Thou shalt not follow a multitude to do evil

Thou shalt not take up a false report: put not thy hand with the wicked to be an unrighteous witness. Thou shalt not follow a multitude to do evil; neither shalt thou speak in a cause to turn aside after a multitude to wrest justice: neither shalt thou favor a poor man in his cause. (Exodus 23:1-3 ASV)

In ancient cultures, conformity to the majority was near the top of the hierarchy of values. In fact, the Old Testament takes great pains to enforce conformity to social norms through various and elaborate status rituals and harsh legal penalties. But, the Old Testament vision of social conformity is not conformity to society as such. Instead, the vision is of society conforming to the good, rather than the individual becoming a microcosm of society. The expectation of breaking rank when the rank and file turn to evil is an implicit demand to contemplate social norms and reason whether they be good or evil. This passage also calls for a rejection of social naivete which implies gaining some degree of contemplative virtue. And as a strange conclusion, the passage also proscribes allowing pity to substitute for truth. A conservative error is to equate poverty with vice. The liberal error is to equate poverty with virtue. The Biblical middle-ground is to pursue the good generally and legal justice particularly. The following passages from Proverbs illustrate the same principles in aphoristic format:

A faithful witness does not lie, but a false witness breathes out lies. (Proverbs 14:5)

The wisdom of the prudent is to discern his way, but the folly of fools is deceiving. (Proverbs 14:8)

There is a way that seems right to a man, but its end is the way to death. (Proverbs 14:12)

The simple believes everything, but the prudent gives thought to his steps. (Proverbs 14:15)

One who is wise is cautious and turns away from evil, but a fool is reckless and careless. (Proverbs 14:16)

From the outside in?

The pattern we typically set for people who wish to be more like Christ is this:

Start from the inside out.

It’s not unreasonable. Jesus says roughly that to the Pharisees:

Matthew 23:25-26 ESV “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you clean the outside of the cup and the plate, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence. (26) You blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup and the plate, that the outside also may be clean.

And I think the advice in generally sound. But, sometimes people’s desire to be like Jesus is evidence that the Holy Spirit is already working on the inside and they need something to do to actualize the potential God is putting there.

First, a passage from Proverbs:

Proverbs 24:30-31 ESV I passed by the field of a sluggard, by the vineyard of a man lacking sense, (31) and behold, it was all overgrown with thorns; the ground was covered with nettles, and its stone wall was broken down.

What the passage is getting at is that the sluggard won’t even care for his own property. And the problem with the sluggard is a spiritual problem. But it would seem that taking care of the outside, the literal outside of his house (his field), might help his inside. And Proverbs does mention something like that:

Proverbs 24:27 ESV Prepare your work outside; get everything ready for yourself in the field, and after that build your house.

The meaning is very practical, but it may have a spiritual application as well.

If so, for some Christians, especially young men and women, maybe the first steps in discipleship might really be things like:

  1. Clean your apartment.
  2. Clean out your car.
  3. Change your oil.
  4. Get out of debt.
  5. Get to work/class on time.
  6. Groom yourself.

One somebody turns their life into something resembling order, it might be easier to help them overcome something like despair, arrogance, porn, or anxiety.

Proverbs 31: A Biblical Interpretation Case Study

A money lender and his wife, by Quentin Metsys

In an article at Relevant magazine, a competent and articulate writer named Lauren Oquist challenges readers of her article to stop obsessing over the Proverbs 31 woman. The point of this post is not to be critical of the author of the post quoted (though I will be critical of her post), the point is to demonstrate how a fuller reading of a Biblical book might help it yield its treasures.

Brief Personal Interlude: I don’t like the phrase “Proverbs 31 woman.”

Over all, the title of the article is good advice. I think that people, in general, should avoid obsessions. On top of that, I find the theme of her article very helpful. She essentially says that no particular Biblical type should become the primary focus of our lives, except for the imitation of Jesus Christ. Such types were never meant to be the primary metaphors we use to govern our lives. I quote her article because it brought up a conversation my wife and I had several months ago that came up again this morning, so even where I disagree with this or that point she makes, her article inspired my blog post and ultimately concludes the same way.

Exercise in Thoughtful Reading: Go read Proverbs 31:1-31.

Asking the Right Questions
In good rhetorical fashion (like I said, competent writer), Oquist simultaneously relates to her readership as well as establishes the need for the problem she attempts to solve:

Maybe you, like me, read this passage [Proverbs 31:10-31 ] and think to yourself well sheesh. Is every woman supposed to try and fit this mold? And how would that be possible if every woman is different? What if she can’t sew or cook or hires a nanny for her kids during the week? What if she never even gets married? Does that mean she’s not living up to her God-given potential as a female? Does that mean she’s living in sin?

And what if you don’t want to be a Proverbs 31 woman?

 

When she admits that the passage is difficult to put into practice she also grasps the interpretive crux of the issue when she asks, “is every woman supposed to try to fit this mold?” In general, Christians should ask questions like this of many of our favorite Bible passages. If we thought of the immediate context of a Biblical book, its genre, and where that book fits in the timeline of Scripture before we tried to emulate a character or obey a saying, then Christians would make more sense. Examples:
  1. Should I try to be like King David?
  2. Should I take up my cross and follow Jesus?
  3. Should I put the Sermon on the Mount into practice?

These questions have answers that can be found by examining the books of the Bible containing these people and precepts as well as by examining the whole canon of Scripture.

Oquist asks the right question for spiritual growth and personal assessment and the wrong question for Biblical interpretation: “what if you don’t want to be a [fill in the blank]?” Asking this question to help me understand the Bible opens up circumstances like this:

I read the Sermon on the Mount and ask, “Do I even want to love my enemies?”

That is a good question for assessing the state of my soul, but it is a poor question for assessing whether the gospel authors are prescribing Jesus’ teachings to their readers. For instance, if I don’t want to obey Jesus, I cannot then infer that Matthew wrote his gospel without meaning for people to obey Jesus.

The same goes for Proverbs 31:10-31. It is a tall order, but simply because it is idealistic does not mean that it is not prescriptive. The first question must be answered, “Is this passage for personal application?” Before we move on, it is important to note that the article I am quoting does not claim to answer the question about whether the passage should be obeyed by using the question about “wanting to,” though it may imply as much.

Who is the “Good Wife” of Proverbs 31? A Heuristic for An Ancient Near-Eastern King
The Proverbs 31 woman is clearly not a particular woman because the author sets her up as a type, in fact precisely as an ideal to appreciate specific instances of (and, we’ll see later to emulate):

 Proverbs 31:10 An excellent wife who can find? She is far more precious than jewels.

This is advice to a King from his mother, who apparently played the role of a prophet to the royal court. King Lemuel’s mother gave him the following paradigm for being a good king. The advice ranges from the need to be chaste to the need to heed the rights of the poor. Recall from your earlier reading that Proverbs 31 starts like this:

Proverbs 31:1-9  The words of King Lemuel. An oracle that his mother taught him:  (2)  What are you doing, my son? What are you doing, son of my womb? What are you doing, son of my vows?  (3)  Do not give your strength to women, your ways to those who destroy kings.  (4)  It is not for kings, O Lemuel, it is not for kings to drink wine, or for rulers to take strong drink,  (5)  lest they drink and forget what has been decreed and pervert the rights of all the afflicted.  (6)  Give strong drink to the one who is perishing, and wine to those in bitter distress;  (7)  let them drink and forget their poverty and remember their misery no more.  (8)  Open your mouth for the mute, for the rights of all who are destitute.  (9)  Open your mouth, judge righteously, defend the rights of the poor and needy.

The Proverbs 31 woman appears to be an expression of the type of woman whose activity King Lemuel is to laud as worthy of public praise for the good of society (see the counter point of Lady Folly in Proverbs 5-9). He is to do this so that that these traits will be sought as virtuous and those who have them will be seen as venerable. The result is a sort of ethic of the city-state that we see in Aristotle. Certain behaviors, if lauded by respected/respectable people, will be valued by those who respect them. The same principle is in play when young people dress like and parrot the values of favorite band members, local politicians, or movie stars.

Essentially then, the king’s mother says that being a good king necessitates recognizing the moral agency of women and praising the upright women in the land. See the end:

Proverbs 31:30-31  Charm is deceitful, and beauty is vain, but a woman who fears the LORD is to be praised.  (31)  Give her of the fruit of her hands, and let her works praise her in the gates.

Thus, all of the traits are to be praised as explicitly virtuous in any particular woman. The passage is not addressed to men or women per se, but to kings or people of influence. On the other hand, even though the passage is not about particular women, it is explicitly about the virtues of women who are in the attendant circumstances in which those virtues or behaviors make sense.

A Paradigm for Praiseworthy Living
Which brings me to my own final point. The book of Proverbs itself is largely instruction to men about how to grow up wisely, “Proverbs 1:8a Hear my son…” But it would be weird to think that it cannot apply to women or that since it would be hard for one man to have all of those traits the book shouldn’t be seen as applicable to men. In fact, one of the most frequent observations concerning Proverbs is its almost universal applicability in the lives of those who read it daily. If we return to the early chapters of Proverbs we can see a figure commonly referred to as Lady Wisdom. She is put before the readers to represent several realities:

  1. She is a prophet who represents God (Proverbs 1:20)
  2. She is like your mother, whose sound words can save you (Proverbs 1:8)
  3. She is like a woman to court over against lady folly (Proverbs 8:17)
  4. She is representative of God’s mind as he upholds the cosmos (Proverbs 8:22-30)
  5. As such, her ways are to be emulated (Proverbs 8:32)

Therefore, by virtue of the analogy between the type of woman that King Lemuel is supposed to praise in the gates and Lady Wisdom, the male or female reader of Proverbs should find concrete examples of wise and virtuous behavior to put into practice when they read about the good wife of Proverbs 31 just as much as they would find as they read the rest of Proverbs. For example, Jesus would wake up before sun rise to pray as a matter of custom (Mark 1:35, cf. Proverbs 31:15) just as the woman of Proverbs 31 does.

Conclusion
A hermeneutic that dismisses Scripture before it is determined to be applicable is not a best practice. In this case, the wife figure of Proverbs 31 is most likely a paradigmatic expression of virtues in many circumstances, particularly of praiseworthy women, rather than a purely impossible or offensive ideal which is best left ignored or dismissed.

 

On the sissyness of Christian advice.

Often, advice from successful Christian men and women boils down to platitudes that sound spiritual, but reflect neither wisdom nor what those very people did to become successful.

Here are things I heard in sermons to college students when I was in college or that I heard when I asked for advice:

  1. Ask God for guidance.
  2. Listen and see what God tells you to do.
  3. Your early twenties is a good time to spend yourself on volunteer work (usually the mission cause of the agency represented by the preacher) because you won’t have time when you’re older.
  4. Just wait on God.
  5. Don’t worry about that kind of thing, God will provide.

When somebody reads that list, they are likely to think, “Of course that makes sense, it’s all good advice.”

I call foul.

I think evangelical Christianity is so influenced by this very language that we often cannot even tell that what we’re saying makes no sense.

If a young Christian man asks an older Christian man a question like, “How can I make more friends?” He’s obeying Scripture when it says, “with many counselors there is victory.” He’s probably asking because he feels lonely or gets picked on often and he sees the man he asks as successful and likable. But many people, instead of giving advice based on their own experience say the silly nonsense I mentioned above, even though the man who was asked does things like dresses well, makes interesting conversations, listens to others, and has masculine body language.

Similarly, somebody who is wondering what to major in is often told to pray about it and listen to the Lord to find his calling, even though the Bible never says that God will tell you what to major in, in college. The Bible does say, to “pray for wisdom” (James 1:5) and to gain skill in order to be successful (Proverbs 22:29).

Anyway, Christianese is usually not biblical and is almost never helpful. Don’t give it and don’t believe it when you hear it. Also, try asking better questions like, “what did you do to get ‘x'” or “if you were me, what would you do differently to achieve ‘y’.”

Multiple Streams of Income and Proverbs

Know well the condition of your flocks, and give attention to your herds, for riches do not last forever; and does a crown endure to all generations? When the grass is gone and the new growth appears and the vegetation of the mountains is gathered, the lambs will provide your clothing, and the goats the price of a field. There will be enough goats’ milk for your food, for the food of your household and maintenance for your girls.
(Pro 27:23-27)

When I was younger I’d hear things like, “You should try to have multiple streams of income.” I would think, “That’s stupid and materialistic.

Anyway, the Bible teaches that it’s simple wisdom to have a backup plan for money and food. Ignore it at your peril. Or luck out and never need it.

Lean not on your own understanding?

Pro 3:1-5 My son, do not forget my teaching, but let your heart keep my commandments, (2) for length of days and years of life and peace they will add to you. (3) Let not steadfast love and faithfulness forsake you; bind them around your neck; write them on the tablet of your heart. (4) So you will find favor and good success in the sight of God and man. (5) Trust in the LORD with all your heart, and do not lean on your own understanding.

I’ve written about this passage before asking whether or not it was promoting  a form on non-deliberative mysticism.

Another question to ask is this: is the author saying that the young man, “my son,” should never lean on his own understanding?

I think the answer is no. “My son” is clearly among the simple, a group of characters in Proverbs who have the potential to become wise but are in danger of seeking folly instead.

The young man who seeks wisdom in Proverbs ultimately becomes a man of understanding:

Pro 3:13-14 Blessed is the one who finds wisdom, and the one who gets understanding, (14) for the gain from her is better than gain from silver and her profit better than gold.

Pro 5:1-2 My son, be attentive to my wisdom; incline your ear to my understanding, (2) that you may keep discretion, and your lips may guard knowledge.

Pro 14:29 Whoever is slow to anger has great understanding, but he who has a hasty temper exalts folly.*

The stage of life in which one has no understanding is one in which one must rely on the commands of God (that doesn’t change) and the wisdom of teachers. But eventually one must gain the understanding necessary to navigate life in the case of circumstances for which there is no direct command from God or in which there are no mentors.

*In the passages cited, there are two different Hebrew words being translated “understanding,” but they are near synonyms.

What does it mean to have a good eye?

Pro 22:9 Whoever has a good eye will be blessed, for he shares his bread with the poor.

Pro 28:22 He who hastens after wealth has an evil eye and does not know that poverty will come upon him.

In the ancient world, particularly in the culture that influences the writers of the Bible, the eye was in a metaphorical and literal sense thought ot be connected to the inner life of man. By inner life, I mean the world of thought, emotions, and intentions: the heart and soul.

One of the results of the good eye is sharing bread with the poor, which leads to happiness. What are the assumed traits of the good eye?

  1. A belief that there is enough supported by one’s hard work (see Proverbs 6:6-9) and God’s providence.
  2. A desire to receive a blessing like Abraham (Genesis 12).
  3. A desire to bless others like Abraham (Genesis 12).

Proverbs 24:27

Pro 24:27 Prepare your work outside; get everything ready for yourself in the field, and after that build your house.

I suppose you could shorten this Proverb to “put first things first.”

Of course, to do that we’ve got to think things through.

In the case of buying property in the ancient world, you’d want to make sure it could produce wealth before building a house on it.

Similarly, one might want to find a good source or several sources of income before buying a house.

In the case of spiritual application, it’s important to make certain things duties such as private prayer before public prayer, reconciliation with brothers and sisters before worship (see Matthew 5:21-26), honoring mother and father with finances before giving to church building projects, and so-on.

The soul of the sluggard

The soul of the sluggard craves and gets nothing, while the soul of the diligent is richly supplied. (Pro 13:4)

“You shall not covet your neighbor’s house; you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or his male servant, or his female servant, or his ox, or his donkey, or anything that is your neighbor’s.”(Exo 20:17)

In our Bibles coveting is an interesting concept, but itself it simply sounds like desire. But in the contexts the word appears, it clearly means desire out of proportion and intention to have/take what one cannot have.

At its core, to covet is to entertain the desire to seize upon something which rightly belongs to another. Another way to say it is “to intend to have what belongs to another.” James says that sin, in general, starts with a desire that is then mismanaged. Covetousness can start with a desire to have fruit brought on by seeing a tree covered in tasty but prohibited fruit. And instead of getting fruit one is allowed, one obsesses over the other.

I’ve come to think that of the keys to overcoming covetousness is to become productive. Proverbs 13:4 above implies this (it does not use the Hebrew word for covet, but the idea is similar). The sluggard craves but does not get. James makes this observation about the source of quarrelling: “You desire and do not have, so you murder. You covet and cannot obtain, so you fight and quarrel. You do not have, because you do not ask [in prayer or perhaps of a brother when in genuine need]. (Jas 4:2)” Interestingly, if somebody desires something, even if that desire is spurred on by a neighbor’s goods, it would appear that if you are diligent you soul will be richly supplied insofar as your diligence is for pursuing the good.

The cure for coveting is probably not turning off one’s desire to have a house, a wife, or property in general. Instead, to cure covetousness we should exercise diligence in pursuing and accomplishing good. And, when you do have a need that is not met by diligence or that is too pressing, then ask [God or neighbor].

Wisdom Wednesday: Proverbs 22:13

The slothful man saith, There is a lion without, I shall be slain in the streets.
(Proverbs 22:13)

Passages of scripture like this pose one of the greatest challenges for risk averse people. Many of us think we are wise for avoiding risk. And indeed, Proverbs itself says that the wise hides himself when there is obvious danger (22:3)*. This piece of good advice, as with all wise practices, can become a shield from personal responsibility (see Matthew 6 for Jesus’ discussion of this fact with regards to prayer, fasting, and even alms).

Often in life, we who are risk averse take the slothful route and claim that the time isn’t right for action because things aren’t perfect. My karate instructor said that the most common excuse he received from people skipping karate after a vacation was “I need to get back into shape first.” Some people won’t go to church because “I need to get right with the Lord first.” If you’re super risk averse then you’re probably waiting for circumstances to be exactly right, but you’ll actually be in the process of waiting when good circumstance pass you by. Check this actual sloth out:

I suppose he could have died crossing the road, but there is simply no such thing as a “perfect time” for a sloth to cross a road because it’s just gonna take him an hour to do it and during that time a car is gonna get him. No, I don’t know why he’s crossing the road; maybe he’s got a lady friend. Maybe he’s rescuing other sloths from a sloth villian. But the fact remains that the circumstances for good action would have passed him by if he’d waited too long to cross the road.

*The prudent sees danger and hides himself, but the simple go on and suffer for it.
(Proverbs 22:3) This verse is important for people who’ve ever said YOLO.