Tuesday, December 20, 2011

A Way with Words (Proverbs 25:11)

Complete: “A word fitly spoken _____________________________________________.” Is like apples of gold in a setting of silver (Proverbs 25:11)

Our culture has many expressions downplaying the significance of words. Talk is cheap. Actions speak louder than words. A picture is worth a thousand words. Sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me. In contrast, Proverbs rightly speaks highly of the value of words. The right word from the right person at the right time is life giving and priceless.

Like apples of gold in settings of silver Is a word spoken in right circumstances. (Proverbs 25:11 NASB)
Apples of gold in settings of silver is an esoteric reference. That’s a good thing, right?

Proverbs periodically utilizes flowers and fruit in analogies related to words (Proverbs 12:14, 13:2, 25:11). Scholars debate which fruit is being discussed in Proverbs 25:11 as some think that the word rendered “apples” (Hebrew: tappuwach) is better understood as grapes or apricots (Proverbs 25:11; Song of Solomon 2:3, 5, 7:8, 8:5; Joel 1:12). Even so, almost all modern translations opt for apples (ASV, ESV, HCSB, KJV, NASB, NIV, NKJV, NLT, NRSV, RSV).

The CEV and the Message avoid the fruit discussion entirely by omitting the clause. This is edifying on some levels as the passage speaks not of fruit but rather jewelry. Bruce K. Waltke (b.1930) explains, “Apples of gold (see Proverbs 11:22) was preferred to ‘golden apples’ to connote the probability of their metal, not their color, as the parallel in Proverbs 25:12a shows.” (Waltke, The Book of Proverbs: Chapters 15-31 (New International Commentary on the Old Testament), 320).”

Michael V. Fox (b. 1940) reports, “Though jewelry shaped as apples or apricots...is not extant, pomegranates are a common artistic motif, and a necklace with golden pomegranates was found in Late Bronze Cyprus (Bühlmann 1976:49) (Fox, Proverbs 10-31: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary (Anchor Bible), 782).”

The description of the trinket accentuates not just the centerpiece but its framing. In the first episode of the final season of “The Cosby Show”, Vanessa (Tempestt Bledsoe, b. 1973) stuns her parents by abruptly blurting out “I’m engaged!” (Episode: “With This Ring”, 9/19/1991) She then introduces her parents to her fiancé, Dabnis Brickey (William Thomas Jr., b. 1947). As they converse, Vanessa’s parents learn that their daughter has been engaged for six months to a maintenance man at her college who is “knocking on thirty” and who has previously lived with more than one woman. Her father, Cliff (Bill Cosby, b. 1937), explains that he does not like Dabnis but it is not necessarily Dabnis’ fault. He likens their meeting to Dabnis’ favorite meal, a porterhouse steak with no white lines served with crispy potatoes and sauteed mushrooms...served on a used garbage can lid. He exclaims, “It’s in the presentation. That’s the way she brought you here–on a garbage can lid!”

Context is important. Waltke interprets, “A proper decision is likened to golden apples, and the appropriate circumstance to a silver structure (Waltke, The Book of Proverbs: Chapters 15-31 (New International Commentary on the Old Testament), 320).”

On December 30, 1860, as the United States approached civil war, prominent Georgia politician Alexander H. Stephens (1812-1883) implored the president elect Abraham Lincoln (1809-1865) to make a public statement. Stephens alluded to Proverbs 25:11 when he wrote, “A word fitly spoken by you now would be like ‘apples of gold in pictures of silver.’” Lincoln reflected on Stephens’ biblical reference and found the principle “liberty to all” to be words fitly spoken. He responded:

The assertion of that principle, at that time, was the word, “fitly spoken” which has proved an “apple of gold” to us. The Union, and the Constitution, are the picture of silver, subsequently framed around it. The picture was made, not to conceal, or destroy the apple; but to adorn, and preserve it. The picture was made for the apple—not the apple for the picture. So let us act, that neither picture, or apple shall ever be blurred, or bruised or broken. (Lincoln, “Fragment on the Constitution and the Union”, January 1861)
What other words have been fitly spoken? When has someone given you just the right words at just the right time? How would you phrase this proverb in modern terms?

Ironically, the proverb itself is a word fitly spoken situated within a broader canvas, a book of fitly worded aphorisms. The verse has value when standing alone but also has more layers when viewed within its context. Its surface message is simple - words are valuable. Fox paraphrases, “Eloquent words—even when they are reprimands—are like well-crafted jewelry in well-matched settings (Fox, 782).”

The verse’s meaning within the context of Proverbs has been seen by some as the key to reading the book and perhaps the Bible as a whole. From this perspective, Proverbs informs the reader as to how it is to be read – like an expert jeweler fitting a precious stone to a suitable setting.

Knut Martin Heim is one scholar who sees the verse as the key to the book of Proverbs. He even titled his book on the subject Like Grapes of Gold Set in Silver: An Interpretation of Proverbial Clusters in Proverbs 10:1-22:16.

Tremper Longman III (b. 1952) summarizes Heim’s position:

“He believes that scholars make a huge mistake by looking for thematic or logical development within these short units. He says that once a unit is determined it is equally possible to read it from beginning to end, the end to the beginning or from the middle outwards. Nonetheless, the units do provide a context in which the proverbs should be read. The analogy that he provides in terms of the association of proverbs within a unit is from the title of the book which is taken from Proverbs 25:11.” (“Reading Wisdom Canonically”, Canon And Biblical Interpretation (Scripture and Hermeneutics Series, V. 7), 355)
Leonard S. Kravitz (b. 1928) and Kerry M. Olitzky (b. 1954) paint this reading with broader strokes:
“The author presents a piece of jewelry, made up of a gold core covered with a silver filigree overlay, as the analog of a parable. The ‘silver apple’ is seen at a distance; coming closer the inner ‘golden apple’ is visible. A parable also has an outer and an inner aspect. In the Guide for the Perplexed, Maimonides makes use of this verse to signal to his intended reader that he wrote the Guide in such a way that its hidden secrets can glimpsed through the filigree of its words.” (Kravitz and Olitzky, Mishlei: A Modern Commentary on Proverbs, 248)
How important is context when interpreting Scripture? Do you think that a text can have more than one correct interpretation? Why?

“The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug.” - Mark Twain (1835-1910)