Thursday, June 21, 2012

Life on the Run (Proverbs 28:1)

According to Proverbs 28:1, when do the wicked flee? When no one chases them

A recurring topic in the 28th and 29th chapters of Proverbs is the disparity between the righteous (Proverbs 28:1, 12, 28, 29:2, 6, 7, 16, 27) and the wicked (Proverbs 28:1, 4, 6, 10, 12, 15, 28, 29:2, 6, 7, 12, 16, 27). The section begins with a vivid picture contrasting the cowardice of the wicked with the boldness of the righteous (Proverbs 28:1).

The wicked flee when no one is pursuing,
But the righteous are bold as a lion. (Proverbs 28:1 NASB)
Even the verse’s verb-subject agreement is antithetical. “Wicked” is singular while its verb (“flee”) is plural but “righteous” is plural while its verb (“are bold”) is singular.

According to the sage, there is a positive correlation between wickedness and fear and righteousness and courage. In fight or flight terms, the wicked flee while the righteous fight. Fear paralyzes but faith mobilizes. From the perspective of the conscience, right makes might.

In some ways, the cowardly villain has become a clichéd stock character. The Coen brothers’ 2010 remake of the John Wayne (1907-1979) classic True Grit (pictured) intentionally illustrates this proverb. The film even begins with an epigram of the King James Version’s rendering of the first half of Proverbs 28:1.

The verse’s syntax accentuates “the wicked”. Michael V. Fox (b. 1940) notes:

The wicked flee...Literally “They flee and there is no pursuer–the wicked (man).” The unusual delay of the subject, “the wicked,” until the end of the verse gives the line the feel of a riddle: “They flee with no one pursuing.” Who is that?–“The wicked.” (Fox, Proverbs 10-31: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary (Anchor Bible), 343)

The sage depicts not just anxiety but paranoia. Abraham Ibn Ezra (1089-1164) connects Proverbs 28:1 to Leviticus 26:36 where the wicked are prone to flee even at the sound of a windblown leaf.

Some attribute this paranoia to practical concerns: evil people accrue many enemies and have reason to be perpetually looking over their shoulders. Others look to psychology: the wicked realize that their evil deeds are going to catch up with them and live in constant fear of divine retribution or legal punishment. Like a child seeking the discipline she knows she deserves and instinctively desires, the wicked imagine the pursuit they know they merit.

The consensus explanation for the angst is that the wicked are plagued by a guilty conscience. William Shakespeare (1564-1616) conveyed a similar concept when he wrote, “Suspicion always haunts the guilty mind” (King Henry VI, Act 5 Scene 6). This interpretation fits the Hebrew as one of the primary meanings of the term rasha` (“wicked”) is “guilty one”. The wicked have a reaction similar to drivers who become alarmed when seeing a squad car even when they are not presently violating the law.

Some have seen the phenomena described in Proverbs 28:1 as ingrained in the human psyche and assured in the Bible. Richard J. Clifford (b. 1934) connects:

The phrase “flees though none pursue” occurs in Leviticus 26:17, 36 in a curse for disobedience to the covenant. In Leviticus the phrase means flight that continues even when the enemy has ceased pursuing; the terror is so profound that one cannot stop running. It is the opposite of the lion-like confidence mentioned in colon B. Wicked behavior sets in motion a chain of ills that leads to a life of fear. (Clifford, Proverbs: A Commentary (Old Testament Library), 243)
A biblical example of this phenomenon occurs as Adam and Eve instinctively flee from God after eating the forbidden fruit in Eden (Genesis 3:8). Likewise, after killing his brother, Cain assumes that everyone wishes him dead: “Behold, You have driven me this day from the face of the ground; and from Your face I will be hidden, and I will be a vagrant and a wanderer on the earth, and whoever finds me will kill me (Genesis 4:14 NASB).”

John Henry Newman (1801-1890) speculates that the nothing the wicked run from is only nothing that is visible:

Inanimate things cannot stir our affections...If, as is the case, we feel responsibility, are ashamed, are frightened, at transgressing the voice of conscience, this implies that there is One to whom we are responsible, before whom we are ashamed, whose claims upon us we fear...‘The wicked flees when no one pursueth’ [Proverbs 28:1]; then why does he flee? Who is it that he sees in solitude, in darkness in the hidden chambers of hid heart? If the cause of these emotions does not belong to the visible world, the Object to which his perception is directed must be Supernatural and Divine. (Newman, An Essay in Aid of a Grammar of Assent, 109-10)
In contrast to the wicked, the righteous are lion-hearted. The word for lion (k@phiyr) is, more specifically, a young lion; i.e. in the prime of its life. Tremper Longman III (b. 1952) illumines:
The contrast between the wicked and the righteous could not be stated more clearly or in more contrastive terms. The wicked are afraid and thus run away from conflict, so much so that they even run before there is a fight. This may indicate their bad conscience...They know they don’t have a leg to stand on. On the other hand, the confidence of the righteous is likened to a lion. The comparison implies that they are well prepared to take care of any assault that comes their way. They do not fear any person, only Yahweh (Proverbs 1:7). (Longman, Proverbs (Baker Commentary on the Old Testament Wisdom and Psalms), 487)
The wicked’s reality is created in their head. The righteous’ reality is defined by God. This produces courage. Though the Hebrew word batach is most commonly translated as “bold” (ASV, ESV, HCSB, KJV, MSG, NASB, NIV, NKJV, NLT, NRSV, RSV), it is best understood as “confident”.

Derek Kidner (1913-2008) explains:

‘Confident’ is nearer the meaning. The straightforward man, like the lion, has no need to look over his shoulder, What is at his heels is not his past (Numbers 32:23) but his rearguard: God’s goodness and mercy (Psalm 23:6). (Kidner, Proverbs (Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries),168)
The New Testament likewise affirms the courage of the righteous:
For God has not given us a spirit of timidity, but of power and love and discipline. (II Timothy 1:7 NASB)
The gospel also asserts that wicked people can acquire a righteousness through Christ that makes them as bold as a lion.

Why do the wicked flee when no one is pursuing? What cowardly villains can you think of? Is the inverse true: is one who runs from nothing inherently wicked? When have you fled? When should you flee? Have you ever felt paranoid? Why are lions associated with bravery? Do you think most Christians today are bold?

A problem with Proverbs 28:1 is that there is often a disconnect between its characterization and our experience. The wicked often appear bold and just as frequently, the righteous act like The Wizard of Oz’s Cowardly Lion.

Proverbs speaks in generalities and does not claim that there are no exceptions to its axioms. There are likely bold wicked people and timid saints. Proverbs 14:16 uses the same word for “bold” as does Proverbs 28:1 only it describes a fool rather than the righteous. There the term is presented pejoratively, translated as “careless” (HCSB, NASB, NSRV, RSV) or “reckless” (ESV, MSG, NLT). Though there may be outliers, typically, wickedness leads to fear and righteousness to boldness.

Cecil Murphey (b. 1933) finds more meaning when taking a less literal approach and a broader definition of fleeing:

The problem comes because we don’t see much evidence of the wicked fleeing. In fact, we tend to see the reverse—Christians running and unbelievers standing boldly. But if we move beyond the mere words and think of the implication of the saying, it may help us understand what the sages wanted us to grasp...We live in a more sophisticated world, where we’re able to hide those things a little better...Today people still run, but they may not know why they’re running. Augustine [354-430], one of the great thinkers of the fifth century, made the famous statement that we’re restless until we find our rest in Jesus Christ. That’s a form of running—just being restless, on the go, unable or unwilling to pause and reflect, to examine our lives, to ponder the things that really matter. In short, it’s a picture of those who continually reject God. Carl Jung [1875-1961] once said that people don’t really solve the issues of life until they make their peace with God. That’s flowing in the same direction as this proverb. (Murphey, Simply Living: Modern Wisdom from the Ancient Book of Proverbs, 44-45)
Do you know anyone who fits either of the descriptions in Proverbs 28:1? What gives the righteous the strength to be as “bold as a lion”? Would you categorize yourself as “bold”?

“A guilty conscience is the mother of invention” - Carolyn Wells (1862-1942)

Monday, June 18, 2012

Silas the Sidekick (Acts 15:40)

Who was Paul’s companion on his second missionary journey? Silas (Acts 15:40)

Endorsed by the church at Antioch (Acts 13:2), Paul (then known as Saul) and Barnabas embark on Christianity’s first missionary journey (Acts 13:1-14:28). Later, after defending their position regarding the Gentile mission to outsiders at the Council of Jerusalem (Acts 15:2), another dispute arises from within (Acts 15:36-40).

The team disbands when Barnabas wants to give John Mark, who had abruptly deserted them on their first missionary journey a second chance on their second (Acts 13:13, 15:37-38). Unable to agree, Barnabas takes John Mark and sets out on the mission field without Paul (Acts 15:39).

Undeterred, Paul, who seldom traveled alone, also selects a new partner: Silas (Acts 15:40).

But Paul chose Silas and left, being committed by the brethren to the grace of the Lord. (Acts 15:40 NASB)
The choice is Paul’s and he makes it quickly. Though no mention is made of what is likely a substantial pool of candidates, Paul presumably has his pick of potential traveling companions. The decision appears to be a no-brainer as Paul does not hesitate to choose Silas nor does Silas delay in accepting.

Though Silas is a relative unknown at the time of his selection, he had been introduced earlier in the same chapter (Acts 15:22, 27, 32, 34). Silas begins his career as an apostolic delegate (Acts 15:22, 27). He and an otherwise unknown Christian named Judas called Barsabbas are selected as letter bearers of the edict declaring the Council of Jerusalem’s verdict (Acts 15:22, 27). Their task was to personally convey and expound upon the council’s impersonal letter. Though unknown to the letter’s recipients as it contains no letter of commendation (Acts 15:23-29), the duo could verify the council’s decisions impartially as Barsabbas and Silas have independent authority. Letter bearers were not uncommon as documents could be forged and consequently oral tradition was held in higher esteem (I Maccabees 12:23; Ephesians 6:21-22; Colossians 4:7-8) .

Silas is presented as the logical choice to be Paul’s new partner and he has several qualifications working in his favor:

  • He and Judas Barsabbas are described as “leading men among the brethren” (Acts 15:22). Silas is a prominent member of the Jerusalem church, likely an elder in function if not in name. Silas’ endorsement is politically advantageous. If anyone questioned Paul’s credibility, as happened in Galatia, Silas could corroborate his representation of Jerusalem’s position. David G. Peterson (b. 1944) notes, “Paul’s choice of Silas as his partner is particularly significant in context. He represents ‘the unity of purpose between Jerusalem and the mission launched form Antioch, a unity achieved through the Jerusalem agreement’ (Peterson, The Acts of the Apostles (Pillar New Testament Commentary), 448).”
  • He is designated a prophet and seen as an orator (Acts 15:32). Ajith Fernando (b. 1948) deduces, “Silas was a leader in the church of Jerusalem (Acts 15:22) and a prophet who ‘said much to encourage and strengthen the brothers’ in Antioch (Acts 15:32). This must mean he was an enthusiastic backer of Paul’s program of Gentile evangelism (Fernando, Acts (The NIV Application Commentary), 431).”
  • He and Paul have worked together previously. Silas obviously impressed the missionary. As Fernando suggests, at the Council of Jerusalem, everyone’s cards were on the table giving Paul the opportunity to see who is sympathetic with his cause (Acts 15:22-35). It can be surmised that Silas is a proponent of the Gentile mission, otherwise Paul would not have taken him.
  • Like Paul, he is a Roman citizen (Acts 16:37), a fact that will take on significance that neither likely could have imagined at the time of their pairing. Ben Witherington III (b. 1951) speculates, “It is perhaps probable, in view of Acts 16:37-38, that Luke intends us to see him as a person of significant social status (Witherington, The Acts of the Apostles : A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary, 467).”
  • He is evidently literate. The name Silas does not appear outside of Acts but many believe he is referenced in the New Testament epistles. Though later church tradition distinguishes between Silas bishop of Corinth and Silvanus bishop of Thessalonica, scholars almost unanimously equate the two names as Silvanus is the Latin equivalent of Silas (II Corinthians 1:19; I Thessalonians 1:1; II Thessalonians 1:1; I Peter 5:12). Robert L. Cate (b. 1932) reminds, “he could apparently write, an unusual skill in those times (I Peter 5:12). He, along with Timothy, later assisted Paul in writing the apostle’s first letter to the church at Thessalonica (I Thessalonians 1:1) (Cate, One Untimely Born: The Life And Ministry of the Apostle Paul, 77).”
  • Perhaps most significantly, he is available. Judas Barsabbas and Silas are granted an honorable discharge (Acts 15:33) but in a narrative aside we are told that Silas opts to stay (Acts 15:34). (This narrative aside is confusing, appears to contradict the previous verse [Acts 15:33], is only in the Western text and absent from many reliable manuscripts, is typically interpreted as a later scribal addition and as such is omitted from some translations such as the NRSV.) No explanation is given as to why Silas remains. But in doing so, he is able to immediately respond to Paul’s call.
Silas has experience, a lot of upside and is a suitable companion for the Apostle to the Gentiles.

Another advantage Silas has may be a Jewish heritage. It is possible that Silas is the Aramaic parallel of Saul, Paul’s original Hebrew name (meaning “little wolf”). C. Peter Wagner (b. 1930) conjectures:

Why Silas? Why would Silas be a better partner for Paul at this stage of his career than Barnabas? One obvious reason was that Silas did not have a cousin Mark whom he insisted on bringing along. But other than that...another more fundamental difference existed between Silas and Barnabas...The difference did not lie in their personal characters or statuses as mature Christian leaders...It is not totally clear whether Silas was a Hebrew Jew or a Hellenistic Jew like Barnabas. My guess would be that because the Hellenistic believers had been driven out of Jerusalem after the murder of Stephen (Acts 8:1) leaving only the Hebrew church there, it would be unlikely that one of the elders of the Jerusalem church at that time would have been a Hellenist. If such were the case, it might have been to Paul’s advantage to take a Hebrew leader from the Jerusalem church with him when he went back to visit the churches he had planted in Galatia. The Judaizers who had gone and messed things up in the Galatian churches had also come from Jerusalem, and Paul already had anticipated that he would have to engage in some potentially difficult damage control when he arrived. Silas would be an asset. (Wagner, The Book of Acts: A Commentary, 347-48)
E. A. Judge (b. 1928) sees further benefit in Silas’ Roman citizenship:
Paul always refers to him by his Roman name, Silvanus, and it is not impossible that their common Roman status opened the way for Paul’s new stance at Philippi. If Barnabas was not a Roman, this might equally explain the puzzling lack of initiative shown by Paul in Lycaonia. If this is to hold water, however, we should also have to suppose that Timothy was a Roman, since he now joined the party (being made a Jew for the purpose [Acts 16:3)], and was linked with Silas as a lieutenant. (Judge and Harrison, “The Early Christians as a Scholastic Community”, The First Christians in the Roman World: Augustan and New Testament Essays, 547)
Regardless of the rationale, the tandem is commended by the church in Antioch to take to the mission field (Acts 15:40). Bruce Chilton (b. 1949) sees advantages for the church in this decision:
The meeting with James, Peter, and John gave Paul new authority; working with Silas assured that he would not exceed that authorization. Antioch no longer had to take responsibility for its most contentious apostle. He departed that city with Silas (Acts 15:40). Paul was now Jerusalem’s man, and Silas’s problem. (Chilton, Rabbi Paul: An Intellectual Biography, 147)
Above all, Lloyd J. Ogilvie (b. 1930) sees God at work:
We have seen how the Spirit had Silas in the wings. He was able to drop everything and respond to the call to go with Paul. Note how free these early Christians were. They could be open to changes of plans because their purpose was clear. Daily guidance is given to those who are set in the ultimate will of God. (Ogilvie, Acts (Mastering the New Testament), 240)
Silas succeeds Barnabas and the succession is a success.

Do you think Silas had hoped for an opportunity to serve as a missionary? Is there a position that you are praying will open? If you could pick any partner in any realm of your life, who would it be? When has a replacement been as good as her predecessor? What is the best recasting you have seen in a television or movie series? Why is it Paul’s custom to take a partner? Which team is better, Paul and Barnabas or Paul and Silas? Why? Who were the other candidates? (Evidently like the other Barsabbas [Acts 1:23-26], Judas is overlooked.) Is Silas selected through logic alone? If so, would this in any way discount God’s involvement in the decision?

The new arrangement proves successful for everyone involved. The church now has two mission teams, Barnabas is essentially promoted to leader of his own team (Acts 15:39), John Mark’s missionary career is revived, and Paul and Silas embark on the now famous “second missionary journey” (Acts 15:36-18:22).

In spite of the bump in the road, for Paul, the beat goes on. Paul and Silas perform admirably. Silas is with Paul when he is arrested in Philippi (Acts 16:19) and in prison with him when an earthquake hits the region (Acts 16:25, 29). Throughout the remainder of book of Acts, Silas is paired either with Paul (Acts 16:19, 25, 29, 17:4, 10, 14) or Timothy in Paul’s absence (Acts 17:14, 15, 18:5).

Silas’ presence, valuable though it may be, is all that is referenced. In spite of all of his credentials, Silas never again performs an action in the book of Acts. Silas spends the remainder of the book as Paul’s sidekick. There is no question as to which partner is more influential. Silas is Robin to Paul’s Batman, Watson to Paul’s Holmes, Garfunkel to Paul’s Simon. Paul likely would have been successful with a broomstick as his companion and Silas, like most of his partners, ends up playing second fiddle.

Silas is always listed second when paired with Paul (Acts 16:19, 25, 29, 17:4, 10, 14) but first when mentioned alongside Timothy (Acts 17:14, 15, 18:5). Perhaps Silas is the leader of his team with Timothy and working with Paul prepared him for this role. Sidekicks do not always become leaders as evidenced by the fact that only four vice presidents, habitual sidekicks, have later been elected president.

Are Christian sidekicks always being prepared to lead? Who is the quintessential sidekick? Literarily speaking, sidekicks always serve some function: What is Silas’? How did Silas benefit from his pairing with Paul? Is Silas better with Paul? What does Silas do for Paul? What tandems can you think of where one member is decidedly more prominent? Is there anything wrong with being a sidekick? In your story, are you the hero or the sidekick?

“The sidekick business has been good to me.” - Sean Astin (b. 1971)