In Part One, I used a metaphor from the science fiction novel Snow Crash which re-imagined the Tower of Babel story as a place where human beings were “upgraded” from programmable worker to self-conscious human individuals. Perhaps a more popular story is found in Arthur C. Clarke’s sci-fi novel, 2001. Like the Obelisk upgraded the hominids in the story, the Tabernacle was meant to change human beings in their thinking and acting over the generations.
There was lots of disobedience and idolatry in Israel, but eventually the Israelites came to the next stage in their development.
Thinking about Proverbs
Proverbs is inspired Scripture. It is one of the most generalizable books in the Bible. There is very little in it that gives it a historical context (the authorship of Solomon would be an example of such context). It contains wisdom for everyone.
So why did it come so late in history? Most of Leviticus was dictated by God to Moses. He could have dictated most of Proverbs and given it to guide generations of Israelites. There is wisdom in the Pentateuch, of course, but Proverbs gives a fuller and more concentrated articulation of wisdom. It is tied to the history of Israel somehow, but not like the prophets who are usually responding to certain historical events.
To put it another way, we would never ask why Samuel, Kings, and Chronicles weren’t written earlier. It is self-evident that they were grounded in events that occurred at a particular time. And even though there may be sections of the prophets that could possibly be such far distant predictions that they could have been given earlier, most of them are also set in a historical context.
But except for the bare fact of authorship, Proverbs doesn’t seem to have such grounding. Obviously, God used the history of Israel culminating in Solomon’s wisdom to produce Proverbs. But given the fact that God could simply have dictated it to Moses, what is the reason God chose to leave Israel without that fuller revelation of his wisdom until centuries later?
The only explanation I can think of is that people were not ready to hear it. They needed time with the Mosaic administration to give them ears to hear.
The Silent Years
It is not just Proverbs that presents us with this riddle. Psalms were also started a generation earlier. Many of these have an obvious historical grounding so they could not simply have been inspired earlier in time.
But if David wrote the Psalms and established a choir around the tent on Mount Zion, we ought to think about why there was silence in the Tabernacle before that time. As Jim Jordan has pointed out, while we have a record of a few songs, there is nothing about songs or chants that the priests or Levites or anyone else was supposed to sing at the Tabernacle. As far as we are told, most of the cutting up and burning of oxen and goats and sheep is done without speech, year after year, decade after decade, for centuries.
Again, God could have given them Psalms earlier. But he didn’t. Apparently, God wanted generations of Israelites to live under a silent regime before they were ready to hear songs and sing, and then another generation before they could hear the voice of wisdom crying aloud in their streets.
And then, in the fullness of time, after being under the tutelage of the Law, Israel was ready for a king. The old order was torn down (literally—the Ark was removed from the Tabernacle before Saul was made king and it wasn’t put back in the sanctuary until Solomon built a new structure, the Temple). A choir was organized and Psalms were composed. A few decades later Solomon began crafting wise sayings. They were now able to receive them.
The Law of the Kingdom
Paul uses the analogy of humanity or Israel earlier in history being like a young child. A child needs a tutor, says Paul. And what was that tutor? Paul is referring to the Law given through Moses.
What is interesting is how we see the law predict what will happen in the future—at a later stage of history. The Law envisions a time when Israel will become a kingdom. It gives instructions for the king. For instance:
And when he sits on the throne of his kingdom, he shall write for himself in a book a copy of this law, approved by the Levitical priests. And it shall be with him, and he shall read in it all the days of his life, that he may learn to fear the LORD his God by keeping all the words of this law and these statutes, and doing them, that his heart may not be lifted up above his brothers, and that he may not turn aside from the commandment, either to the right hand or to the left, so that he may continue long in his kingdom, he and his children, in Israel. (Deuteronomy 17:18-20; ESV)
I assume that Saul and David and Solomon had a copy of the law made for each of them. Instead, we’re told about something similar yet different when the first king was established. After Saul was revealed, we are told:
And Samuel said to all the people, “Do you see him whom the LORD has chosen? There is none like him among all the people.” And all the people shouted, “Long live the king!” Then Samuel told the people the rights and duties of the kingship, and he wrote them in a book and laid it up before the LORD. Then Samuel sent all the people away, each one to his home. (1 Samuel 10:24-25; ESV).
This sounds like a new prophetic book, not a copy of the short section in Deuteronomy dealing with a king, nor a copy of the whole law. This was something, an aspect of becoming a kingdom, that wasn’t really covered by Moses.
So, to go back to Paul’s analogy and extrapolate a bit imaginatively but hopefully also helpfully, an adult won’t tell a young child about everything they will face as an adult. You give them what they can handle and what is helpful to them as children.
Likewise, God didn’t need to tell Israel about what they would need when they were reshaped from a tribal federation with a traveling Tabernacle into a kingdom with a capitol city with a fixed Temple. The important thing at the time was to encourage faithfulness to the law of Moses. The future king’s copy of the Law is emphasized. But when they finally get to the time of a king, the Scriptures don’t bother to record the obeying of the command to make a copy of the Law. Instead, it tells us that new polity was written by Samuel. The Kingdom always required loyalty to the Law of Moses, but they now interpreted that within a new covenantal arrangement.
More Than Words
Most of or all the rituals established through Moses remained unchanged, though they now were experienced in a new architectural, geographical, and political setting. They continued to “work their magic” on the populace despite sin and idolatry during the time of the kingdom. Rather than done in silence, the sacrifices were now done in a musical environment.
But Psalms and Proverbs were themselves new rituals. Songs aren’t merely words. Even apart from music, poems aren’t merely words. You can “explain” the meaning of a poem, but your explanation will never be able to replace the poem if it is any good at all. The full effect of the Psalms is not exhausted in the ideas contained in the Psalms. Something more is going on in a congregation trained to chant them, though I’m not sure what that is.
Likewise, the Proverbs are not merely aphorisms. There is no need to repeat aphorisms in a collection, but Proverbs does repeat itself. The same statements appear more than once, in a different context of other Proverbs. So, reading (or reciting) Proverbs is a process that God wants for the reader. In some way, Proverbs changes the person who studies it, not by only learning the topics, but by exposing himself to the text and learning it from beginning to end.
I mentioned in Part One that Moses promises that guarding and practicing the Law will be their wisdom in the sight of the nations (Deuteronomy 4:6). The fact that Solomon’s wisdom was distributed abroad, teaches us that there was a developmental aspect to this promise. Israel followed the Law for generations and, despite many times of straying, became a source of wisdom to the Gentiles.
And God gave Solomon wisdom and understanding beyond measure, and breadth of mind like the sand on the seashore, so that Solomon’s wisdom surpassed the wisdom of all the people of the east and all the wisdom of Egypt. For he was wiser than all other men, wiser than Ethan the Ezrahite, and Heman, Calcol, and Darda, the sons of Mahol, and his fame was in all the surrounding nations. He also spoke 3,000 proverbs, and his songs were 1,005. He spoke of trees, from the cedar that is in Lebanon to the hyssop that grows out of the wall. He spoke also of beasts, and of birds, and of reptiles, and of fish. And people of all nations came to hear the wisdom of Solomon, and from all the kings of the earth, who had heard of his wisdom. (1 Kings 4:29-34; ESV)
But God had plans to use his people to spread His wisdom in the world much more thoroughly.
TO BE CONTINUED