What Do the Proverbs Say About Sin?
Last week we gave a brief introduction to the wisdom literature of the Bible, noting how much it differs in form and style from the Law. This might lead us to the blinkered and tactless opinion that Law and Wisdom are somehow at odds with each other. For example, we might be tempted to think that the Law is generally exalted and spiritual, whereas Wisdom is generally pragmatic and earthy.
Let us subvert this thinking by asking of the Proverbs a question that we normally ask of the Law of Moses: What is sin? The Proverbs’ unfair reputation as a book of practical wisdom would seem to disqualify it from answering such a spiritual question, yet the book discusses wickedness explicitly in practically every chapter. It uses vivid images to depict the wicked and the righteous in action: “A faithful witness does not lie, but a false witness breathes out lies” (Pro 14.5). “A worthless man plots evil, and his speech is like a scorching fire. A dishonest man spreads strife, and a whisperer separates close friends. A man of violence entices his neighbor and leads him in a way that is not good” (16.27-29). The Proverbs teach us that the wicked love neither God nor man, which is precisely the lesson which we learn from the Law of Moses.
The Book of Proverbs answers the question more profoundly in its preamble:
The proverbs of Solomon, son of David, king of Israel:
To know wisdom and instruction,
to understand words of insight,
to receive instruction in wise dealing,
in righteousness, justice, and equity;
to give prudence to the simple,
knowledge and discretion to the youth—
Let the wise hear and increase in learning,
and the one who understands obtain guidance,
to understand a proverb and a saying,
the words of the wise and their riddles.
The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge;
fools despise wisdom and instruction.
I have emphasized “in righteousness, justice, and equity” in this passage because we expect to find those words in the Law (indeed, we often find them there). Solomon says that the purpose of the proverbs is to teach biblical righteousness along with wisdom. Wisdom and righteousness are correlated, then. The proverbs teach wisdom and righteousness because wisdom and righteousness belong to the same character. You become wise by becoming righteous, and you become righteous by becoming wise. The opposites of righteousness, justice, and equity—wickedness, injustice, and inequity—are the very meaning of sin, which implies that folly and sin are correlated in the same way that wisdom and righteousness are. Foolishness and sin are kissing cousins.
The Proverbs themselves bear this out explicitly: “The devising of folly is sin, and the scoffer is an abomination to mankind” (Pro 24.9). To get a sense of how broadly the Proverbs associate sin and folly, read all of Proverbs 28. A few of the proverbs in the chapter fit our categories for what a wise saying ought to look like—"Whoever works his land will have plenty of bread, but he who follows worthless pursuits will have plenty of poverty”—but most of the chapter reads like the Law. Near the conclusion of Proverbs 28, we read, “Whoever trusts in his own mind is a fool, but he who walks in wisdom will be delivered” (28.26). What is the fool ignoring to trust in his own mind? What is the wisdom that delivers the wise man? Based on the context, we can only conclude that it is the Law. The wise man heeds it to his deliverance; the fool ignores it to his doom.
If we understand the correlation between foolishness and sin in the Proverbs, then we discover that the book has a lot more to say about sin than just the proverbs that explicitly talk about the wicked man. Let us consider speech as an example. Bearing in mind that the proverbs teach things situationally, we learn that sometimes harsh words are wise (Pro 27.6), but at other times they are foolish (Pro 12.18) and thus sometimes even sinful.
Let me end by generalizing the Proverbs’ lesson on sin. In general, the Proverbs teach that the wicked man, the fool, takes advantage of others. He gains through others’ loss. Most of the Proverbs have this relational quality to them; we rarely harm only ourselves when we sin. Next week, Lord willing, we will further consider the Proverbs’ relational quality as we consider what the Proverbs teach about righteousness.