Devotion on Proverbs 22 and Isaiah 35

This Sunday, the various lectionaries offer two lessons from the Hebrew Scriptures for preachers to consider. One is from Proverbs, the other from Isaiah.

Proverbs 22:1-2, 8-9, 22-23

1 A good name is more valuable than great riches, and to be held in favor by others is better than silver or gold.
2 The rich and poor have one thing in common: the Lord is the maker of both.
8 Those who sow injustice will reap trouble, and the club they wield in anger will break.
9 Those who are generous will themselves be blessed, for they share their food with the poor.
22 Do not rob the poor because they are poor, or oppress the needy at the gate,
23 for the Lord will plead their cause and rob the souls of those who rob them. (Will’s paraphrase)

Isaiah 35:4-7

4 Say to those with anxious and fearful hearts, “Be strong, do not fear! Your God will come with vengeance; with terrible retribution, God will come and save you.”

5Then the eyes of the blind will see, and the ears of the deaf will hear; 6then the lame will leap like deer, and the tongue of the mute will sing for joy. For waters will break forth in the wilderness, and streams in the desert; 7the burning sand will become a pool, and the thirsty ground bubbling springs; and in the haunts where dragons once dwelled, grass and reeds and rushes will grow. (Will’s paraphrase)

Whenever possible given time constraints, I hope to post my own paraphrase of the scriptures. My paraphrase will always be based on my reading of the following translations: the New Revised Standard, the English Standard Version, the Today’s New International Version and the King James Version (with reference to Strong’s Hebrew and Greek dictionary). You see, by reading the passages in four different versions and then paraphrasing them, I get a better understanding of what the passages say. I also get to pick from the various translations phrasing or meaning that I like. If you want to use my paraphrases, you are welcome to do so.

As concerns the readings above, I really do not like it when the lectionary picks and chooses verses to use (as in Proverbs) or takes a small piece of a much larger passage that should remain together (Isaiah). In the case of the reading from Proverbs, however, the damage done to the integrity of the text is minimal since chapter 22 is a collection of sayings. The ones used for Sunday all focus on the dichotomy between the rich and poor, and on the need of those who have to care for and not take advantage of the havenots. Of course the exploitation of the poor and powerless has been a characteristic of human interaction throughout history, and it was a subject that most of the the prophets of Israel and Judah broaches at one time or another.

The writer makes the point at the beginning that God is the creator of both the rich and poor. This means of course, that in God’s eyes the poor are just as valuable and important as the poor. The other verses in the passage place the much responsibility on the rich as regards their relationship with the poor. In particular, verse 8 speaks of retributive justice. I particularly like what Howard Wallace has to say about this verse.

Verse 8 warns, ‘whoever sows injustice will reap calamity….’ This accords with the Hebrew Bible understanding of retributive justice, which sees calamity not so much as God’s direct punishment of wrongdoing as a basic pattern woven into creation. If people practice oppression, in the end, events will turn around to bring their hurt back upon them. In preaching on this passage, one might tease out the ways in which social inequality and deprivation can fuel unrest and even terrorism in our time. The second part of the verse says, ‘the rod of anger will fail.’ This follows on from the first part of the verse, implying that the purposes of angry action will not be met, as anger turns back against itself. Again, this might suggest avenues for preaching that explore military and diplomatic responses to situations of turmoil in the world.

Given the short length of Isaiah 35, I don’t see why this chapter can’t be read in its entirety, rather than plucking 4 verses of their context. As far as I am concerned, you can’t read too much scripture in worship (without reason). The entire chapter is a perfect example of the gospel that can be found in the Hebrew scripture. In particular, the writer assures us that God will save. Though it may not appear so given the current situation, God is on the move. Further this vision tells us that salvation is much more holistic than my personal well-being and final dwelling place. Salvation involves all of creation, and when it comes to human beings, there is also a physical component in addition to the spiritual. For an additional reflection on these verses, look at this commentary from Word-Sunday.com.

As far as I can tell, almost every modern version of the Bible translates verse 7 as referring to jackals instead of dragons. This is indeed one of the meanings of the Hebrew word, but more times than not, the word is defined as “monster,” either of the deep or on the land. I prefer to use the word dragon for its poetry and evocation of another time and place.

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