Copyright © 1996 by
DOES PROVERBS PROMISE TOO MUCH?
Marshall Sheppard Professor of Biblical Studies
This essay, "Does the Book of Proverbs Promise Too Much?" is
poignantly fitting in this memorial volume to Professor Hasel, who
exemplified both in his life and in his scholarship the highest Christian
ideals. The untimely death of one of the finest Old Testament scholars
makes the Book of Proverbs' heavenly promises seem detached from
Evangelicals confess the Book of Proverbs' inspiration and
intellectually assent to its authority, but emotionally many cannot take
the book seriously because its promises seem removed from the harsh
focus. I will divide this essay into four parts: (1) translation; (2) poetics;
(3) theological reflection on the problem, "does it promise too much,"
and finally (4) exposition of 3:5.
3: 1 My son, do not forget my teaching,
and let your heart guard my commandments;
3:2 for length of days and years of life,
and peace they will add to you.
3:3 Kindness and reliability let them not leave you,
bind them upon your throat;
3:4 and find favor and good repute,
in the eyes of God and humankind.
3:5 Trust in the Lord with all your heart,
and in your own understanding do not rely;
3:6 in all your ways know him,
and he will make your paths straight.
3:7 Do not be wise in your own eyes,
fear the Lord and depart from evil;
3:8 healing let there be to your navel,
320 SEMINARY STUDIES 34 (AUTUMN 1996)
and refreshment to your bones.
3:9 Honor the Lord from your wealth,
from the first fruits of all your produce;
and your granaries will be filled with plenty,
and with new wine your vats will overflow.
The discipline of the Lord, my son, do not reject,
and do not loathe his rebuke;
because whom the Lord loves he rebukes
even as a father the son in whom he delights.
The encomium to wisdom in 3:1-12 is distinguished from that in
2:1-22: (1) by the renewed address, "my son" (cf. 2:1, 3:1); (2) by the
change of form on the syntactic level from a lengthy protasis (2: 1-4) and
very expanded apodosis (vv. 5-22) to six strophes essentially consisting
of admonitions in the odd verses (3:1, 3, 5, 7, 9, 11) and to
argumentation in the even (2, 4, 6, 8, 10, 12); and (3) by changing the
theme on the paradigmatic level from admonitions to embrace the
father's teaching (2:1-4) in order to find piety (2:5-8) and ethics (2:9-11),
and so be protected against the fatal voices and ways of apostate men
(-15) and women (-19), to admonitions to accept the teaching
(3:1) and embrace ethics (3:3) and piety (3:5, 7, 9) in order to obtain
palpable physical and social benefits.
This teaching is even more strongly anchored in God than chap. 2.
First, the admonitions progress from the typical introduction, to keep
the father's teaching (v. 1), to the command not to abandon covenant
love and fidelity (v. 3), to establishing and retaining a relationship with
God: trust the Lord (v. 5), to be humble before God (i.e., not to be wise
in one's own eyes and so think and behave impiously and wickedly) (v.
7), to honor the Lord (v. 9), and not to reject the Lord's correction (v.
Newsom argues that by these six strophes or quatrains the father
teachings even more strongly in
The father begins, she observes, using the parallel, "my law" and "my
that "has resonances of God's torah and miswot
and so subtly positions the father in association with divine authority."
His appeals to have a right relationship with God (vv. 5-12) parallel, she
further observes, "in structure and motivation the father's call for
obedience to himself in 2:1-4." Finally, she notes, "it comes as no
surprise that. ..the passage concludes in v. 12 with the metaphor of
1 Carol A. Newsom, "Woman and the Discourse of Patriarchal Wisdom: A Study
Proverbs 1-9," in Gender and Difference in Ancient
(Minneapolis: Fonress, 1989), 149-151.
WALTKE: DOES PROVERBS PROMISE TOO MUCH? 321
God as a father reproving his son."
In theological terms, the admonitions in the odd verses of 3:1-12
present the obligations of the son, the human covenant partner; the
argumentation in the even verses shows the obligations of the Lord, the
divine covenant partner. The human partner has the responsibility to
keep ethics and piety, and the divine partner the obligation to bless his
worshiper with peace, prosperity, and longevity.
The argumentation for keeping the Lord's commands is based on
the tangible rewards that only he can give: long life and peace (v. 2),
favor with God and humanity (v. 4), a smooth path (v. 6), psychological
and physical health (v. 8), abundant harvests (v. 10), and a heavenly
father's love (v. 12).
We can outline the pericope as follows:
1. Keep my commands 2. Life and peace
3. Don't let go of unfailing love 4. Favor with God and people
5. Trust the Lord 6. Straight path
7. Don't be wise in own eyes 8. Healing
9. Honor the Lord 10. Prosperity
11. Don't reject the Lord's discipline 12. The Lord loves you
Overland notes, after the introductory strophe which sequences a
negative and a positive command, the alternation between negative
commands in vv. 3, 7, 11 and of positive admonitions in vv. 5, 9.2
The last strophe distinguishes itself from the preceding by renewing
the address, "my son," and by changing the argumentation from
promising tangible benefits to explaining that God's love finds
expression in discipline. Its syntax and content, however, show it is part
of the poem (cf. ), not an introduction with an imperative to hear
the teaching (cf. 1:8, 10; 2:1; 3:1, 21; 4:1, 10, 20; 5:1; 6:1, 20; 7:1).
According to McKane, in Egyptian instruction "my son" may also be
only in initial vv. 1-2 and terminal vv. 11-12, constitute an inclusio for
this block of material; namely, beni, "my son" (vv. 1, 11), and ki,
"for/because" (vv. 2, 12).4
University, 1988), 87.
3Williarn McKane, Proverbs: A New Approach, in The Old Testament Library, ed. Peter
Ackroyd and others (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1970), 289.
322 SEMINARY STUDIES 34 (AUTUMN 1996)
3. Theological Reflection
The palpable rewards to which the gracious Lord obliges himself in
the even verses of 3:1-10 confront us with the theological problem, "Do
they promise too much? When applied to ordinary members of the
covenant community, the interpreter of the text and of life may try to
resolve the tension by explaining that the problem lies in the human
partner s failure to keep the commands, not in the Lord s failure to
keep his obligations. The expositor, with Job's friend Eliphaz, might
,conclude that individuals do not experience these promises because of
original sin: "Can a mortal be righteous before God? Can a man be pure
before his Maker" (cf. Job -21). As does Job, however, most
expositors, though conceding the problem of original sin, insist that this
is not the reason for the apparently failed promises.
Their rejection of the facile explanation by the likes of Eliphaz is
validated by the life of Jesus Christ. Though without sin, he apparently
did not enjoy these promises. Instead of enjoying long life, he died in
the prime of life. Instead of enjoying favor with God and man, on the
cross he lamented, "my God, my God, why did you forsake me" (Matt
27:46), as the crowds jeered, "He trusts in God to deliver him; let God
rescue him!" (Matt 27:43). Instead of a smooth path he experienced
rejection at birth, escaped the slaughter of the innocent, lived as an exile
a lonely figure on the cross (cf. Isa 50:4-6). Instead of psychological and
health, in the
trauma that his sweat was like drops of blood falling to the ground
(Luke 22:44). On the cross his malefactors so abused him that he no
longer appeared human (cf. Isa 52:14). How can it be said that the
devout have barns overflowing with grain and vats that burst with new
wine, when the Epitome of Wisdom cautioned, "Foxes have holes and
birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his
head" (Matt )?
To resolve this obvious tension created by failed covenant promises,
I will reject three false solutions and propose four others to help us
toward a resolution of the problem.
First, I cannot accept that Solomon was a dullard. He certainly
was no less aware than Job that "God destroys both the blameless and
the wicked. When a scourge brings sudden death, he mocks the despair
of the innocent" Gob -23).
The sage is characterized by astute observation and reflection. Note
how he composes his proverb in 24:30-34:
WALTKE: DOES PROVERBS PROMISE TOO MUCH? 323
I went past the field of the sluggard, past the vineyard of the man who
lacks judgment; thorns had come up everywhere, the ground was
covered with weeds, and the stone wall was in ruins. I applied my
heart to what I observed and learned a lesson from what I saw: A
little sleep, a little slumber, a little folding of the hands to rest-and
poverty will come on you like a vagrant and scarcity like an armed
His laboratory was the field of the sluggard, "I went past the field of the
sluggard," and his method, scientific (i.e, astute observation and cogent
reflection), "I applied my heart to what I observed." Observing that the
inedible growth of thorns replaced the edible and that chaos replaced
the diligently constructed cosmos, he drew the conclusion that some
hostile power informed the fallen creation and that this deadly hostile
force, if not overcome by wisdom, had the same damaging effects as a
bandit plundering a man's house. Surely a person with these powers of
observations and reflection knew with Qoheleth that under the sun:
all share a common destiny-the righteous and the wicked, the good
and the bad, the clean and the unclean, those who offer sacrifices and
those who do not. As it is with the good man, so with the sinner; as
it is with those who take oaths, so with those who are afraid to take
them (Eccl 9:2).
Another solution unacceptable to me is that these promises are
false, not true. Nonevangelical academics, tend to pit the optimism of
the so-called older wisdom represented in the Book of Proverbs against
the pessimism of the so-called younger, reflective wisdom represented
in the books of Job and Ecclesiastes. Von Rad, for example, says:
The most common view of the radical theses of Koheleth has been to
see in them a counter-blow to older teachings which believed, too
'optimistically', or better, too realistically, that they could see God at
work in experience. . . . According to the prevailing point of view, it
would appear as if he were turning only against untenable statements,
as if he were challenging a few, no longer justifiable sentences which
presented the divine as too rational and too obvious a phenomenon.
Such sentences may in fact have existed. . . . This explanation breaks
down, however, for the reason that Koheleth is turning against not
only outgrowths of traditional teaching but the whole undertaking.
. . Anyone who agrees with him in this can scarcely avoid the
conclusion that the whole of old wisdom has become increasingly
entangled in a single false doctrine [italics mine].5
William James agrees: "But the tradition that he [Qoheleth] knows
is more of a foil for him than anything else; his use of gnomic forms,
5 Gerhard Von Rad, Wisdom in
324 SEMINARY STUDIES 34 (AUTUMN 1996)
for example, is often in order to contradict traditional wisdom [italics
mine]."6 He also said of Qoheleth: "His primary literary mode of
representing the paradox of the human situation is the citation of
contrasting proverbs, some of which may be his own aphorisms, is in
order to contradict traditional wisdom [italics mine]."7
This common academic solution is not open to me--as it would
also have been unacceptable to Professor Gerhard Hasel--because it
undermines sound theology, which must be based on the integrity and
trustworthiness of Scripture. Paul said that "all Scripture"--including
Job, Proverbs, and Ecclesiastes--"is God breathed" (2 Tim ). Yet if
Job and Qoheleth contradict Proverbs, we are left with God
contradicting himself and speaking what makes no rational sense (i.e.,
nonsense). Moreover, our Lord, who himself on the cross does not seem
to have experienced these promises, trusted this book. The Book of
Proverbs was part of the Scriptures which he said "cannot be broken"
John 10:35). Indeed the apostles use the Book of Proverbs about sixty
times as sacred Scripture.
A third solution not open to me is that the argumentation in the
even verses of 3:1-10 presents probabilities, not 'promises: As we shall off
see, there is an element of truth in this explanation, but it formulates
the solution badly.
As noted, the odd verses of our text set forth the obligations of the it
human covenant partners; the even, those of the divine. Now does
sound theology countenance that the human partner must keep his
obligations perfectly, but not the divine partner? How unlike the
faithful Lord to command his people to trust in the Lord with all
their heart "and lean not" on their own understanding, and not obligate
himself to "make their paths smooth." Rather, even "if we are faithless
he will remain faithful" (2 Tim ).
Moreover, if it were a matter of probabilities, then I for one want
to know the odds. If these arguments are true 99 percent of the time,
the audience would be well advised to keep the command to "not forget
the teaching and to keep his commands in our heart"; but if they are
true only 51 percent of the time, then maybe it is not worth the
sacrifice and the effort to keep the human obligation.
Finally, how can the human partner trust in the Lord with a whole
heart, when there is uncertainty as to the Lord's keeping his part of the
These three solutions-that the sage is a dullard, presents false
6 James G. William, Those Who Ponder Proverbs (Sheffield: Almond, 1981), 53.
7 Ibid., 60.
WALTKE: DOES PROVERBS PROMISE TOO MUCH? 325
teachings, or states probabilities, not verities-are not acceptable for me.
Let us now turn to four solutions that I find helpful. First, most
would agree that these promises are partially realized in our
experience. Though keeping the proverbs does not guarantee "success"
under the sun, nevertheless, experience often vindicates them. The sober
(-35), the diligent (10:4-5), the sexually moral (26:23-28), the
peaceful, and the wise in general-not the drunkard, the sluggard, the
sexually unclean, the hot-tempered, and the fool-enjoy abundant life
The sluggard, for example, as represented in Prov 24:30-34, does not
enjoy longevity, social esteem, smooth sledding, health, and prosperity.
The same applies to the drunkard:
Who has woe? Who has sorrow?
Who has strife? Who has complaints?
Who has needless bruises? Who has bloodshot eyes?
Those who linger over wine,
who go to sample bowls of mixed wine.
Do not gaze at wine when it is red,
when it sparkles in the cup.
when it goes down smoothly!
In the end it bites like a snake
and poisons like a viper.
Your eyes will see strange sights.
and your mind imagine confusing things.
You will be like one sleeping on the high seas,
lying on top of the rigging.
'They hit me,' you will say, 'but I'm not hurt?
They beat me, but I don't feel it!
When will I wake up
so I can find another drink?' (Proverbs 23:29-35).
Second, we need to take into consideration the epigrammatic
nature of proverbs. Individual proverbs express truth, but, restricted by
the aphorism's demand for terseness, they cannot express the whole
truth. By their very nature they are partial utterances which cannot
protect themselves by qualifications. Von Rad rightly said:
It is of the nature of an epigram that a truth is expressed with the
greatest concentration on the subject-matter and with a disregard of
any presuppositions, attendant circumstances, etc. In the case of a
sentence from antiquity, [how easily] can one reach the point where
the meaning of a sentence is falsified for the simple reason that one
has lost sight of ideological and religious facts which were constitutive
326 SEMINARY STUDIES 34 (AUTUMN 1996)
for the sentence.8
Because of this stylistic constraint, proverbs must be read holistically,
within the total collection. The character-act-consequence nexus (i.e.,
you reap what you sow) represented in the strophes of our text must
be modified by proverbs that qualify the nexus. The "better-than
proverbs" (e.g., 15:16-17; 16:8, 19; 17:1; 19:22b; 22:1; 28:6) link
righteousness with poverty and wickedness with wealth and so make it
perfectly plain that piety and morality do not invariably lead
immediately to social and physical benefits. Moreover, many proverbs
recognize the failures of justice. Van Leeuwen notes: "There are many
sayings that assert or imply that the wicked prosper. . . while the
innocent suffer"9 (e.g., 10:2; 11:16; 13:23; 14:31; 15:25; 18:23; 21:6, 7,13;
19:10; 22:8, 22; 23:17; 28:15-16a, 27). Too many scholars fail to
recognize the restraints of these counter-proverbs. Insisting the book of
Proverbs teaches a tidy dogmatism of morality and piety, these scholars
pit the so-called unrealistic sayings of Proverbs, such as the five strophes
in Prov 3:1-10, against the realism of Qoheleth and Job, thereby easily
discrediting the former. This solution regarding the epigrammatic nature
of proverbs must be held in connection with the next two arguments;
otherwise, it would appear to reinforce the solution that the proverbs
present probabilities, not guarantees.
Third, the Book of Proverbs teaches
of morality. Solomon kept before them the end of the matter, how it
all turns out, not the temporary exceptions when the wicked prosper
and the righteous suffer. The future will ultimately validate the
character-act-consequence nexus, turning the present, often upside-down
world right (cf. 11:4,7, 18, 21, 23, 28; 12:7, 12; 15:25; 17:5; 19:17; 20:2,
21; 21:6-7, 22:8-9, 16; 23:17-18; 24:20). The genre-effect of Proverbs, in
contrast to that of Job and Ecclesiastes, is clearly brought out in 24: 15-
Do not lie in wait like an outlaw against a righteous man's house,
do not raid his dwelling place;
for though a righteous man falls seven times, he rises again,
but the wicked are brought down by calamity. (Prov 24:15-16)
The concessive clause, "though a righteous man falls seven times,"
assumes that righteous people come to ruin. Seven, recall, is the number
of perfection, of completeness. To paraphrase the proverb, "The
righteous may be knocked out for the count of ten." However, the
8 Von Rad, 32.
9 Raymond C. Van Leeuwen, "Wealth and Poverty: System and Contradiction in
Proverbs," Hebrew Studies 33 (1992): 29.
WALTKE: DOES PROVERBS PROMISE TOO MUCH? 327
proverb throws that reality away in a concessive clause, rushing ahead
to how it all turns out: namely, "he rises again." Job and Qoheleth,
however, have a different focus, a different genre effect. They are
concerned with events under the sun and focus on the righteous man
flattened on the mat for the count of ten; they do not focus on his
rising, though they do not rule that out. To recast the proverb into
their genre, it would reverse the concessive and main clauses, "though
a righteous man rises again, he falls seven times." Proverbs differs from
the younger reflective wisdom because it is presenting the primer on
morality, the way things turn out. The wisdom books differ
fundamentally due to this genre effect.
Fourth and finally, the future beyond the temporarily failed
promises outlasts clinical death (see -22). To be sure, the future is
not accessible to, verification, as Gladson notes critically,10 but without
faith in the ethical God who controls the future, one cannot please
God. If one can live by sight in realized promises, not by faith in God
to fulfill them, why is there need to command, "Trust in the Lord"
Before turning to three or four proverbs that teach an immortality
that outlasts death wherein the promises such as those found in the
argumentation of 3:1-10 find their fulfillment, let us note that the
argument of the book implies such a perspective. The book's second
pericope (-19) after its preamble (1:1-7) and first pericope to heed the
teaching (1:8-9), represents innocent blood going to a premature death
at the hand of thugs:
My son, if sinners entice you,
do not give in to them,
If they say, 'Come along with us; let's lie in wait for someone's blood,
let's waylay some innocent soul;
let's swallow them alive, like the grave,
and whole, like those who go down to the pit;
we will get all sorts of valuable things
land fill our houses with plunder;
throw in your lot with us,
and we will share a common purse. . .' (1:11-14).
"Blood" in 10a and "innocent" in 10b are parts of a broken stereotype
phrase; together they refer to innocent blood. Admittedly, Solomon
does not represent the innocent as actually being dispatched to a
premature death, but he unquestionably assumes the possibility as real.
On the other hand, the inspired king clearly and repeatedly teaches that
10Jerry Allen Gladson, "Retributive Paradoxes in Proverbs 10-29- (Ph.D. dissertation,
328 SEMINARY STUDIES 34 (AUTUMN 1996)
the Lord will cause the righteous to triumph over the wicked: "When
a man's ways are pleasing to the Lord, he makes even his enemies to
surrender to him" (16:7). In order for the innocent-such as righteous
Abel, who are dispatched to a premature death-to triumph over the
wicked, their victory must take place in a future that outlasts Sheol.
Since the biblical doctrine of retribution fails to reflect human
experience, Farmer rightly says that "one either has to give up the idea
of justice or one has to push its execution into some realm beyond the
evidence of human experience."11 However, this doctrine came to full
light only through the gospel of Jesus Christ (2 Tim ).
We now turn to consider three or four texts that explicitly teach
Proverbs reads: "In t4e path of righteousness is life, in the
course of its byways is immortality." This synthetic parallel, which
concludes the pericope of chap. 12, expresses in a creative and intensive
way that the righteous retain a relationship with God forever. Here we
need to define "life" in verset a, and defend the translation
"immortality" in verset b.
Hayyim, "life," in 12:28a occurs thirty-three times in the book, and
the verb haya, "to live," four times. After analyzing its uses W. Cosser
draws the conclusion that "life" in the Canonical Wisdom Literature
sometimes has a technical significance, viz., the fuller, more satisfying
way of living to be enjoyed by those who 'seek Wisdom and find her,'
a sense which can best be rendered in English by some such phrase as
'full life,' 'fullness of life,' 'life indeed."'12 In Egyptian instruction, which
shares many points of continuity with Proverbs, life entails eternal life
beyond clinical death. Its schools were called schools of Life.'13
Solomon gives us no reason to think that his concept of life was any
In biblical theology "full" life is essentially a relationship with God.
According to Gen disruption of the proper relationship with the
One who is the source of life means death. Wisdom is concerned with
this proper relationship and so with this kind of life. God continues
forever to be the God of the wise, delivering them from the realm of
death (see 10:2). Jesus Christ regarded life in the same way. In his
argument against the Sadducees, who denied resurrection, he said: "But
11Kathleen A. Farmer, Who Knows What Is Good? A Commentary on Proverbs and
Ecclesiastes (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1991), 206.
12 William Cosser, "The Meaning of 'Life' (Hayyim) in Proverbs, Job, and
13Causse, Les Disperses d'Israel, 115, cited by Cosser, 52.
WALTKE: DOES PROVERBS PROMISE TOO MUCH? 329
about the resurrection of the dead-have you not read what God said
to you, 'I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of
Jacob'? He is not the God of the dead but of the living" (Matthew
22:32). Clinical death is only a shadow along the trail in the relationship
of the wise with the living God.
Death in Proverbs is the eternal opposite of this full life. The
wisdom teachers never describe the wicked as being in the realm of light
and life; rather they are in the realm of darkness and death, a state of
being already dead, because they have no relationship with the living
God though they are not yet clinically dead. The texts predicting the
eternal death of the wicked do not refer to a premature clinical death.14
For example, the father's caution to his son not to apostatize because,
"at the end of your life you will groan, when your flesh and body are
spent" (Prov 5:11), implies a normal life-span.
In sum, death and life are eternal states that extend from the present
into the eternal future. The condition of the righteous lies before the
Lord (see Prov 15:11; 16:2 [ = 21:2]), who admits them into the realm
of eternal fellowship with him (cf. 2:19; 3:18,22; 10:11). The wise in the
book of Proverbs enjoy an unending relationship with the living God.
We now turn to defend the gloss, "immortality" in 12:28b. All the
ancient versions and more than twenty medieval codices read "unto
death" ('el mawet), not "immortality" ('al mawet), the text of the great
majority of codices within the Masoretic tradition. Text-critical,
philological, contextual, and theological arguments favor the majority
reading of the Masoretic text.
Regarding the text, three factors must be borne in mind. First, the
phrase 'al mawet is a hapax legomenon, and so the more difficult reading
to explain away. Second, the reading of the versions demands that one
emend "byways" netiba as well. Third, one cannot account for 'al, the
negative verbal particle, before a noun unless rooted firmly in a reliable
oral tradition: "A complex body of evidence indicates the MT could
not, in any serious or systematic way, represent a reconstruction or
faking of the data."15 In cases involving the oral tradition, the Masoretic
text is preferred to the ancient versions.16
From a philological point of view, we note that though this phrase
is otherwise unattested m biblical Hebrew, it is attested in the
Northwest Semitic languages from mid-second millennium B.C. to
14C. H. Toy, Proverbs, ICC (Edinburgh: T. T. Clark, 1977), 48.
15Bruce K. Waltke and M. P. O'Connor, Introduction to Biblical Hebrew Syntax
(Winona Lake: Eisenbrauns, 1990), 26, par. 1.6.31.
330 SEMINARY STUDIES 34 (AUTUMN 1996)
Mishnaic Hebrew. Even-Shoshan lists the term as an ordinary word for
"immortality" in postbiblical Jewish sources. Moreover, the term also
denotes immortality in a Ugaritic text (ca. 1400 B.C.).17 The combined
evidence, says Sawyer, "indicat[es] a remarkable continuity of meaning
second Millenium [sic] B.C.
From the contextual point of view one expects a synthetic, not
antithetic, parallel.19 Blocks of proverbs m the A Collection (proverbs
10-15) regularly end in the rare synonymous parallelism, and a new
block begins with an aphorism pertaining to the teachability of the wise
and the incorrigibility of fools. The relationship of 12:28 to 13:1 exactly
matches that of 11:31 and 12:1. Delitzsch agrees:
The proverb xii.28 is so sublime, so weighty, that it manifestly forms
a period and conclusion. This is confirmed from the following
proverb, which begins like x.1 (cf. 5), and anew stamps the collection
as intended for youth!20
Theologically, the book of Proverbs consistently implies the
immortality of the righteous (see 2:19; 10:2,16; 11:4,19; 12:3,7, 12, 19);
its explicit expression here is no surprise: Delitzsch comments: "Nothing
is more natural than that the Chokma in its constant contrast between
life and death makes a beginning of expressing the idea of the athanasia
[i.e., 'without death,]."21 The doctrine is stated even more clearly in the
Wisdom of Solomon: "for righteousness is immortal (1:15); "God
created man for incorruption, and made him in the image of his own
eternity" (2:23). "
Another verse that more explicitly teaches the righteous have a
future that outlasts death is Prov 14:32: "The wicked person is thrown
down by his own evil, but the righteous is one who takes refuge in the
Lord when he dies."
Although "wicked" and "righteous" are precise antithetical parallels,
"thrown down by his own evil" and "takes refuge in the Lord" are not.
17The Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament by Ludwig Koehler, Walter
Baumgartner and others, trans. and ed. under the supervision of M. E. J. Richardson
collaboration with G. J. Jongeling-Vos and L. J. De Regt (Leiden: Brill, 1994), 1:48.
18J .F .A. Sawyer, "The Role of Jewish Studies in Biblical Semantics" in Scripta Singa
Vocis: Studies about Scripts, Scriptures, Scribs
and Languages in the
Vanstiphout and others (Groningen: Forsten, 1986),204-205.
19Against McKane, 451.
20Franz Delitzsch, Biblical Commentary on the Proverbs of Solomon, trans. from the
German by M. G. Easton (
WALTKE: DOES PROVERBS PROMISE TOO MUCH? 331
These ideas need to be projected appropriately into their antithetical
parallels. In sum, the wicked, who perish through their evil, do not
trust in the Lord when dying; and the righteous, who trust in the Lord
when dying, are not thrown down by evil. Thus the proverb
admonishes the disciples to show community loyalty and not to be
guilty of antisocial behavior because of their radically opposed
However, here too we face a textual problem. Instead of the reading
"when he dies" bemoto, the LXX reads o[ de> pepoiqw>j t^? e[autou? o[sio<thti
di<kaioj, "the righteous is one who trusts in his holiness," which is
retroverted as betummo (cf. 1 Kings 14:41; 3 Kings 9:4). The difference
in the unvocalized text involves the slight metathesis from bmtw, "when
he dies" (MT) to btmw, "in his integrity" (LXX).
The resolution of this textual problem is found in a lexical study of
hoseh, glossed here as "the one who takes refuge in the Lord." This qal
active participle derives from the same root as the noun translated
"refuge" in 14:26. In an antithetical parallel similar to this one, the Lord
says: "A mere breath will blow [the idols] away, but the man who
makes me his refuge [hahoseh] will inherit the land" (Isa 57:13).
The root hsh occurs 37 times in the Old Testament and always with
the meaning "to seek refuge," never "to have a refuge" (pace NIV) or "to
find a refuge" (pace NRSV). Thirty-four times, not counting Prov 14:32b,
it is used more or less explicitly with reference to taking refuge in
God/the Lord or under the shadow of his wings (cf. Prov 30:5). The
two exceptions are Isa 14:32 and 30:2, but these two exceptions prove
rule. In Isa
the afflicted take refuge in
God. In Isa 30:2 the prophet gives the expression an exceptional
meaning because he uses sarcasm: lahsot besel misrayim, "to take refuge
should have sought refuge In the Lord, not In Egypt.
The qal participle of hsh or hsh in a relative clause always denotes
a devout worshiper, "one who seeks refuge In the Lord. One other
time besides Prov 14:32b the qal participle is used absolutely: "Show the
wonder of your love, O Savior of those who take refuge (mosia hosim;
Ps 17:7). NIV here rightly glosses, "Savior of those who take refuge in
you." Gamberoni22 agrees that the qal participle of hsh has the same
"religio-ethical" sense in Prov 14:32b as in Ps 17:7.. O. Ploger and A.
Meinhold independently also reached the conclusion that YHWH is
always the stated or unstated object of hoseh!23 W. McKane, citing A.
23Otto Ploger, Spruche Salomos (Proverbia), BKAT 17 (Neukirchen-Vluyn:
332 SEMINARY STUDIES 34 (AUTUMN 1996)
Barucq (Le Livre des Proverbes), also recognizes this is the meaning of
the Masoretic text.24 In the light of this consistent use of hoseh with the
object "Lord," never "integrity," "to seek refuge in the Lord when he
dies" is far more probable than "to seek refuge in his integrity."
Not only does this lexical study support the Masoretic text over
against the LXX, but so does the book's overall theology. The book of
Proverbs teaches its audience to trust in the Lord, not in their own
integrity. Prov 3:5 commands, "Trust in the Lord." Likewise the
Prologue to the so-called Thirty Sayings of the Wise asserts: "That your
trust may be in the Lord, I teach you today, even you" (Prov ).
Toy responds against Delitzsch that "seeks a refuge in his righteous"
does not involve self-righteousness. . . , but is simply the general
teaching of Proverbs as "the reward of the righteous."25 If hsh meant "to
find a refuge," the notion of reward could be read into the text; but
since it means "to seek a refuge," it cannot. McKane implicitly confesses
he rejects the MT for dogmatic, not exegetical, reasons: "I do not
believe that the sentence originally asserted this [a belief in the after-
life].26 Against exegetical and theological expectations he follows the
LXX, "But he who relies on his own piety is a righteous man."
Meinhold reluctantly concedes this proverb, which sees a refuge for the
righteous that lies beyond the limits of death, is exceptional.27 In truth,
however, the proverb as witnessed in the MT is entirely consistent with
the historical context of the ancient Near East and with the rest of
In short, in this proverb ultimate destinies are clearly in view. Even
when dying, the righteous has all the security of a devout worshiper,
but the wicked will find his evil boomerangs on him at that time (see
). Rashi comments: "When the righteous man will die, he is
confident that he will come to the Garden of Eden."
Finally, we need to take note of the important term' aharit, in
Proverbs 23:17-18 and 24:19-20. Literally it refers to "the end" of
something, and is rightly glossed "future hope" by NIV in these
Proverbs: "Do not let your heart envy sinners, but always be zealous
for the fear of the Lord. There is surely a future hope ['aharit] for you,
Neukirchener Verlag, 1984), 176; Arndt Meinhold, Die Sprnche in Zurcher Bibeikommentar
A T (
25 Toy, 300.
26 McKane, 475.
27 Meinhold, 245.
WALTKE: DOES PROVERBS PROMISE TOO MUCH 333
and your hope will not be cut off" (-18). Again, "Do not fret
because of evil men or be envious of the wicked, for the evil man has
no future hope ['aharit], and the lamp of the wicked will be snuffed
Commenting on this important term in its similar use in Psalm
49:16, Von Rad helpfully notes:
One can never judge life in accordance with the appearance of the
moment, but one must keep 'the end' , aharit in view. This important
term which is so characteristic of thinking which is open to the
future, cannot always have referred to death. One can also translate
the word by 'future.' What is meant, therefore is the outcome of a
thing, the end of an event for which one hopes.28
Commenting on Ps 49:16, he says, "The most likely solution, then, is
to understand the sentence as the expression of a hope for a life of
communion with God which will outlast death."29
4. Exposition of 3:5
"Trust" bth is a primary term in the human covenant partners
relationship to the Lord. The verb essentially means "to feel secure, be
unconcerned." D. Kidner, citing G. R. Driver, says "the Heb for trust
had originally the idea of lying helplessly face downwards-an idea
preserved in Jer 12:5b (see RSV) and Ps 22:9b (Heb 10)."30 Jepsen notes
aptly: "With an affirmation as to the reason for the security it [bth]
means 'to rely on something, someone.'"31 The preposition "in" 'el in
the phrase "in the Lord" refers to making the Lord the goal or object
of trust.32 The wise trust the Lord who stands behind the book of
Proverbs, not in the proverbs themselves. The promises of proverbs are
no better than God who fulfills them. The Lord, not some impersonal
natural law, upholds the act-consequence nexus (cf. Prov ).
Von Rad incredibly dismisses the many proverbs that call for trust
in the Lord (3:5; 14:26; 16:3, 20; 18:10; 19:23; 28:25; 29:25; 30:1-14) as
essentially irrelevant. According to him, the wise men did not teach
trust in God, but "something apparently quite different, namely the
28 Von Rad, 202.
29 Von Rad, 204.
30 Derek Kidner, The Proverbs, The Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries
(Downers Grove, InterVarsity, 1964), 63; citing G. R. Driver, "Difficult Words in the
Hebrew Prophets," in Studies in Old Testament Prophecy, ed. H. H. Rowley
31 TDOT, 2:89
32 Waltke and O'Connor, 193, par. 11.2.2a.
334 SEMINARY STUDIES 34 (AUTUMN 1996)
reality and evidence of the order which controls the whole of life, much
as this appeared in the act-consequence relationship. This order was,
indeed, simply there and could, in the last resort, speak for itself."33 His
substitution of “order" and "act-consequence relationship" for the Lord
has become highly influential in wisdom studies. Some scholars remove
God altogether from involvement in the world, or at best reduce him
to a first cause within a deistic view of reality. E. F. Huwiler rightly
In its extreme form, the deed-consequence syndrome removes the deity
from activity in the world. According to this view, the consequence
follows the deed of itself, and Yahweh, whose power is limited, is
directly involved merely as a midwife or a chemical catalyst, although
indirectly involved as creator, who set into motion the deed-
To be sure, many sayings claim a connection between character-act-
consequence, but as Huwiler infers, they do not "presuppose divine
inactivity."35 Ultimately, God upholds that connection.
The Lord, however, does not uphold a moral order in a tidy
calculus wherein immediately righteousness is rewarded and wickedness
is punished. If that were so, people would confound pleasure with
morality; all would behave righteously for selfish reasons, not out of
pure virtue based on faith, hope, and love. They would substitute
eudaemonism (i.e., the system of thought that bases ethics, moral
obligation, on personal pleasure) for true virtue (cf. Rom 5:2-5; ,1 Pet
1:5-8). The wise trust the Lord to uphold his ethical proverbs in his
own time and in his own way, even when the wicked prosper and the
Trust in the Lord, however, without definition, is platitudinous; it
cuts no ice in one's thinking unless the Lord revealed himself. Here the
Lord's revelation, which Solomon puts into the covenant parent’s
mouth, is in view. Of his wisdom, Solomon said: "From the Lord
comes wisdom, and from his mouth come knowledge and
understanding" (Prov 2:6). The parent's mouth is God's mouth. The son
must don the entire armor forged in this book.
This trust must be exercised entirely, "with all your heart." Since
the Lord alone gives wisdom and, provides protection (2:5-8), one’s
eternal security depends only on him.
33 Von Rad, 191.
34 Elizabeth Faith Huwiler, "Control of Reality in Israelite Wisdom" (Ph.D.
35 Ibid., 68-69.
WALTKE: DOES PROVERBS PROMISE TOO MUCH? 335
This reliance must also be exercised exclusively. "Do not lean in
your own understanding" functions as the negative synonym of "trust"
(see nominal form in 1:33). To put it another way, "to rely in/to" is a
figure for "trust" (BDB 1043; cf. Isa 50:10).
Whoever relies on inadequate human understanding is a fool (26:5,
12; 16:28:26a). Human wisdom is prejudicial, partial, and insecure. As
philosophers are aware, none can know the real world objectively. That
which is known is inescapably relative to the person who does the
knowing. The way we see things is colored by a mix of previous
experiences and stereotypes perpetuated by our families, friends, peers,
movies, and television. Moreover, unaided human reason cannot come
to absolute truth; it is a recipe for disappointment and disaster. And yet
to come to absolute meaning and values, one must know all the facts.
A play does not make full sense as one views only an isolated act or
scene. It is not until the final act, until the last word is spoken and the
curtain drops, that the play takes on its full meaning. Human beings,
however, are confined to the tensions of the middle acts; without
revelation they are not privy to their resolution in the final act (1 Cor
13:12). Moreover, facts are known only in relation to other facts. We
distinguish one object from another by its similarity to some and its
dissimilarity from others. To see any object "truly," one must see all
objects comprehensively. Unaided rationality cannot find an adequate
frame of reference from which to know. C. Van Til noted that to make
an absolute judgment, human beings must usurp God's throne:
If one does not make human knowledge wholly dependent upon the
original self-knowledge and consequent revelation of God to man,
then man will have to seek knowledge within himself as the final
reference point. Then he will have to seek an exhaustive
understanding of reality. Then he will have to hold that if he cannot
attain to such an exhaustive understanding of reality, he has no true
knowledge of anything at all. Either man must then know everything
or he knows nothing. This is the dilemma that confronts every form
of non-Christian epistemology.36
Finally, this trust must be exercised exhaustively, "in all your ways
If the life of Christ came to an end on the cross, the covenant
promises of Proverbs, such as those found in the strophes of 3:1-10,
failed. However, if we pursue the career of Christ to Easter Sunday,
36Comelius VanTil, A Christian
Theory of Knowledge (
Reformed, 1969), 17.
336 SEMINARY STUDIES 34 (AUTUMN 1996)
then God faithfully fulfilled the obligations he graciously took upon
himself. Today our Lord enjoys life and prosperity. Saints around the
world praise him, and at his name every knee will bow. When we travel
the road from the cross to the tomb to his resurrection and ascension
into heaven, we can say, his is a straight path. As the writer of Hebrews
says of Jesus: "Who for the joy that was set before him endured the
cross, scorning its shame, and sat down on the right hand of God." Let
us then fix our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith.
Professor Gerhard Hasel modeled this faith.
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