. Well, not entirely different, but rather, typological. That is to say, the earthly inheritance, blessing, land, etc., that Israel received in the OT was meant to point to something far more substantial: an eternal, indestructible inheritance and blessing which no competing kingdom or force can take away. The OT inheritance was from the Lord and thus it was the Lord’s prerogative to discipline his son (= Israel) by removing him from the full ownership and blessing he enjoyed in the land; yet, in Christ, the NT people of God receive a never-fading inheritance that is purchased by and enjoyed in union with the God-man, Christ Jesus.

So, coming back around to Prov 22:7, we have to ask ourselves: is it a sin to be under any kind of financial authority to another? The answer to this is not as forthcoming as one might expect. Unlike OT Israel, who was given an inheritance, made owners with God of his land, we are given an inheritance that is not of this world, hence its enduring, indestructible nature. Yet, this is an inheritance that we are still awaiting.

We have received a down payment, a deposit (Romans 8; Ephesians 1), and, as such, there is a very real sense in which we, on the one hand, own everything—indeed all of creation—as co-heirs with Christ; yet, on the other hand, as being in the world but not of the world, we are not owners of anything but rather are servants of all and often despised, buffeted about and rejected by the world, which includes the financial institutions and obligatory relationships of the same. We are servants to all, as we willing lay down are lives for all for the sake of the gospel; we are judged by no one, as we are judged by and hidden in the one by whose blood we have been redeemed; and, even if we are enslaved physically or monetarily, we are free for we are co-heirs with Christ and heirs of God.

To put it in practical terms, applying Prov 22:7 is in a very real sense a matter of conscience. Some may feel that by renting rather than owning (or, in most cases, moving toward owning), one is placing oneself in unnecessary bondage to one’s landlord; another may feel that the lesser bondage of renting is better than the greater bondage of the mortgage lender/lendee relationship. But, as we have argued above, Prov 22:7 can be applied to both and many other power-differential contexts.

IV. Conclusion

It takes wisdom to apply the wise, short sayings found in Proverbs. They are brief and penetrating, but, their brevity is illusive. Rather than allow the brevity of these sayings to allow for a truncated or wooden application of them, we should allow their penetrating nature to give us pause to dig deeper and see the depth  and breadth of God’s wisdom. We must, then, tease out the implication of each subject, object, predicate, verb, parallel, etc.; we must seek after analogous situations to determine the full applicatory breadth of a particular statement. Yet, it must be remembered that this is not a wisdom that is separated from the Lord and his relationship to his people. Rather, this is a wisdom that begins with a familial, loving relationship with the Lord for “[t]he fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom” (Prov 9:10 ESV).

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