Skip to main content

The Proverbs 31 Wife? A Spotless Bride

Proverbs ends with an acrostic poem. It's a careful piece of poetic writing like Lamentations and Psalm 119, structured and thoughtful. This is deliberate. This is memorable. This is a song at the end of the story. Yet, who can solve this ultimate riddle? Why is it at the end of the book of Proverbs? It's easy to say it's a model for a wife and maybe it has something to say about marriage - but it's worth zooming out and digging deeper before jumping to application.
Note: in this post I'm doing the zooming out, not the digging deeper into Proverbs 31:10-31 - I'll do that another day.

Peter Leithart summarises the plot of Proverbs, a truly Biblical-gospel book:
The Proverbs begin, then with the son confronted by a choice of two women who are bound up with two divergent destinies. It should be recalled, too, that the Proverbs are written by a King to a Prince. The book largely consists of the Proverbs of Solomon and King Lemuel (chapter 31), and the king consistently addresses his "son." The dramatic premise of the book of Proverbs is this: A Prince must determine whether Lady Wisdom or Dame Folly will be his princess. The dramatic question, then, is: Whom will he choose? (In teaching this to children, I have suggested that the book of Proverbs is structurally similar to Disney’s version of Hans Christian Andersen’s "The Little Mermaid," in which a prince must choose between the mermaid, who cannot speak so long as she is a normal girl, and the sea witch, who has disguised herself as a desirable young woman.)

The answer to our dramatic question is given in the final chapter of the book, the well-known Proverbs 31. It is no accident that the Proverbs ends with a celebration of the excellent wife. In the drama of Proverbs, the excellent wife is Lady Wisdom from the earlier chapters. Her husband, the Prince, now sits in the gates of the city. The prince has successfully resisted the seductions of the adulteress, Folly. He has chosen well. Together, the Prince and his bride form the royal household.
Think of the story - the Little Mermaid. Which woman will the man marry? It's the story of Proverbs, and it's the story of the whole Bible.
This structure and these characters are generally analogous to the major structures and characters of the Bible. The first prince, Adam, chose to follow the word of his adulterous wife (2 Cor 11:1-3), and ended up, as the Proverbs say, in Sheol. The Last Adam listened intently to the Word of His Father, and died to win a spotless Bride. Now He praises His bride in the gates; she is an excellent wife.
Proverbs like The Bible as a whole, ends with a spotless wife. The true son dies to win a spotless bride. Commentator Charles Bridges observes that in Proverbs 31 we find one to whom "no treasure can be compared to the woman in these verses". The language might suggest Christ himself, though the image and language suggest she is indeed a bride, the treasure He gives up everything to obtain - namely the church.

And so, by all means, learn about marriage from this passage, but first learn about the marriage of the Lamb. Learn of the one who doesn't follow the words of the adulterous Eve into sin, but follows his Father's words. See the one who doesn't stand over against us but rather comes into the world to woo and win his people for whom he dies. See the one who is The Bridegroom and know that he comes for sinners, the King who comes to marry the prostitute (the kind of people Jesus used to eat with) and make her the Queen.

To my bride I say, you are beautiful, you are fruitful, you are productive but more importantly you fear the LORD - you believe the gospel - and so by the grace of God you reflect the glory of Jesus' bride to whom we belong. But don't be weighed down by trying to be a Proverbs 31 woman - but let us together become her as Jesus washes us clean by his gospel word, as he makes us spotless and free from blemish by his blemishless sacrifice of himself. Feel the grace of Proverbs 31, the certainty that he we will reach the wedding supper of the Lamb and celebrate there with Him. Til then he calls to us:

10 My beloved speaks and says to me:
“Arise, my love, my beautiful one, and come away,
11 for behold, the winter is past; the rain is over and gone….
14 let me see your face, let me hear your voice,
for your voice is sweet, and your face is lovely.”
SONG 2:10-11,14b, ESV

Your comments much hoped for - I'm preaching on this passage in March and as you can see I have a lot more preparation ahead of me... The big picture seems to go against how many people read this chapter as a model for wives - such as this series at girltalk. I'm not saying there's no value there, but I wonder if we need something else first. Bit like my "controversial" views on The Song of Songs... because if we get the big gospel picture first then Biblical manhood and womanhood are first and foremost about cruciformity.


  1. I'm sure Peter's right. And the very fact that wisdom is personified as a woman, makes this passage exceptional guidance on what living wisely as a woman looks like.

    'A noble wife who can find?' This is clearly (amongst other things) a guide on what a King should look for in a wife. It's therefore also a guide for a women who wants to be the King's wife. And if a man wants to live wisely, and marry such a girl, he's going to need to become the kind of wise man that a wise woman like that would want to marry.

  2. I don't deny those implications for human marriage - you state them well. I guess I just want to see us engage the bigger gospel story more, within which the implications make sense.

  3. Never really thought about this before, but, it's all a little bit like revelation isn't it? A king, a harlot/ unfaithful/ foolish wife, and the true bride.


  4. So, to add to the actual discussion (although don't think I'm saying anything new)

    - I agree that it is about Christ and his bride and that therefore, in our relation to Christ, the proverbs 31 woman tells us all what to pursue and what, by grace, we will become.

    - This doesn't make it not a model for wives however. Which I think it quite clearly is. after all, wives are meant to model the church-in-relation-to-Jesus in relation to their husbands.

    - (and of course, 'model' needs to be understood, as all law/ wisdom/ command/ imperative should be, not as some oppressive worksy thing, but by grace through faith what christian women are and will be and [by grace through faith] will grow up into)

    Or something...

  5. Can't help but think if a whole congregation was won to that bigger story more often the transformation to model "wives", and "husbands" would perhaps happen more, and the risk of legalism and performance or sense of failure would be less...

    Both/And but not one without the other.

  6. As you'd probably guess, this makes me deeply uncomfortable. Feels like we're making the bible say what we want it to say, and there are no controls.

    Where are the clues in the text that it should be read as FIRSTLY, rather than SECONDARILY about the (OT) church's relationship to Christ?

    Is the church intrinsically "precious" (v. 10)?
    Does Jesus trust in the church (v.11)?
    Does the church do Jesus "good" (v.12)?
    Is working with "wool and flax" the first activity of the church you would mention (v.13)? Or perhaps you'd say that's allegorical for something else....?
    Does the church bring Jesus food (v.14)?
    Who are the church's maidens (v.15)?
    Is wisdom in dealing with finances a mark of the church (v.18)?

    Surely there is just too much to be explained away?

    You have to ask yourself: If I was writing a description of the church (even the church covered by Christ's righteousness) then would I write anything like Proverbs 31? Is there any reason it should be so obscure?

    And as for grace... "The love of God does not find, but creates, what is pleasing to it. The love of man comes into being by what is pleasing to it" (Luther)

    Proverbs 31 describes just the opposite!

    It ends: "give her the fruit of her hands, and let her works praise her in the gates".

    I'm really bemused! Sorry.

  7. "Feels like we're making the bible say what we want it to say, and there are no controls."

    My fear is that when we jump to the wife applications we're doing just that... we're jumping to "it mentions a wife, that must be my wife..." without letting the text in it's local and bigger context control the meaning... And in the Bible at the very least we ought to be asking whether the mention of a wife is Jesus' wife before wondering if she's mine. Humanly the usual application of this sets an unattainable bar for any wife - some inspiration perhaps but hard to see more than that.

    In the big picture the church is spotless - just not by her own efforts (sinner/saint again...??). I think Luther does exactly what I'm doing here when it comes to the equivalent material in The Song of Songs... same big picture.

    I think (tentatively) that there are links throughout this poem with the rest of the Proverbs - all of which illustrate what it looks like to be wise, portrayed in the most practical of ways. Lots of study to do yet.

  8. Dave - just saying, I was intending to agree with you in my comment, rather than contradict.

  9. 'Both/And but not one without the other.'

    Quite. And, as the rest of your comment implies, it's important for people to get the relationship/ order between the two aspects of this.

  10. Dave K,

    Good to see you at YEMA the other day.

    There are lots and lots of signs that we should take the passage as being FIRSTLY about the wife that the Davidic King should look for. Then, there's all the Adam and creation stuff flying around the rest of the book that suggests an ancient Israelite would've seen this in the context of Adam and Eve. If that doesn't all lead straight to Christ and the church I don't know what does.

    On your other questions:

    Yes to the first three, of course. ;)

    Dunno to the fourth, but then the same problems present themselves if we try and apply it to the modern day wife too. Difference is, this way the applications can be controlled by a typological system/ an analogy that we KNOW the scriptures intend us to see there.

    To the fifth, maybe. But the food is for the kids too, remember (mother kirk anyone?).

    The sixth, well, dunno, but see my answer to the fifth.

    The seventh, yes. Why else does Jesus teach so much about money?

    On the 'fruit of her hands' see the truck load of stuff in the bible about judgment according to works (and no, it shouldn't all be taken as 'law' in a Lutheran sense) and the 39 articles on God accepting and finding pleasure in our good works due to our union with Christ. None of which in the slightest bit compromises on 'grace alone.'


  11. Hi Pete and Dave,

    It was excellent seeing you at YEMA too, Pete. A real pleasure to meet someone who models wisdom that stands out in so many blog comments.

    You said: "'Both/And but not one without the other.'

    Quite. And, as the rest of your comment implies, it's important for people to get the relationship/ order between the two aspects of this."

    And I think that gets to the heart of it. We all want to say "both/and", but we also want to order and prioritise the two levels of meaning. In this instance we disagree about the order, but maybe we need to think about what we mean by order.

    1. All of creation points to Christ

    So whenever we talk about anything created there are going to be echoes and allusions to the Gospel. But that does not mean that creation becomes subsumed into the Gospel story. There remains a distinction between the two, so that not all that is true of creation is true of the Gospel, and vice versa. In this way we can know that while in a way everything said and done in this creation is FIRSTLY about Christ, in the sense that everything is from him and for him. In another way all that is done in creation is FIRSTLY about itself.

    2. All the Bible points to Christ

    We say that all the Bible is about Christ. But not in the sense that it is all the Gospel. There are ethical commands in the Bible, and whilst the Gospel fulfils them and transforms them (as you both do with Prov 31), that can only be done once you have FIRSTLY allowed them to stand on their own. You cannot put the Gospel before the law, otherwise you lose the law. In one way the law not FIRSTLY about the Gospel as is nailed to the cross and ended by Jesus. However, it is FIRSTLY about the Gospel in that it was always meant to lead us to Christ and so is fulfilled by him.

    This is true not only if we think of the Bible in law/Gospel categories, but in terms of promise/fulfillment. Unless we allow something to stand first as promise, then it cannot be fulfilled. David is Christ, but he is also gloriously not Christ. And although what gives David significance is Christ, nevertheless, he is a unique individual with an identity of his own.

    [BTW, Pete, hopefully that says something to your last paragraph]

    3. Big picture v. details

    The point of the big picture view, is not make all the details mini-versions of the big story (although there are aspects of this - e.g. Fall->New Creation as the big story, Exodus, exile, Lazarus as the mini-versions) but to allow the details to be details a freedom to be themselves, and not over-reach by being universalised (e.g. by making seeking a good wife all that there is to life).

    4. Song of Songs v. Prov 31

    I'm a sceptic on your reading of SoS as you know, but I can at least see where you are coming from in that. There is a big difference though. SoS as the name suggests is super-real and doesn't have the earthy and practical feel of most of proverbs. Also there is a large amount of the historic church behind your reading of SoS, but I don't think there is the same support behind your reading of Proverbs. That should give pause for thought.

    5. Modern wife v. Proverbs wife

    You both say that there is leap just as large to the modern wife as it is to the church. Really?

    The differences are really inconsequential to the character of the wife, however the differences to the church which I pointed out (and which Pete bravely has tackled - although I can only give half marks, sorry) are much more fundamental.

    As always, I've been properly challenged. Sorry my thoughts are a bit half-baked. But there you have them.

  12. I'm thankful for friends who will disagree - not got time to respond properly now, but food for thought nonetheless.... and I'm really glad that my church has wanted to spent 6 months in Proverbs so that we've had to wrestle with this question... we've walked the line week by week, sometimes more one way than the other... overall probably in a good balance of the both/and... though probably more the of "big picture" when we've been in Proverbs 1, 8... and who knows perhaps in 31..

  13. Good comments Dave,

    Just some thoughts in response...

    'David is Christ, but he is also gloriously not Christ. And although what gives David significance is Christ, nevertheless, he is a unique individual with an identity of his own.'

    Yes, exactly. So, on that basis I'd have to say that the Proverbs are firstly about the Davidic son and then typologically about Christ. Only then are they about or to or for us.

    All of scripture works this way. it has a primary referent, connected usually to the original recipients. Other referents we want to say a text might have are based on typology, on the fact that history works in patterns, on the analogical nature of the creation, etc. etc. etc. So, even Colossians (for example) is not firstly about us but firstly about and to the Colossian church in her very specific mid-first century circumstances. We make the application to us by way of typology or analogy. The difference between, say, Proverbs and Colossians (well, one of them, but you get what I mean) is that Proverbs is firstly about the Davidic son, and therefore we really must figure out what it says to and about the one who fulfils that type first before drawing any conclusions about us.

    The issue of whether or not the connections to the church or the modern day wife are a bigger leap are therefore a matter for genuine debate, and whether or not Proverbs is (firstly) for the prince or not is a crucial issue here. I agree my first attempts were a bit pokey, but I was amazed at the one or two connections I uncovered simply in a few moments of investigating - I'd expect to find a lot more upon a real study of it.

    I wonder whether on your logic re. the distance to the modern day wife we'd end up interpreting the tabernacle as being primarily about modern day church buildings rather than Christ or his church? I mean, sure there's connections to Christ but at the end of the day it's a bigger leap from building to people/ person than from building to building, isn't it? The differences are inconsequential we might say to the nature of the building (a meeting house for the people of God, where the priests of God go to offer up their sacrifices of praise and thanksgiving, and where instruction in the things of God take place) whereas there's a massive leap from talking about the colour of curtains to something in the life and ministry of Christ.

    I think what I'm trying to say is that canonical context, and the contours of covenant history, should be a bigger factor in what we decide correlates to what other things than their immediate apparent likeness, surely?

    There are still some issues about law/ gospel here going on that I'm not entirely comfortable with, nor entirely clear on, so I'll keep my thoughts brief. The terminology is slippery though, as the classic systematic use of the lingo does not always map onto the biblical terms that easily. Not sure it massively matters here, though it's worth pondering re. your comments above whether law does in actual fact come first? Is our relation to God fundamentally based on deeds, with grace coming after once Adam botched up the doing, or is the interplay between grace-promise-command etc. more complex than that? Seems like a very natural reading of Genesis 1-3 has imperative imbedded well and truly where it belongs in grace, just like at Sinai, and just like in the NT.

    Anyway, this discussion isn't about that per se., and I don't want to hijack the blog.

  14. It really is great having friends who disagree. I love the challenge that blogs provide. The trouble is, when you get onto deep stuff you need more time to think than the medium, and my schedule, allows.

    When I reflect on Pete's comment in particular I realise that when I think of Proverbs I tend to think of it outside the context of the covenant with Israel/David. I have always thought of it as 'creation wisdom' with occasional covenantal bits. I think that is quite a common way to think of it, but I suppose if you do see it as primarily to the Davidic son, then that does change things. no longer does it have universal applicability apart from Christ. I can certainly see why you see it as a book to the Davidic son. I suppose if I accepted that it may require some rethinking. So I might just do that.

    Funnily enough I met with someone I read 121 with today. We are going through some Psalms and he said he'd like to do Proverbs next. I must admit that Proverbs may be my least favourite biblical book, and I have tended to avoid it... maybe God wants me to change my mind!

    On law and Gospel. I know that I'm a bit old-fashioned in my belief that 'law' should preceed Gospel. You're right the terminology is horribly slippy and I think it is very unhelpful that systematically it has come to mean something different to the biblical usuage.

    I should do a post on it, but it would take quite a bit of effort. Not least because I don't have it all straight in my head.

    PS sorry for all the typos, in my previous comment. I wish I could write more clearly - although part of the problem is that sometimes its not even clear to me what I'm trying to say, which may be why you find my law and Gospel comments a bit obscure.

  15. Separating creation from covenant is not a great idea methinks. It's where a whole load of errors begin. Not saying you're in error, but am saying that the two belong together.

    On law-gospel, not sure it's an old-fashioned thing per se., one strand of lutheran and reformed theology perhaps. I'd agree with much of the general distinction and what it's essentially getting at, but not sure that it captures the actual biblical material best (a bit like how I feel about the three-fold division of the law too). And am wary of it becoming a means of dividing up scripture somewhat reminiscent of dispensationalism. That said, the proper relation of 'do' and 'done' is pretty important.

  16. hmmm...

    I see law and Gospel as fundamentally about death and life. OT/NT and even do/done don't map across perfectly but do have a relationship to this fundamental distinction. The issue is more about the work achieved by the word of God, than the content of the word itself. So chopping up the bible into either OT/NT or even command and promise is less important than seeing what God is doing.

    ... that's what I think. And I think at its core that is the Lutheran understanding too. Although it can lose sight of the bigger picture sometimes.

  17. Ooops, I appear to have posted as my housemate.

    On the creation/covenant thing.

    I'd agree that they cannot be separated, and that the covenants with Abraham/Israel/David were dealing with the whole of creation as representatives of creation, for the purpose of redeeming all of creation.

    But I suppose that brings me back to my earlier point that just because things are inseparable does not mean that they should be equated.

  18. Interesting about death/ life. Better category than command-promise I agree, though I've heard many people describe the distinction that way.

    Still, death/life just highlights the problem with the terminology being law/ gospel doesn't it, since the gospel is the smell of death to the perishing.

    On covenant/ creation - I guess I'm more saying that I'd question the validity of something ever really being a 'creation thing' and not a covenant thing, like, say biblical wisdom. The beginning of wisdom is the fear of Yahweh after all, not 'God' or 'higher power.' Interesting to note that even in the original state in the garden man is not left without special revelation - the whole thing starts off covenantal.

    Wisdom free from covenant smells too much like 'natural law' for my liking, or some bad versions of common grace. But there's a whole other topic... :)

  19. Yes, terminology is problematic. I think people do occasionally talk about the gospel "functioning as law", i.e. condemning rather than restoring. But that is not the proper use but the alien or accidental use (cf. Glen's comment on Calvin).

    Similarly when the law serves to encourage then that is not its proper purpose but is secondary. Again I think of how Glen likes to talk about the law saying when Israel went into the land they WILL do X and Y. I.e. it was an encouragement that God would enable them to obey. I don't think that was how it was meant to function primarily though.

    Anyway... I take your point about fear of YHWH. But I'm not so opposed to natural law (although I have big problems with natural gospel :)). It is surely undeniable that much of Proverbs is similar to much ANE wisdom lit, and could have been written without any kind of special revelation. A lot of it is common (grace) sense. Not all, granted, and it is perhaps more encompased by a understanding of YHWH that means that a different spin is put on it. A spin that gives hope outside of the cause-effect world that much of Proverbs preaches.

    In contrast the Gospel cannot be preached without special rev as it comes from outside, and makes no sense the world even with common grace.

  20. But isn't proverbs making exactly the same point with wisdom - don't try teaching wisdom without situating it in the covenant. And don't try to run life, understand the world, raise your family, without doing so from the base of the fear of Yahweh. The pagans may well be able to observe some of the same stuff (i.e. that if you work hard then you won't be so poor) but they can't really be wise, not in the way Proverbs teaches what wisdom means.

    So, if we make wisdom into common grace then it gets weird when we get to the NT and discover that Christ is our wisdom. Wisdom is gospel, or the world understood from the vantage point of the gospel. But then again, common grace is the same- it only really, truly, fully, completely and consistently is the property of Christ and his people.

  21. So I guess I'm challenging your last paragraph and saying that the gospel is the only thing that makes sense of the world as it is. This is crucial, and anything short of this is a false dichotomising (if that's word) of creation and redemption. Grace restores, renews and glorifies nature, it does not replace it. Redemption restores, renews and glorifies creation, it does not replace it. It matters that Christ is our creator because redemption is re-creation, not a wholly different category of thing.

    Or something like that.

  22. I'm writing a first draft of the sermon on Proverbs 31. I'd love a proof read off you guys, even if we might not entirely agree on how to handle it... drop me an email if you'd be up for that in the next week or so.

  23. I'm not sure.

    But I've had a think, and this is where I'm at:

    Christ is our wisdom, but isn't he our wisdom by making wisdom work backwards (to nick a phrase from CS Lewis)? Although perhaps the early chapters say there is a possibility that it is otherwise, proverbs pictures us alone with choices to make. "Do this and live" is it's constant refrain. Pagans understand that logic. It may be common sense plus, as God displays himself clearer than we may see in creation, but something like it can be found everywhere you look.

    "The pagans may well be able to observe some of the same stuff (i.e. that if you work hard then you won't be so poor) but they can't really be wise" but that is true of Christians too, apart from Christ. We can understand wisdom when we see it, even if we can't be wise ourselves (that's why non-Christians can see Christians' good works as good even though they are not good people). I can't be the perfect wife, or even control my tongue. As far as I can see Proverbs offers me little hope of life.

    Christ is our wisdom though, so it is all transformed by the Gospel. They are now guidelines on how to live our new life, because the promises are already ours. The words are still the same, it is still understandable to the world, but they are transformed by being just one chapter in a bigger story.

    Now of course if I know the ending to a story I can start there and read the beginning in the light of it. But that's not the way I should read a story. I should read the first part on its own, then the ending, and then read the beginning in the light of the ending. Otherwise where is the suspense, the drama, and the joy when I reach the twist in the tale. There may have been hints of the twist all along, and looking back from the end I may be able to see those hints, but if I see the hints on the first reading then the author is not very skilled.

    So with Proverbs 31 I should read it as good common sense wisdom about what a wife should be. THEN I should talk about Christ. After that I should, like Paul, return to the image of marriage and say "you know what, the Proverbs 31 wife is about more than a wife, it's also about the church".

    I'll also be nit-picky about your comment "Redemption restores, renews and glorifies creation, it does not replace it." Redemption does all that it is true. But first it kills it. We don't really have "re-creation" we have "new creation". There is a disjunction. There is continuity too, but there is a disjunction. My body will die, and what will rise will be my body but it will be also something entirely new. If I'm like Christ I may even be able to walk through walls and look unrecognisable at first glance!

  24. Good thoughts Dave, however...

    Proverbs does exactly what you think it doesn't. It offers you hope of life in the fear of the LORD which is the beginning of wisdom. Only a right covenant relationship with Yahweh fully gives the wisdom that the book speaks about. Hence the cry to choose wisdom. [That's only one way the book speaks of the gospel though, obviously there's the big aspect of looking for the Davidic son who will be all-wise]

    I think the 'new' in new creation is best understood as new in quality and character rather than a whilly different thing. Difficult to make sense of lots of things without that. So whatever we mean when we say 'something entirely new' we have to be careful to not undermine the clear continuity. Christ will transform our lowly bodies to be like his glorious bodies, our bodies are the seed of the new bodies, the creaiton is liberated from its bondage to decay etc. etc. etc. Just look at Colossians 1 - Christ reconciles all things to himself, he doesn't obliterate them and get a second version off the shelf.

    Redemption is about the restoration of the order of the creation (which is some of what Proverbs is observing) as well as the fulfilment of creation in taking it to its always intended goal as a glorified creation.

    Goldsworthy's 'gospel and wisdom'is really very excellent on all these things, showing the interplay of proverbs, ecclesiastes, job etc., and Christ's fulfilment of them all.

    I think all I'm saying ultimately in this part of the covnersation is that it's a gross simplificiation tp put the wisdom of proverbs into the 'natural law' or 'common grace' category. That's not how it's presented. It's in the bible! There are similarities to ANE stuff, but that can be argued for other parts of scripture too. The point is the meaning in context, which is covenantal, Christocentric. Proverbs would tell us that the last thing we should do is 'preach wisdom' as if it's some sort of common sense thing that all people agree with - the beginning of wisdom is the fear of Yahweh.

  25. Put another way, in what sense does Proverbs picture us 'alone with choices to make?' It's all about trusting in Yahweh. There's no 'do this and live' outside of the context of the covenant, which is evoked time and again in the book (like, every time we get the name 'Yahweh' for starters).

    Where it crosses over with pagan wisdom, I'd suggest it's really more a case of pillaging the egyptians so to speak. Solomon reclaiming what properly only belongs to God's people (as all of creation does, as all 'truth' does) and what properly can only make sense in the context of covenant with Yawhweh. If anything there might be a polemic against the very notion of free-standing pagan 'make the world work without Yahweh' wisdom.

  26. Proverbs pictures a royal son being instructed by his father the King... it doesn't necessarily picture "us" at all.

  27. Yes, I agree. The Israelite is in there secondarily to the Israelite King (since the King was supposed to be the true/ ideal Israelite, and true/ ideal Adam). 'We' then fit in with that through being in (and disciples of) the Christ.

    I'm saying that that's a long way from it preaching some kind 'off you go, autonomously make life work.' That was what the first Adam (and the and Israelite kings) got wrong, not what Proverbs is asking us or anyone to do.

  28. Hi Pete and Dave,

    I've really enjoyed this conversation. It's been helpful. Thank you.

    I suppose Proverbs could be read legitimately in 2 ways:
    1. As addressed to the king's son, as representative of Israel who represented all of humanity.
    2. As addressed to the king's son, as a representative of the promised Messiah, who would represent Israel, who represents all of humanity.

    I.e. it can be read mediated by Christ, or apart from him. That's just like the Mosaic law. Looking mediated by Christ it could be blessing, but if (as the Jews did) the mediator is rejected it is only a curse. I'm just arguing that we should read it as 1 and THEN as 2, rather than jumping straight to 2.

    Behind that, Pete, I'd like to challenge a couple of things that seem to lie behind your understanding of the covenant:
    1. That it is necessarily of grace. The covenant does not need to work that way. So when you say "there's no 'do this and live' outside of the context of the covenant, which is evoked time and again in the book (like, every time we get the name 'Yahweh' for starters)" of course I admit there is a relationship with Yahweh. But what kind? Even the pagan has a relationship with Yahweh. Is it mediated by Christ? It doesn't need to be, and if it isn't then we are 'alone' before God, not with God. We can be told to "trust Yahweh with all our heart" and we will then get life... but who has done that? Only Christ. If I'm told to DO that then, if I can't trust that Christ has DONE it already, then the call to DO this and live is bad news.
    2. That there is a world of difference between natural law and covenantal law. I think they are of the same type, it is just that covenantal law is a heightened, clearer re-presentation... now the Gospel is a different matter.

    On new creation again. Yes there is both continuity and discontinuity. But what I see people saying at one extreme is that creation will be healed, and at the other creation will be destroyed and a "second version" (heaven?) will replace it. I think it is more biblical to say that creation will die, and be raised to new life. And that's real death by the way. An end and new beginning - but for the same creation! - the other two options make sense. The Gospel truth in comparison makes no sense at all!

    I read Goldsworthy several years ago and enjoyed it, but must admit I've forgotten much of it. Maybe I should read it again. I do seem to remember him saying that Proverbs only presented part of the picture, which Eccl tried to rectify by questioning why the cause-effect world doesn't always work out, but the Gospel makes draws together these two divergent strands of wisdom.

  29. Dave, thanks for this.

    I think we're getting to a certain point where we're bumping against paradigmatic and hermeneutical stuff, that would take maybe too long to unravel, and for which a blog comments is not the best forum.

    Nevertheless, some thoughts...

    'Looking mediated by Christ it could be blessing, but if (as the Jews did) the mediator is rejected it is only a curse.'

    That's fine, so long as we're saying the same is true of the gospel. But then, the issue is whether that's meant to be the way we read it. Is the separation of the commands to choose life/ fear Yahweh etc. from grace something that was there all along, or a mistake that only Christ-rejecters make? A related question re. the law would be whether the Pharisees got the law right when they saw it as teaching works-righteousness, or was that an abuse of the law?

    Not sure where you're getting at on the natural law v covenantal law, so I'll try one more time to clarify. I think that 'the beginning of wisdom is the fear of Yahweh' is gospel, not 'law.' So, right away, whatever else there may be in proverbs that is of common grace or natural law (i.e. a pagan could spot it as a seemingly obvious observable principle of how the world seems to work, or something), Proverbs always only intends for that to be set in the context of the gospel. It never intends for the other stuff to come to us divorced from that. I'm saying there's a world of difference between that kind of situation and any sort of situation where we're dealing purely with common grace-acquired natural law-wisdom that's not been set in that context. I'm not denying the overlap of much of the content. Yes, the pagan sluggard may well be able to go to the ant and learn the importance of working hard. But, Proverbs doesn't intend for us to read its instruction for the sluggard to go to the ant divorced from the covenant, divorced from grace. If there's an OT Messianic context then that only serves to underline this, that Proverbs was always intended to be read as instruction for living in the context of grace.

    I have no problem with the language of death and resurrection being used of what the creation must go through, in fact I rather like it since it emphasises the connection with Christ, which is of course where all the stuff about new being new in quality comes from. I think you might be reading me through other people's views on this one. 'Healed' would be too weak for me, and would not imply the transfiguration and glorification that I think is coming, since healed is just a restoration of a previously unbroken state. I'd be unclear at this point as to what that discontinuity and continuity involves exactly, apart from the broadest of brushstrokes (for e.g. anything associated with sin and the curse gone on the one hand, whilst creation still physical, embodied etc. on the other hand).

  30. You're right that we have hit some of our differences in how we approach reading the bible. It is not easy. I'll just try and respond to your points/questions.

    “That's fine, so long as we're saying the same is true of the gospel.”

    I’m not sure the same is true of the gospel. The gospel is Christ in a way the ‘law’ isn’t. Commands to ‘fear YHWH’ can be understood as striving on our own before God (in which case they condemn us), or as done already by Christ which frees us to fulfil them in the power of the life he gives us. I think there is not just one way to read the Mosaic law, proverbs, or any of the OT, but there are two. FIRST we read them apart from Christ which drives us to search for rescue (e.g. David was a rubbish king and they found no rest so we keep on searching for the true king), SECOND we receive and accept the gospel of Christ (e.g. The true king has come and brought us rest), THIRD we return to the original story/law/proverb and see Christ at work even then (e.g. Jesus was saving his people through David, his shadow, and we see a model of our salvation in David’s victories).

    “Is the separation of the commands to choose life/ fear Yahweh etc. from grace something that was there all along, or a mistake that only Christ-rejecters make?”

    I think there is a tension in the OT about this. Grace/judgement were never integrated in the OT. They were always both there, but they were running on parallel tracks until they came together in Christ’s work and both came to their fullness. So time and again you get God changing his mind, at one point promising there are no more chances, and then showing grace yet again. I see OT faith as holding together these two words of God, and trusting that God will resolve them in the end when the Messiah came – even if they didn’t know how. OT unbelief often manifested itself in trying to merge these two words together rather than letting them standing in tension. So Jews could often say that the commands could be kept when God injected some grace in somehow - e.g. you obeyed commandments as much as possible and sacrifices covered over the times you didn’t. So the mistake the Christ rejecters made was that they merged command and grace, in the process loosing the grace. Christians should read command and grace as separate, but THEN brought together in the cross, THEN lived out in Christ-cross/resurrection-shaped-life.

  31. “[did] the Pharisees [get] the law right when they saw it as teaching works-righteousness, or was that an abuse of the law?”

    The paragraph above covers this a bit. They didn’t get the law right because they blunted its demands, which is why when you read Christ’s criticisms of the Pharisees he is usually criticising them for not actually keeping the law. They blunted the commands with ‘grace’, so they ended up with works-righteousness because Christ was not part of their picture – they were improvising without him. So the problem was that the Pharisees didn’t get just HOW much works-righteousness was required by the law, and so saw no need for Christ.

    So when you get to Paul, you don’t find him seeing a problem with the interpretation of the law in his opponents. He sees the problem as the law-in-relation-to-sinners. As sinners we need to be freed from the law, not just an abuse of the law (see some quotes here, although I’ve changed my mind slightly from when I wrote that), but as saints we can reclaim it as ours.

    “Not sure where you're getting at on the natural law v covenantal law”

    I’m sorry I haven’t been very clear on this one. Some Reformed say that they see the Mosaic covenant as a recapitulation/re-presentation of the covenant of works. I don’t agree with that, but I think there is some truth there. Through creation we all have knowledge of ourselves and of God that is true (Rom 1 etc). Much of the Mosaic law and proverbs (but not all of either) could be seen as recapitulating this natural revelation. The effect of this is to heighten our guilt when we suppress that knowledge as we’ve been told twice, the second time more clearly than the first.

    But while this representation of natural law/revelation has been going on, there has also been a word of promise declared in the same bible. The risk is that we merge these two words into one message (e.g. in covenantal nomism), apart from Christ when we should hold them in tension until Christ’s comes and the promise find’s its ‘yes’ in the resurrection, and the ‘law’ completes its act of judgement in the cross.

  32. So the difficulty for us reading Proverbs is entering into this world of tension again. We would be wrong to write of the OT church as living under works-righteousness and law until Christ came. But we would also be wrong to see them living in a time when the tension has already been resolved, as it has for us in Christ. Perhaps in our discussion we are both trying to resolve the tension too much; you by making it all of grace, and me by making it all of judgement.

    You keep on talking about the context of grace/covenant/bible that the book of Proverbs would have been understood in. But I think this goes to show that in itself Proverbs is mainly judgement/common grace/creation. The context of grace transforms it, but before it is transformed it is something else.

    As you said earlier common grace/creation ‘belongs to God’s people’. Which is like what Luther says in Freedom of the Christian: all things serve the Christian. Even death serves to bring us life! I think that is helpful.

    “Proverbs was always intended to be read as instruction for living in the context of grace.”

    I’m sure you are right. I just think that grace comes at the end of the story, and isn’t the presupposition. That’s why he could steal from his ANE context which didn’t know grace. That’s why I think ‘fear of YHWH’, is not grace. And that’s why we can read it apart from grace/Christ, and then later with him.

    All of these things are held tentatively though. I’ve learnt something mulling over Proverbs these last few days. Even picked up Goldsworthy last night, and could see echoes of lots of what you’re saying and will definitely return to it. He says that because we are Christians we should read Proverbs in the light of Christ. I’d want to say we are sinners and saints, so we need to read it as both putting us to death and bringing us to life – i.e. without Christ and with him.

    Finally, on New Creation I think we’re in complete agreement. Sorry if I have misread you, although I never thought you were at one of the extremes I described.

    Phew... I’m pretty exhausted by all this thinking.

  33. Dave, thanks for your thoughtful responses here.

    I think you won't be surprised to learn that I disagree with your understanding of Paul's understanding of the OT law, and indeed the differences between him and the Judaisers. Still, I'm not so certain in all this as to not let your thoughts here make me return to the relevant texts for a re-think.

    I think there might just be great wisdom in your suggestion that we're both trying to resolve the same tension 'too much' in the same direction.

    That said, I think taken as a whole the mosaic covenant is of grace, and is an administration of the covenant of grace (to use the wcf sort of jargon for this). So, whatever else we see as some of the functions of the law within that covenant it was never intended to negate the Abrahamic covenant on which it is actually based (you might not be surprised to learn that I'm not a fan of the recapitulation of a works-righteousness covenant, but I think this holds even if you do buy it to any sort of degree). Moses means it when he tells the Israelites to choose life, and Paul means it when he sees those kind of words on the lips of Moses as a call to essentially trust Christ.

    Also, I think the command to fear the LORD is not a command to earn something, or to sinless perfectionism per se. It is a command to trust the LORD, an invitation to a grace-based relationship with him. In fact, to acknowledge him alone as God (and you as not) is about grace and not works - to take God as your God is to stop any pretensions to being able to save oneself in any sense - something I believe Luther saw when he recognised the essential congruence between the first commandment and the gospel of justification by faith. It's a gospel call, which of course will smell of death and bring condemnation to the perishing, but to the 'called' will be the fragrance of Christ who is the wisdom and the power of God.

    I'm knackered too, so think I'll probably bow out for now and look fwd to interacting with you in the future on these and other issues no doubt.

    Yours in Christ Jesus our Lord

  34. Thought-provoking response. I sympathise with all you say, and this whole discussion has been an encouragement to read the texts again for me too.

    Thanks again.


Post a Comment

Popular posts from this blog

"Big eyes full of wonder"

Books. Fiction. Libraries. Second only to churches as are the best gateways in your community to ultimate reality and new possibilities.

Our local library has just re-opened after refurbishment, and I love that our boys have spent several mornings there during the summer holidays, discovering some wonderful new stories.

I realised a few months back that I wasn't reading enough fiction. My work necessitates reading a lot of non-fiction, a mix of historical and contemporary thinking, biblical studies and theology. But fiction is the cinderella. Easily overlooked, and yet able to awaken my imagination and show me the way things are meant to be.

So I've picked up a few more lately - bought and borrowed. Not every book attempted flies, and that's ok. These have been winners though.

Ink. This is Alice Broadway's debut novel. It's young adult fiction and tells the story of Leora who lives in a world where the events of your life are tattooed on your skin. Nothing gets hid…

Uniquely Matthew

Reading gospel accounts in parallel is sometimes used to blur the differences in perspective between the evangelists, seeking to harmonise the texts and find a definitive historical account of what happened. No such thing exists because every account is biased and limited. You simply can't record everything. You have to hold a vantage point. And that's not a problem.

Matthew, Mark and Luke take a very different vantage point to John who was of course an eyewitness himself of the events. Comparing the text of Matthew, Mark and Luke across the death and resurrection of Jesus yields two steps.

Firstly, the common ground. All three accounts tell of...
Simon of Cyrene carrying the cross…. · Jesus labelled as King of the Jews…. · Criminals crucified with Jesus… · Darkness in the daytime… · Jesus' loud final cry… The women who witnessed Jesus death, and Jesus' burial… · The tomb lent to Jesus by Joseph of Arimithea… · The women who went to the tomb on the morning of the…

Songs we're singing in Church

Christians are a singing people, it's part of what we do when we gather.

Our church meets morning an evening on a Sunday - normally using 5 songs in each service. So, over the year that's about 520 song-slots available. The report from the database system we use ( tells us that in the past year we've sung about 150 different songs.

Our current most used song has been sung 11 times in the last year, just under once a month. Our top 10 are used about every 6 weeks. By #30 we're talking about songs used every two months. The tail is long and includes loads of classic hymns from across the centuries, plus other songs from the past 40 years, that we have used around once a term or less.

1. Rejoice - Dustin Kensrue

2. Come Praise & Glorify - Bob Kauflin

3. Man of Sorrows - Hillsong

4. Cornerstone - Hillsong

Rejoice was a song I didn't previously know, along with a couple of others that have quickly become firm favourites for me: Chri…