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First Quarter 2015 (January–March)
COMMENTARY ON PROVERBS
Week 12: March 14–20
COMMENTARY ON THE HUMILITY OF THE WISE
Following is a combined commentary on the material included in the Bible Study Guide with references as necessary to the supplemental passages included in the E. G. White Notes for the Sabbath School Lessons.
Note: Unless otherwise stated, all biblical quotes are from the English Standard Version (ESV).
This week’s Sabbath School (SS) lesson focuses on Proverbs 30, a unique collection of sayings not written by the primary author of Proverbs, Solomon, but a non-Israelite teacher, Agur. Proverbs 30 is a richly theological chapter, and Agur gives us great expressions of humility, as well as wonder exhibited towards God’s revelation, both by His Word and in nature. To borrow an observation from Derek Kidner, Agur seems to reflect the attitude of the Psalmist “I ponder the works of your hand.” (Psalm 143:5)
This commentary interacts with the views expressed by the SS author, and also relevant Seventh-day Adventist (SDA) doctrine (represented by the 28 Fundamental Beliefs and the published writings of Ellen G. White [EGW]).
The book of Proverbs is more than a simple list of aphorisms to help one get a leg up on life. Rather, Proverbs presents itself as a profoundly theological book, given by a loving God to the people with whom He has entered into a covenant. God is giving his people advice for well-living which will be according to his Torah and presupposes an already existing relationship between God and the reader. Indeed, the first major section (Chapters 1 – 9) are written as a father passing on wisdom revealed by God (c.f. Proverbs 2:6), and has as bookends the well-known expression “the fear of the LORD is the beginning of knowledge/wisdom” (Proverbs 1:7, 9:10). This echoes the admonitions in Deuteronomy:
Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one. You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. And these words that I command you today shall be on your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise….It is the LORD your God you shall fear. Him you shall serve and by his name you shall swear. (Deuteronomy 6:4-7, 13)
What should Christians make of the book of Proverbs? We are no longer under the Old Covenant, but rather, through faith in the finished work of Jesus Christ, we may be grafted into the New Covenant, which was ratified by His substitutionary death on the cross. We are no longer obligated to observe the commands of the Torah (which include as a subset the Ten Commandments), insofar as the Old Covenant has passed away. However, we are obligated to follow the admonitions of Jesus Christ and his apostles—many of which overlap with the commands of the Torah, which was given to ancient Israel as the then-covenanted people of God. Moreover, we know that, as God-breathed scripture, Proverbs was written for our instruction, that we “may be complete, equipped for every good work.” (2 Timothy 3:16). With the abundant gifts of Christ to His church, including apostles (who gave us the New Testament) and teachers, as well as the illumination of the Holy Spirit, we may be guided to use these proverbs rightly today.
Additional resources for understanding the Old and New Covenants and their relationship to Christians today are listed below.
Dale Ratzlaff – Sabbath in Christ
Thomas Schreiner – 40 Questions About Christians and Biblical Law
The SS author makes the important connection that our humility should be properly grounded in who God is—Creator—and who we are—creatures. However, we must go further than this. Not only have we been created, we are fallen, and must recognize that we are sinners in Adam who must be born again, and this must also characterize our humility. It is not simply that our works are tainted by sin and unacceptable to God, rather we are sinners, who apart from Christ are dead before God (Ephesians 2:1-3).
The SS author rightly affirms the scriptural witness to the importance of humility, but some of the texts used here and in following lessons seem to be out of context, and are texts which are focused on repentance and faith in Christ rather than giving simple morality lessons. For example, in the beginning of Matthew 18, Jesus is not simply praising the virtue of humility, he is teaching that to be saved one must of humbly repent with the faith of a child. Similarly, in Sunday’s lesson, Jesus’s contrast between the Pharisee and the Publican (Luke 18:9-14) is not so much about praising humility vs self-righteousness, but rather a lesson that, if we do not recognize that we are by nature sinners and utterly dependent on God’s mercy, we cannot be justified before a Holy God. Yes, such a recognition must involve humility, but that is not the thrust of the passage in Luke.
I would add a further exegetical point to the lesson on Proverbs 30:32—there are multiple words for “fool” employed in the OT, and nabal seems to be the most severe of all of them. Indeed, it is the nabal who says in his heart “there is no God” (Psalm 14:1).
It is interesting to note that, in 2 Corinthians, Paul is slightly oblique in his criticism of foolish behavior in Corinth. Additionally, he is not focused on long-standing Corinthian church members, but is focused on the “super-apostles” who were stirring up problems. So, where does Paul use his most severe language against foolishness in the early church? It is in the letter to the Galatians.
O foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you? It was before your eyes that Jesus Christ was publicly portrayed as crucified…You observe days and months and seasons and years! I am afraid I may have labored over you in vain. (Galatians 3:1, 4:10-11)
The Galatian Christians were placing themselves back under Old Covenant laws such as circumcision, dietary, and day observances (including the weekly Sabbath). They chose to do this in order to maintain their covenant relationship with God. However, because of the finished work of Christ on the cross, we enter into the New Covenant by faith, and to go back to laws which were given for a limited time is foolish, and severs one from Christ (Galatians 5:4). SDA doctrine teaches Sabbath observance not as a mere denominational distinctive, or choice of personal conscience, but as an eternal requirement built into creation and binding on all people at all times, and a test of faith in the days preceding the second coming of Christ. For members of the New Covenant, such externalities are a matter of personal conscience and not normative (Romans 14:1-12, Colossians 2:8-23).
This lesson starts out with an astounding assertion: “pride arises in those who don’t know the Lord in a personal way. In contrast, the person who lives in communion with God will be humble, for he or she is constantly in touch with [God].” This is profoundly misleading—even if I am born again, I still may fall into sin (1 John 1:8). Yes, a believer’s life will not be characterized by a pattern of unrepentant sin, but the SS author’s language creates a false and unbiblical distinction between those who do not know the Lord and those who do. The good news for a believer is not simply that I will be able to resist pride because I commune with God, but rather because I am a new creation (2 Corinthians 5:17), God works in me to will and to work for His good pleasure (Philippians 2:13), and He is able to keep me from stumbling and to present me blameless before the presence of His glory with great joy (Jude 24).
I would draw attention to Proverbs 30:6:
Do not add to his words, lest he rebuke you and you be found a liar.
If an SDA student of the Bible would be wise, he must ask himself if the words of SDA teachers and the Spirit of Prophecy have added to God’s Word. On the next-to-last page of the teachers’ notes, a passionate argument by EGW against meat eating is recorded. In order to evaluate the conclusion of her argument, we may appropriate the words of the original being who twisted God’s word, the Serpent, “Did God actually say, ‘You shall not eat the flesh of animals?’” (c.f. Genesis 3:1). Consider the witness of Jesus Christ:
“Do you not see that whatever goes into a person from outside cannot defile him, since it enters not his heart but his stomach, and is expelled?” (Thus he declared all foods clean.) (Mark 7:18-19)
Though EGW appeals to biblical truths in this particular argument (which grounds vegetarianism in the similarity between man and animal), we must reject it since her conclusion contradicts the words of the Lord. It should not surprise us, though it might sadden and anger us, that teachers like EGW would contradict the teaching of the Lord. God predicted work of the Serpent’s associates in our day:
Now the Spirit expressly says that in later times some will depart from the faith by devoting themselves to deceitful spirits and teachings of demons, through the insincerity of liars whose consciences are seared, who forbid marriage and require abstinence from foods that God created to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and know the truth. (1 Timothy 4:1-3)
The SS author draws out the excellent point from this passage in Proverbs (relating it rightly to Job), that God transcends us and his ways are unfathomable. In presenting God’s transcendent sovereignty, scripture actually goes beyond this: a repeating theme of scripture is that God, by virtue of his creatorship, simply does not owe us, his creatures, anything. In fact, to judge his ways is a sin! Meditate on Job’s repentance in Job 42, on Paul’s castigation of those who would question God’s freedom in Romans 9, and later, his praise of God’s ways (which itself references Job):
Oh the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways!
For who has known the mind of the Lord, or who has been his counselor?
Or who has given a gift to him that he might be repaid?
For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory forever. Amen.
In light of such an exalted view of God, who is surely justified in all his ways, one must be concerned with the SDA doctrine of the Great Controversy, which provides a super-structure to many other unique SDA doctrines, wherein God must answer Satan’s accusations of injustice. Is the God who is embroiled in this Great Controversy (an must somehow vindicate himself before his creation) really the God of the Bible?
The following article and chart provide a helpful summary of the Great Controversy, comparing its presuppositions to the classical Christian doctrine of God.
The SS author mentions the importance of making sure our relationship with God is “solid”. This is slightly unclear because the Bible presents two perspectives on our relationship with God: there is, in a manner of speaking, our legal standing or covenant relationship with God, and there is our day-to-day walk. In one sense, a Christian is completely righteous, by the just declaration of God on account of the finished work of Jesus Christ who bore that Christian’s sin. But, in another sense, the Christian may have temporarily fallen into sin and has yet to confess and repent. In the first sense, we are totally forgiven, as God does not hold our sins against us, and because He has adopted us, he has promised to discipline us. And, if we refuse to confess, that itself is a sin, and he will discipline us of that, because we are his. Consider the logic of the author of Hebrews:
It is for discipline that you have to endure. God is treating you as sons. For what son is there whom his father does not discipline? If you are left without discipline, in which all have participated, then you are illegitimate children and not sons. (Hebrews 12:8-9)
In one sense, therefore, my relationship is “solid” (to borrow the SS author’s word) not because of my willingness to confess my sins at a particular moment in time, but rather because of my adoption on the basis of the finished work of Christ. However, we are still to pursue holiness, with the assurance that we are God’s and He has given us His spirit to work in us, according to his good pleasure. We are to examine ourselves, and “be always confessing our sins” (as the tense of 1 John 1:9 implies).
The SS author calls attention to the excellent point that “balance” in life is achieved by a total reliance on God as a gracious provider, rather than our own efforts to balance our lives. However, I do not agree (and I do not think the Bible does either) with the point that only situations of abundance and riches can lead to a disconnect from God rather than a situation of want and poverty. Surely, to be rich is to be in a dangerous situation (c.f. Matthew 19:24), but the poor of society are more vulnerable and open to abuse. As Solomon says:
The fallow ground of the poor would yield much food, but it is swept away through injustice. (Proverbs 13:23)
Surely, would not a poor person who is also being taken advantage of be tempted to doubt the goodness or justice of God? The pain of the saint in light of God’s perceived slowness to enact his justice is a common theme in the Psalms. Asaph almost stumbled because he saw the wealth and prosperity of the wicked! (Psalm 73) Paul listed “nakedness and famine” as conditions which might cause one to question God’s love (Romans 8:35), and Jesus exhorted his disciples to not be anxious about God’s provision (Matthew 6:25).
While Jesus’s rebukes to the seven churches in John’s Apocalypse may certainly be instructive to us today, the message to the Laodiceans has a peculiar understanding within SDA historical doctrine. Early on in the SDA movement, the so-called “Laodicean Message” was taken as applicable to those Adventists who remained in Sunday churches and did not accept the Seventh-Day Sabbath. I would not want to fault this SS author with specifically calling that understanding to mind, but in light of the historical application of the Laodicean Message, one must ask oneself: is it more arrogant to not choose to submit oneself to observing a particular day of the week, or to call other Christians to do so?
Therefore, let no one pass judgment on you in questions of food and drink, or with regard to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath. (Colossians 2:16)
I would add an exegetical consideration to the SS author’s notes on Proverbs 30:18-19 – most conservative commentators see these two verses as linked to verse 20. The four mysteries, which describe creatures adept at complex and beautiful activities which come naturally to them, are the setup for the shocking sin of the adulteress, who lives her life with little care of the grievousness of her actions, which she views not as severe betrayals, but a regular meal. (c.f. Proverbs 5:5-6).
I would also call into question the SS author’s emphasis on Proverbs 30:24-28 – should we understand Agur as being baffled and intellectually helpless in the light of these small and weak creatures accomplishing great things, or should we see these observations as Agur delighting in seeing natural, God-given reversals of fortunes, and encouraging us to apply such wisdom to our lives? Indeed, in his church, God chose what is foolish, weak, low, and even despised to bring to nothing that which we naturally might consider wise, strong, high, and respected!
Today, I would draw attention to the language in discussion question 1. Words such as “regeneration” and “substitute” are appropriated by SDA doctrine differently than they are understood within historic confessing Christianity. In particular, Christ’s death on the cross must be understood, among other things, as accomplishing penal substitutionary atonement. SDA doctrine adds to this the teaching that, in the final judgment, the sins of God’s people will be placed on Satan, who fulfills the role of the “scapegoat” as typified in the ceremony on the OT Day of Atonement. However, speaking of Jesus, Peter writes, “He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness.” (1 Peter 2:24). We must understand Christ as the suffering servant of Isaiah 52:13 – 53:12:
Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; yet we esteem him stricken, smitten by God and afflicted. But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his wounds we are healed…he bore the sin of many and makes intercession for the transgressors.” (Isaiah 53:4-5, 12)
Note the last clause—“makes intercession for the transgressors”. Because of his death on the cross, Jesus was exalted to the right hand of God (Philippians 2:6-11), and is interceding for us (Romans 8:34). Closely tied to Christ’s work on the cross, Paul can confidently say that Christ has become to us the wisdom of God (1 Corinthians 1:30). God help us be wise and build our houses on this Rock, and not on any other foundation (Matthew 7:24-27)!
The following article is a helpful overview of the atonement and the question of the scapegoat:
The following magazine provides an overview of traditional Christian terms and the unique SDA definitions:
Resources on Proverbs