Posted: 23 Mar 2011 12:00 AM PDT
PROVERBS 10 OPENS A NEW SECTION of the book of Proverbs, titled "Proverbs of Solomon" in most of our English Bibles (compare the sectional headings before chapters 25, 30, and 31). People who study these chapters debate over the extent to which each of these sections is organized, as opposed to preserving loose collections of proverbs. Almost all agree, however, that very frequently certain themes dominate a section. For instance, it is worth reading through chapter 10 and highlighting every word related to human speech: mouth, lips, chattering fool, tongue, and so forth. Proverbs 10:19 is choice: "When words are many, sin is not absent, but he who holds his tongue is wise."
Instead of pursuing this theme, today I want to reflect on what a proverb is. A proverb is not case law, i.e., a piece of legislation that covers a particular case. Nor is it unbridled promise. This affects how one interprets proverbs. Consider, for instance, Proverbs 10:27: "The fear of the LORD adds length to life, but the years of the wicked are cut short." If this is unqualified promise, it follows that righteous people will invariably live longer than unrighteous people. Find someone who dies relatively young, and you know you are dealing with a wicked person. Someone who lives to the age of one hundred must be a righteous person.
But we know perfectly well that the world is not like that. Godly young people sometimes die of cancer. Having worked our way through Job, we are painfully aware that sometimes reprobates live to a ripe old age. And what shall we say of people who die unexpectedly in accidents, or in storms and other "acts of God," or in persecution?
Does this mean, then, that Proverbs 10:27 is robbed of all meaning? No, of course not. But it is a proverb, not an unqualified promise. A proverb is a wise saying, an aphorism. Most of the proverbs in this book provide wise, generalizing conclusions about how the world works under God's providential rule. The fear of the Lord really does add years to one's life: on the whole, a life lived in this way will adopt fewer bad habits, will learn to trust and therefore reduce stress, will honor hard work offered up to the Lord, will cherish family and friends, and so forth—and in God's universe all of these things have effects. None of this means that a godly person cannot die younger than an ungodly person. It does mean that, in a particular group of people, on the whole those who fear the Lord will live longer than those who do not. This is the blessing of God; the Lord has constructed the universe this way and continues his providential rule over it.
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