Monday, August 09, 2010

Proverbs 29:8-10

29:8 “Scoffers set a city aflame, but wise men turn away wrath.”
The word translated “set aflame” ordinarily means “blow/breath” and is used a number of times in the proverbs to describe liars who “breathe lies” (Pr. 6:19, 14:5, 25, 19:5, 9). In one place it seems to refer to the opposite: breathing out the truth (Pr. 12:17) which is what God does. Likewise, at least once it describes the poor and needy longing for safety (Ps. 12:6).

The verb is causative suggesting that the scoffer is himself a small storm/coal that drives breath (maybe smoke) up out of a city, and it is used sometimes to describe judgment (Ps. 10:5, Ez. 21:36). The meaning here seems to be similar to Pr. 22:10 where the scoffer causes strife, quarreling, and abuse. In Ps. 10:5, the word seems to describe a kind of righteous derision/scoffing that Yahweh does toward his enemies. Given the parallel line “turn away wrath,” the “set aflame” in the first half seems consistent.

Interestingly, the word is used twice in Song of Songs to describe what “the day” does when the “shadows flee” which seems to suggest a poetic image perhaps like “giving up the ghost/breathing out the last” (Song 2:17, 4:6). It is used once more in the Song as the hope that the wind will “blow” upon the garden causing it’s spices/aroma to flow out. Here, the opposite is in view: a scoffer is a bad wind that cause a stench to rise up out of the city.

In one sense this proverb describes a basic cause and effect principle in a community. Scoffers/scorners have a particular effect on other people while the wise have another effect. The participle form of this verb is sometimes used more generically to mean “interpreter” (Gen. 42:23, 2 Chr. 32:31, Job 33:23). Elsewhere, a “scoffer” is described as “arrogant” and “proud” (Pr. 21:24). Back in Pr. 1:22 and Ps. 1:1, there is an implicit ranking of a “scoffer” which seems consistent with Is. 28:14 where “scoffers” are the rulers of Israel who have gotten drunk and disregarded the word of the Lord. Likewise, rulers are warned not to “scoff” in Is. 28:22,
Given the context, it is probably safe to assume that this proverb likewise has people in authority and responsibility in mind who do not receive instruction and then lead their people astray (Is. 43:27). They are like false prophets/interpreters.

29:9 “If a wise man contends with a foolish man, whether the fool rages or laughs, there is no peace.”

This proverb is clearly comparing two kinds of men. Unusually, the first line uses the noun/adjective combination twice: Literally: “man-wise enters judgment man fool.” The proverb is explicitly comparing two kinds of men.

But interestingly, where the first half is overly explicit, the second half of the proverb is rather ambiguous.

Literally, the second half of the proverb says “he rages and he laughs and there is no peace.” It is ambiguous as to exactly how the two halves relate.

Waltke suggests that the point of the proverb is comparing the two actions in the two halves. A wise man “contends” (probably in court) with a fool, but fools merely rage or laugh and there is no peace. In other words, the sign of a wise man is that he prosecutes folly in an orderly fashion. Fools cause disorder.

This might also be a parallel proverb to others that describe the response of scoffers/fools to correction, ie. what happens when you try to contend/go to court with a fool. They hate correction and will hate you for it (Pr. 9:7-8, 13:1, 15:12). A fool despises his father’s instruction and isn’t likely to receive it well from anyone else (Pr. 15:5, 16:22, 27:22).

29:10 “The bloodthirsty hate the blameless, but the upright seek his well-being.”

This proverb begins echoing 29:8 with “men of …” 29:9 Here we have “men of blood.” But the parallel may imply that the “men of scoffing” from 29:8 who bring judgment on the city are in that sense “men of blood.” These men of blood hate the blameless.

The proverb is structured:
Men of blood
Hate the blameless
His soul

And this could be taken in at least two ways: Perhaps the two halves describe a contrast: while the men of blood hate the blameless, the upright seek their own well-being (as my translation has it). Or the second half could be understood to be filling out and amplifying the first half: the men of blood who had the upright are the ones who seek the soul of the upright. This latter reading seems a little more convincing to me.

If the first reading is plausible perhaps there is something of a defense of the perfect/upright man within the broader context of shedding blood. While the upright is only seeking a good life, men of blood want them dead. If there is some continuity with the last couple of proverbs, you have scoffers who cause harm to their communities, and fools who rage and laugh and disrupt the peace, and the ultimate end of these kinds of activities is the shedding of blood. Fools despise wisdom and instruction.

“Blameless/perfect” may also have sacrificial connotations which fits with the “blood” theme of this proverb. The “blameless” are sacrificial quality, but here, the “sacrifice” is a murder. This suggests that murder is always an attempted sacrifice, but perhaps there is also the implication that God sees and values the blood of the innocent/perfect. Abel’s blood cries out.

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