How should we interpret wisdom literature in the Bible? Look at it for what it is, practical wisdom. Principles that conserve you in your everyday struggles with life, but don't confuse the Proverbs with moral absolutes. They were never intended to be read that way.
They were never set forth for us as the Ten Commandments were. Scripture features many different forms of writing, historical narrative, poetry, didactic teaching to name a few. And as we turn to a book in the Bible, it's important to know what category it falls under to understand it and apply its meaning. Today on Renewing Your Mind, Dr. R.C. Sproul will help us with a unique form of Hebrew literature that was common in ancient Israel.
Here's Dr. Sproul. I remember reading a chapter in a volume in theology written by my mentor, Dr. G.C. Burkauer, and the title of the chapter was The Biblical A priori.
Well, an a priori is a principle that is so basic and so foundational that it ought never to be violated. And the point of Burkauer's chapter was this, that the one basic axiom of Scripture is that we ought never, never, never, never to attribute in any way possible the doing of evil to God. And that it is a principle of Christianity that God is never the author of evil, that He's utterly incapable of doing evil. If you turn in your Bible, if you have the King James Version of the Bible, we turn it open to the 45th chapter of the book of the prophet Isaiah to verse 7 where God is speaking. And He says here, I form the light and create darkness. I make peace and create evil.
I, the Lord, do all these things. Now in our last time together I said we have to be very careful about achieving a harmony of balance between implications and explications, what the Bible clearly said. Now doesn't the text right here say so clearly that one couldn't miss it? God is saying I create evil. It's not an inference drawn from the text. He explicitly says that He creates evil. How then can we say in theology that God never, never, never creates evil when the Bible says straight out right here, I create evil?
What do you do with that? Actually to solve this problem is a simple matter if we are able to recognize the specific literary form in which that particular text comes to us. What we have here is an example of a particular kind of parallelism, a literary device that is very commonplace to the Hebrew and found throughout the Scriptures. But we are not accustomed to it so readily in our language as the Jew was in antiquity, and so sometimes we don't recognize it when it appears and we stumble and get caught up and run into all kinds of bear traps because of our inability to recognize a parallelism. So what I want to do here before I resolve this problem of creating evil is to take some time to define this literary form of parallelism so we'll be able to recognize it when it comes in view. Of course I think one of the most difficult things about parallelism is spelling it. Parallelism is spelled P-A-R-A-L-L, the two L's come first, E-L-I-S-M. And parallelism simply is what it suggests where you have verses or stanzas of Scripture that are set in close proximity to each other in some form of parallel fashion. The trick, however, is there are different kinds and different types of parallelism. There are what we call synthetic parallelisms, synonymous parallelisms, antithetical parallelisms, and other types, and each one has its own rules for interpretation. Let's begin with the easiest, what we call synonymous parallelism. A synonymous parallelism is a case in the text where your two lines or your two verses or your two stanzas say the same idea but in slightly different ways or slightly different forms of speech.
Let's turn to the book of Proverbs chapter 19 where we can find an example of synonymous parallelism in verse 5 of Proverbs 19. We read as follows, A false witness shall not be unpunished, and he that speaketh lies shall not escape. And you see that there are two parts to each line. In the first line we read, A false witness shall not be unpunished. A false witness is the one who will not be unpunished. In the second part we read, and he that tells lies.
Who is he that tells lies? He who tells lies is a false witness, and he shall not escape. The same thought exactly is expressed in both verses. He who is unjust shall not go unpunished.
He who tells lies shall not escape, and so on. So synonymous parallelism says exactly the same thing with a slight alteration of language. I may have mentioned this already that many have tripped over the statement in the Lord's Prayer where when we pray in the Lord's Prayer, lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil. Here we have another case of synonymous parallelism where both stanzas are saying substantially the same thing. And if we understand that, we won't get caught up in all of the problems that have developed from misunderstandings of the Lord's Prayer at that point.
Well, let's look at a different kind of parallelism for a second, what we call antithetic or contrasting types of parallelism where the two lines contrast one idea with another. Let's look at Proverbs now, Proverbs 13 verse 10. Only by pride comes contention, but with the well-advised is wisdom. That is, pride brings trouble.
The well-advised or the humble brings well-being so that you have the contrast between good and evil set in parallel forms, in a balanced form. And that is found repeatedly in particularly the poetic literature of the Old Testament, what we call the wisdom literature, the Proverbs, the Psalms, Book of Job, and so on, but certainly not exclusively in the wisdom books. We find it also particularly in the prophets.
Another form of parallelism is what we call synthetic parallelism where there is kind of a rising crescendo, where statements build upon one another, and we'll look at that in Psalm 92. Psalm 92 verse 9, For lo, thine enemies, O Lord! For lo, thine enemies shall perish, all the workers of iniquity shall be scattered. But my horn shalt thou exalt like the horn of a unicorn, and I shall be anointed with fresh oil. You see, the building crescendo of the punishment that is given to the wicked that then leads to the opposite conclusion for the righteous, and you have two or three verses that build on that. Let me give you another one, Matthew 7 verse 7.
This is a very famous passage from the Sermon on the Mount that I think you all recognize. Ask, and it shall be given to you. Seek, and ye shall find. Knock, and it shall be opened unto you. Do you see that you really have three ideas here?
Ask, seek, knock. It's sort of a synthesis of different ideas, but they're really in step-up fashion really saying the same thing, and really it's almost a kind of synonymous parallelism. But it's that recognition that when we see parallelism, we know we're dealing with poetry, and a flag should go up on our head that is a poetic structure that we need to be careful that we don't misinterpret. And not only that, if we recognize parallelism and we don't know what a passage means, if we have two lines, for example, that are saying substantially the same thing, we're not clear what it says in the second part. If the first part is clear, the second part is clarified by the first part.
Now let's take an example. Let's go back to the problem I started with in Isaiah chapter 45, where God says, I the Lord do all these things. He says, I form the light, and I create the darkness.
What is that? I form the light, and I create the darkness. The two elements within the first verse are in contrast to each other. I form light, I bring the darkness. Light and darkness are set in contrast.
The next part of the verse we read, I make peace, and I create evil. Now what we have here is a type of antithesis, a form of contrast between light and darkness, and now peace and evil. But if I were to ask you to take out a piece of paper and I say, okay, what is the opposite of light?
What would you say? You'd say darkness. What's the opposite of cold?
You'd say hot. I'd say, what's the opposite of peace? You'd say war. I'd say, what's the opposite of evil? You'd say goodness or righteousness. But here it says, I make peace and I create evil.
It doesn't balance, does it? Because though the first part of the sentence, light and darkness, are clearly opposites, the next part of the parallelism, I make peace and I create evil, don't jive in the same way of antithesis as we would expect. The reason for that is just simply here we have an awkward translation of the Hebrew text.
In the Old Testament there were many, many different words for evil because the Jew understood evil in lots of different ways. A calamity that befalls a nation, an earthquake, a hurricane, a defeat in war, that was bad. You come and you say, I have for you today bad news. We're having a terrible storm. A hurricane's coming. It's going to wipe out the city.
That's bad news. But that is not the same thing as talking about moral evil or what we call sin. We don't attribute sin to hurricanes.
We don't attribute sin to tornadoes or to floods, do we? But the Jew said there are all different ways in which man suffers and all of them are bad in a certain sense, in a physical sense or in a sense of prosperity. More modern translations render this verse, I am the Lord, I form the light, I create darkness, I bring will, I bring woe, or I bring prosperity and I bring calamity. But when it says in the Old King James, I create evil, it makes it sound that at the very beginning of the creation, God comes down and implants a wicked desire of moral corruption in the heart of men, which the rest of the Bible completely repudiates any idea of.
But you see, once we recognize this as a parallelism, even if we don't know a word in Hebrew, we can see that there's something wrong here in our understanding, that the contrast doesn't come across as it obviously should. What God is saying here is, look, I am God, and I bring blessing, I bring curse. I lift up nations, I bring down nations. I grant prosperity, and if you're wicked, I bring calamity.
I do all of these things. God does visit us with bad things as a judgment. That is not the same thing as saying that God creates evil in an ultimate sense.
Okay, so I hope you'll be able to recognize parallelism when you see it. I think just even this quick overview of them will be all that you need because you're going to begin to see them on almost every page of the Bible. They're so frequently found in Scriptures, and sometimes they really help us understand what the Bible is teaching once we recognize them, because what is obscure in one part of the verse is made clear by the other part of the verse, and a host of sticky problems can be unraveled that way. Now that we've used some of the poetic literature, some of the wisdom literature, some examples from Proverbs of biblical style, I need to say another word about how to interpret the Proverbs and put it in a broader context of how we interpret biblical laws and principles and precepts. And the first rule, of course, is to be able to distinguish between different kinds of laws that we find in the Bible. There are several, but I'm just going to focus attention on three types of precept or principles that the Bible teaches us according to the style or the form in which they come. These three are casuistic law, apodictic law, and proverb.
Casuistic law, C-A-S-U-I-S-T-I-C. Casuistic law is just a fancy word for case law, and the normal form in which it's found is the form of an example or an illustration, usually with the words, if, then. If, you go back in the Old Testament, you read the law, and it says, if your ox tramples down your neighbor's roses, then you must pay such and such indemnity towards your neighbors. Now the point of case law is to give you a model, a guideline for practical judgments in the law court. If the Bible sat down principles and rules to govern every conceivable human situation, the book would be fatter than all of our law books put together. And you know how many law books there are in the land today.
It's such a wealth of information you can hardly find precedence. And so what the Bible does is give general guidelines, general principle. In other words, if it's not my ox that tramples down your rose bushes, but it's my donkey that tramples down your chrysanthemums, I'm not going to find a specific legal guide or principle in the Bible about it. But I get the general idea of what should be done because I see that model or that illustration, that case, or for instance, discovered in the case law structures. If A happens, then B should follow. Now that's case law. That's what we would call sort of precedent law. There's another form of law where we are now talking about moral absolutes that is called apodictic law, A-P-O-D-I-C-T-I-C, and the usual formula for that is in the direct form of address of you shall or you shall not. Now where do we find these maxims set down for us?
They're not just individual cases, but they become the universal principles, the foundational principles upon which the case law is established, just as our Constitution would give us the foundational laws upon which the particular bits of legislation we pass in the State House are to be measured. Here, of course, in the Old Testament we find that most clearly in the Ten Commandments, thou shalt not steal, thou shalt not kill, thou shalt not commit adultery, thou shalt not covet, and so on. The form of that, thou shalt not or thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all of thy heart and all of thy soul and so on, that is in the form of what is called apodictic law.
It's easy enough to distinguish between apodictic law and case law just by the very way in which it is spoken. But there's another principle that comes in here that is often confusing, and that's the proverb. What do we do with the proverb? How do you interpret a proverb? How do you apply a proverb as a moral principle to your life?
There can be real problems here. Let's look again at Proverbs chapter 26, verse 4, answer not a fool according to his folly, lest you also be like him. So what's the precept here of wisdom that we are given? Don't answer a fool according to his folly, because you're going to be just like him if you do.
Alright, we learned that, and I say, hey, that makes sense. Now we go to verse 5, answer a fool according to his folly, lest he be wise in his own conceit. Now here you have two verses of Scripture back to back in consecutive standing that clearly contradict each other. The first one says, don't answer a fool according to his folly. The very next verse says, answer a fool according to his folly.
Now how in the world do you reconcile that? Well, if these two passages were coming to us as moral absolutes, we would have a hopeless contradiction. But they're not coming to us as apodictic law. They're coming to us as Proverbs, as little gems, little insights, little vignettes of practical wisdom. And you can find many such vignettes of wisdom in the Old Testament that seem on the surface to conflict one with another. And that shouldn't surprise us, because we find the same thing in English-speaking countries with our own proverbial wisdom. I'm thinking, for example, of two proverbs that are commonplace to our own culture.
Think of this one, look before you leap. That's proverb number one. Proverb number two is, he who hesitates is lost. Now what happens if you elevate those little pithy, little pithy, proverbial bits of wisdom and make them moral absolutes? I get myself in a situation that says, it is morally incumbent upon me to look before I leap. And then I say, but the law also requires that if I hesitate, I am lost.
So what do I do? Do I hesitate to take the time necessary to look before I leap, or do I not look before I leap and jump right away? Do you see that clear conflict between the two?
Why is it? I think it's easy, isn't it? The point is that there are some earthly human situations where the wise man, if he is going to be prudent, does not jump into things impulsively without seeing where it is that he's jumping. That if he's careful, if he's cautious, if he's sagacious and wise, he will examine the situation and not act irresponsibly on impulse. He will look before he leaps because he may jump into trouble. On the other hand, there are times in our lives where decisive action is required, where we don't have time to examine all of the facts. It's a crisis situation, a matter of urgency. We must act, and the wise man doesn't have time to hesitate.
He must move. So I just want to be careful here that as you read the Proverbs, as you read the risen literature, look at it for what it is, practical wisdom, principles that conserve you in your everyday struggles with life, transcendent wisdom, wisdom that comes from the mind of God. But don't confuse the Proverbs with moral absolutes. They were never intended to be read that way. They were never set forth for us as the Ten Commandments were. There is a difference in how we interpret those laws, and we need to recognize it. Alright, in our next time together, I want to look at one of the most difficult problems that confronts the modern interpreter, and that is how do we deal with the way in which the Scripture that comes to us in the New Testament is tied to the culture in which it was written.
Are there things in the Bible that don't apply to the church today, or does everything that was written in the first century still have obligatory application to the church today? That's a very sticky and difficult problem, and we're going to look at how we can set forth some principles and guidelines for making those decisions as we come to the text in our next session. These are important principles to understand, and that's why we're airing Dr. R.C. Sproul's series Knowing Scripture. You're listening to Renewing Your Mind on this Thursday.
Thank you for being with us. Interpreting what we find in the Bible, like all sciences, is governed by rules. In this series, Dr. Sproul lays out the basic guidelines for correctly understanding, interpreting, and applying Scripture.
These principles are the only way to find the true meaning of its contents. We'd like for you to have this 12-lesson DVD series, and when you call us today with your donation of any amount, we'll send it right to you. Our number is 800-435-4343. If you prefer, you can make your request online at renewingyourmind.org. And after you've completed your request, look in your online learning library. Not only will you find the videos there, but we'll also include the digital study guide for the series. Again, the title of the series, Knowing Scripture by Dr. R.C.
Sproul. Our online address again is renewingyourmind.org, and our phone number is 800-435-4343. And in advance, let me thank you for your generous donation. I want to let you know about the additional resources that we as a ministry provide to you. For example, if you do a search for the word hermeneutics at TableTalkMagazine.com, you'll find articles with titles like Tools for Bible Study and Interpreting the Bible Literally, plus articles on relativism and the inerrancy of Scripture. You'll have access to all of these articles when you subscribe to Table Talk, plus you'll receive the print copy every month with additional articles and Bible studies.
Learn more and subscribe at TableTalkMagazine.com. When God sets down a rule in Scripture, it's important to know who's obligated to obey that rule. To take a principle that He has set down that He intends to be normative for Christians and simply dismiss it is to do violence to the authority of our Lord, and yet to take something that was only meant to be of temporary custom and impose it upon all people in every age is to do violence to the people of God. Dr. Sproul will help us determine the difference between biblical and cultural mandates tomorrow, here on Renewing Your Mind. I hope you'll join us. you
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