The virtue of silence

paper quote bubbleThe Five Day Bible Reading plan has me in Proverbs for a couple weeks and I’m always struck by just how much God’s instruction in this book goes against my nature and popular opinion. These days especially I’m convicted by how quiet, slow, and deliberate the path of wisdom is in contrast to our noisy, hurried, and reactionary age. The contrast is especially stark when it comes to habits of speech.

Americans value free speech and rightly so. We have laws protecting and a history defending all kinds of speech whether by word, art, demonstration, or money. Some modes of speech have a longer history than others, but the Information Age has introduced a dizzying array of platforms for our speech: TV, radio, podcasts, blogs, YouTube, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, et al. 

Talking has never been easier and thanks to 24-hour news cycles and the internet we never lack things to talk about. COVID19, lockdowns, Presidential politics, social justice, nationwide protests, and Supreme Court rulings—all of these matters beg for comments and will be discussed ad nauseam.

So what should Christians say about these things? Maybe less than we think:

When there are many words, transgression is unavoidable; But he who restrains his lips is wise. Prov 10:19

A fool does not delight in understanding, But only in revealing his own mind. Prov 18:2

The first to plead his case seems right, Until another comes and examines him. Prov 18:17

Today we have the means, motive, and opportunity to speak our minds every day and, thanks to technology, we don’t even need to leave the house to find an audience. But is it wise to talk as much as we do? If given a minute of Spirit-driven reflection, how much of what we say, share, and type is motivated by pride and anger?

Maybe Christ will be seen more clearly through those who speak less and, even then, reluctantly. Remember, it’s the peacemakers, not the opinion makers, who show themselves to be wise sons of God (Mat 5:9; James 3:13-18).  

Dear Sir: That’s not what the verse means

Dear Sir,

I’m not a reguar listener to your radio program, but I drop in from time to time just out of curiosity. Today I heard you quote Prove 29:18a as a way to explain the trouble we’re having in America:

Where there is no vision, the people perish {Prov 29:18, KJV}

Your point was that our country is in trouble because our leaders have no vision for the future and/or have abandoned the vision laid down in the Declaration of Independence. Politics aside, you have misinterpreted and misapplied this verse. Allow me to elaborate.

First, the OT meaning of vision means something completely different from what we modern Westerners mean when we talk about vision. We speak of vision as a product of creativity or imagination, especially as it expresses our goals and aspirations (e.g. CEO’s vision for where he wants to take the company; my vision for the future). The OT speaks of vision as divine revelation. In the case of Prov 29:18, the OT sense of the word is readily apparent when we read the entire proverb and find that vision is used in parallel with the law:

Where there is no vision, the people perish;
but he that keepeth the law, happy is he
.

Second, you quoted the KJV version which is arguably the pithier translation but also the poorer in this instance. Due to the surprising popularity of the KJV rendering, most people don’t even know that all of the other major English versions (i.e. ESV, NAS, NIV, NKJ, RSV) translate the line differently:

Where there is no vision, the people perish (KJV)
Where there is no vision, the people are unrestrained (NAS)

We can be more sympathetic with this misunderstanding due to an unfortunate translation, but a correction is still in order. You seem to take the proverb to mean something like “without a vision, the people will not prosper/thrive” when the author means something like “without divine revelation, the people have no inhibitions.”

In short, the proverb isn’t warning us about the dangers of doing business without a five-year plan; it’s telling us that blessing is found when we live in light of God’s revealed will.

I trust I haven’t come across as overly critical. Your misappropriation of the verse is far less irritating than when the error is made by someone who should know better—say, a Christian author or pastor. In fact, you’re probably just passing on what you heard from one of us in the first place. I suspect that if we handled our Scriptures more carefully, we both could’ve been saved the trouble of this letter.

Sincerely,

JM

A time to coax and a time to cudgel (pt. 3)

The “rod of discipline” isn’t a comfortable shepherding analogy in Prov 22:15 [see #1 in “A time to coax…” pt. 2]. That the rod is meant to be painful is confirmed by the stated objective (i.e. to drive away folly) and by the other uses of “rod” in Proverbs most notably in verses like 10:13, 23:13, and 26:3. Two broader observations should be mentioned:

(2) The broad context of Proverbs asserts that physical discipline is a necessity. Christian parents will find greater motivation for loving, faithful discipline when they consider the alternative(s) detailed in Proverbs. Folly that freely festers in a child’s heart will corrupt him into a fool. The failure to draw the Proverbial connections between folly and fools obscures the indispensable role of parental discipline. We wield the “rod of discipline” because abdicating this God-given charge is a catalyst for moral & spiritual disaster. Even a casual examination of what Proverbs has to say about the condition and fate of a fool Proverbs depicts the battle with folly as a matter of life and death.
5:23 He dies for lack of discipline, and because of his great folly he is led astray.
19:3 When a man’s folly brings his way to ruin, his heart rages against the LORD.
26:11 Like a dog that returns to his vomit is a fool who repeats his folly.

Ironically, some corners of Christian culture will recoil at the sight of vomit-slurping, godless rebels destined for death even as they proclaim their aversion to spanking.

(3) The broader context of the OT only affirms the place of corporal punishment in child rearing.
When the remedy for the evil of a rebellious son is public stoning (Deut 21:18-21), a spanking seems like a bargain! Small wonder that the OT people didn’t balk at the notion of corporal punishment during the child rearing years. But the bigger issue is whether or not we’re able to discern and emulate the Father’s heart in discipline. On this point I would turn to several OT passages where God employs corporal punishment on His children (Deut 8:5; 2Sam 7:14; Isa 10:5; Jer 2:3) and follow those passages by the acknowledgment that divine discipline is still a model for parental discipline in the NT era (Heb 12:4ff; Rev 3:19).

Make no mistake, godly discipline is as unpleasant as it is necessary. But until He comes we affirm the goodness of painful discipline even though we flinch (Heb 12:11-13).

A time to coax and a time to cudgel (pt. 2)

The previous post acknowledged a growing disagreement in Christian circles over the value and necessity of physical discipline for children. Proverbs 22:15 was proffered as a focal point in the debate, specifically in how we should understand “the rod” of discipline: is this an allusion to corporal punishment or not? I think an honest evaluation would answer that question in the affirmative for three reasons: (1) the use of “rod” in Proverbs implies a striking that produces pain (2) the broad context of Proverbs asserts that physical discipline is a necessity (3) the broader context of the OT only affirms the place of corporal punishment in child rearing. For the sake of time I’ll expand on #1 now and return to #2-3 in a post to follow.

1) The use of “rod” in Proverbs implies a striking that produces pain.

First, the OT Hebrew word for “rod” in Prov 22:15, shebet, has a variety of uses depending on the context: rod, staff, club, scepter, and even tribe. However, in the 191x that shebet occurs in the OT only twice(!) does it clearly refer to a shepherd’s staff (Lev 27:32; Micah 7:14 – both verses speak of shepherds and sheep). Further, shebet occurs 8x in Proverbs (see below) and none of these occurrences contain a shepherding analogy. “Rod” is a better English rendering than “staff”.

Second, occurrences of shebet in Proverbs leave little doubt that the rod is a fearful thing:
10:13 On the lips of him who has understanding, wisdom is found, but a rod is for the back of him who lacks sense.
13:24 Whoever spares the rod hates his son, but he who loves him is diligent to discipline him.
22:8 Whoever sows injustice will reap calamity, and the rod of his fury will fail.
22:15 Folly is bound up in the heart of a child, but the rod of discipline drives it far from him.
23:13 Do not withhold discipline from a child; if you strike him with a rod, he will not die.
23:14 If you strike him with the rod, you will save his soul from Sheol.
26:3 A whip for the horse, a bridle for the donkey, and a rod for the back of fools.
29:15 The rod and reproof give wisdom, but a child left to himself brings shame to his mother.

Third, in 22:15 the rod doesn’t coax and draw in. It strikes and drives away. Even if a shepherding analogy was to be seen here the fitting analogy is a shepherd fighting off dangerous predators that will harm the sheep, not a shepherd trying to draw a sheep in. As will be demonstrated later, Proverbs portrays folly is a predator that kills. If folly isn’t killed, the child is. How then will folly be destroyed: with coaxing or cudgeling?

A time to coax and a time to cudgel (pt. 1)

Folly is bound up in the heart of a child, but the rod of discipline drives it far from him. {Proverbs 22:15, ESV}

I take it as a truism that a generation (or two?) ago the Christian consensus on Prov 22:15 understood “the rod of discipline” to mean corporal punishment (i.e. spanking). I don’t know whether we could point to a Christian consensus today but I do know that, for various reasons, spanking is not as prevalent as it once was. My father use to tell us how my grandmother would send him outside to requisition the switch she would then use for his painful correction, and can I still remember a paddle hanging on my (maternal) grandparents’ wall in Maryland with a rhyme that went something like: Appeal to the intellect, Appeal to the Pride, When all else fails, Apply to the hide.

But times change and the spirit of the age incessantly seeks to shape the Christian mind. The serious Christian knows he must respond to verses like Prov 22:15 if he is to abandon the prudence of physical discipline with any legitimacy. The only recourse for such a conscientious objector is to demonstrate that phrases like “the rod of discipline” are misinterpreted by advocates of corporal punishment which brings us to the point of this post.

A young mom who, along with her husband I’m sure, is “not considering doing away with the belt” has questions about how to defend the position that spanking is biblical. The counter-argument that she’s encountered runs something like: (a) “the rod” in Prov 22:15 refers to a shepherd’s staff or stick (b) the rod/staff was used to pull/direct/coax sheep back into position but not to inflict painful punishment and/or (c) the rod/staff was used to strike and fend off predators but never to strike the sheep themselves.

Coax or cudgel–which is biblical? I’ll try to address this on multiple fronts (in multiple posts) but let me conclude here by observing that even if we limit ourselves to Proverbs, the Bible has more to say concerning discipline than just what we find in 22:15. How might these additional proverbs shape our understanding of the intended meaning of 22:15?

13:24 Whoever spares the rod hates his son, but he who loves him is diligent to discipline him.

19:18 Discipline your son, for there is hope; do not set your heart on putting him to death.

23:13-14 Do not withhold discipline from a child; if you strike him with a rod, he will not die. If you strike him with the rod, you will save his soul from Sheol.

29:15 The rod and reproof give wisdom, but a child left to himself brings shame to his mother.