Wisdom for a World of a Thousand Seductions
Proverbs 6:1–19 – Proverbs: Wisdom for Life
First Sunday of Advent – December 2, 2018 (am)
Father, grant your Spirit to illumine your Word as it is read and heard and preached. And inspire and strengthen us to walk in the way of wisdom for the glory of Christ, in whose name we pray. Amen.
This morning’s sermon text is from the book of Proverbs, ch. 6, vv. 1–19. If you’re using the pew Bibles, it’s found on pp. 530–31. Proverbs 6:1–19. Hear the word of God:
My son, if you have put up security for your neighbor, have given your pledge for a stranger, if you are snared in the words of your mouth, caught in the words of your mouth, then do this, my son, and save yourself, for you have come into the hand of your neighbor: go, hasten, and plead urgently with your neighbor. Give your eyes no sleep and your eyelids no slumber; save yourself like a gazelle from the hand of the hunter, like a bird from the hand of the fowler.
Go to the ant, O sluggard; consider her ways, and be wise. Without having any chief, officer, or ruler, she prepares her bread in summer and gathers her food in harvest. How long will you lie there, O sluggard? When will you arise from your sleep? A little sleep, a little slumber, a little folding of the hands to rest, and poverty will come upon you like a robber, and want like an armed man.
A worthless person, a wicked man, goes about with crooked speech, winks with his eyes, signals with his feet, points with his finger, with perverted heart devises evil, continually sowing discord; therefore calamity will come upon him suddenly; in a moment he will be broken beyond healing.
There are six things that the LORD hates, seven that are an abomination to him: haughty eyes, a lying tongue, and hands that shed innocent blood, a heart that devises wicked plans, feet that make haste to run to evil, a false witness who breathes out lies, and one who sows discord among brothers.
This is God’s Word. Odd ducks can tell us a lot about the meaning and purpose of a given context. Think of the game “Duck, Duck, Gray Duck.” A bunch of “ducks” (children) sit in a circle. Most are yellow; one sorry sap of a duck is gray. What a wierdo! But all the meaning of the game revolves around that odd gray duck, around whether or not the gray duck can catch the person who slapped him or her. Surely you know the game. And surely you know that many people call it not “Duck, Duck, Gray Duck,” but “Duck, Duck, Goose.” Only people from Minnesota say “gray duck.”[i] Most everyone else says “goose.” So being an odd duck in how I name the game bears meaning as a signal to you of my roots in the tundra. Odd duck realities tell us a lot.
That’s why today’s text, Prov 6:1–19, is important. It’s an odd duck passage. It begins in vv. 1–5 as instruction about what to do if you have “put up security for a neighbor”—that is, if you’ve promised to pay someone else’s debt should they default. Then, vv. 6–11 instructs concerning laziness. Finally, in vv. 12–19, we read about the “worthless, wicked” person who is, as v. 14 highlights, “continually sowing discord,” and who again, at the end in v. 19, “sows discord among brothers.”[ii] There are such people who use their bodies,[iii] who so strategize, and whose hearts are perverted and bent to sow strife. So we have three sets of instruction about guaranteeing another’s loan, laziness, and sowing strife—in itself, there’s nothing very strange about addressing these topics together. But when considered in the surrounding context, 6:1–19 is a bit of an odd duck. For the sake of time, I’ll point out just two, of several,[iv] reasons for thinking this.
First, notice the language used in v. 16: “There are six things the Lord hates, yea, seven that are an abomination to him.” If you’ve read Proverbs before, that kind of language is likely familiar to you: “there are x things, and x+1 things …”[v] But it’s mostly familiar because it shows up a lot in ch. 30 at the end of the book. 6:16 is the only time numbered escalation appears before ch. 30. Or consider vv. 10–11: “A little sleep, a little slumber, a little folding of the hands to rest, and poverty will come upon you like a robber, and want like an armed man”—that’s identical to the words of Prov 24:33–34.[vi] These and several other statements in our passage look a lot more like verses from the main body of Proverbs in Prov 10–30, than like the introductory lessons of the father to the son in Prov 1–9.[vii] It’s as if a little of what was reserved for later in the book has been intentionally pulled forward to appear here in ch. 6. At first glance, Prov 6:1–19 doesn’t quite seem to fit in its present literary context. It’s a bit of an odd duck.
Here’s a second reason why 6:1–19 is strange in its context. Right before our passage in ch. 5, as we saw last Sunday, the father warns the son about the adulteress, or as some translations have it, the “strange woman.” What comes after our passage in 6:20–35? From v. 24, we see that it’s a lesson about “the adulteress.” “Do not desire her beauty in your heart,” the father pleads. Chapter 7 goes on to give the tenth and final formal lesson of the father to the son in Proverbs. And surprise, surprise, this final lesson is, according to v. 5, about “the forbidden woman,” “the adulteress,” and the naïve who wander to her house. In the final three lessons of the father to the son in Proverbs, the father is intent on highlighting one thing: the “strange woman” who entices the simple away from the path of wisdom. Yet right after he begins to focus on the seductions of the adulterous woman, he throws in, in ch. 6, some seemingly tangential words about guaranteeing another’s debt and laziness and the person intent on sowing strife.[viii] That’s odd.
Proverbs 6:1–19 is a strange passage in context. It sounds more like what comes in the second half of Proverbs than the first half. It interrupts the father’s surrounding focus on the dangers of adultery and being seduced by the adulterous woman. It’s an odd duck passage.
But odd ducks can tell us a lot about the meaning and purpose of a situation. And I think the particular the odd duck which is Prov 6:1–19 is a kind of interpretive key to what the author is doing in the surrounding chapters of Proverbs. Apparently, the author felt it was fitting to place Prov 6 where it is. Apparently, even if these verses interrupt the surrounding focus on the adulterous woman, the interruption is necessary to help us more properly receive the father’s instructions. So what’s the logic at work in putting words about becoming surety, laziness, and stirring up strife in the midst of extended warnings against adultery?[ix]
An equally important prior question is why the adulterous woman gets so much air time in Proverbs, why the dangerous seductions of the forbidden woman are emphasized in such a repeated and sustained way. From one angle, the reason for this emphasis is obvious. These lessons are addressed to the father’s son, his male child, who, from several indications in Proverbs, seems to be in the vulnerable and important season of youthful ignorance.[x] At the same time, the son seems old enough to be married, and may actually be so, since the instruction in 5:15–20 concerns fidelity to one’s wife. So the son receiving these lessons in Proverbs is a sexually mature yet still youthful man. The father’s extended warnings about prostitutes and wealthy, alluring adulteresses make perfect sense because some of the chief and most palpable temptations facing his young adult son would likely have been sexual in nature.[xi]
But I think there’s more to the emphatic, repeated, and sustained focus on the seductions of the strange woman than simply the father’s awareness of his son’s libido. Consider the wisdom poetry of the sage Theodor Geisel, more commonly known by his pen name, Dr. Seuss. The last book Dr. Seuss ever published was Oh, the Places You’ll Go!, a classic gift for graduates of high school.[xii] The book is chock-full of wisdom for life (which we would expect, since it’s written by a doctor). If you’ve not read the book, it’s about hot-air balloon racing. Have any of you ever flown in a hot-air balloon? The main character of Dr. Seuss’s poem is flying his hot-air balloon along, and doing splendidly, as we read in the climactic middle of the poem:
You’ll be on your way up!
You’ll be seeing great sights!
You’ll join the high fliers
who soar to high heights.
You won’t lag behind, because you’ll have the speed.
You’ll pass the whole gang and you’ll soon take the lead.
Wherever you fly, you’ll be best of the best.
Wherever you go, you will top all the rest.
Except when you don’t.
Because, sometimes, you won’t.[xiii]
I’m sorry to say so
but, sadly, its true
can happen to you.
You can get all hung up
in a prickle-ly perch.
And your gang will fly on.
You’ll be left in a Lurch.[xiv]
In this narrative poem, Dr. Seuss calls readers to persevere through the Lurch. But his call is really only applicable to all of you who raised your hands about flying hot-air balloons. The poem is clearly, “literally” about the ups and downs of hot-air balloon aviation, so only those of us who have actually flown hot-air balloons can benefit from it. We all know that’s ridiculous. When Dr. Seuss speaks of balloons and flying and racing and crashing, he is, of course, not suggesting that our successes and failures will only be in the realm of hot-air balloon aviation. He is, rather, setting up flying as a metaphor or a parable, helping us with a vivid picture to put flesh on the bones of the abstract concepts of success, setback, and failure.
Dr. Seuss’s immediate reference is to hot-air balloon flying, but his literary intent is to encourage us to persevere through all of life’s manifold difficulties. Similarly, Proverbs repeatedly refers to the adulterous woman but with the larger literary intent of helping us feel in our bones the great danger of all manner of other seductions besides the erotic. The main reason I believe this is because today’s text is thrown in the middle of the father’s warnings about sexual temptation. It purposefully interrupts the flow of the final lectures. The interruption is a signal that the seductive adulterous woman also functions in Proverbs as a kind of master parable or controlling metaphor for seductions and temptations in general. It’s as if, by placing 6:1–19 where it is, the father were saying, “I’m beginning to emphasize the dangers of the ‘strange woman,’ but what I say about sexual seduction also applies to the temptation to guarantee another’s loan, and to be lazy, and to cause strife, and to all sorts of other temptations.” The father’s words about sexual seduction have a significance that extends far beyond the sexual.
This is an important point, because not every reader of Proverbs is a young man with strong sexual urges. Some of us are old, some are women, some don’t feel as greatly the pull to fornication or adultery as others, some are not married and cannot, as ch. 5 exhorts, “rejoice in the wife of our youth.” That doesn’t mean that the lessons to the son are irrelevant to most of us. Rather, Prov 6:1–19 functions as a literary clue that the lessons about the adulterous woman are not written just to a young man but to all of God’s people in all of their temptations.[xv]
At the same time, the controlling metaphor of a strange woman’s seduction helps us to better respond to the instructions in 6:1–19 (and in the rest of Proverbs) about other forms of foolishness and sin beyond the sexual. Think of how the seductions of an attractive, forbidden woman would feel to a young man. His mind, his eyes, his body, his fantasies, his whole being is enthralled—the heart begins to beat quickly, body heat rises, adrenaline kicks in, there’s a thrill in the soul. It’s like an invisible rope is tied around his gut pulling him toward the sexual sin. Sexual seduction is viscerally powerful. And it’s easy to imagine its power, easy to put ourselves in the shoes of one feeling it. That’s what makes sexual seduction a great controlling metaphor. The point is not to demonize women, as if every woman is a sheer threat or potential seducer. The point is to grip our imaginations with a vivid image to reveal to us and alert us to the seductive, tempting power residing at every trailhead onto the way of foolishness and sin. Often taking the road to foolishness, sin, and ruin doesn’t, in the moment, feel like some great seduction away from God. We live in a difficult time, a dangerous world of a thousand everyday seductions in addition to the erotic, but we might not think of these other experiences in terms of seduction. The father’s warnings about a seducing adulterer are like lenses which help us to see in proper focus the power and profundity of all other pulls to foolishness and sin.[xvi]
So consider the situation of becoming security for another’s debt,[xvii] addressed in the vv. 1–5 of ch. 6.[xviii] What might motivate someone to guarantee the debt of a neighbor, a stranger?[xix] I think one possible force at work here is an impulsive, rash, unthoughtful use of the tongue—loving to “talk the talk,” but little else.[xx] There’s a pretty clear emphasis on words and speech in v. 2, on becoming “snared” and “caught in the words of your mouth.” It’s as if one just blurts out, “Of course I’ll help you in your financial straights!,” without thinking it through, without really meaning it. We might be quick to commit ourselves verbally and publicly to benevolence because it makes us look good in the eyes of others.[xxi] The thought of helping out our needy neighbor is nice and all, but what we like just as much, if not more, is being seen and recognized as people who care for the needy—so we broadcast it to others by loud but thoughtless public words (or nowadays, we might broadcast how neighbor-loving we are by posting about it on social media).[xxii] There’s a pull on us to use our words so that we are noticed for our goodness.
Now the pull toward that kind of rash use of self-promoting words probably doesn’t, in the moment, feel like a seduction toward sin. It certainly doesn’t feel like the temptation to sexual sin, with a burning in our face and loins and butterflies in our guts. The receptors in our bodies and minds and consciences don’t flare up and shout, “Danger! Danger! Danger!” But the seducing power of rash speech to make ourselves look good is every bit as powerful as the seduction of a prostitute. That’s precisely why such speech is called rash or impulsive: the power of the temptation is so great that it’s almost as if we can’t resist blurting out stuff to make ourselves look better; we speak out of powerful impulse rather than wise consideration.
Then, to our horror, we find that we’re imprisoned by our thoughtless words. Impetuous speech always enslaves us. We’ve verbally committed ourselves to paying off another’s loan, but we are in no position to pay it. So Proverbs pleads with us: escape from that slavery! Go, humble yourself before your neighbor, saying, “My tongue boasted too greatly; I was thoughtless; I cannot fulfill what I said I would; please, please release me of my foolish words!” Now think of how hard it would be to do that. The temptation to say nothing to amend our previously rash words, to not have to swallow our piece of humble pie and admit our weakness and bankruptcy and foolishness—that temptation is incredibly powerful, every bit as powerful as sexual seduction, though we might not at first think of it in those terms.
This is a powerful seduction, and to overcome it will necessarily be a matter wise, strenuous, and hard battle. When it comes to sexual temptation, to battle it well involves several things, including wise strategic practices and habits to avoid putting ourselves in seduction’s way. The father pleads with the son in 5:8, “Keep yourself far away from the strange woman, don’t go near the door of her house.” That’s not just truth to know with our minds, but a wise strategy to put into practice. As one writer wryly puts it, Christian teaching on the truth, goodness, and beauty of sexual intimacy reserved for the covenant of marriage “is a lot for teenagers in the back seat of a car to remember … What happens there will often happen irrespective of what ‘ethic’ has officially been taught.”[xxiii] Teaching and theological instruction and reading of Proverbs is important. But when it comes to sexual temptation, we also need wise and well ordered practices and strategies arising in response to what Proverbs says.
The same is true when it comes to the temptation to rashly blurt out words to make us look good in the eyes of others. That’s a powerful seduction, and you’re not going to defeat it if you wait till the moment of its arrival to think about it. To battle well, you need to practice ahead of time. We need practice in biting and taming our tongues. It’s not just our children who need practice in thinking before speaking; we need to practice it, and we need others who will help us and hold us accountable to it so that we grow. We also need practice in using our tongues aright (which I believe is one of the major God-intended functions of corporate worship).[xxiv] And we need practice in humbling ourselves when we have wielded our tongues poorly—by admitting and confessing it and seeking forgiveness from others when we are guilty of impetuous speech. That is an incredibly hard thing to do, especially if you’ve never tried it! But v. 3 urges us, “Go, hasten!” Don’t delay. Don’t sleep till you amend for your rash speech. It’s like pulling off a bandaid—the faster the better. In this case, it’s better to do it faster because you’ll be practiced to do it again more quickly and humbly in the future.
Let’s turn our attention to the folly of sloth in vv. 6–11. The lazy don’t generally feel a great thrill of seduction in their laziness. In fact, when we give in to sloth, it’s probably because we don’t feel anything of significance. We just have a numbness in our souls, as we reflexively hit snooze. At the core of sloth, as ancient theologians well noted, is not aversion to hard work but absence of purpose and passion and thrill, of awe at goodness and glory, of anything worth committing to, of anything worth living for (which means even busybodies can be slothful, if they never really commit to anything).[xxv] The temptation to sloth doesn’t involve the same exhilaration that comes with sexual seduction. But the pull is just as strong, and the stakes are just as high. There’s seductive power in the prospect of shutting our minds and hearts off from the pressures and pain of life.[xxvi] The seductive suggestion that our “rest” will really be “just a little bit longer,” just “a little sleep, a little slumber, a little folding of the hands to rest”—just ten more minutes of shut-eye, just one more video game, just one more Netflix episode (no big deal!)—there’s a tremendously powerful pull in that.[xxvii] It’s all the more powerful if we’re not used to thinking of that as a seduction toward destruction; and if we don’t realize the deceptiveness of it, since “just ten more minutes” quickly becomes half-hours and hours and more.
The controlling metaphor of sexual seduction alerts us to the power of the temptation to laziness. And it reminds us that to battle sloth well, we need wise practices in place before the moment of temptation arrives. Interestingly, Proverbs instructs the sluggard to learn from the ant. Open your eyes to the world God made. Notice, truly notice what God has created. Too often we’re oblivious to creation as mere background scenery. Or we don’t notice it because were constantly looking at ourself and our own sense of numbness and despair in the mirror. Look at an ant, instead. Or a tree. Or a cloud.[xxviii] Give your attention to creation. You might find a restorative goodness in that simple habit. You might learn and be inspired to different ways living by giving your attention to the way things work by the Creator’s design. Learning from creation is a matter of wisdom.[xxix] It’s part of being strengthened to battle temptation.
Of course, for us who live in the midwest, for half of the year it’s dangerous to our health to go outside and stare at a tree for 30 minutes. So there’s probably value in being seasonally strategic in strength-training for battle against the temptation to sloth. In fact, many struggle in wintertime especially with tendencies toward sloth. We can grow in our awareness of our tics and tendencies and temperaments. As we do so, with family and pastors and trustworthy friends helping us, we can plan out strategies, plan ahead for those seasons where we might be especially prone to the seducing power of laziness. Even the ant, v. 8 says, “prepares her bread in summer and gathers her food in harvest” to be ready for the lean winter months. We, too, can plan and prepare wisely for fighting the fight of faith. It probably will involve establishing robust structures of accountability that are hard to evade in the seasons where sloth tends to set in. It might entail something as simple as planning to regularly go to bed a bit earlier, so you’re in a better position to wake up on time (and be properly alert and attentive) for the things God has in store for you in the day to come. And it will surely involve opening yourself up to honest, if frightening, personal self-reflection and discussion with wise companions about the purpose of your life, since as long as there is little sense of purpose that fires your soul, there will be little incentive for you to get up to face the new day.
Finally, what can we say about those who are well practiced at sowing strife, who exhibit an impulsive habit of dropping in a biting word here, stirring up a little anger there, throwing about a little gossip to cut others down. Behind such ones we see many trails of relational tension, distrust, anger, wreckage. We all know people like that. Likely most of us, at least to some degree, are people like that. What motivates someone to continually sowing such strife?
Some of it is probably covetousness. The joyful peace of the relationships of others is a constant offense to our lonely, embittered souls, but we get a measure of satisfaction from spoiling their experience of goodness.[xxx] Pride might also often be a motivating factor. Dividing people up into parties and factions has one obvious advantage to the stirrers of that strife. For such ones will always, conveniently, determine themselves to be on the right side of the dispute. Dividing people up into factions identifies which people agree with our side and thus are on the right side with us, marking out the ones we will spend all our time with. Then we can gather together for extended griping sessions about the fools on the other side, which basically amounts to one large group pat on the back for being so good and smart and right. Pride is often at the heart of factionalism and of divisiveness, which is why v. 6 very clearly identifies “haughty eyes” as one of the trademarks of the one who devises wicked plans to sow strife.[xxxi]
Whether it stems from embittered covetousness or haughty pride, there’s a clear power and seductiveness in the opportunity to sow strife. It is awfully hard to fight against the seductive pull in the moment of temptation, especially if we haven’t wisely prepared our hearts and minds and bodies for the battle. So what can we do in preparation?
Much of the discord we sow is by way of our words. Proverbs calls out “crooked speech,” “a lying tongue,” and “false witness.”[xxxii] We stir up strife especially with cutting and bitter words, words of unthoughtful and ill-timed criticism, words of gossip, words of deceit, words geared toward making ourselves look better at the expense of others. It stands to reason that wise pursuit in the opposite direction will involve a good deal of something we mentioned earlier—namely, practice in biting our tongues, and also in using our words with thoughtfulness, out of neighbor-love, and in accord with God’s purposes for human language and togetherness.
Additionally, instead of giving our attention to what we think about others, to how silly or exasperating they appear in our eyes, or how unfair it seems to us that others have what we desire, we can grow practiced in paying attention to what God thinks of our inclinations and labors toward discord among brothers and sisters. The language of v. 16 is clear about God’s disposition: the characteristics of the wicked person who sows strife are an “abomination” to God. He “hates” this activity and disposition. And he will judge those who give their lives to sowing strife; “calamity” will overtake them suddenly, v. 15 says; they will be “broken beyond all healing.” No good thing can come from stirring up discord among others. So Proverbs rightly names the one who delights in and pursues it: such a one is, according to v. 12, “worthless.”
Giving yourself over to sowing strife renders your life worthless. Hearing the true name that Scripture gives to our wayward ways can shake us out of the daze of sin and awaken in us a longing for true worth instead of our foolish worthlessness, for true satisfaction instead of the narcotics we’re used to, for beauty instead of the ashes we’re languishing in. As the Holy Spirit moves through God’s biblically revealed evaluations of our foolish ways, we begin to see that we’ve been dining with pigs like the prodigal son, and longing is stirred in our hearts for the goodness that our heavenly Father holds out for us: the goodness of worth and meaning and purpose, the goodness of joy and peace in fellowship with others, the goodness of commitment and integrity of word and deed, the goodness of hard, humble labor with one another leading to a rich harvest and to what inevitably follows harvest—feasting for all in the City of God.[xxxiii]
That’s what we were made for. That’s why it’s so important to become aware of the dangerous world we live in, a world of a thousand seductions every bit as strong and dangerous as seductions to sexual sin. They’re all temptations to stray from the path that leads to the God himself and the goodness and feasting and life of his kingdom, seduction onto the path that leads only to a banquet in the grave. God wants us to be well-equipped to discern the path that leads to life, and to battle to stay upon it. So he gives us his word, gives us Proverbs, to help us.
How marvelously good it is that God our wise and knowing Creator shares with us in his word his wisdom about what leads to our true and full joy and life and flourishing, that he speaks and is not silent about the path that leads to life! And it is doubly good, for us today who know the good news of the coming of Christ Jesus and his work in the crucifixion, resurrection, and ascension, that this same God has atoned for and forgiven all our failures to heed the call of wisdom, our crazy insistence to follow our own foolish and sinful paths. Our Creator and God has forgiven it all in the death and resurrection of Christ. And the ascended Christ has poured out his very Spirit on us, so that we might experience his new, resurrection life. Which is to say, now, in Christ, by the power of the Spirit, we really and truly can grow in the ways of wisdom that Proverbs invites us to take. Slowly, to be sure; haltingly; filled with fits and starts—but we really and truly and surely can grow into the wisdom of Proverbs, grow in our strength to battle against temptation and seduction, grow in the grace and goodness of our Lord Jesus Christ as we wait expectantly for his return. Praise be to God. Let us trust in his promises. And let us heed his word, by putting into practice the instruction of Proverbs.
Come now, O Wisdom from on high, you who created a world of beauty and goodness and order, and who instructs us in the way of prudence: send forth your Spirit to strengthen us to resist evil and to obey you, so that we may walk in your ways, so that we might know the joy of your purposes, so that the nations might be wooed to your true Wisdom, even Christ, our Lord and Savior. Amen. [xxxiv]
[i] Based on the first O Antiphon to Sapienta.
[i] Minnesotans are the only ones who name the game aright, since their way of naming it derives from the translation of the Swedish original of the game. One might quibble that the etymological/genealogical origin is debated; see, e.g., “Why Do Minnesotans Say ‘Duck, Duck, Gray Duck’?,” CBS Minnesota, October 10, 2017, https://minnesota.cbslocal.com/2017/10/10/minnesota-duck-duck-gray-duck/. But there are also philosophical and pedagogical reasons for the superiority of the Minnesotan way; see Alex Pareene, “‘Duck, Duck, Gray Duck’ Isn’t Just a Stupid Regionalism, It’s a Better Game,” Deadspin, October 10, 2017, https://deadspin.com/duck-duck-gray-duck-isnt-just-a-stupid-regionalism-1819317297.
[ii] Waltke argues that vv. 12–15 and 16–19, though originally independent strophes, have been brought together in Proverbs to function as a single unit identifying “troublemakers” and explaining what about their lives is reprehensible (Proverbs, 1:328, 341). Waltke points out the cataloguing of body parts in each subsection, with the heart playing a central role in each, as well as the upshot of the troublemakers’ behavior being the same in both vv. 14 and 19—the spreading of strife (ibid., 341; for further overlaps, both verbal and conceptual, between the two subsections, see Fox, Proverbs 1–9, 224–25). We could also note that the preceding two sections in ch. 6 are both bifurcated by a double address (“my son,” “my son” in vv. 1, 3; “O sluggard,” “O sluggard” in vv. 6, 9). It would make sense that the sage’s reflections on strife-spreaders would come in a twofold form.
[iii] Clifford comments, “The precise significance of the gestures in v. 13 escape us” (Proverbs, 76). Waltke hypothesizes that the gestures are conspiratorial and indicate that the troublemaker is working with co-conspirators (Proverbs, 1:343). Fox is skeptical of this, noting that co-conspirators are nowhere evident in the context; he prefers to see most (but not all; see his comments on “pointing the finger”) of the actions as examples of the “nervous gesticulation” of a person with “a personality disorder” (Proverbs 1–9, 220–21).
[iv] We could also note, for example, that the father’s words of direct addresses in v. 6 are given to the sluggard: “Go to the ant, O sluggard.” Almost everywhere else in Prov 1–9, the father’s words are addressed to his son. The only exceptions are the opening prologue in 1:1–7, the instructions to the plural “sons” in 4:1–9, and the odes to and monologues of Woman Wisdom in 3:13–20, 1:20–33, and 8:1–36. (Of course, the literary address to the sluggard in 6:6 might be intended for the son’s hearing. The “son” of the lectures is made to overhear, as it were, the father’s words addressed to the sluggard, because, as the father assumes, “An intelligent person can learn from another’s chastisement; see 19:25” [Proverbs 1–9, 216]. Parents of multiple children know this well.)
The sluggard’s appearance at all in ch. 6, quite apart from the fact that he is directly addressed, is also significant. 6:6 introduces a new character in Proverbs. The sluggard is one about whom the book of Proverbs has a lot to say … later on (i.e., in the main body of chs. 10ff.). But in the opening five chapters (or the opening nine) there isn’t a word about the sluggard. See below for similar observations about 6:1–19 as a whole.
In terms of structure, 6:1–19 doesn’t match the structure of the ten lectures of the father to the son in chs. 1–9 (direct address to the son and call to listen; a lesson proper centered on a discernible single theme; a concluding summary or exhortation). Thus, many label 6:1–19 an “interlude” among the formal lessons (e.g., Clifford, Fox; by contrast, Waltke, Proverbs, 1:328, reads the passage as an “appendix” to the preceding lecture). But it is unlike the other three “interludes” in Prov 1–9 devoted to extolling (and/or hearing from) Woman Wisdom (3:13–20, 1:20–33, and 8:1–36; on these three “interludes” among the introductory ten lessons in chs. 1–9, see the sermon I preached earlier in this series entitled “Wisdom’s Call and Wisdom’s Worth,” October 7, 2018, https://www.gracedupage.org/sermons/2018/10/07/wisdoms-call-and-wisdoms-worth). As Fox comments, “Interlude C, comprising four epigrams on undesirable character traits, has only tangential relation to the lectures and none to the other interludes” (Fox, Proverbs 1–9, 326).
[v] On the nature and meaning of the poetic numerical escalation, where the second number is the real number of concern, see Waltke, Proverbs, 1:42–43.
[vi] In fact, the only difference between the two is an alternate spelling for “poverty” (רֵאשֶׁךָ in 6:11, רֵישֶׁךָ in 24:34). On the assumption that larger (i.e., expanded) passages are secondary developments, Fox believes that 6:10–11 borrows from/develops the original saying at 24:33–34 (Proverbs 1–9, 216).
[vii] The passage reads like a pastiche of sayings from elsewhere in Proverbs; see Fox, Proverbs 1–9, 225, 227n168, for further details and discussion.
[viii] See also Fox, Proverbs 1–9, 326.
[ix] Fox despairs of finding a literary reason for locating this section in its present position: “I do no see any literary explanation for the location of Interlude C.” For Fox, the placement is “adventitious,” a product of interpolation late in the editing process (Proverbs 1–9, 226). Waltke comes a bit closer to the proposal I will advance below. Following Plöger, Waltke thinks the situating of these exhortations/warnings in the midst of the surrounding warnings against the “strange woman” indicates that the topics of 6:1–19 are “of equal importance” to guarding one’s self from the “strange woman” (Proverbs, 1:329). There’s nothing in itself disagreeable with the point, but I think we can go much farther in explaining the significance of the literary placement of 6:1–19.
[x] See 1:4; note also 4:3; 5:9, 18; 7:7.
[xi] If 7:14–20 is any indication, the (kind of) adulteress that the father has in view seems to be wealthy and aristocratic. It’s also important, I think, to note that this son is probably of noble birth and runs in aristocratic circles. He seems to own land (3:9–10), is linked with Solomon (1:1), and is being instructed for qualities especially linked with godly leadership (1:3b). The addressee seems to be a young and sexually mature man being groomed to enter a role of leadership in the community. Indeed, given his Solomonic connection, we might even think of the son as the heir apparent to the throne. The kind of seducing woman that the father depicts in the lectures would, then, have been plausible on several levels to his young son.
[xii] At least, I received my copy when I graduated from high school.
[xiii] If Dr. Seuss were writing this today, these lines might read, “But there are no ‘best’ fliers, no winners, no rating; / for each one’s a winner by participating!” But Dr. Seuss came from a different era.
[xiv] Dr. Seuss, Oh, the Places You’ll Go! (New York: Random House, 1990), 12–17, emphasis original.
[xv] There are other indicators as well. For example, the “son” throughout the book remains nameless, and anonymity often indicates a kind of “everyman” or “everyperson.” Also, the address to plural “sons” which slides in and out of the dominant address to the singular “son” suggests that the lessons have a more general/generic audience in view than the dominant literary form, viewed in isolation, would suggest (see 4:1; 5:7).
[xvi] Cf. Fox who thinks seduction is the overarching theme of the whole of Prov 1–9: “The lectures are variation on a theme: how to withstand seduction … All the lectures address the temptations confronting young men on the brink of adulthood” (Proverbs 1–9, 324). Fox thinks this unifying theme is signaled in “the programmatic Lecture II,” particularly 2:11 (ibid.). “Seduction is the main (indeed, almost the only) peril warned against in the lectures” (ibid., 348). I’d argue that the final lectures zeroing in on the adulterous woman, functioning in tandem with the interlude at 6:1–19, are an even clearer signal of this main theme in Prov 1–9.
[xvii] “In credit operations the pledge is a surety, an object in the possession of the debtor which he hands over to the creditor as guarantee for his debt” (Roland de Vaux, Ancient Israel: Its Life and Institutions, trans. J. McHugh [London: Darton, Longman & Todd, 1961; repr., Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1997], 171). In the instance of a person going surety for another, such a one becomes the “object” that the debtor gives over into the creditor’s hand (for further historical-cultural discussion on going surety, see ibid., 172–73).
[xviii] On the vividness of the passage with its urgent exhortations, making use of repetition, focalization on body parts, and hunting imagery, see Clifford, Proverbs, 75.
[xix] Fox differentiates between the “neighbor” (רֵעַ) and the “stranger” (זָר) in v. 1—the former is the lender (Fox appeals to v. 3 where one is in the neighbor’s hands, also 17:18) and the latter is the borrower for whom one vouches (see Proverbs 1–9, 211–12). The suggestion is possible and intriguing, but I opt here for the more common understanding that the “neighbor” and the “stranger” are one and the same. On a different note, Waltke observes the verbal connection between the “stranger” of v. 1 and the “strange woman” of the surrounding lectures, and suggests a conceptual connection: both are outside one’s family (see Proverbs, 1:332n50). But note Fox, Proverbs 1–9, 226, who thinks such a connection with what immediately precedes ch. 6 is “trivial,” and well observes that “the features that are supposed to motivate the disposition of the units are frequent in Proverbs.”
[xx] A lot of different answers have been suggested. A common proposal is that one might become surety for profit: “I’ll agree to pay off your debt, but for a fee.” See, e.g., Fox, Proverbs 1–9, 215, who appeals to instructions in Ben Sira (see Sir 29:19) concerning the practice of becoming surety for a fee. Waltke also posits “greed” as a possible motivation, but also adds the possibilities of “impetuous benevolence, or careless vanity” (Proverbs, 1:332). Given the express textual emphasis the words of one’s mouth, I incline in this latter direction.
[xxi] On the public (and legally binding) nature of the declaration (its force as an oral contract), see Fox, Proverbs 1–9, 213; Waltke, Proverbs, 1:333. Clifford suggests that Proverbs’s opposition to becoming surety for another (see also 11:15; 17:18; 20:16; 22:26; 27:13) may be linked to Proverbs’s valuing of “personal freedom and responsibility” (Proverbs, 75; cf. Waltke, Proverbs, 1:333). By my lights, this can only be sustained if one understands such freedom as of value not as not an end to itself but as a means to some other end—for example, freedom from another’s debts positions one to be better able to give alms generously (as Clifford also notes, Proverbs urges the giving of alms as well). As de Vaux notes, in the Hebrew outlook, “Lending to the poor is a good deed (Ps 37:21; 112:5; Si 29:1–2; cf. Mt 5:42)” (Ancient Israel, 170). Fox insinuates that the foolishness of the endeavor is precisely in vouching for someone about whom (and about whose responsibility and reliability) little is known—i.e., a stranger (Proverbs 1–9, 214–15). But care for the alien is also incumbent on Israel (see, e.g, Deut 10:18–19). The problem here is probably not the strangeness (alien status) of the “stranger,” per se, nor the desire to come to the aid of one in need considered in itself, but the desire to be heard and known as one who comes to the aid of those in need.
[xxii] For an introductory exploration of the anthropological significance of social media, and of understandings of the human self as public performer, see Daniel J. Brendsel, “Cutting the Fruit While Watering the Root: Selfies, Sexuality, and the Sensibilities of the American Church,” in Beauty, Order, and Mystery: The Christian Vision of Human Sexuality, ed. G. Hiestand and T. Wilson (Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 2017), 73–86.
[xxiii] Stanley Hauerwas, “Sex in Public: How Adventurous Christians Are Doing It,” in The Hauerwas Reader, ed. J. Berkman and M. Cartwright (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2001), 481–504, at 490.
[xxiv] See, e.g., Dan Brendsel, “Speaking in a Foreign Tongue,” Graceful Living, August 2016.
[xxv] It’s why older eras of the church used the archaic term acedia, not laziness, to name this vice—etymologically, acedia comes from roots meaning “without care.” That’s the heart of sloth and laziness—an absence of any deep care and concern and purpose to get us out of bed. The upshot of this fuller, and more proper, understanding of the vice of sloth (of acedia) is the realization that an absence of any deep passion and commitment can also make us only half-heartedly commit to a hundred things at once (you know, to keep our options open). Often the most stressed busy-bodies, the one’s harried by a hundred “pseudo” commitments, the ones who don’t care deeply for any one of them (or at least not enough to sacrifice others, to say “no” to some endeavors because one has really said “yes” to another)—often such as these are the most lazy and slothful, who say, “Just a ‘little while longer,’” before they really devote themselves to any one or few callings. There has been a bit of a (welcome!) renaissance of theological and historical interest in acedia in the past few years; see, e.g., Jean-Charles Nault, The Noonday Devil: Acedia, and the Unnamed Evil of Our Times (San Francisco: Ignatius, 2015); R. J. Snell, Acedia and Its Discontents: Metaphysical Boredom in an Empire of Desire (Kettering, OH: Angelico, 2015); see also the volume devoted to acedia in the limited-run series of journals put out by the Baylor Christian Reflection program (the volume can be downloaded at https://www.baylor.edu/ifl/christianreflection/index.php?id=99872).
[xxvi] For the sluggard “the love of sleep is pure escapism—a refusal to face the world (26:14),” a “narcotic sleep … to escape the pain of living (19:15)” (Waltke, Proverbs, 1:339).
[xxvii] According to Derek Kidner, the sluggard “deceives himself by the smallness of his surrenders” (The Proverbs, TOTC [Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 1964], 42). See also Waltke, who perceptively notes that the sluggard likely “responds to the specific question ‘when?’ with a vague ‘sometime’ [which is reflected in the sage’s mention of ‘a little sleep, a little slumber, a little folding of the hands’], for he is incapable of making and keeping a firm commitment” (Proverbs, 1:339).
[xxviii] I am reminded of Clyde Kilby, who once wrote out this resolution: “I shall open my eyes and ears. Once every day I shall simply stare at a tree, a flower, a cloud, or a person. I shall not then be concerned at all to ask what they are but simply be glad that they are. I shall joyfully allow them the mystery of what [C. S.] Lewis calls their ‘divine, magical, terrifying and ecstatic’ existence.” For this and the other nine resolutions of Kilby, see John Piper, “10 Resolutions for Mental Health,” Desiring God, December 31, 2007, https://www.desiringgod.org/articles/10-resolutions-for-mental-health.
[xxix] In 1 Kgs 4, when King Solomon is lauded as the wisest person on the planet, the content of his wisdom is explicitly identified as his understanding of trees, shrubs, animals, birds, creeping things, and fish. Biblical wisdom is not mastery of obscure and enigmatic philosophical concepts, but paying attention to what God has made and learning from it.
[xxx] The language of the first half of this statement mimics the much more haunting formulations of Marilynne Robinson, Gilead (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2004), 134, 141. The language of the second half is influenced by various reflections in Cornelius Plantinga Jr., Not the Way It’s Supposed to Be: A Breviary of Sin (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1995).
[xxxi] Indeed, in the structure of the catalogue of vv. 17–19, “haughty eyes” is set in parallel with “one who sows discord among brothers” as the outer members of a chiasm:
A haughty eyes
B a lying tongue
C hands that shed innocent blood
D a heart that devises wicked plans
Cʹ feet that make hast to run to evil
Bʹ a false witness who breathes out lies
Aʹ one who sows discord among brothers
One might say that the link is tight and direct: the sowing of strife arises from, is motivated by, and/or is an expression of the haughtiness reflected in the eyes. I was first alerted to this chiastic structure in Prov 6:17–19 by John Piper, Reading the Bible Supernaturally: Seeing and Savoring the Glory of God in Scripture (Wheaton: Crossway, 2017), 336–37. Waltke also observes the chiastic structure of the catalogue (Waltke, Proverbs, 1:346).
[xxxii] See 6:12, 17, 19.
[xxxiii] Clifford highlights the importance of the harvest context called to mind in the rebuke of the sluggard. The harvest is a matter of the welfare of the community, thus the sluggard’s behavior and disposition extend beyond his own ruin to the harm of others. This may account for the uniquely pointed words against the sluggard in Prov 6, in contrast to other words in Proverbs about the sluggard (Clifford, Proverbs, 76). Contrast this with Waltke, who thinks that sluggards in Prov 6 only “harm themselves” (Proverbs, 1:329).
[xxxiv] Based on the first O Antiphon to Sapienta.