Sunday, January 29, 2017

Proverbs 12:9-10 --- Responding to His Condescending Compassion

Proverbs 12:9 --- Images of Pride, Humility, and Grace
Better to be lowly and have a servant
    than to play the great man and lack bread.

One commentator complains of this proverb that it "is almost unintelligible."[1]  There are two comparisons made in our proverb.  The difficulty is with the second.  The first comparison is between "be lowly" and "play the great man."  This comparison is the key to understanding the proverb.  If we can figure out the meaning of this main comparison, then the more difficult comparison between "have a servant" and "lack bread," which must be related to the main comparison, may fall into place.

The first image, "be lowly," pictures a person who has no exalted status or social standing in the community.  He is held in low esteem by others, and may even be despised.  This is very much in line with what we saw in the previous proverb.  In a world that has rejected God's Son, the Son's people cannot expect to be held in high esteem.

Opposite of this first image is the person who is said "to play the great man."  Fox describes this second man as "the smug self-glorifier."[2]  This second image pictures a man who lives for the applause of others to the point that he pretends to be what he is not in order to gain their esteem and approval.  If there is an element of wealth involved, the picture is also of a person who pretends to be wealthier than he really is.  The basic idea is play acting.
One is reminded here of the play acting of the Pharisee and the lowly esteemed publican in the temple.  Interestingly, this story of the Pharisee and the tax collector comes on the heels of Jesus' teaching that his elect people will have a difficult time in this world (Luke 18:1-7).  Here is Jesus' teaching of the Pharisee and publican in the temple:
He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and treated others with contempt: 10 “Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector.11 The Pharisee, standing by himself, prayed thus: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. 12 I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.’13 But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’14 I tell you, this man went down to his house justified, rather than the other. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.” (Luke 18:9-14)

Pride is essentially play acting, pretending to be what we are not.  Human beings have no reason to boast before the Lord or others.  First of all, we are dependent creatures.  Like all of creation, it is the power of God that gives us life and maintains that life.  Dependent creatures ought not to pretend they are great!  As a cabinet member to the president might say, I serve at the behest of the president.  Second, whatever gifts or abilities we have are given to us by the Lord.  The Lord rightly brings us back to sanity when he teaches, "What do you have that you did not receive? If then you received it, why do you boast as if you did not receive it?" (1 Corinthians 4:7).

But, finally, playing the great man is particularly offensive in view of our sin.  The truth is that contra the Pharisee above (v. 11), we are all like all other men.  We are all cut from the same sinful cloth.  We are all Adam's seed.  And even believers, who have a new, regenerate nature, still have this old sinful nature that must be put off daily like Lazarus' grave clothes.  In short, pride is play acting and pretending to be great.  Humility is coming to grips with the reality of who we are before God.

Now, we are in a better position to consider the difficult comparison between "have a servant" and "lack bread."  For the sake of space, this must be brief.  My view is that essentially the point being made spiritually in this second comparison is that God gives grace to the humble, but he resists the proud (Proverbs 3:34; James 4:6; 1 Peter 5:5).  To the proud, who pretend to be great, they receive not the Bread of life, the Bread of heaven, Jesus Christ.  Their reward for their play acting, the applause of men, is the only reward they will receive.
But for the humble who belong to him, Christ himself serves them in the sense that he, as he did at the Supper (John 13:3-5), rises from the table, takes off his garments, and serves his people by washing their feet.  In his astounding grace, our Lord took off the glory of his divinity, wrapped himself in the clothes of our humanity, and in that humanity he went to the cross to cleanse us of our sin.  And he continues to cleanse us with his blood and give himself as the Bread of life even to this moment, so that we might have strength and life to live in the midst of a world that lightly esteems his people. 

Truly it is better to be lowly and have a Lord like this, who humbles himself to serve us!  All praise be to Him.

[1] Ellen F, Davis, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and the Song of Songs, 84.
[2] Michael V. Fox, Proverbs 10-31, 550.

Proverbs 12:10 
Whoever is righteous has regard for the life of his beast,
    but the mercy of the wicked is cruel.

The previous proverb in the light of the Mystery now revealed (Colossians 1:25-28), showed us our Lord Jesus Christ as the bread that came down from heaven, and our servant, who continues to serve us in our weakness and sin.  Christ is the Bread and the Servant, and how astounding is his condescension!  The eternal Son of God came to earth through the womb of the virgin, becoming man, without relinquishing his deity.  The Son of God came to earth, not to be served, but to serve those who will receive him as their Lord and Savior.  He serves his people by accomplishing their salvation, and he continues to serve us as our daily Bread, and our Immanuel, who is always present with us.

Think of how great this condescension is!  The gap between the self-existent, eternal, almighty, sovereign Creator and Sustainer of all things and us is far greater than the gap that exists between us and domesticated animals.  The word "beast" in our proverb refers to domesticated animals like, horses, sheep, oxen, or donkeys.  If the eternal Son of God has displayed such kind regard for our life and welfare, bridging the great gap between heaven and earth, then should we not bridge the much smaller gap, and be compassionate toward domesticated animals, who help us?  This is the logic of the first line of the verse.

This logic is the theme of imitation.  As God's image bearers, we are to imitate his compassion and kindness, and we do so when we show that compassion to domesticated animals, who especially in former times did so much to serve us.  And, if we are to be compassionate to animals, who are not his image bearers, how much more should we show compassion to men and women who are?!

This afternoon I was watching a sports show about what is known as adventure racing.  In this sport, teams of people are in a race of hundreds of miles across extreme terrains.  This particular show was about the 2014 world championship that was 430 miles across Ecuador.  Early in the race, a dog began to follow the team from Sweden.  At first the team ignored the dog, but the dog was determined to follow them swimming across rivers and following them up and down mountainous terrains, almost all of this taking place with little or no sleep.  The leader of the team felt sorry for the dog who had an injury and had no way to feed himself.  So he started sharing his own sparse supply of food.  The team ended up finishing twelfth, even though they were the favored team, because they had compassion on this dog who would've never been able to fend for himself in a jungle.

What moved me about the story was this quote from the leader, who adopted the dog, brought him back to Sweden, and treated his injuries which were extensive and serious.  He said with tears in his eyes, "This was the best thing I ever did."  I believe he might be right in that statement, because the best thing we do in life is to imitate our Lord Jesus Christ in his condescension and service.

The second line of our proverb, "but the mercy of the wicked is cruel," presents us with an oxymoron.  What could be meant by this oxymoron of cruel mercy?

We referenced the wicked judge in Luke 18 in the previous proverb.  Here is how he is described: "In a certain city there was a judge who neither feared God nor respected man" (Luke 18:2).  This is an accurate assessment of wicked people, and all of us unless we repent.  They do not fear God, with the result that they do not respect men made in his image.  All of us by nature are, as Luther put it, incurvatus in se, i.e., curved in upon ourselves.  Such selfishness precludes mercy. 

But when the wicked do seek to be compassionate and merciful, the attempt often results in a cruel mercy.  As one person put it, "Better to be the righteous person's horse than the wicked person's neighbor."[1]  I think the classic case of cruel mercy is the case made for abortion by abortion advocates.  The case for abortion is sold as compassion for women.  But what a cruel compassion, a cruel mercy!  This sort of mercy takes the life of another person, and leaves the woman with a lifetime of unresolved guilt, until the woman finds Christ and his shed blood, which alone can cleanse the guilty conscience.

May we learn to put on compassion each day, in accordance with the great compassion we have received from our Lord, and continue to receive from him.  Each day may we respond to the mercy we have received, and live by keeping the command of our Lord through his apostle:
"Put on then, as God's chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience, bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has    forgiven you, so you also must forgive. And above all these put on love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony" (Colossians 3:12-14). 


[1] Koptak, Proverbs, 340.

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