Yes, you read the title correctly — I wrote “reading Proverbs.” Stay with me for a bit, it’ll be fine. I know many a Mockingbird reader has read Proverbs before, but if you’re reading the Bible with anything like a (Lutheran) Law/Gospel hermeneutic, then it’s fair to say that Proverbs isn’t exactly at the top of your reading list. Of all the books of the Bible, it’s the book of Proverbs that’s ripe for the worst of Christ-less sermons that tell you how to have your best life now. This isn’t any accident, of course, since that’s exactly what Proverbs seems to be about.

Throughout the book there are numerous warnings that those who follow the advice of Proverbs will live (1:33, 3:1-2, 4:4, 7:2, 11:19, 19:16, etc.). The wicked fools of the world will perish in hell (1:12, 5:5, 7:27, 9:18, etc.) and the wise will go upward to heaven (15:24). The contrast between these two antithetical paths is the principal thesis of Proverbs as a whole.

Scholars have routinely appealed to the specifically universal nature of proverbs to make sense of its claims. Proverbs is not the Torah, given to Israel by God at Sinai, but reflects the general ordering of creation. As noted by Bartholomew and O’Dowd, “[Wisdom Literature] gazes out toward the general order built into creation [and] to the musical score of God’s created order: hard work, adequate rest, humble speech, good counsel and moral behavior” (An Introduction to Old Testament Wisdom, p. 27). As such, Proverbs is a guide to life as lived in the world created by God, but the relationship between such an ethic and Christian ethics is undefined, if not tenuous. At worst, such a view could be deemed the wisdom of the world, antithetical to the word of the cross.

The Apostle Paul never discusses the book of Proverbs, but the close connection between doing and living promised by Proverbs is enough to make many a close reader of St. Paul uncomfortable with its persistence in the Christian canon of scripture. It may be that Paul might have considered the doing/life correlation of Proverbs to be tantamount to the Law’s promise of life (Lev. 18:5). Parallels between Romans 1 and the apocryphal Wisdom of Solomon might support this hypothesis, but this pairing only further distances Proverbs from the its use by Christians as a guide for everyday life. Christians are not under law, but under grace (Romans 6:14). If Proverbs is “law,” then its central promise to provide life is thereby undermined, robbing the book of its central claim.

Perhaps you’ve never felt these tensions before when reading Proverbs. It’s part of the Bible, of course, and its many warnings about drinking too much wine or corporal punishment are taken as practical (godly) advice. Certainly the breadth of topics covered by Proverbs is a strength, particularly the paucity of such discussions anywhere else in scripture. And looking to Proverbs as a guide for life may be preferable to the current trend of looking to science for ethical guidance.

But following this course of reading Proverbs at any length will inevitably lead to competing understandings of morality. Is prosperity in this world really a reason why a Christian should be moral? The carrot and stick approach to doing good in this life may have some plausibility, but it certainly has some questionable applicability to the Christian. And if the way of the wicked is desolation, then what about Jesus? Or, what does being righteous to secure a good life have to do with an ignominious, crucified, Messiah and the fools who follow him? For all its practicality, the reward/punishment structure of Proverbs’ ethic poses some serious difficulties to Christians of any stripe, whether one is a Lutheran, Catholic, Reformed, or Eastern Orthodox.

Given this fundamental chasm between the logic of Proverbs and that of Christian faith, perhaps there is a helpful way to see this text, one that pays closer attention to Proverbs’ own interpretive framework. Despite some of its claims, Proverbs does not understand itself as a straightforward, universal guidebook to life so much as the wisdom of a father (Solomon) passed down to his son. Over twenty times in Hebrew —  and even more in the Greek (LXX) — the narrator, Solomon, addresses the reader as “my son”, encouraging him to follow his fatherly wisdom. The author of this text (whether Solomon or not) has written Proverbs to almost beg his son to be wise in his dealings, to be humble, to seek God, to chose the right wife, and to raise his children well. Sure, this is a literary convention that has parallels throughout ancient near eastern wisdom literature, but it’s hard to miss the urgency of Solomon’s voice. One may rightly imagine that Solomon’s son has thus far been very foolish in his life. By way of an address to his son, it is as though Solomon is speaking to a younger version of himself, telling him everything he wishes he knew and perhaps would have done different. The text of Proverbs is a self-reflective labor of love, written by a father who earnestly wants to see his child flourish and avoid the mistakes he made himself. The wisdom it espouses is that of old age, from the quill of a mind inquiring about his past.

In this life, there are many forking paths and turns on the road, moments when, by happenstance or choice, one path is walked and another is ignored. Sometimes it’s not a moment but a repeated and irresistible pattern of virtue or vice. The father of Proverbs seeks to lay bare the many paths that may present themselves to his son, written in the hope that his son may walk in the way of righteousness.

It is tempting, when reading Proverbs, to position oneself as its ideal reader, as the son who stands at a fork in the road of life to inquire about which way is best. But perhaps there might be more consolation in reading Proverbs not as the son but as the father. Rather than a guidebook to life, the text may be better used as a retrospective self-autopsy. The wisdom of old age is often hard-earned through folly, perhaps more so than “getting it right.” Reading Proverbs as the father, one does not seek guidance or inspiration to be wise and prosper, but a fearless inventory of how it all went so wrong.

To read Proverbs as the son is to presume that we are relatively free moral agents, and all we need is a little coaching to choose to do the right thing. Ignorance is the enemy, and the instruction of Proverbs tells us what we didn’t already know about life, all with the hope that a little more wisdom can and will make us better people. Knowing is half the battle, or so I was told growing up. If that works for you, then by all means read away. But for most people the most destructive sins of life insidiously operated at a level beyond such rationality. Either one’s transgression is so ingrained as a pattern of vice so as to be insurmountable or one’s very desires and choices were so self-justified that one was blind to them being sinful. All of which is to say that, when it most matters, Proverbs is a feeble aid to the weary or delusional sinner (i.e. everyone).

But for the one who stands on the other side of personal tragedy, who has themself seen the effects of “choosing the way of destruction,” reading Proverbs as the father is an apt way to find a diagnosis. Proverbs may not have “the words of everlasting life” (John 6:68), but it does well illustrate the origins and outcome of calamity. It does not guide you forward in life or provide you a means to get out of the ditch you’ve dug for yourself, but it may suggest how you got into the ditch in the first place, whether it be drunkenness, deceit, pride, avarice, recklessness, or sloth. The wisdom of Proverbs provides us with the language we need to understand the far-reaching depths of our transgressions. They are not simply passing errors with minimal consequences, but boulders thrown into a pond with many unforeseen effects.

Apart from the disruptive incursion of grace, Proverbs rightly contends that the ripples of sin do not dissipate of their own accord, but are amplified by the megaphone of time.

So for the Christian, Proverbs does more properly function as a kind of “law,” as spectacles for viewing oneself and one’s past actions. Taking the cue from its own father-son framework, such a view is not necessarily a foreign imposition upon the test based upon an a priori soteriology or a Law/Gospel hermeneutic, but a (creative) reading of the text on its own terms. Fools read Proverbs and think it can provide for you the life you want, while those who are truly wise read it to discover more about the darkest corners of their hearts and all the desolation they has wrought.

If all we have is Proverbs, we are left in the same position as its author, standing toward the end of life knowing what we should have done differently, but without any hope of restoration. We are left with the indelible record of our past, without recourse to forgiveness and a way beyond our calamity. It is Christ who makes all things new, who redeems our past and rescues us from the unending yearning that life should have been different. In Christ, we find that the road to destruction foretold by Proverbs is not the final word, but a detour that will always lead us home.