Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Studying the Proverbs with Derek Kidner

Derek Kidner’s commentary on Proverbs, part of the Tyndale Old Testament Commentary series, has been one of the most popular companions to the book of Proverbs for decades now. I’d heard that the introduction was worth the price of the book and, now that I’ve read it, I must agree. His introduction has whet my appetite to begin a fresh study of the book of Proverbs.

I've summarized his introduction largely for my own benefit. Summarizing helps me remember. Hopefully it will benefit you as well. I must warn you that there was no way to shorten Kidner's writing without losing essential stuff. He doesn't waste words. If something seems lacking or doesn't make sense don't blame Kidner! 
Proverbs presents us with “one criterion, which could be summed up in the question, ‘Is this wisdom or folly?’ This is a unifying approach to life, because it suits the most commonplace realms as fully as the most exalted.” 

Wisdom is an ancient part of both Israelite and other Ancient Near Eastern cultures. Several centuries before Abraham, the Egyptians produced The Teaching Ptahhotep. The Babylonians also wrote wisdom literature, such as ‘The Babylonian Job’ or ‘The Babylonian Ecclesiastes’, from ancient times.

The fatherly introduction to the book of Proverbs (1:1-9:18) is a fitting preparation for the reader to receive instruction from Solomon (10:1-22:16). The words of wise men follow (22:17-24:22) and then even more words of wise men (24:23-34). Next comes more proverbs of Solomon (Hezekiah’s collection 25:1-29:27), the words of Agur (30:1-33) and King Lemuel (31:1-9). The book ends with the anonymous ode to “wifely excellence” (31:10-31).

God and man
A glance through the book of Proverbs could lead one to suppose that the book is rather generic in its approach to religion. Upon further examination it becomes clear that Proverbs is quite specific in regards to God.

Without the fear of the Lord, there is no wisdom (9:10). No one can be wise without also being godly, or godly without being wise (8:1-36). Sin is very real in Proverbs. And it can’t be dealt with through “subpersonal transactions” (15:8; 21:27; 28:9). Only honest confession and practical repentance can sin be put away (16:6; 28:13).

Of the 100 mentions of God in the book all but 12 use the name Yahweh – the personal name God revealed to Israel through Moses. It is no generic term.

Prudence never trumps faith. Proverbs counsels us to trust God more than our own understanding (3:5,7).  

Planning is extoled (20:18). But God’s will overrules all human plans (19:21).

What it is
-          Instruction, or training: disciple – “giving notice at once that wisdom will be hard-won, a quality of character as much as mind.”
-          Understanding, or insight: sense or discernment
-          Wise dealing: practical wisdom
-          Shrewdness and discretion: wisdom to plan your course realistically
-          Knowledge and learning: Knowledge primarily of God and learning emphasizing that “doctrine is something given and received, or grasped.”
How to get it
Wisdom is available to anyone! But it is not attained easily.
-          Conversion: turning from evil and to the light
-          Devotion: “Wisdom is for the humbly eager”

The fool
-          The Simple: This person is “easily led, gullible, silly.” He is naïve (14:15). “Morally, he is willful and irresponsible” (1:32). His problem is not lack of intellect. It is a lack of willingness to “accept discipline in the school of wisdom (1:22-32).”
-          The Fool: Again, the problem is not mental inability but poor choices. Fools lack the concentration and desire required of those who would gain wisdom. They give their ill-formed opinions freely (15:2), making clear to all hearers that they are fools (13:16). Yet fools will not countenance the possibility that they could be wrong (17:10). They love their own folly (26:11). Fools are a menace. When possible, they should be avoided (14:7; 17:12; 10:23; 18:6; 29:11; 13:20; 26:6; 10:1; 17:21, 25; 19:13; 15:20).

The scoffer
-          The Lord scorns the scorners (3:34). The scoffer is another fellow with a deep heart problem. He loves to criticize but refuses to receive correction (9:7-8; 13:1; 15:12; 21:24; 22:10; 29:8).

The sluggard
(This section is so excellent and convicting (at least for me) that I’ll simply quote it verbatim.)
1. The sluggard’s character
The sluggard in Proverbs is a figure of tragi-comedy, with his sheer animal laziness (he is more than anchored to his bed: he is hinged to it, 26:14), his preposterous excuses (‘there is a lion outside!’ 26:13; 22:13) and his final helplessness.
1. He will not begin things. When we ask him (6:9, 10) ‘How long …?’ ‘When …?’, we are being too definite for him. He doesn’t know. All he knows is his delicious drowsiness; all he asks is a little respite: ‘a little … a little … a little …’. He does not commit himself to a refusal, but deceives himself by the smallness of his surrenders. So, by inches and minutes, his opportunity slips away.
2. He will not finish things. The rare effort of beginning has been too much; the impulse dies. So his quarry goes bad on him (12:27, av, rv; see commentary) and his meal goes cold on him (19:24; 26:15).
3. He will not face things. He comes to believe his own excuses (perhaps there is a lion out there, 22:13), and to rationalize his laziness; for he is ‘wiser in his own conceit than seven men that can render a reason’ (26:16). Because he makes a habit of the soft choice (he ‘will not plow by reason of the cold’, 20:4, av—see commentary) his character suffers as much as his business, so that he is implied in 15:19 (see commentary) to be fundamentally dishonest. (A suggestion of the way he would describe himself is made in the commentary on 26:13–16.)
4. Consequently he is restless (13:4; 21:25, 26) with unsatisfied desire; helpless in face of the tangle of his affairs, which are like a ‘hedge of thorns’ (15:19); and useless—expensively (18:9) and exasperatingly (10:26)—to any who must employ him.
2. The sluggard’s lesson
1. By example. The locus classicus is 6:6ff.: ‘Go to the ant …’—for he shames the sluggard twice over. First, in needing no ‘overseer’ (7), whereas he must be prodded; he waits for it, resigned and defensive. Secondly, in ‘knowing the time’. To him, all time is alike: summer and harvest (8) suggest long, languorous days (cf. 10:5), rather than the time of crisis in which the year’s work will be crowned or cancelled, and the battle with winter decided (cf. Jer. 8:20). Like the pharaoh of Jeremiah 46:17, ‘he hath let the appointed time pass by’; like the slumbering watchmen of Isaiah 56:9–12, his motto is ‘tomorrow shall be as to-day was, and braver, braver yet!’ (Knox’s translation).
2. By experience. This lesson comes too late. He will suddenly wake to find that poverty has arrived (‘like a vagabond, … like an armed man’, 6:11, rsv), and there is no arguing with it. Through shirking hard work he has qualified for drudgery (just when his too energetic friend has risen to more rewarding duties, 12:24); and through procrastination the disorder of his life has become irreversible: all is wasteland (24:30, 31).
‘Then I beheld, and considered well: I saw, and received instruction’ (24:32). The wise man will learn while there is time. He knows that the sluggard is no freak, but, as often as not, an ordinary man who has made too many excuses, too many refusals and too many postponements. It has all been as imperceptible, and as pleasant, as falling asleep.[1]

The friend
The word commonly translated ‘friend’ can just as well mean ‘neighbor.’ It bears the roughly the same range of meaning as ‘fellow.’
Marks of a good neighbor:
-          Peaceful (3:29; 25:8-9)
-          Kind (24:17, 19; 25:21-22)
-          Quite rather than critical (11:12)
-          Merciful (14:21)
-          Unpopular with wicked people (21:10)
Marks of a good friend:
-          Constancy (18:24; 17:17; 27:10)
-          Candor (27:6; 28:23)
-          Counsel (27:9; 27:17)
-          Tact (25:17; 27:14; 25:20; 26:18-19)

Words have great power. They can minister life or they can bring destruction. It is by words that our relationships are developed and our ideas formed. Yet words have their limits. They can never replace action. They can never make a lie true. And words can never force anyone to listen, believer, or obey.
Marks of good words:
-          Honest (16:13; 24:26)
-          Few (17:28; 13:3; 11:12-13; 10:19)
-          Calm (17:27; 18:13; 15:1; 25:15)
-          Apt (15:23; 10:20; 25:11)
To be a person who speaks good words you must:
-          Study (15:2, 28; 2:6)
-          Develop character (4:23; 10:20; cf. Mat 12:34)

The family
Husband and wife
-          Though kings married multiple wives, the average Israelite marriage included only one man and one woman. There are proverbs addressing all kinds of marital issues (from unfaithfulness to nagging) there’s nothing in the book about the discord of polygamous marriage.
-          Both parents share the responsibility of raising children (1:8,9; 6:20, etc.).
-          The “man is urged to be not merely loyal but ardent, ‘ravished always with her love’ (5:19).
-          A wise woman adds stability to a family (14:1).
-          Sexual sin has dire consequences (lost honor 5:9; 6:33; lost liberty 23:27-28; lost years 5:9, 11; lost possessions 29:3; 6:26; lost life 2:18-19; burned (6:27-29).
Parents and children
-          If children must suffer in order to learn wisdom it is worth it (13:24; 8:35-36; 23:14; 22:15; 29:15).
-          Children need to be taught the ‘law’ by their parents (3:1; 7:2)
-          Unfortunately, some refuse to learn (13:1). Good parents sometimes produce idle (10:5), loose (29:3), despising (15:20), mocking (30:17), or cursing children 30:11; 20:20) who bring them shame. Wise children bring their parents honor (10:1; 13:1; 15:20).

Life and death
-          Material and social: ‘life’ can refer to success (16:15) and ‘live’ can refer to enjoying harmonious family relations (15:27)
-          Personal or psychological: ‘life’ can refer to personal vitality (3:22; 14:30)
-          Moral and spiritual: ‘life’ often refers to spiritual fulfillment (8:35; 19:23; 3:18). The Proverbs do not seem to have eternity in view when using the term ‘life’ though two verses do point that direction (11:7; 14:32)
-          The terms ‘death’ and ‘die’ show up 20 or thirty times in the book. Sheol appears 12 times along with Abaddon, the pit, and Rephaim (the shades). Few of these unquestionably refer only to literal death. Death “is the whole realm in conflict with life, rather than a single and merely physical event.”

av English Authorized Version (King James).
rv English Revised Version, 1885.
rsv American Revised Standard Version, 1952.
[1]Derek Kidner, vol. 17, Proverbs: An Introduction and Commentary (Originally published: Downers Grove, Ill. : InterVarsity Press, c1964.;, Tyndale Old Testament CommentariesDowners Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1964), 39.