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A proverb like this one is sometimes read as though it dismisses one thing in favor of another.

The horse is made ready for the day of battle, but the victory belongs to the LORD. (Proverbs 21:31 NRSV)

By this understanding, the cavalryman’s preparation of the horse against the mortal engagement that awaits is seen as futile, because YHWH does it all anyway. 

The is almost certainly not what the proverb intends.

Rather than pit A against B in a win-lose sprint towards understanding, the proverb places A in a new context. A second reality shows the first truth’s genuine colors in ways that it cannot display by itself.

By this reading, the hard work of planning and preparation—for battle or for anything else—is honored, but not praised. It is not given the prize of Prime Mover of anything good that happens, in this case ‘victory’

Rather, we are helped to see that victory would not come if the horse had not been made ready. Planning and preparation make other things possible. YHWH gives the victory precisely to the well-prepared horse and his horsemen. They do not win it for themselves.

So does the realism of biblical wisdom credit both human agency and divine providence. It does not imagine that true clarity lies in collapsing them into just one or just the other.

This is not a kind of created reality that can be manipulated by human beings. It does not give itself up to mechanical claims of causality, especially of human causality.

Rather, it urges us to prepare, for the sluggard is the one who lies around all day and paves his own highway to poverty.

Yet it liberates us also from the delusion that we are the makers of today or of tomorrow.

To the stables, then. There are horses to be shod.

 

Although true religion can be prescribed, it can never be automated.

There is no mechanical predictability in the way we interact with our Maker. It is true that we must do the right things. But this does not mean that performance of the right actions simply elicits from God the response we require.

To the contrary, motive matters.

In fact, biblical wisdom is even more severe than this. Doing the right thing from out of a wicked life is more than just ineffective. It is a provocation.

The sacrifice of the wicked is an abomination; how much more when he brings it with evil intent. (Proverbs 21:27 ESV)

Biblical wisdom dares to suggest that manipulating the deity without reflection upon one’s own ethical status is one of the worst kinds of hubris. It is detestable, which is the meaning of ‘abomination’. 

Yet it’s possible to lay blame for this misdeed at the feet of simple ignorance about how things really are. For all their devious intelligence, the wicked are sometimes stunningly naive about reality.

The second half of the proverb declares an offense even more grave than this kind of ignorance. When the wicked person actually schemes to move God’s arm against the innocent—when not merely culpable ignorance but actual intent to turn the Righteous One to unrighteousness lies at the root of religious activity—then the worshipper becomes the worst of sinners.

In the ancient world, as in ours, there are few true atheists. Unbelief takes the form of distorted faith more often than no faith at all. Atheism is more commonly practical than conceptual.

Its too common manifestation is attempted manipulation of YHWH, one of self-absorbed religion’s ugliest children.

A life that unfolds in the presence of YHWH is dynamic rather than static. Its investments are fruitful according to catalytic rather than summative patterns. Tit for tat and quid pro quo lose their explanatory power.

One gives, and then finds that she’s received more than she’s given. This latter observation is perhaps the most frequently declared testimony of those who have purposed to follow the LORD’s coaxing onto uncertain terrain.

The book of proverbs from time to time captures this reality, though certainly with its customary subtlety.

Whoever pursues righteousness and kindness will find life, righteousness, and honor. (Proverbs 21:21 ESV)

In the doorway of the interpretation I am pursuing, there swings a double door.

The first is the recognition that one pursues two things, but finds three: righteousness and kindness, on the pursuing side; and life, righteousness, and honor, on the side of finding.

Now rarely is Hebrew poetry haphazard. We should suspect that this modest imbalance in the description of a purposeful life is intentional and says something.

The second panel of this door consist of the five qualities that are mentioned, first as objects of pursuit and then as things discovered. They are righteousness (צדקה) and kindness (חסד) in the first instance; life (חיים), righteousness again (צדקה), and honor (כבוד) in the second.

One can imagine righteousness and kindness as perfectly appropriate objects of pursuit for the young man or woman who purposes to become wise. They are personal qualities that with vigorous focus—thus, ‘whoever pursues‘—one can integrate into one’s way with the world and the people with whom one shares that world. We’d hope to live next door to someone like that. We’d consider ourselves fortunate.

It’s less clear from the optic of the Bible’s wisdom literature that pursuing honor is an equally admirable thing. Rather, honor is what is given to someone who has lived well, and with his community always in view.

Here, honor is one of three things given—or, more precisely, discovered—by the one who lives righteously and with kindness. The others are life, and then righteousness itself, this time presumably not as the thing I offer to others but rather as the blessing that others extend to me!

It must be admitted that some highly competent English translations take another path, choosing to render צדקה differently in each of its two appearances. The JPS is an example:

He who strives to do good and kind deeds Attains life, success, and honor. (Proverbs 21:21 JPS)

Or, slightly more literally, the NIV:

He who pursues righteousness and love finds life, prosperity and honor. (Proverbs 21:21 NIV)

Yet the artistry of the proverbialist, it seems to me, extends behind vocabulary to the maxim’s very structure, offering here a picture of the wise life in which one ends up getting much more than he has given. More precisely, the wise person gets back what she has given, and so much more than that.

So does gratitude find its place in wisdom’s rich inventory of quiet virtues.

After detailing the radical bent-ness of the wicked, the writer of the thirty-sixth psalm finds himself overwhelmed by the ubiquity of YHWH. The LORD’s loving justice is everywhere.

Your steadfast love, O LORD, extends to the heavens, your faithfulness to the clouds. Your righteousness is like the mountains of God; your judgments are like the great deep; man and beast you save, O LORD. (Psalm 36:5–6 ESV)

The Hebrew Bible does not traffic in the notions of omnipresence or ubiquity to which thoughtful readers of the Bible would eventually lay their hand. It’s natural dialect is more concrete, more this-worldly. Yet, in spite of what might seem to our habits of thinking a limitation, the Hebrew poet knows how to say exactly what he wants to say. Continue Reading »

Bring on the loneliness, the incendiary thirst, the gnawing hunger, the near certainly of a relatively slow death!

I’ll take this, so the speaker of a proverb about domestic life stakes his claim, than live comfortably with that woman … :

Better to live in a desert than with a quarrelsome and ill-tempered wife. (Proverbs 21:19 NIV)

Though spoken completely from a man’s point of view, the proverb’s roles are easily reverses. A ‘quarrelsome and ill-tempered husband’ is just as adept at draining the joy from comfort and companionship. Continue Reading »

How do we get God’s attention? How to snag some eye contact with the divine? Some face time with the Omnipotent?

If the question sounds irreverent, it’s likely because we’ve developed an aesthetic preference for not placing the question so frontally. But we still wonder. Continue Reading »

The thirty-second psalm is all but drunk with sweet release.

Blessed is the one whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered. Blessed is the man against whom the LORD counts no iniquity, and in whose spirit there is no deceit. (Psalm 32:1–2 ESV)

Like most durable truths, this one has been hard won. Whatever the shattering failure of the writer, it led to writhing that seemed a sickness unto death:

For when I kept silent, my bones wasted away through my groaning all day long. For day and night your hand was heavy upon me; my strength was dried up as by the heat of summer. Selah

I acknowledged my sin to you, and I did not cover my iniquity; I said, ‘I will confess my transgressions to the LORD,’ and you forgave the iniquity of my sin. (Psalm 32:3–5 ESV)

Continue Reading »

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