Wednesday, February 08, 2023

What Does Your Proof Text Prove? (24)

Reading the Bible regularly, repeatedly and without an agenda is a great safeguard against monomania.

Stephen G. Fowler is a medical doctor and student of psychoanalysis. I will probably have more to say about his 2017 book Probing the Mind to Free the Soul in a future post, but my interest today has more to do with his interpretation of a particular proverb than his subject matter or technical arguments.

Let’s just say his reading of the text may be more than a little influenced by his preoccupation with psychoanalysis.

The Sad Condition of Apathy

The proverb in question is a familiar one:

Hope deferred makes the heart sick, but when desire comes, it is a tree of life.” (NKJV)

Fowler writes, “According to the Proverb … the absence of desire is a sickness.” He adds, “Psychoanalysts know about a kind of sick deadness that can pervade a person’s mind/soul when there is no apparent desire alive in that person.” [Emphasis mine.]

Christians have a very natural human tendency to come up with our ideas first, then crack our Bibles to find support for them. We’ve all done it. I know I have countless times. The danger in so doing is that we see what we want to see rather than letting the scripture simply say what it says and transform our lives accordingly. I must confess I have never for a moment thought this proverb has anything to do with the absence of desire, and I doubt most readers do either.

Lost in Translation

Part of the problem may be Fowler’s choice of translation. The phrase “when desire comes” may be understood to mean that desire is absent in some cases, and may be taken to suggest apathy or ennui.

Is that what Solomon is talking about? I don’t think so. The New King James is a perfectly fine Bible, but I find it useful to consult more than a single translation when parsing a verse for meaning. Bible Hub is a great quick way to do that. Here are 38 English translations of Proverbs 13:12 on a single web page. In this case, when you lay a number of translations alongside one another, the first thing you notice is that 21 of the 38 versions use the word “fulfilled” rather than “comes”. For example, my ESV reads, “a desire fulfilled is a tree of life”. Even some of the more loosey-goosey Bibles do an acceptable job with it. The Contemporary English Version reads, “Not getting what you want can break your heart, but a wish that comes true is a life-giving tree.” If you like paraphrases, that’s a good one.

The Object of Desire

The Hebrew for “desire” is ta'ăvâ, which Strongs says may either refer to the desire itself or to the object of desire. The word “comes” is bô', which may mean “to come to pass”. The vast majority of Bible translators have elected to render the passage this way in English, as referring the fulfillment of desire rather than the initial kindling of it. Even the NKJV’s “when desire comes” is not a problem so long as we understand it that what is coming is the object of desire rather than the emotion itself.

What do the commentaries have to say? Matthew Henry writes, “The delay of what is anxiously hoped for is very painful to the mind; obtaining it is very pleasant.” Barnes says, “The desire comes, it is a tree of life: i.e., the object of our desires is attained.” The Pulpit Commentary says, “Delay in the accomplishment of some much-desired good occasions sinking of the spirits, languor, and despondence.” John Gill writes, “when that which is hoped and wished for, and has been long expected and desired, comes; when there is an accomplishment of men’s wishes, it is as grateful to him as the tree of life was in Eden’s garden; it gives him an unspeakable pleasure and delight.” Keil and Delitzsch say, “Extended waiting … causes heart-woe; on the contrary, a wish that has been fulfilled is … a quickening and strengthening influence.” William MacDonald writes, “Repeated postponement of one’s expectations is disheartening; but when the desire is at last fulfilled, it is a source of tremendous satisfaction.”

Desire Fulfilled and Unfulfilled

In fact, I cannot find a single commentator from this century, the last, or the one before it who thinks Proverbs 13:12 is about the dangers of apathy or “sick deadness”, as sad as that condition may be. All view the proverb as describing the contrast between desire fulfilled and desire unfulfilled. Mr. Fowler’s view of the verse is one of a kind.

The condition of living with unfulfilled desire is nicely illustrated in Solomon’s own Song of Solomon chapter 5, where the narrator says, “I adjure you, O daughters of Jerusalem, if you find my beloved, that you tell him I am sick with love.” Same writer, same subject matter. What he is describing is the opposite of apathy. It’s a painfully intense longing you can’t ever give up. Many Christian parents have known it while waiting a lifetime for the salvation of a child.

Fowler’s missed Solomon’s meaning by a fairly wide margin, perhaps because he needs to adduce this outlier of a reading to support a point he’s trying to make in a section of a chapter entitled “Desire, Sexuality, and Spirituality”, part of a larger argument. Whether that argument ultimately succeeds or fails is a question for another day. In this series, we are simply interested in whether the use of a scripture proves the point the person who uses it is trying to make.

This one doesn’t.

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