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Accented antithesis

Review of How to Read the Biblical Book of Proverbs: In Paragraphs by Calvin Seerveld.

“So long as you pick up and use Proverbs like a telephone book, you are most likely to get a wrong number.” – Calvin Seerveld

If you dare, crack open this book and be ready for a jolt. It’s a book that strives to refresh the “literary verve and contentious bite” of scripture. It’s a call to get with the Holy Spirit in obedience to God’s creation ordinances, his Word for life, or ruin your life in a slide down to hell.

Reformational philosopher Seerveld is faithful to Proverbs insofar as he always presents us with a stark choice: following Woman Wisdom or Woman Stupidity, alias “Mistress of Hell.” Attending to the former means being on the “footpath of obeying the Lord of creation with praise and healing joy” that leads to shalom. Being seduced by the latter will land you like dead cattle hanging in the abattoir (photo included on page 27).

Seerveld repeats over and over that Proverbs is not sanctified Egyptian precepts to be understood as “oral one-liners,” “handy maxims” or “atomistic logia treating a miscellany of topics” to help us get ahead and be a success. As the subtitle says, the key is paragraphs: like poetry, they need to be understood in clustered sections, with irony, refrains, extended metaphors, and multiple, at times contrasting, voices.

This method proves that this Biblical book is not about advice for winning in life but about fear of the Lord, getting our lives straight before the face of God. Wisdom, insists Seerveld, is nothing less than a gift of the Holy Spirit, presented to us in Proverbs as a woman, perhaps because wisdom has a similar resourcefulness, “normally subtle, indirect, quietly persuasive, not calling attention to itself. Dare we call such delicate, piercing judicious, serviceable and nurturing discriminating activity, a particularly womanly trait?”

Wisdom is not technique, pious formula, cleverness, or speculative intelligence. Instead it’s “quasi-dramatic,” in fact a “consummate story-telling, roundabout, deferential, yet surprising way to bring God’s specific direction to bear on life problems.” We see this most clearly not in prophets, priests, or kings, but in a fourth office: the counsellor, the advisor of kings and queens, the wise man or woman.

Seerveld released his book on Revelation last year, and he released a new work on the Song of Songs in 2018, and there is more to come, Lord willing. This book is a collage of translations from the Hebrew, sermons, articles from the 1970s, recent meditations, prayers, illustrations, and even a hymn. It’s not quite a full commentary on the Biblical book, but it’s a stirring introduction to its stark binaries, placed in the context of the rest of Scripture, including the Newer Testament.

This guide is at once rich and austere. Rich in its “Reformationally Christian reading,” because, like Proverbs, it addresses all of life, from politics to education to business in language that cuts to the heart of uncompromising obedience. Austere, because it recognizes “the whole web of wasteful stupidities we North Americans politely consume is ruining us as a people!” It commends a piety that eschews snowmobile thrills, fishing trips, Christmas presents for the kids, talk shows, moon landings, fast cars and chic dress. Indulgent people without “faith guts” are left with a spiritual “whoredom,” such that “every unfounded undermining word uttered will damn us to hell on the last day.”

When the second edition of this book comes out, I’d like to see lay people give the blurbs on the back instead of the scholars. I can imagine comments like: “I’m missing God’s best. I forgot how arresting the Bible can be,” and “Reading this made me realize how distracted and confused my life had become. Repentance has become my sweetest song.”

Seerveld’s writing is spiritually electric for both scholars and lay people. Some of his work is intricate and thick, but some of it is ready for the street. What is wisdom? “Insight into doing what is right,” “when you genuinely, thoroughly know what God wants done, what is holy and true to the LORD,” and “act like Jesus.” Read this book if you want to know what’s up, and what’s not, from a veteran of the Reformational philosophical school.

  • Peter is Executive Director of Global Scholars Canada, a transnational guild of Christian scholars. He preaches, teaches and writes – having written columns, editorials, news and features for CC since 1997. His book The Subversive Evangelical: The Ironic Charisma of an Irreligious Megachurch (McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2019) is an ethnographic journey into the life of a megachurch and its “irreligious” charismatic leader. He loves stories that cross boundaries while maintaining integrity.

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