Proverbial Eschatology

I am writing about the book of Proverbs in the Bible and “Eschatology.” I don’t refer only to the end of time, or “last things” that will happen in history before it ends as we know it. I am referring to all times of God’s judgment wherein He ends an order and replaces with a new one. That will happen at the Final Judgment when the dead are raised, but it also happened at AD 70, when Nebuchadnezzar destroyed Solomon’s temple in Jerusalem, when the Philistines took the Ark of the Covenant, and in Egypt at the time of the Exodus, among other times. Whether you agree with my use of the term “eschatology” to cover such events or not, they all were times when God judged and ultimately replaced an order with a new one.

An alternative view—though not a mutually exclusive one—is that Proverbs is written for “normal life.” I wrote my book on Proverbs, Solomon Says (Athanasius Press), assuming that is the case. From that perspective, the proverbs in Proverbs can be treated as “generalizations” that we are assured hold true most of the time. Of course, one has to deal with the fact that generalizations are, by definition, statements that don’t hold true for all particular situations. But in “normal life,” we can expect that, for the most part, “the hand of the diligent will rule while the slothful will be put to forced labor” because sloth tends to impoverish the slothful person and diligence tends to empower the one who practices it. If one sees slothful people ruling and the diligent being put to forced labor, then one is encountering an exceptional situation.

But if one accepted this understanding, one might be tempted to believe that Proverbs really doesn’t have much to say about the exceptional situations. Such situations may not be distributed evenly in history, but may cluster together. If so, it would be easy to think Proverbs is not relevant to some extent to times. One might decide Proverbs applies to other people in more ideal circumstances but not to us who are enduring (we think) a different world than that which Solomon and other writers in Proverbs were addressing.

There may be a right way to describe Proverbs as generalizations for “normal” circumstances or “normal” life. While I still think my book is accurate and will be helpful to readers (and some of my explanations are similar to my analysis here) there is good reason, both within Proverbs and in the rest of the Bible, to see exactly the opposite. Far from expecting the foolish and wicked to weaken while the wise rise to power, Proverbs assumes that fools often come to power and dominate society. Wisdom is not recommended as a way to rise in society, but as a way to remain faithful and to await God’s intervention.

Proverbs begins with a general introduction (1:1-7), then an entreaty on the part of a father for his son to refuse to join a robber gang that lives by plunder and murder (1:8-19). But then, in vv. 20ff, Wisdom is presented as a woman calling everyone to repent before judgment sweeps them away (1:20-33). Rather than fools being a specific population, such as the bandit gang in vv. 8-19, they are now the general mass of people and they are sure they are doing fine. They are complacent, and thus unaware they are headed toward destruction (v. 32), a day of calamity (v. 26), of storm and whirlwind (v. 27).

Proverbs 2 resumes the father’s entreaties to his son to be wise, but in Proverbs 3 we are again told of the storm that is going to come upon the fools and the wicked. “If you lie down, you will not be afraid; when you lie down, your sleep will be sweet. Do not be afraid of sudden terror or of the ruin of the wicked, when it comes, for the LORD will be your confidence and will keep your foot from being caught” (Proverbs 3:24–26 ESV). “The ruin of the wicked” in the ESV is literally the storm that comes upon the wicked. It seems that these wicked fools have grown so powerful and persuasive in society, that it becomes hard to imagine God judging them without overthrowing all of the community, including the wise.

Indeed, the wicked and the foolish are so prosperous and powerful, that the son has to be reminded to resist the temptation to imitating them: “Do not envy a man of violence and do not choose any of his ways, for the devious person is an abomination to the LORD, but the upright are in his confidence” (Proverbs 3:31–32 ESV).

This is repeated multiple times in Proverbs. The end (24:1-22) of the second book of Proverbs (10:1-24:22)—also attributed to Solomon (10:1*)—is arguably concerned with not imitating the wicked because they are so privileged, and wisely resisting them because they are in power. Proverbs 3 in the first book has a similar thrust to Proverbs 24 with a warning to not imitate fools and to not let anxiety about them tempt you to unethical behavior.

(*Note: I am aware Derek Kidner believes that the first book of Proverbs, which he takes to start at 1:7, is not attributed to Solomon. He argues that, if the introduction (1:1-6) ascribed authorship to the first book then 10:1 would say the next book was “also” by Solomon. I don’t find this persuasive.)

From Simple Obedience to Wisdom

In Solomon Says, I argue, mainly from 2:1ff that obedience to the instruction of godly parents (the father speaks of himself here but see 1:8; 6:20; 30:17; 31:1 etc) is a way to be receptive to wisdom, but it is not identical to wisdom. The son who remembers and follows the way he was raised in must “call out” and “raise your voice for” wisdom (2:3) much as James writes (1:5ff). He must “seek it like silver and search for it as for hidden treasures” (2:4). The reason for this is Yahweh gives wisdom (2:6ff). Since wisdom is the antidote to seduction by the adulteress (2:16ff, repeated in 7), and is presented as a woman (mother [8:32], sister, and “intimate friend” [7:4]), it is easy to see a parallel to marriage: “House and wealth are inherited from fathers, but a prudent wife is from the LORD” (19:14). A man leaves his father and mother and cleaves to wisdom.

Proverbs 3 expands on this dynamic: vv 1-10 reiterate 5 times that obedience leads to blessing. But the only time wisdom is explicitly mentioned is to not “be wise in your own eyes…” The son must not think he is too smart to trust God’s instructions.

Then, in verse 11, Proverbs switches from promised blessing to promised discipline. You are a son who needs to mature so God your father disciplines you.

It would be a mistake to read this discipline as tit-for-tat punishments for disobedience. Hebrews 12 makes that abundantly clear, directly quoting Proverbs 3:11-12 (vv. 5-6). While the analogy can include a father punishing disobedience (vv. 9-11), Hebrews applies it to Christians suffering for righteousness’ sake. He includes Jesus as the primary case of a son maturing through tribulation (Hebrews 12:1-3). This connection is made other times in Hebrews. For example: “In the days of his flesh, Jesus offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to him who was able to save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverence. Although he was a son, he learned obedience through what he suffered. And being made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation to all who obey him” (Hebrews 5:7–10a ESV). Jesus was never penalized by God for doing anything wrong.

Jesus learned wisdom as he grew up generally (Luke 2:40, 52), and especially as he suffered persecution. “For it was fitting that he, for whom and by whom all things exist, in bringing many sons to glory, should make the founder of their salvation perfect through suffering” (Hebrews 2:10 ESV). The word translated as “perfect” in both passages is the same word as “mature” in 5:14.

When the author of Hebrews quotes from Proverbs 3 he think it refers not to punishments for disobedience but to character-building discipline. So there is no reason to read this as “disobey and experience punishment” as opposed to the previous five iterations of “obey and be blessed.” Rather, it reveals there is more that God wants from us than to obey him for rewards. He wants mature sons and daughters. He wants us to grow up. He wants us to learn wisdom. That requires us to be challenged.

The simple blessings of Proverbs 3:1-10 seem to be listed in order to get the reader to notice a discrepancy with his experience. Why isn’t he abounding in prosperity? Because Yahweh loves him as a son and is bring him into a greater blessing.

Having brought up the need for discipline, Proverbs 3 then introduces the surpassing value of wisdom (vv. 13-20). We are told that Wisdom herself is better and more valuable than all the rewards that wisdom can give us.

Seek First the Kingdom…

When we read, “Blessed is the one who finds wisdom, and the one who gets understanding, for the gain from her is better than gain from silver and her profit better than gold. She is more precious than jewels, and nothing you desire can compare with her. Long life is in her right hand; in her left hand are riches and honor” (Proverbs 3:13–16 ESV), we are reading Jesus saying through Solomon what he said later on the Sermon on the Mount, “And why are you anxious about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which today is alive and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you, O you of little faith? Therefore do not be anxious, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the Gentiles seek after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you” (Matthew 6:28–33 ESV).

Wisdom herself is a tree of life and was how God created the world (vv 18-20). Wisdom can and is destined to bring other blessings (at some point), but it is worth infinitely more than those blessings. They are worth waiting for if the wait leads us to gain wisdom.

Despise Not Discipline

In what happens next in the chapter, as we have already seen, all thought that Proverbs presents a world where obedience means quick blessing and disobedience mean quick destruction should be permanently ruled outside the realm of possibility. Proverbs is dealing with a world where it is tempting to envy the wicked (v. 31). It is a world where judgment on the wicked threatens to damage everyone in the community, good and bad alike (v. 25). These people are not mere neighbors you happen to know about or observe. They are powers in your community so that anything that truly uproots them seems like it might end the world. They are your oppressors and, perversely, your tempting role models.

Proverbs cannot possibly envision a world where disobedience is always punished in a simple material way and obedience always blessed by material success. Proverbs is a different presentation than Job or Ecclesiastes, but it shows us the same reality.

In a world where unethical people are in power, and judgment on them seems like it might make your life even harder, it will prove difficult to be ethical, let alone generous. In this context, the property violations warned against in chapter 3 are obviously not of the same level as the violent depredations in Chapter 1. This is not outlaw banditry, but the kind of legal conflicts that can result in one party damaging another by misusing “the system.” Whether it is delaying in paying someone’s wages, or delaying repayment on a loan, or engaging in a dodgy lawsuit in order to get some extra cash, people exploit each other in ways that aren’t always obviously criminal but are dishonest and displeasing to God.

Why would we be tempted to engage in such behavior? Because we don’t see our barns filled or our vats bursting (v. 10). The process through which God matures us tempts us to doubt his intentions. We do not have “confidence” that our feet will not get caught in the trap that is the ruin of the wicked. Perversely, people who feel or are exploited take it out on one another rather than acting like people who trust God to protect them and vindicate them. In a dog-eat-dog world, it seems like wisdom to bite anyone you can. So Solomon warns us not to be wise in our own eyes.

Proverbs 3 & the New Testament

This is amply demonstrated in the Gospels and Epistles where people are exhorted, in the face of impending judgment, to stop exploiting one another but instead be generous in helping one another. When John the baptizer prophesied coming cataclysm, his practical application is to share instead of steal (Luke 3:10-14).

Jesus preached the same message in the Sermon on the Mount. I’ve already quoted part of it above. Here’s another part set next to Proverbs:

“Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Matthew 6:19–21 ESV).

“Blessed is the one who finds wisdom, and the one who gets understanding, for the gain from her is better than gain from silver and her profit better than gold. She is more precious than jewels, and nothing you desire can compare with her” (Proverbs 3:13–15 ESV).

I take it as established that the Gospels are set in a time when the wicked oppress the righteous and judgment is needed and expected. So the similarities between Proverbs 3 and Jesus own teachings are suggestive. Jesus also seems to appeal to Proverbs 1:20-33 when he promises judgment on Israel, saying he is sending “wise men” (Matthew 23:34) and that the Wisdom of God is sending these messengers (Luke 11:49).

James, who has so much to say about praying for wisdom and describing wisdom from God in contrast with earthly wisdom, also reminds us of Proverbs 3.

Consider Proverbs 3.21-30 next to 5:1-11 (ESV):

“My son, do not lose sight of these—keep sound wisdom and discretion, and they will be life for your soul and adornment for your neck. Then you will walk on your way securely, and your foot will not stumble. If you lie down, you will not be afraid; when you lie down, your sleep will be sweet. Do not be afraid of sudden terror or of the ruin of the wicked, when it comes, for the LORD will be your confidence and will keep your foot from being caught. Do not withhold good from those to whom it is due, when it is in your power to do it. Do not say to your neighbor, ‘Go, and come again, tomorrow I will give it”—when you have it with you. Do not plan evil against your neighbor, who dwells trustingly beside you. Do not contend with a man for no reason, when he has done you no harm.”

“Come now, you rich, weep and howl for the miseries that are coming upon you. Your riches have rotted and your garments are moth-eaten. Your gold and silver have corroded, and their corrosion will be evidence against you and will eat your flesh like fire. You have laid up treasure in the last days. Behold, the wages of the laborers who mowed your fields, which you kept back by fraud, are crying out against you, and the cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord of hosts. You have lived on the earth in luxury and in self-indulgence. You have fattened your hearts in a day of slaughter. You have condemned and murdered the righteous person. He does not resist you. Be patient, therefore, brothers, until the coming of the Lord. See how the farmer waits for the precious fruit of the earth, being patient about it, until it receives the early and the late rains. You also, be patient. Establish your hearts, for the coming of the Lord is at hand. Do not grumble against one another, brothers, so that you may not be judged; behold, the Judge is standing at the door. As an example of suffering and patience, brothers, take the prophets who spoke in the name of the Lord. Behold, we consider those blessed who remained steadfast. You have heard of the steadfastness of Job, and you have seen the purpose of the Lord, how the Lord is compassionate and merciful.”

The ruin of the wicked is coming (James 5:1-6) but you don’t need to be afraid. Only don’t let stress and anxiety cause you to contend with others. Be patient and be confident in suffering.

The evidence from James 5 is strengthened when we realize that James quoted from Proverbs 3 in a context similar to Proverbs 3, leading to the exhortation on how to act before the awaited judgment.

Compare Proverbs 3:30–35 to James 4:1-10 (ESV):

“Do not contend with a man for no reason, when he has done you no harm. Do not envy a man of violence and do not choose any of his ways, for the devious person is an abomination to the LORD, but the upright are in his confidence. The LORD’s curse is on the house of the wicked, but he blesses the dwelling of the righteous. Toward the scorners he is scornful, but to the humble he gives favor. The wise will inherit honor, but fools get disgrace.”

“What causes quarrels and what causes fights among you? Is it not this, that your passions are at war within you? You desire and do not have, so you murder. You covet and cannot obtain, so you fight and quarrel. You do not have, because you do not ask. You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions. You adulterous people! Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God? Therefore whoever wishes to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God. Or do you suppose it is to no purpose that the Scripture says, “He yearns jealously over the spirit that he has made to dwell in us”? But he gives more grace. Therefore it says, “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.” Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded. Be wretched and mourn and weep. Let your laughter be turned to mourning and your joy to gloom. Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will exalt you.”

“Do not envy a man of violence and do not choose any of his ways, for the devious person is an abomination to the LORD, but the upright are in his confidence.”

“Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God? Therefore whoever wishes to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God.”

“Toward the scorners he is scornful, but to the humble he gives favor.”

“Therefore it says, ‘God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.’”

That’s not word for word perfect in our English translations, but it is virtually a quote from the LXX of Proverbs 3:34 (as acknowledge in the ESV footnote). And he paraphrases the message again: “Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will exalt you.”

So Proverbs 3 is treated as a relevant passage not to “normal life,” but to a time of rampant folly and wickedness that will lead to a great judgment. That is also the context of Hebrews which also quotes from Proverbs 3.

The Wisdom of Proverbs

People act like they know Proverbs isn’t true by appealing to the world around them. But the world around them is precisely what God’s wisdom tells us to expect and to use real wisdom to understand. God doesn’t squash people as soon as they sin, even when their sins hurt others. He is patient and long-suffering. That means God’s people need to be patient and long-suffering like Him. A world where folly was always immediately punished by God would be a world where no one learned wisdom.

Immediate punishments and rewards are mostly appropriate for very young children. God does not want us to remain very young children. He wants us to trust his promises are real and wait for him to fulfill them even though we have to endure tribulation for an unknown length of time. And we should do so by remembering not to imitate our oppressors, because as counter-intuitive as it seems, that is a common temptation. We scorn our enemies and end up scorning our brothers and sisters. God does not respond positively to those attitudes and behavior.

“Toward the scorners he is scornful, but to the humble he gives favor.”

I mentioned at the beginning of this post Proverbs 12:24: “the hand of the diligent will rule while the slothful will be put to forced labor.” Many times we think we see the opposite. The diligent labor while the slothful rule.

But that’s the whole point. If we believe God and diligently labor, trusting in God’s wisdom, God will remove the slothful from their places and exalt us to higher places. If that were the obvious outcome, then it wouldn’t require wisdom to navigate the world and we wouldn’t have to live by faith. We would simply live according to what we see at the moment. But if we live according to what we see at the moment, we are the slothful who have given up on being diligent. Denying that the diligent will rule is, in itself, the claim of a sluggard.

God promises to change things around for those who believe what he says: “The wise will inherit honor, but fools get disgrace.”

A Concluding Thought on the Setting of the Origin of Proverbs

Solomon was given wisdom from God and ruled his kingdom wisely (until he didn’t). That situation, I suspect, tends to make people not consider an eschatological reading of Proverbs’ wisdom. They assume wisdom “works” if someone like Solomon is in control.

But there is another way of looking at what the Bible says about the origin of Proverbs. David had to practice exceptional wisdom to remain alive while Saul hunted him, all the while refusing to “rebel” (fight and kill Saul). He had to manage a group that arguably was a protection racket. It was a time of chaos and war. Nothing about it was normal. Proverbs 1.7ff may be a meditation on David’s temptation.

Solomon himself did not come to power in normal times. His ascension to the throne was a time when wisdom had to make a powerful group “eat the fruit of their way, and have their fill of their own devices” (Proverbs 1:31 ESV). It was a great overturning of Joab’s order (See Peter Leithart’s comments on 2 Samuel 20:23 [page 264]) and the institution of God’s order through Solomon, just as David’s enthronement had involved judgment on Saul’s dynasty and regime.

Solomon had a great deal of background experience with folly growing and dominating society until God finally overturned it. He knew about the prosperity of fools and the persecution of the wise. He knew about times of social chaos.

As we all know, the great prosperity of Solomon’s reign did not last to the next generation. Indeed, David and Solomon function as an introduction to the chaos of the books of Kings. Arguably, Proverbs ends with a warning to not fall like Solomon. After Solomon there were wicked kings who oppressed the faithful and their reigns had to be judged so others could rise. In other words, there were many times after Solomon that were not “normal.” (I use quotation marks, of course, because maybe times of peace and righteousness are so rare that they don’t deserve to be called normal.) Yet after many such times Hezekiah recovered and published Solomon’s wisdom (Proverbs 25:1). He obviously thought those Proverbs had application in times when folly reigned and God’s judgment was needed. He didn’t seem to think that the times of chaos and folly rendered Proverbial wisdom inadequate.

Mark Horne is a member of the Civitas group, and holds an M.Div from Covenant Theological Seminary. He is a minister in the Presbyterian Church in America, and is the executive director of Logo Sapiens Communications and  writes at He is the author, most recently, of “Solomon Says: Directives for Young Men” from Athanasius Press.

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