Friday, February 22
Proverbs 3: Since the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom (1:7; Psalms 111 [Greek 110]:10), something must be said rather early about a man’s relationship to God (verses 1-12). Because the Book of Proverbs has often been regarded as (and criticized for being) a work of selfish interest, motivated by secular concerns, it is important that we stress this matter of the fear of the Lord as wisdom’s beginning. This fear of the Lord is crucial, in fact, to the entire enterprise envisaged in Proverbs.
The fear of the Lord is that quality of mind and soul called reverence, and in biblical thought the quest of Wisdom is inseparable from the cultivation of reverence. The wise man of the Bible is not an arrogant, self-made man who lives by his own lights (verse 5). The wise man is most emphatically NOT the man who “marches to the beat of a different drummer.” He does not make up the rules as he goes along and as they suit him. The wise man lives, rather, in the sight of God at all times, holding his conscience as open as possible to the divine gaze. He trusts in God with all his heart (verses 6-7,26).
This attitude of reverence determines two other things: First, it is the basis of the wise man’s stewardship over the resources that God puts into his hand (verses 9-10). Second, it directs the way a wise man meets the trials of life, namely, for his correction and the refinement of his character (verses 11-12; Hebrews 12:5-6). The sufferings of life, for the man keen in the pursuit of wisdom, are pedagogical.
The second section of this chapter (verses 13-35) is part of a longer meditation (through 4:9) about the merits of wisdom. These merits are considered in detail, lest the young man become discouraged by the recent mention of suffering and trial.
In this description of wisdom’s merits, wisdom is again personified as “Wisdom” and this time more closely associated with God Himself (verses 18-20). The teaching, however, still seems more moral than metaphysical. That is to say, the abiding interest in these verses is not the structure of the universe, but the kind of behavior that places a man in accord with the rules of the universe. Nonetheless, these verses do anticipate the metaphysical considerations that will be presented in 8:27-31.
From his relationship to God, the wise man goes on to consider his social duties to his fellows (verses 27-30; cf. 11:24-26; 14:21,31; 21:13). Above all, the wise man must not be shaken in his resolve when he beholds the prosperity of the wicked (verses 31-35). Even the admission that the wicked may prosper in this world goes strongly against the philosophical current of the Book of Proverbs and touches, however lightly, the moral dilemma faced squarely in the Book of Job.
Saturday, February 23
Proverbs 4: The Book of Proverbs does not claim to contain the fullness of Israel’s wisdom tradition. It only serves as a guide, rather, and a bulwark of that tradition; the larger body of wisdom was contained and transmitted chiefly through oral delivery (verses 1-9). Consequently the Book of Proverbs is constantly indicating a larger historical context beyond its own text. (In this respect, Proverbs resembles the New Testament, another literary collection that presupposes and addresses a larger social and doctrinal context. Though that larger context is always present in the New Testament, it is sometimes referred to explicitly, as in 2 Thessalonians 2:15; 1 Corinthians 10:23; 15:1.)
The chief thing a man must teach his son is the Torah (verse 2; Deuteronomy 6:7). Indeed, throughout this chapter we note that the wise man speaks of Wisdom in much the same terms Deuteronomy uses to describe the Law.
Wisdom must become a man’s bride (verses 7-13; cf. Sirach 14:20-27; 51:13-22; Wisdom of Solomon 8:2).
The theme of the “two ways” (verses 10-27) is common in our inherited pedagogy, both Jewish (Deuteronomy 30:15; Jeremiah 21:8; Sirach 15:7; the Qumran Manual of Discipline 3:13—4:26; 2 Enoch 30:15) and Christian (Matthew 7:13-14; Colossians 1:12-13; Didache 1.1—6:2; Pseudo-Barnabas 18.—21:9). Especially stressed is custody of the heart (verse 23; cf. Matthew 12:34; 15:19; 16:23).
Matthew 12:22-37: The Lord’s work of driving out demons is once again (cf. 9:32-34) the object of controversy, as His enemies allege that this power comes from Jesus’ collusion with the dark forces themselves. Among the Synoptic accounts of this controversy (cf. Mark 3:20-30; Luke 11:14-23) only Matthew records a healing from blindness in the context. This liberation of a man from satanic darkness is contrasted with the example of those who remain steadfast in their own blindness of heart. Having made up their minds to destroy Jesus, they become ever more inveterate in their sins. Hence, this story leads immediately to the theme of the unforgiven sin, the blasphemy against the Holy Spirit.
Strictly speaking there is no “unforgivable” sin (verses 31-37), because God’s mercy stands ready to forgive any sin of which men repent. The whole business of blasphemy against the Holy Spirit is that it is, by definition, the sin of which men do not repent. It is total and inveterate blindness of heart, in which men can no longer discern the difference between light and darkness. Such appears to be the sin of which the Lord’s enemies are guilty in these texts where we find them plotting His death.
For a pastoral perspective it may be said that those Christians who fear they may have committed such a sin should be take courage from the thought that their very fear is strong evidence that they have not done so. Those who are approaching the unforgiven sin are those who no longer even think about repentance and feel no need for it.
Sunday, February 24
Proverbs 5: Except for consecrated celibates like the prophet Jeremiah and the apostle Paul, the godly and productive life of a man normally requires the proper governance of his home. It is the teaching of Holy Scripture, however, that a man cannot govern his home unless he can govern himself. Self-control and discipline, therefore, are among the primary requisites of a good husband and father, and these are qualities to be developed from an early age. Consequently the Book of Proverbs is emphatic on the prohibition of sexual activity outside of marriage. Sex outside of marriage is also outside of God’s will.
A man’s marriage, in fact, can be damaged long before the marriage takes place. Sex before marriage almost always involves exploitation and disrespect, irresponsibility, selfishness, and rebellion. These are bad habits to learn, not qualities that will make a man a good husband and father.
The present chapter of Proverbs, accordingly, warns a young man against the wiles of the adventurous woman. With keen psychological perception the Sacred Text indicates that the attraction of such a woman most often has as much to do with vanity as with lust; the young man feels flattered by the woman’s attention (verse 3); it causes him to “feel good about himself,” and it is a simple fact of experience that most of us are disposed to befriend, like, and cultivate those who make us feel good about ourselves. It is our great and abiding weakness.
Hence, the young man is warned chiefly against the deceptive nature of flattery (verses 4-5). The flattering, adventurous woman has no idea where she is going, so it is very unsafe to follow her (verse 6). Indeed, a sensible man will put as much distance as possible between himself and such a woman (verse 8), for she is Big Trouble (verses 9-14).
In very figurative and flowery language, reminiscent of the Song of Solomon, the young man is exhorted to find joy in his wife (verses 15-20).
Monday, February 25
Proverbs 6: This chapter begins with four short poems that depict the qualities of folly. The first poem (verses 1-5) warns against financial irresponsibility in the form of unwise generosity towards one’s friends. Financial entanglements have spoiled many a friendship, and exhortations on this matter appear rather often in the Book of Proverbs (11:15; 17:18; 20:16; 22:26-27).
The second poem (verses 6-11) is directed against laziness. Like Aesop, the author sends us to the animal world for moral lessons (24:30-34). The Septuagint version adds a consideration of the bee to that of the ant.
The third poem (verses 12-15) depicts the ne’er-do-well schemer, full of plans for his own quick profit at the disadvantage of his fellow men. Avoid him, is the counsel.
The fourth poem (verses 16-19) is the first of the “numerical proverbs” in this book. These are found in all parts of the Old Testament (cf. Deuteronomy 32:30; Amos 1—2; Micah 5:4; Job 5:19; 40:5; Sirach 25:7; 26:5,19), and Proverbs will later give a series of them (30:15-31).
In verses 20-23 Wisdom is described very much the way that Deuteronomy describes the Law. Indeed, the two things are nearly identified here (cf. especially verse 23, which may remind readers of Psalms 19 and 119).
The last part of the chapter (verses 24-35) returns to the theme of the adventurous woman, who would lure the young man to an early destruction. She is more dangerous than a thief (verses 30-35). Although the earlier penalty for adultery in Israel was stoning to death (Deuteronomy 22:22), the punishment envisaged here seems to be the humiliation of a flogging (verse 33).
Romans 13:1-7: Jesus begins this sermon by sitting down (verse 1)—the posture of the teacher—just as when He began the Sermon on the Mount (5:1; cf. 24:3). A close reading of this text discloses a striking parallel with Revelation 7:9-12, where a great multitude stands before God seated on the throne beside the sea (4:6).
This first parable, in which most of the sown seed is lost, summarizes Jesus’ own experience, as Matthew narrated in the previous chapter. So terribly little of the Gospel, it seems, has fallen on fertile ground. As directed to the Church, this parable urges a sense of modesty about “success” in fruitful preaching. A great deal of the sown Word will simply be wasted.
Tuesday, February 26
Proverbs 7: The Book of Proverbs’ sustained warnings against sexual aberration, especially adultery, which directly attacks the institution of the family, argue that one of man’s chief areas of stewardship is sex. Moreover, the book’s several warnings about adulteresses should be viewed as integral to the image of wisdom as Lady Wisdom, which a wise man is said to take as a bride. And just as Lady Wisdom becomes personified in a man’s own wife, Dame Folly is personified in the adulteress. The entire present chapter is devoted to this theme.
Mockery and sarcasm, rhetorical forms used in both the prophetic and sapiential literature of the Bible with some frequency, enjoy the advantage that comes of not taking someone or something as worthy of serious consideration. This chapter illustrates the advantage. The adventurous woman is held up to considerable ridicule, and so is the young fool who falls for her. Indeed, the young man is here given the very words and gestures that she will employ to seduce him. She commences with flattery (verses 5,21); that is to say, she gives the young man “a positive self-image.” (A man who builds his self-confidence on a woman’s approval already demonstrates his immaturity. Prior to the present age it was taken as axiomatic that a young man should not even seek a woman’s approval, and had no right to expect it, until he had proven himself among men in manly pursuits.)
We see the young man walking down the street, dripping with inexperience, a virtual lamb ambling toward the slaughter (verses 6-7). The very fool, he is strolling aimlessly after dark (verse 6-7; Sirach 9:7), unaware that, even if he is not looking for trouble, trouble is certainly looking for him (verses 10-12). The restless lady comes along and promises him a rollicking good time (verses 13-18), mentioning that her husband will be out of town for a while (verses 19-20). (One thinks of Mrs. Potiphar approaching Joseph in Genesis 39.) Thus is the young fellow suckered into sin (verses 21-23).
The chapter ends with the exhortation to be on guard, especially keeping custody of the heart (verse 25). What is to be eschewed is the path to death (verse 27), the other of the Two Ways.
Wednesday, February 27
Proverbs 8: In this chapter personified Lady Wisdom herself speaks. Like the adulteress in the previous chapter, she too goes seeking the young man in the streets of the city (verse 2). She too appeals to the heart (verse 5). We observe, however, that she does not use flattery. The young man really needs her, and he has nothing to commend him without her.
In the biblical view, God has first loved us, not we God. Man can seek for wisdom, only inasmuch as wisdom seeks for man. And it is all men that she seeks (verse 4), not merely the Jews.
Wisdom teaches truth, the opposite of which is not merely error, but wickedness (verse 7), and truth is identified with righteousness (verse 8). Wisdom is the highest good, the treasure buried in the field, for the sake of which a man will sell all that he has to purchase that field (verses 10-11).
Wisdom is the source of order and justice (verses 12-16). Hence, it is exactly what is required for a man to bring his life into a just order. What a man must have in his heart is the “love of wisdom” (verse 17), an expression called philosophia in Greek. All other gifts come from wisdom (verse 18-19).
Wisdom is the creating companion of God (verses 22-29; Sirach 1:4,8; Colossians 1:15). As such, wisdom is older and more substantial than the physical world (Sirach 24:1-21; Wisdom of Solomon 7:22-28). Indeed, wisdom was the Creator’s architect (verses 27-30).
Such is the wisdom concerned in the chapter’s final exhortation (verses 32-36), which is best read as the verso of the exhortation that closed the previous chapter (7:24-27).
Thursday, February 28
Proverbs 9: This chapter illustrates a contrast between two vastly different meals. From the “highest places of the city” (verses 3,14), both wisdom and folly invite “whoever is simple,” the man who “lacks understanding,” to “turn in here” (verses 4,16), which is to say, to their respective “houses” (verses 1,14). Their respective meals are quite different; the meat and wine of wisdom (verse 2) are contrasted with the bread and water of folly (verse 17). The former meal brings nourishment, whereas the latter is lethal (verse 18). (The contrast between the two women, Wisdom and Folly, in this chapter may be compared with the contrast between the two women, Babylon and Jerusalem, the Whore and the Bride, in the closing chapters of the Book of Revelation.)
If the young man thus admonished is a “scorner,” wisdom’s warning will go unheeded (verse 6), because wisdom is wasted on a fool (cf. Matthew 7:6). Once again, the beginning of wisdom is reverence (verse 10).
The “seven pillars” of the house of wisdom (verse 1) became the trivium (grammar, logic, rhetoric) and quadrivium (arithmetic, music, geometry, astronomy) of the medieval university. Seven, as the number of fullness, was important to the very concept of a university, or house of universal knowledge.
Matthew 13:10-17: In the Gospel dialogue immediately following the parable of the sown seed, only Matthew quotes at length the long text from Isaiah found in verses 14-15. This text well fits the pattern of growing obstinacy on the part of Jesus’ enemies, a theme that has been growing steadily since 11:16. The argument the Lord uses in these verses is obscure, for the plain reason that hardness of heart is an obscure and mysterious subject.
If the workings of divine grace are difficult to comprehend, even more difficult to grasp is man’s willful refusal of that grace. Because a choice is both an effect and a cause, there is a tautology in human choice, and like all tautologies it can only be expressed by what seems a circular argument. That is to say, we choose because we choose. This is what is meant by “free” choice.
Mysteriously, then, the refusal to believe is also the punishment for the refusal to believe. These verses are also a sort of explanation of the following section, particularly verses 19 and 23, which contrast the “understanding” and “non-understanding” of God’s Word.
Friday, March 1
Proverbs 10: We now come to the central core of this book (Chapters 10-22), the 375 aphorisms gathered by Solomon (verse 1). In this respect, it is surely significant that 375 is exactly the numerical value of the Hebrew letters that make up the name “Solomon.”
This central core of Proverbs is divided into two parts, a division based on both literary style and philosophical outlook.
In the first section, Chapters 10 through 15, most of the aphorisms (10:19, for instance, is an exception to this rule) are structured on an antithetical couplet, in which there is a contrast between components in the first and second lines: just/wicked, prudent/foolish, wealth/poverty, accept/refuse, and so forth. In this first section the outlook of the aphorisms is not openly religious, as a rule, but simply “true to life.”
In the second section, Chapters 16 through 22, the couplets are synthetic and complementary, not antithetical, as a rule. In each couplet, rather, the second line completes or extends some component in the first line: the refinement of silver/the testing of souls, loving friend/constant brother, and so on. In this second section, likewise, the outlook or tone is “preachy,” or exhortatory, and more explicitly religious.
Within each section, smaller groups sometimes bind the aphorisms together by either theme or by some rhetorical device. These latter include, for instance, simple expressions common to each maxim, even though the maxims themselves deal with different subjects. An example is 10:16-17.
Considerable stress is laid throughout on the control of the tongue (for instance, verses 19-21,31-32), in terms that will remind us of James 1:9 and 3:2-12.
Matthew 13:18-23: We have already reflected that the Parable of the Sower follows the outline of the Shema. Accordingly, the parable’s interpretation begins with the command, “Hear!” (verse 18) In the Greek wording, in fact, this command carries an emphatic pronoun, unusual with an imperative verb: “You!” This pronoun serves to emphasize the distinction between Jesus’ followers and the “others.”
The first group in this parable, symbolized in the seed sown by the wayside (verse 19), fails in the matter of the “heart” (a detail missing in Mark 4:15). These do not love God with their whole heart, a condition that renders them vulnerable to attack from the Evil One. Their hearts, which have grown dull, have no understanding (verses 14-15).
The second group, symbolized in the rocky ground, is shallow, so the Word cannot take root (verse 20). These will fall away at the first sign of trouble (verse 21). Matthew had already witnessed such trials in his own lifetime (10:18,21-23). Those who thus falter have failed to love God with their whole soul.
The third group, symbolized by the sowing among the thorns, permits the care for wealth and worldly concern to strangle the life from the Gospel (verse 22). They have failed to love God with all their might.
The fourth group, symbolized in the good ground that receives the seed, has the grace of “understanding,” because of which they bring forth fruit (verse 23). They have fruitful lives. They are later symbolized in the two productive servants in the Parable of the Talents (25:16-17).
In Matthew’s version of this parable-interpretation, we note his special emphasis on “understanding” in verses 19 and 23. According to Matthew, a special type of understanding is characteristic of true discipleship. Thus, Matthew omits both references to a failure of understanding on the part of the disciples in Mark 4:10, 13.
And at the end of the parables, in Matthew 13:51, the disciples admit that they do understand what the Lord has been saying. For more evidence of Matthew’s emphasis on understanding as a characteristic of discipleship, one may compare Mark 9:9-13 with Matthew 17:9-13; and Mark 9:30-32 with Matthew 17:22-23.