Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Proverbs 21:9: The Foundation of Human Community

Proverbs 21:9
It is better to live in a corner of the housetop
    than in a house shared with a quarrelsome wife.

There are a series of these better-than proverbs sprinkled throughout Proverbs, some of which deal with the quarrelsome wife.  I have to admit I find them humorous.  It's almost as though this form of the better-than proverb took on a stereotyped formula, with each new version trying to top the next in where it would be better to live than with a contentious wife!

The section of Proverbs we are in runs from 20:29 to 21:29, with 20:29-21:3 the introduction, and 21:4-29 the main body.  The section has three sub-units: verses 4-8, 10-18, and 20-29.  Strangely, two of these better-than proverbs, dealing with a quarrelsome wife, divide the sub-units.  It seems odd at first that these two proverbs, which seemingly have no connection to this section as a whole, would be chosen as an "organizing principle."[1]  But I have a thought on why these two verses are a brilliant piece of divine wisdom perfect for this section, which is telling us about the anti-social behavior of the wicked.

The Book of Proverbs sees a wife as a gift of God.  Proverbs 18:22 tells us about this wonderful gift:

                He who finds a wife finds a good thing
                   and obtains favor from the Lord.

Mothers, along with fathers, are viewed as teachers of their children.  In fact, the book's main body after the introduction, includes the mother's teaching alongside the father:

                Hear, my son, your father's instruction,
                    and forsake not your mother's teaching. (Proverbs 1:8)

But the better-than proverbs often recognize the imperfect situation we are now in after the fall.  The better-than proverbs sometimes describe "two less than perfect conditions.  The sage weighs their relative worth and declares one preferable---although neither is entirely satisfactory."[2]  And so, in our verse, the "two less than perfect conditions" compared are a spacious house with a quarrelsome wife, or the corner of a roof without a quarrelsome wife.  Solomon advises it is better for the husband to take a chance on nature's storm on the roof than with the wife's storm in the house![3]  Again, it is hard to miss the humor, but in seeing the humor we don't want to miss the serious message.

The first message is this.  While a good wife is a good gift, not every wife is righteous and good.  The relationship between husband and wife, after the fall, is more difficult because of sin.  Men are prone to selfishness and lust, rather than self-giving love.  The tendency for men to objectify women, after the fall, is strong, and this tendency must be fought and put to death in the believing man's heart.  Self-emptying love must be cultivated, rather than self-grasping lust.  

Women tend to a slightly different problem after the fall.  It is expressed in Genesis 3:16: 

                Your desire shall be for your husband,
                   and he shall rule over you.

The word desire in this verse is the same word used in the words the Lord spoke to Cain just a bit later:

                "sin is crouching at the door. Its desire is for you, but you must rule over it" (Genesis 4:7b).

The idea, then, in 3:16 is that after the fall, the wife's tendency is to rule over her husband, just as sin wanted to rule the heart of Cain.  The wife's fallen tendency is to want to control her husband.  But just as in the case of the man, so in the case of the woman, she must fight this tendency and put it to death.  She must learn, like godly women always have, the precious jewel that is the true beauty and glory of a woman:

"but let your adorning be the hidden person of the heart with the imperishable beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which in God's sight is very precious" (1 Peter 3:4).

In a marriage, just as it is the case in all human communities, selfishness destroys relationships.  While love builds up, selfishness tears down.  And this, I think, is why this seemingly unrelated proverb fits perfectly into this section which deals with the anti-social aspects of wickedness.  Marriage is the primordial sacrament that is meant to teach us what life is really all about!

First, marriage in its physical union of mutual indwelling is a sign that points to the mutual indwelling of the trinity.  The Father indwells the Son and Spirit.  The Son indwells the Father and Spirit.  The Spirit indwells the Father and the Son.  And this mutual indwelling is not impersonal, but self-giving in its love.  The Father makes room for the Son and Spirit.  The Son makes room for the Father and Spirit.  The Spirit makes room for the Father and Son.  And all of this is pictured in marriage, which is foundational for human society.  And so, we see how the mutual love and indwelling of the trinity is to be pictured in the sexual union and everyday relations between a husband and wife.  The trinity is the model for the most basic model of community --- marriage --- from which all of us come forth.  Thus, the trinity is the model for all human community.

But there is also a hierarchy among the equal members of the trinity.  Each person in the trinity is fully God.  The Father is fully God.  The Son is fully God.  The Spirit is fully God.  There are not three gods, but one God.  But within this unity there is diversity.  And within this unity there is hierarchy.  From eternity the Son has always done the Father's will, delighting in it.  So too the Father and Son send the Spirit.  This order is seen especially in 1 Corinthians 15:24-28, where we read that even the Son, who is fully divine and equal with the Father, willingly subjects himself to the Father.

Therefore, the picture of the quarrelsome woman, is a picture that shows us how humanity fights against the way things really are.  We live in a world where everything is modeled after the triune God.  And from that model we learn that two things are especially important for us to live rightly in God's world with our God and others: self-giving love and humility, for it is selfishness and pride that destroy relationships and fail to reflect the image of the triune God.

[1] Waltke, Proverbs, vol. 2, 169.
[2] Schwab, Proverbs, 535.
[3] Van Leeuwen, Proverbs, 193,

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