A wrong understanding and application of Scripture can bring great confusion to one’s life and severely wound a soul. Shepherds who truly love their flock will make it a priority, then, to not only teach the Scriptures accurately, but also apply it to their people with great care and precision. The latter is just as important as the former, as we see in the case of Job and his supposed comforters. They came to him with orthodoxy, but misapplied the Word, only to inflame Job’s pain and kindle the anger of God (Job 42:7).
This becomes an urgent matter when we consider the apparent discrepancy between the wisdom of Proverbs, Job and Ecclesiastes. Derek Kidner likens the inconsistency of the books to three houses. Proverbs would be a “seven-pillared house of Wisdom, or better, that gracious, well-stocked home of the accomplished wife, whose virtues bring the book to its serene close.” On the other hand, Job would be a very different situation: “…perhaps the wreckage in which his family perished when a ‘great wind came across the wilderness, and struck the four corners of the house,” or the ash heap to which Job had resigned himself.” Down the street would be the house of Ecclesiastes: a decaying and broken-down structure; barely a shadow of its former glory (The Wisdom of Proverbs, Job and Ecclesiastes, 116).
Proverbs offers reassuring, hopeful promises such as, “No ill befalls the righteous, but the wicked are filled with trouble” (Proverbs 12:21). The book of Job, however, portrays one of the most righteous of all men enduring a weight of suffering that exceeds the experience of most men (Job 1:8). Ecclesiastes further complicates the issue by declaring, in a desparingly stoic tone, that it does not really matter one way or the other.
Promises such as Proverbs 21:5, “The plans of the diligent lead surely to abundance, but everyone who is hasty comes only to poverty,” appear to not always be true; or at least, need some qualification. Job, no doubt, experienced the fulfillment of this promise for he was a man of great wealth; wealth that he apparently accumulated through righteous means. It was not his “hastiness,” however, that brought him to poverty; it was fire from heaven and a situation out of his control. Ecclesiastes, on the other hand, points out that an excess of wealth is nothing more than “vanity and striving after the wind,” so who cares if you have any or not?
So What are We Supposed to Think?
Is the wisdom of Proverbs, then, negated by the reality of Job and the pessimism of Ecclesiastes? Is it not a waste of time to invest faith in the promises of Proverbs and seek to live a life of wisdom? Why bother with righteousness if it may not bring the blessings it promises; and even worse, actually serves as an impetus for God to allow demonic forces to test the quality of that righteousness? Or even more discouraging: why even bother with the question at all?
Yet there is another potential danger here besides the possibility of neglecting the wisdom of Proverbs: it is wrongly applying the wisdom of Proverbs altogether. Certainly one does not need to go far to find this unfortunate tendency in well-meaning yet woefully ignorant saints. A fellow church member might find it necessary to question the fidelity of another member’s child rearing when they observe that couple’s child living a wanton life; far away from Christ and Biblical principles. “Does not the Bible say, ‘Train up a child in the way he should go and he will not depart from it?’ What is going on here? Did you not train up your child in the way he should go?” Instead of weeping with these parents, this self-endorsed protector of Biblical conformity drives the sword of despair even deeper into these parents by directly implying their lack of godly parenting. O how this person should have read and thought about their Bible more closely.
The reality of Job’s suffering and the pessimistic outlook of Ecclesiastes counter-balances the wisdom of Proverbs and adds the ever important qualification: “But it may not happen this way.” We live in a world where God reigns, and under that reign, the world functions in a certain way: hard work produces abundance and godly parenting produces a godly offspring. Nevertheless, we also live in a world that has been smitten by sin and a fall that has upset the equilibrium. Now hard work will probably bring abudance and good parenting beget faithful children; but it may not, and what wealth and children you do have could be wiped out by a firestorm. Not to mention that righteousness may not always have the temporal payoff we would expect from a bare reading of Proverbs.
The implications for pastoral preaching, counseling, and overall Christian living, then, are enormous. The question that shepherds must ask, and that has been alluded to already is, “How do we apply the bold and pleasant promises of Proverbs in light of the raw reality of Job and the unrelenting cynicism of Ecclesiastes?
How Should we Teach Proverbs, Job and Ecclesiastes?
First, it is best to allow each text to have its full force. One must be careful to not take the edge off of God’s Word by attempting to rescue it from its apparent incongruities. Kidner points out that “this single minded pursuit of their respective interests is typical to the Old Testament’s way of doing things. It tends to give itself wholly to one thing at a time, saying it with maximum force and leaving the resulting imbalance to be corrected in due course by an equally massive counter-weight. In this way, more justice can be done to many-sided subject than by steering a middle course between its extremes. It also makes for color and vitality, in contrast to the convoluted style in which every statement must be qualified as soon as it is made.
As Kidner observes, it is the pattern of the Old Testament to present truth with ‘maximum force’ and allow the truth to be balanced out by an ‘equally massive counter-weight.’ O what wisdom is here! As attractive as it might seem to balance the Bible out ourselves by taking notches off the weight of truth with constant qualifications, it is far better to follow the precedent of the Old Testament and allow God to balance out His own Word by preaching the truth of each text fully. To add qualifications is the blunt the sword and dull the scalpel. A sharp, clean sword will create a wound that can easily heal, while the jagged edges of a blunted sward will do great and unnecessary damage. A dull scalpel cannot be accurate and will end up bringing great harm to the patient, whereas a sharp scalpel makes clean cuts and easily mends.
What are the implications, then, as we deal with each text? In Proverbs, this means that we present the life of wisdom in all its unapologetic glory and blessing, and the rejection of wisdom in all its gloom. A diligent man will gain riches (Proverbs 13:4) and a wise father beget a wise son (Proverbs 22:15, 23:14-15, 29:15); while the sluggard will inherit poverty (Proverbs 13:4) and a negligent father will raise a rebellious son (Proverbs 29:15). A life of wisdom is not only pleasant (Proverbs 2:10), it stems from a right relationship with God (Proverbs 1:7).
In Job, we show our hearers that it is possible that a good and godly man may suffer in this life–and suffer grievously–but that God is in complete control of the situation. We demonstrate that when a man suffers, it may not be as a result of his sin; in fact, it may be a result of his righteousness (Job 1:8).
In Ecclesiastes, we bring our hearers into the world of the man without God and invite them to walk around in his pointless, vain existence, in order to show them that without God, life has little or no meaning. But we also portray the brutal, but true reality that both the wise and the foolish will die (Ecclesiastes 2:12-17), and in a fallen world, it is possible that one will find wickedness in place of justice and righteousness (Ecclesiastes 3:16).
To constantly qualify after every statement in order to keep things in balance, will, in the end, actually serve to robe each text of its power and sabotage the effort to bring the texts into balance. It is only when the texts are proclaimed in their fullness that they will balance each other out in the hearts and minds of our people.
Secondly, we must maintain a canonical understanding of these three texts. Kidner writes, “Some of these dissonances…urge us forward to the New Testament; others again are still with us, putting into words the ‘groaning in travial [Romans 8:23] which the New Testament itself accepts as irreducible in the present age” (Kidner, 124). Otherwise, how can we understand promises such as Proverbs 11:23, “The desire of the righteous ends only in good?” How can this be if this righteous person suffers relentlessly for their entire life, un until their death? It is because their ‘desire’ is God Himself, whom they will inevitably possess, even at the point when their ‘end’ does not appear ‘good;’ indeed, their death is ‘gain.’ The suffering of Job will find its relief and reason in eternal glory. Whereas the vain life of Ecclesiastes will, in the end, be swallowed up by eternal life and all the injustices in the world will be set right by the Great Judge.
Thirdly, we must encourage and exhort our people to embrace all three texts fully and without compromise. It is probably not wise to make the following sophisticated conclusion, “Well, since it is possible that my children may not continue in the way I train them, then it probably does not matter if I train them at all.” May it never be! The uncertainty of the promise’s temporal fulfillment must not dicate our eagerness to obey the commandment. An obedient heart will seek to fulfill the commandments and endeavor to glorify God with a life of wisdom, while at the same time worshipping God in the seasons that betray our life of wisdom (Job 1:20-21).
On the other hand, it is probably equally dishonoring to God to be so engrossed in wisdom, that one fails to recognize the pain of aimless despair of those who are apart from their Creator. Therefore, a Christian must not only embrace Proverbs with a passion to obey, and Job with a heart to believe in the midst of great trial; he must also embrace Ecclesiastes in order taste the bitter cup of those who walk this world apart from true meaning and purpose.
Finally, each text must be understood as wisom. It is easy to understand Proverbs this way; it is a self-proclaimed book of wisdom. But where does the reveleation of wisdom originate in the Proverbs? The Lord Himself (Proverbs 2:6), and true wisdom is derived from a proper understanding of reality. Only a clear and true understanding of reality will lead to a life of real wisdom because wisdom, essentially, is the ability to live well in this world. Therefore, it can be maintained that not only Proverbs–but also Job and Ecclesiastes–are books of wisdom because all three teach us about true reality and give us insights into the way the world works so that we can better live in it.
Yes it is true that in a world governed by Yahwah, righteousness will lead to reward and unrighteousness will lead to punishment; but is also true that the same world governed by Yahweh has experienced a fall that has brought us into a situation where some of this reward and some of this punishment must be postponed for a short time and finally dealt with at the Judgement.
As we struggle with, live with, and teach our people, our rejoicing, our weeping, our assuming and our instructing must be guided by a full understanding and careful application of God’s Word. How dangerous it is to promise that which is not true, or encourage neglect, or to make false assumptions about hurting people. O that our teaching and counseling might be a manifestation of broken-hearted truth-telling, that knows well that there is a time to weep and a time to laugh; there is a time to speak and a time to be silent (Ecclesiastes 3:4, 7).