Saturday, November 10, 2018

How Not to Crash and Burn (32)

Some proverbs are absolutely straightforward. Perhaps most were in their day. For example, when we read “An evildoer listens to wicked lips, and a liar gives ear to a mischievous tongue,” it is all-but-impossible to misunderstand. Much might be said by way of application, and examples could be cited both from scripture and personal experience, but the basic concept is not the least bit enigmatic.

Others? Well, time, linguistic and cultural differences have a way of obscuring meaning.

Assorted Proverbs (Proverbs 17:1-28)

The Obscure Ones

Amazingly, truly obscure proverbs are quite rare. It’s a marvel that so many remain so obvious to the average reader, even in another language and across an ocean, half a continent and the span of three thousand years. It’s also evidence of both Solomon’s unique understanding and God’s grace: practical advice about how to live is urgently needed in every generation.

Here are a couple of those rare proverbs that do not parse quite so easily.

A Cruel Messenger

Verse 11 tells us:
“An evil man seeks only rebellion,
and a cruel messenger will be sent against him.”
The first phrase is not difficult. Evil manifests itself in this world by trying to overthrow good. It may do so overtly or covertly, but the plan is always to run the show, not to accept any direction or restraint. Satan’s thinking is shared with us in Isaiah: “I will ascend above the heights of the clouds; I will make myself like the Most High.” That’s the rebel heart. It declares to itself, “I will set my throne on high,” and then sets out to make its dreams come true. A few translators invert it to read “A rebellious man seeks only evil.” This too is not a difficult concept.

But what is this “cruel messenger” exactly? It is not unexpected that either God or other less-powerful authority figures in this world would find it necessary to respond to rebellion, but the form that response takes is not immediately obvious. In Hebrew, the word “messenger” is mal'ak, which may indicate an earthly messenger or even an angel. Thus the NIV translates this “the messenger of death” and Douay-Rheims has “a cruel angel”. Most modern translations avoid taking a strong position on whether the messenger is a spiritual or an earthly entity. Seventeen other translations go with “cruel messenger” as the ESV does. That seems to be the safest bet.

Ellicott thinks it’s an earthly messenger. His commentary suggests that Potiphar, Joseph’s one-time master, was not just “captain of the guard” but “chief executioner” for Pharaoh, and that this is the sort of person Solomon has in mind: someone tasked by the king with putting down those who attempt to rise up against him. Matthew Henry goes the other way, explaining the second line of the proverb like this: “Satan, and the messengers of Satan, shall be let loose upon an evil man.”

But whether the response Solomon has in mind is earthly or heavenly, what does seem to be true is that rebellion is rarely easily forgiven. Those who do attempt to overlook it, as David would have overlooked Absalom’s attempt to seize the throne of Israel, are often thwarted in their efforts by things like the three javelins Joab used to pierced Absalom’s rebellious heart.

Cruel messengers indeed.

The High Door

Verse 19 has another perplexing turn of phrase:
“Whoever loves transgression loves strife;
he who makes his door high seeks destruction.”
So what is this “high door” exactly, and why is it a problem?

Let’s go with the literal image first. The NIV has “high gate”. The New Living Translation goes for “high walls”. The KJV says, “he that exalteth his gate.” Hmm. Not much help there.

Maybe we are better off not being quite so literal. The Christian Standard Bible is interesting: “One who builds a high threshold invites injury.” That I can definitely picture. The Good News Translation says, “If you brag all the time, you are asking for trouble.” This is consistent with Aben Ezra’s reading, which assumes “gate” is a metaphor for “mouth”, but the Pulpit Commentary adds, “It is doubtful whether the words will bear that interpretation.”

I note that this is not someone who is building a palace, but rather someone who puts an ostentatious entrance on an otherwise-normal building. Perhaps in standing out from his neighbors, or “transgressing”, he is putting himself at risk by attracting enemies, who may feel there is something to be gained by robbing him.

A similar principle seems to operate in the modern business environment: men and women who work quietly and steadily at their jobs are rarely singled out for grief by management. Those who deliberately make themselves visible are often promoted, but they are also frequently the victims of early termination.

In short, drawing excessive attention to oneself is not always desirable.

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