Finding God in Proverbs

January 03, 2014Filed under theology#devotionsMarkdown source

I have made it my goal to write short posts reflecting on my devotional reading every day. These posts are composed off the cuff, in 30 minutes or less. The following is one such post. Before writing this post, I read: 1 Kings 19–2 Kings 1, Psalm 3, Proverbs 3.

One of the most helpful patterns I have developed in the last few years of Scripture reading is asking one simple question as I read: What does this passage reveal about God? There are many other questions—good, important questions—to ask of the text. But this one, I find, yields the most fruit. The Bible is not just a book of moral teachings, nor a mere practical guide for our lives. It is the revelation of the living God to his people.1

So what do we do when we get to, say, Proverbs? At first blush, the question seems a good deal less tractable here than in many other places. However hairy, most narratives do show us the character of God. Propositional content, whether in letters or sermons or parables or prophecies, likewise tends to make clear, succinct statements about the person and nature of God. The Proverbs, though? Well, sometimes they do, and sometimes they say things like, “Do not contend with a man for no reason, when he has done you no harm.” That’s helpful, to be sure, but when you first read it, it’s not obvious how that gets us back to God. We could try to hammer the Proverbs into some framework for understanding God, try to reduce their presence in the canon to a role in some theme or another.2 In the end, though, any such reductive effort is going to run aground on the shoals of misunderstanding—quite the opposite of the intent of the author.

The Proverbs often show us God’s character sideways. If we believe that the counsel offered by the Proverbs really is wise—that the glowing promises here in Proverbs 3 of blessing, gain, and profit from wisdom are true, that there really is nothing better than to have understanding—then we believe that they are insights into reality. And reality was made by God:

Yahweh by wisdom founded the earth;
    by understanding he established the heavens;
by his knowledge the deeps broke open,
    and the clouds drop down the dew. (Proverbs 3:19–20)

If we then start asking good questions of the text we find very quickly that we do have a path back to the person and nature of God. For example: why should we not contend with a man when he has done us no harm? Well, we ought not do so because it will certainly stir up trouble, and we know God does not delight in strife. Moreover, picking a fight with someone without cause is unjust, and this same author has told us that wisdom comports with justice and righteousness, and that God is just.

Taking a further step back, we can ask why this proverb is included in the inspired Scriptures. Then we see even more: God cares about the way people interact with one another. He values human flourishing, and so has provided enormous guidance for us in the form of hundreds upon hundreds of practical insights into the way the world is. He delights in people so greatly that he crosses the boundary between transcendence and immanence to give us his very words.

It turns out there is an awful lot to learn about God in the Proverbs—even the ones that do no mention him.

  1. That final phrase, “to his people,” is an important one for all hermeneutics; reading the Scriptures with faith makes a difference. Matthew Lee Anderson makes this point helpfully and at some length in his excellent The End of Our Exploring.

  2. It is right here that many Biblical theologies—that’s a specific discipline in theology, though admittedly poorly named—go amiss.