What Do the Proverbs Say About Righteousness?
Last week, we considered Wisdom’s close relationship with the Law. We saw that the Proverbs of Solomon are concerned with righteousness and wickedness in much the same way as the Law, far from being worldly and pragmatic. We focused on the Proverbs’ conception of sin. This week, we will consider what the Proverbs have to say about righteousness.
To set the stage for understanding righteousness in the Proverbs, we need to remember what the Proverbs teach about sin, mainly that the Proverbs handle sin situationally. In other words, the Proverbs teach that an act might be sinful in one circumstance but acceptable or even wise in another. Furthermore, the Proverbs will situationally condemn an action as sinful which the Law of Moses doesn’t categorically condemn. This “high bar” which the Proverbs set makes the Law of Moses, in a sense, the “low bar” for righteousness. The commandments of the Law of Moses are the bare minimum of what Israel ought to have considered righteous behavior.
This makes a lot of sense if we consider the Ten Commandments. “Do not commit adultery” is a rather low bar for righteousness in marriage. If you want to have a successful and godly marriage, if you want to be faithful to your spouse, not cheating on your spouse is absolutely the bare minimum. Few of us (I hope) congratulate ourselves on merely not cheating on our spouses. “Do not commit adultery” is the low bar. The Proverbs set a higher bar. On fidelity, the Proverbs teach, “Keep you way far from [the forbidden woman], and do not go near the door of her house,” and, “Let your fountain be bless, and rejoice in the wife of your youth” (Pro 5.8, 18). But fidelity in marriage is more than sexual fidelity. Of the righteous wife, the Proverbs teach, “She does [her husband] good, and not harm, all the days of her life” (Pro 31.12). Of the righteous husband, “Her husband also [rises up and calls her blessed], and he praises her” (Pro 31.28). Husband and wife are both esteemed among their peers, presumably because they praise each other among their peers (Pro 31.23, 31).
Likewise with the commandment, “Do not steal.” Keeping your hands off of your neighbor’s goods is the bare minimum for loving your neighbor. Again, one wouldn’t boast that “I love my neighbor so much that I let him keep his things,” and again, the Proverbs set a higher bar. “The lips of the righteous feed many” (10.21); “One gives freely, yet grows all the richer; another withholds what he should give, and only suffers want” (11.24). The Proverbs teach that, far from taking your neighbors’ stuff, you should be looking for opportunities to share your abundance with your neighbors.
Likewise “Do not murder.” If there was any doubt that the Ten Commandments set a low bar for righteous behavior, “Do not murder” puts an end to it. Not killing your neighbor is the low bar of low bars, even in the ancient world.
We find this “high bar” mentality outside of the Wisdom literature in the Book of Ruth. Boaz takes Ruth to be his levirate wife, even though the Law does not require him to do so. He is not Elimelech’s brother. He is a distant enough relative that the Law does not call on him to take Ruth as his levirate wife. Yet the Book of Ruth holds Boaz up as an exemplar of righteousness, because what he did was right even if not strictly required.
To tie all of this back to what we have been saying about Christ as Wisdom in Colossians, consider what Jesus had to say about righteousness in the Sermon on the Mount. “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them [i.e., to fill them up]” (Mat 5.17). He spends the rest of the sermon setting high bars where the Law has set low bars: “You have heard that it was said of to those of old, ‘You shall not murder; and whoever murders will be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment; whoever insults his brother will be liable to the council; and whoever says, ‘You fool!’ will be liable to the hell of fire” (5.21-22). “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart” (5.27-28). “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also” (5.38-39). “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven” (5.43-45a).
May we all strive for the high bar of righteousness set by the Proverbs and by the words of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount so that we will be counted among the sons of the Father.