Saturday, December 29, 2012
Book Review: "God's Wisdom in Proverbs"
Pastor Dan Phillips Mines the Motherlode and Strikes Gold
This review has been a long time in coming. Too long, really. Dan's book has been out for some time, and I've only now been able to get to reading it. It's been more than worth the wait, and the time spent with "God's Wisdom in Proverbs" has been time well spent.
Last January, I reviewed Dan's first book, "The World Tilting Gospel." When he mentioned his second book on Proverbs, he said that it would be a "slower" read and would require more time for study of Scripture along with the book, and pondering. This proved to be true, but it's a good kind of "slower" read, and is not dull by any means. I have seen various attempts to deal with Proverbs, but in my mind, this is one of the best approaches and best treatments of Solomon's wisdom that I have seen.
The key reason I make that assessment is because it strikes a very keen balance between two reading audiences. It is a book that will profit both the trained Bible scholar and the layperson. For the scholar, Dan frequently references the original Hebrew and digs deeply into the intended meanings of words and phrases—key in understanding the intent of Solomon and the other contributors to Proverbs. But Dan's writing and manner of explaining the biblical text is very user-friendly, accessible for the non-scholar, and is a tremendous resource for anyone who wants to mine this portion of God's Word for very rich treasure—the motherlode of His wisdom.
The book begins by laying out the groundwork for studying Proverbs, looking at the difference between Hebrew poetry and our more Western model. Proverbs is in the portion of Scripture known as "wisdom literature," and Proverbs is an assembled book of wisdom—wisdom from God given to the wisest man in human history (by the gift of God Himself). Dan also helpfully (and cleverly) describes what a proverb is— a "saying, not a dissertation . . . or an adage without "paddage." Definition: "A proverb is a compressed statement of wisdom, artfully crafted to be striking, thought-provoking, memorable, and practical." They are designed for "lean economy of expression." In a proverb, "the language is stripped down to its essentials for maximum impact and memorability." Dan illustrates this as follows:
This quality of terseness is both the genius and the challenge of Hebrew poetry. It is effective in the way the imagery or thought is embedded on the mind. But one feels the challenge in interpretation, as the writer expects the reader to use his familiarity with the imagery, and his imagination, to fill in the gaps. The challenge is particularly keen to twenty-first century English-speaking urbanites, who find the writer's terms tough to translate, and his imagery removed from our daily experience.
It can indeed be tough, but as Dan shows over the course of the book, far from impossible, and very profitable to make the effort to "get it."
I'd like to highlight a couple of key passages in "God's Wisdom in Proverbs" that really grabbed me. While there are many such passages in a rich study like this, I find these two passages hitting the bullseye in the attitudes prevalent in this world (and even in the church) that hold many back from finding the motherlode within God's Word ourselves.
In Chapter 5—"Relating to God by Trust and Worship"—Dan makes the point that human arrogance and pride stand in the way of understanding even simple matters from GOD'S point of view. Proverbs are very simple for understanding's sake, yet very, very deep. Stepping out of Proverbs for a moment and going into Psalm 119, Dan exposes a foundational fault in today's culture. (I am sorely tempted to make an Emergent Church dig here, but will restrain myself). He points out Psalm 119:21 and then verse 85. Both speak of human arrogance and the folly of wandering from the revealed Word of God. It's the opposite of TRUST in God. Albeit I'm abridging a little, I'll let Dan speak for himself:
First, note verse 21: — "You rebuke the insolent, accursed ones, who wander from your commandments." Accordingly, the essence of arrogance is not (as the postmodern would have it) the claim to know anything with certainty. Rather, arrogance is exposed as the refusal to bow the knee to God's Word. Next, we turn to Psalm 199:85—"The insolent have dug pitfalls for me; they do not live according to Your law."
What is arrogance, then? In God's eyes, there simply is no greater arrogance than rejecting Yahweh's viewpoint in favor of my own. It is grimly fascinating that some Christians abhor the believer who dares to think he or she knows something from the Word. To such folks, claiming certainty on any given issue is the height of arrogance. They are certain that certainty is bad. By contrast, it is the height of arrogance to have a word from God and refuse to trust it by incorporating it into our way of thinking and living.
Dan then compares this attitude to two fundamental sins—that of the Serpent in Genesis 3, beginning with questioning whether God said something, followed quickly by denial, and then to exalt one's own judgment over that of God's. As Dan puts it, "arrogance posing as humility" and "arrogance posing as open-mindedness."
Are you hearing the crack of the rifle and the bullet hitting the exploding target? Dan then (as Solomon often does in Proverbs) contrasts this attitude with the heart-attitude and mindset of the faithful, quoting "The fear of man lays a snare, but whoever trusts in the Lord is safe" (Proverbs 29:25). Trusting in the Lord (and in His revealed Word) has benefits and positive consequences.
The second passage that gripped me was in Chapter 8 - "Skill in Godly Child Training." How does the wise and discerning child (and really, adult believer) respond to God's correction? This paragraph succinctly nails the absolute necessity of our proper response—in faith and trust—to God's Word:
Parental training is not magic or automatically effective, any more than Biblical preaching is magically powerful. In a Bible-teaching fellowship, one is at least exposed to the teaching of the Word on a regular basis. However, simply sitting and allowing one's eardrums to vibrate to the proclaimed Word makes no difference unless we take what we hear to heart in faith [cf. Heb 4:2 NAS, NIV; and James 1:22-27] (emphasis mine).
Dan then quotes a key proverb . . . A dense man spurns the discipline of his father, but he who keeps reproof acts shrewdly (Proverbs 15:5). I have seen many, many instances of this throughout my Christian life, and am again seeing it currently in the lives of a beloved Christian family whom I know. A Christian family that attended church, was involved in ministry, yet the home broke apart and some of the teen and young adult children went wayward. As Dan puts it, "the dense son "shines it on," as the kids used to say. He rejects it. What sets the wise son apart from the dense son is that he keeps instruction; he hangs on to it, he takes it to heart and makes it his own."
The ultimate goal of any parent or caregiver, as far as training in righteousness is concerned, is that the child takes the godly precepts taught (and hopefully lived out in the parents' lives without hypocrisy), and MAKES THEM HIS/HER OWN. They become the child's OWN precepts and standards, not merely ones imposed from the outside. And this also applies to adults. We can mouth all the Scriptures we like, and mouth them self-righteously to other people. But the proof is in the pudding, and people see the reality of our faith if they see the Scriptures we quote actually lived out in our lives.
In the end, all the clever fads and ideas won't cut it. The church-growth programs won't cut it. Seminars won't cut it. The slickest preacher with the most entertaining platform style won't cut it. What cuts it is hearing, believing and living the Word of God. The Holy Spirit works through His Word, and through His obedient people.
There is much more to "God's Wisdom in Proverbs," but my hope is that you will buy, read and absorb the book. I don't want to give away all the candy on the floor. Some might think the book may be too deep for a Sunday school class, but I disagree. This book could and should be used for Sunday school. And I need to reiterate something I said before when reviewing Dan's "The World Tilting Gospel," I said that I rarely make recommendations for Sunday school material other than the Bible. In general, we use way too many "curricula" and materials other than Scripture, and we have a generation in the church that is biblically illiterate as a result.
Dan's "God's Wisdom in Proverbs" is NOT that. It is intended to be used with God's Word firmly in hand. I recommend it highly. You won't regret the time to read it.