Biblical References: Proverbs 4-6
Leading Question: “Is doing right more important than giving God the credit?
In the three chapters which are the focus of our study this week – Proverbs 4, 5, and 6 – explicit references to God are not frequent. God is not mentioned at all in 4, twice in 5 and once in 6.
Remarkably, the “Sayings of Agur” in Proverbs 30 do include two prayers, the only ones in the book. The first (Prov. 30:1-4) is a rather skeptical lament, echoing sentiments found in Job 38. Agur simply expresses puzzlement over the things of God. The second is a simple request for providential intervention in everyday life:
30:7 “Two things I ask of you, Lord; do not refuse me before I die: 8 Keep falsehood and lies far from me; give me neither poverty nor riches, but give me only my daily bread. 9 Otherwise, I may have too much and disown you and say, ‘Who is the Lord?’ Or I may become poor and steal, and so dishonor the name of my God.” (NIV)
That’s a step up from Ecclesiastes, the “wisdom” book that comes immediately after Proverbs in our English Bible. In Ecclesiastes, there are no prayers, no hallelujahs. The counsel of Ecclesiastes is clear and terse:
5:1 Guard your steps when you go to the house of God. Go near to listen rather than to offer the sacrifice of fools, who do not know that they do wrong.
2 Do not be quick with your mouth, do not be hasty in your heart to utter anything before God. God is in heaven and you are on earth, so let your words be few. (NIV)
The differences between Proverbs and Ecclesiastes make the question of the role of wisdom literature in a believing community even more tantalizing. As shown below, Proverbs refers to the divine, on average, 2.5x per page; Ecclesiastes, 3x per page. And Ecclesiastes never uses LORD/Yahweh, the specific reference to Israel’s God – not even once. Fascinating….
Chapters in Proverbs: 31; Chapters in Ecclesiastes: 12
Pages for Proverbs in my edition of the NIV: 33; pages for Ecclesiastes: 10
Number of pages for Proverbs in Snaith’s Hebrew Bible: 37; for Ecclesiastes: 13
Occurrences of YAHWEH/LORD in Proverbs: 86x; in Ecclesiastes: None (!)
Occurrences of Elohim/God (or equivalent) Proverbs: 8x; Ecclesiastes: 40x
Distribution of references to deity in the chapters in Proverbs:
0x: 5 chapters (4, 7, 13, 26, 27)
1x: 3 chapters (6, 23, 31)
2x: 6 chapters (1, 5, 9, 12, 18, 25)
3x: 5 chapters (8, 11, 24, 18, 29)
4x: 3 chapters (2, 10, 17)
5x: 2 chapters (19, 21)
6x: 4 chapters (14, 20, 22, 30)
9x: 2 chapters (3, 15)
11x: 1 chapter (16)
Distribution of references to deity in the chapters in Ecclesiastes:
0x: 2 chapters (4, 10)
1x: 1 chapter (1)
2x: 3 chapters (6, 9, 11)
3x: 2 chapters (2, 12)
5x: 2 chapters (7, 8)
8x: 1 chapter (3)
9x: 1 chapter (5)
On balance, it would appear that Ecclesiastes is more “religious” than Proverbs, even though the author of Ecclesiastes struggles to make sense out of the world. Note the contrasting attitudes in these two quotes, the first, a familiar one from Proverbs, the second from Ecclesiastes:
“Go to the ant, you sluggard; consider its ways and be wise!” (Prov. 6:6, NIV)
“The race is not to the swift or the battle to the strong, nor does food come to the wise or wealth to the brilliant or favor to the learned; but time and chance happen to them all.” (Eccl. 9:11, NIV)
Question: How do we make room for a pessimist like Ecclesiastes in a believing community that stresses hope and joy?
Question: Is it better to be good without God, than to be evil and constantly have his name on our lips?
The “secular” proverbs might suggest that it is possible to be helpful and moral without God. How should we react to the suggestion of the fourth-century monk Evagrius, as cited by Kathleen Norris: “Better a gentle, worldly man than a quarrelsome [Norris: irascible] and wrathful monk”?
– Kathleen Norris, Amazing Grace, 127, citing Evagrius (345-399 AD).
Question: Does a person with God on the lips always reflect God’s character?
Question: Is it possible that temperament plays a role in our perspectives on God? If so, how can we determine what proportion of piety (“godliness”) is the right proportion?
A comparison of the biblical books of Kings and Chronicles reveals that the same story can be told with God playing a key role or with no mention of God at all. Notice the difference in how the story of Ahab and Jehoshaphat is told in Kings and in Chronicles. The addition in Chronicles has been italicized in the quotation given below:
1 Kings 11:32 When the captains of the chariots saw Jehoshaphat, they said, “It is surely the king of Israel.” So they turned to fight against him; and Jehoshaphat cried out. 33 When the captains of the chariots saw that it was not the king of Israel, they turned back from pursuing him. (NRSV)
2 Chronicles 18: 31 When the captains of the chariots saw Jehoshaphat, they said, “It is the king of Israel.” So they turned to fight against him; and Jehoshaphat cried out, and the Lord helped him. God drew them away from him, 32 for when the captains of the chariots saw that it was not the king of Israel, they turned back from pursuing him. (NRSV)
Question: Is the author of Chronicles a more privileged believer because of his “godly” addition? In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus tells that deeds are more important than vocabulary:
Matthew 7:21 (NIV) “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. 22 Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name and in your name drive out demons and in your name perform many miracles?’ 23 Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!’