Monday, September 1, 2014

Testing the heart of the interpreter: the permanence of folly

Last night I was reading from Proverbs, and I came across this verse:

Crush a fool in a mortar with a pestle along with crushed grain,
but the folly will not be driven out (Prov 27.22).

It occurred to me that this proverb can be interpreted in at least two ways. On the one hand, we might understand the wisdom to be affirming the permanence of folly. Even if you were to do horrific violence to a fool, yet his folly will remain. There's no driving it out; it's there for the long haul, and God help him. The problem with this interpretation is that the proverb doesn't speak anything about the permanence of folly. It speaks about the inability of a certain course of action to remove folly, while leaving unstated whether folly is actually permanent or not.

I happen to understand the proverb a different way. I understand the lesson to be this: dealing with a fool by harsh and even violent means will not prove effective. The point is not that folly is a problem impossible to treat, but that our natural impulse to be harsh, to be strict, to be exigent with the foolish is itself a foolish impulse. It won't work with them. The foolish person doesn't know to interpret the difficulty of her circumstances as evidence that something isn't right; she is more likely merely to remain convinced of her own truth, and to harden herself to the teaching of experience when it suggests otherwise.

The main point I want to make, however, is that this proverb provides us with a test of the heart. It speaks nothing explicit of the permanence of folly, and yet my first impression was that it teaches that the fool is incurable. It was the evil of my own heart that found permanence in a proverb where none was to be found: of course, I am sure that I am not a fool, and therefore it doesn't bother me if the fool is incurable; and I am so confident of the transparency of my own wisdom, that when I try to convince others and fail, the problem must lie with them and their thick heads. Out of the sinfulness of my own heart, I produce an interpretation of the text that says exactly what I want it to say, and confirms my own evil convictions.

That is why we must not merely read the Bible to be transformed and helped. We have to pray to God to be transformed into capable readers. The task is to prepare our hearts for a true reading of scripture, and to ask God to form our minds and our understanding into the sort of character that will find what pleases God in the scriptures and not what pleases the sinful desires and convictions of a human person.