Tuesday, October 9, 2012

The Memory Remains (Proverbs 10:7)

Complete: “The memory of _______________ is a blessing, the name of the wicked will rot.” The righteous (Proverbs 10:7)

The tenth chapter of Proverbs is a collection of “proverbs of Solomon” (Proverbs 10:1). Each verse in the section is comprised of two contrasting statements with the word “but” connecting the two lines while accentuating their differences (Proverbs 10:1-32). Despite presenting opposites the lines reenforce one another, a literary device known as antithetic parallelism.

Amid this context, Proverbs 10:6-11 forms a unit lauding the advantages of righteous living, always with one eye on the alternative. Proverbs 10:7 asserts that the righteous leave an everlasting impression that serves as a continual blessing while the wicked will eventually be forgotten.

The memory of the righteous is blessed,
But the name of the wicked will rot. (Proverbs 10:7 NASB)
The theme of the immortality of the righteous and the ephemeralness of the wicked will recur later in the chapter as well (Proverbs 10:25, 30). Richard J. Clifford (b. 1934) comments:
The topic is the manner in which the righteous and the wicked live on in the memory of their children and community. The memory of one type remains alive in blessings such as “May you be as blessed as X!” whereas the memory of the other rots away like their bodies. “Rot” is in the final position and springs the surprise. (Clifford, Proverbs: A Commentary (Old Testament Library), 113)
In Hebrew, the direct correlation between the two contrasting statements of Proverbs 10:7 is more pronounced as “memory”(zeker) and “name” (sem) are virtually synonymous; both terms encompass “name” (Exodus 3:15; Hosea 12:6) and “remembrance” (Isaiah 26:14; Psalm 111:4).

The proverb promotes good living as the righteous will leave blessed memories. Remembrance is a point of emphasis in the wisdom literature. Tremper Longman III (b. 1952) examines:

That remembrance was important to the wisdom teachers is underlined when one reads Ecclesiastes, where his conclusion that the wise are not remembered leads him to such depressing conclusions (Ecclesiastes 1:11, 2:16, 9:5, 15)...But it is not just remembrance that is at issue. The second colon implies that the wicked are also remembered but that their memory stinks. “Name” implies more than identity, and the Hebrew term šēm could just as easily be translated “reputation.” (Longman, Proverbs (Baker Commentary on the Old Testament Wisdom and Psalms), 232-33)
The proverb not only affirms the favorable memory of the righteous but also allows that this remembrance can be intentionally invoked to produce blessing. Josef Scharbert (1919-1998) speculates that the proverb “probably has in mind the bārûkh-formula [i.e., “blessed be”] used by a godly person. The mention (zēker) of the righteous took place for (the purpose of) blessing (G. Johannes Botterweck [1917-1981] and Helmer Ringgren [1917-2012], Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament, Volume II, 299-300).”

The memory of the righteous has helped sustain many a struggling believer. David A. Seamands (1922-2006) illustrates:

An unknown author has said, “Memory is the power to gather roses in winter.” Obviously, this refers to the joyous aspect of good memories. Proverbs 10:7 comments on this, “The memory of the righteous is blessed.” Paul wrote to the Philippians, “I thank my God every time I remember you”(Philippians 1:3 NIV). Truly happy memories like these were Paul’s roses in winter. They brought color and warmth to the damp and desolate atmosphere of the Roman jail where Paul was prisoner when he wrote the letter. (Seamands, Redeeming the Past: Recovering from the Memories that Cause Our Pain , 31)
While the memory of the righteous persists and blesses, the name of the wicked spoils and eventually decays entirely. Bruce K. Waltke (b. 1930) defines:
The name of all the wicked...decays (yirqāb) like worm-eaten wood into oblivion (see Isaiah 40:20; Hosea 5:12). The few other uses of the root rāqab connote evaporation or annihilation (cf. Septuagint, “is extinguished”). The metaphor was probably chosen to associate annihilation of the name/memory of wicked people with their corrupting bodies in the grave. God blots out only the name/memory of the wicked (cf. Psalms 9:6-7, 34:16-17, 109:15). The blessed fortune of the memory of the righteous beyond death, however, must be qualified by the other realities. “Under the sun” the dead are forgotten (Ecclesiastes 9:5), and as Shakespeare’s Mark Anthony said: “The evil that men do lives after them; the good is oft interred with their bones.” The proverb, however, looks at the end of the matter. (Waltke, The Book Of Proverbs: Chapters 1-15. (New International Commentary on the Old Testament), 457-58)

Michael V. Fox (b. 1940) adds:

Everyone’s corpse rots, but in the case of the evildoer, even the intangible and potentially enduring name putrefies. “Rot” may connote that his name will stink and be offensive, or that it will decompose and disappear, or both. Not only will people not use his name in blessing, they may even use it in curses and insults, as when we call a traitor a quisling...The blessing and rotting in Proverbs 10:7 have two aspects. First, they refer to the way one is remembered, for good or ill. As a saying quoted in the Egyptian tomb autobiography of Menhuhotep says, “The good character of a man is truly valuable for him more than a thousand gifts” (1.15). To support this assertion, the inscription cites the saying, “A man’s goodness is his memorial, while an evil person is forgotten.” This is in part quoting Ptahhotep, who said, “Kindness is a man’s memorial” (1.487) and “A good character will be for a memorial” (1.494)...Second, the blessing and rotting happen even before death. The prosperity that the righteous will enjoy makes them a standard of comparison in blessing others. (Fox, Proverbs 10-31: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary (Anchor Bible), 515)
The Hebrew people act out this proverb annually during the festival of Purim, which commemorates the Jewish people’s triumph over the treacherous Haman (Esther 9:26). Bradley C. Gregory describes:
A...custom, based on a midrashic interpretation of Proverbs 10:7 (Genesis Rabbah 49), involves the adults in the congregation whispering “The memory of the righteous shall be for a blessing” after Mordecai’s name and “The name of the wicked shall rot” after Haman’s name. This is mirrored by the practice of children using rattles or stones to drown out the mention of Haman’s name. (Tremper Longman III [b. 1952] and Peter Enns [b. 1961], Dictionary of the Old Testament: Wisdom, Poetry & Writings, 463)
In the Old Testament, the Hebrew people are repeatedly instructed to remember certain events and people (Exodus 12:25-27; Joshua 4:6-7). The Bible itself is evidence that this command was heeded and that the memory of the righteous remains a blessing.

In your experience, does this proverb hold true? What examples can you think of that illustrate this saying? What aspects of human nature make this aphorism true? What is the best way to insure that you will be remembered? Whose memory is a blessing to you? When have you drawn strength from the memory of a righteous person?

The first clause of Proverbs 10:7 has entered the Jewish liturgy as part of the burial service. While the proverb’s scope certainly relates to the hereafter, its benefits are not limited to the afterlife.

John Goldingay (b. 1942) remarks:

The NIVI and NRSV imply that this comment relates to the “memory” of people (“mention” is zēker) and thus to their reputation after their death, but there is no need to limit it to that. More likely the proverb offers a promise and a warning to people that relates to them while they are alive (as it did undeservedly to Job; cf. Job 29-30). Faithfulness makes you the kind of person who becomes a standard for blessing that people invoke, while faithlessness makes you the kind of person that people despise. The community’s ethos thus reinforces the impetus to faithfulness and the disincentive to wrongdoing. (Goldingay, Old Testament Theology - Volume Two: Israel’s Faith, 531)

As its core, Proverbs 10:7 attempts to motivate its readers to righteous living, to act as they already should be.

Do you consider yourself to be “righteous”? Do you consider how you will be remembered in the future as you take action in the present? How do you want to be remembered? What is your legacy? Does this proverb motivate you? If not, what would persuade you to live a righteous life?

“Your story is the greatest legacy that you will leave to your friends. It’s the longest-lasting legacy you will leave to your heirs.” - Steve Saint (b. 1951)