Old Testament 102: Waltke on Protest and the Acts-Consequences Nexus

I mentioned previously that the question of protest in Job and Ecclesiastes, against the retributive “acts-consequences nexus” possibly put forward by Proverbs, might crop up in the exam for the B Th people. I took a pretty round about approach to suggesting I don’t think protest against Proverbs is what’s going on in those books, but I do think they are written to protest against a purely “retributive” view of the world (especially such a view that ignores God, and his faithfulness to his promises).

The Problem with the proverbial Acts-Consequences Nexus

Waltke (1996) rejects what he perceives as three common aspects of the internal protest theory:

1.      Solomon was a dullard who failed to understand reality

2.      Proverbs contains promises that are not true

3.      The aphorisms within Proverbs present “probabilities not promises.[1]

Treating the book as a cohesive unit, rather than treating its aphorisms as axioms, radically countermands all three of these positions. This approach produces a balanced view of the world without an absolute law of cause and effect.[2] It is possible that Proverbs dealt with the “ends of life” rather than the means, and further that it dealt with the eternal consequences of temporal decisions (Proverbs 12:28).[3]

There are several proverbs (Proverbs 15:16-17; 16:8, 19; 17:1; 19:22b; 22:1; 28:6) that explicitly link righteous acts with poverty, and criminal acts with wealth, and others focus on failures of justice (Proverbs 10:2; 11:16; 13:23; 14:31; 15:25; 18:23; 21:6, 7,13; 19:10; 22:8, 22; 23:17; 28:15-16, 27).[4] These fly in the face of this acts-consequences concept,[5] most importantly, is the notion in Proverbs 15:16, that the “Fear of the Lord” can be coupled with having little, and that this is better than wealth.

Suggestions of an acts-consequences nexus may result from an under-realised eschatology. Proverbs suggests the consequences of righteous or wicked decisions may not come until the end of life (Proverbs 11:4,7, 18, 21, 23, 28; 12:7, 12; 14:32; 15:25; 17:5; 19:17; 20:2, 21; 21:6-7, 22:8-9, 16; 23:17-18; 24:20). The eschatological view point of Proverbs is best articulated in 24:14-16,[6] and 12:28, which Waltke suggests contains a promise of immortality.[7] The absence of such an undertone in Ecclesiastes and Job is a result of their more temporal concerns.[8]

This eschatological concern is uncommon in the Old Testament.[9] But securing a place in the afterlife was a primary concern of Egyptian wisdom. Egypt’s wisdom schools were called “Schools of Life,” for this reason.[10] Egyptian wisdom presented the gods of Egypt as subjects to the established order,[11] and the afterlife as tied to living life in accordance with ma’at.[12] Proverbs holds that Yahweh created, and controls this order,[13] and man’s hope is found in fearing him.[14]

The evidence for “protest” against conventional wisdom is strong in Job and Ecclesiastes,[15] but it is plausible to suggest Proverbs was not the target.[16] A simple reductionism of the works into a battle between optimism and pessimism will no longer suffice.[17]

Here’s my favourite sentence from my essay (because I got to use the word zeitgeist which is a cool word)…

The people of Israel had a predilection for harnessing themselves to the international theological zeitgeist, a propensity typified by their well-documented struggle with idolatry, and their geographical position as a political football between Assyria and Egypt meant they experienced a socio-political identity crisis, so it is likely that the primary function of any critique of foreign theology was internal.


[1] Waltke, ‘Does Proverbs Promise Too Much?, pp 322-325

[2] Shields, M.A, The End of Wisdom: A reappraisal of the historical and canonical function of Ecclesiastes, (Eisenbrauns, 2006), p 15

[3] Waltke, ‘Does Proverbs Promise Too Much?,’ pp 323-327, Lucas, E, Proverbs: The Act-Consequence Nexus, forthcoming, p 4

[4] Van Leeuwen, R.C, “Wealth and Poverty: System and Contradiction in Proverbs,” Hebrew Studies 33 (1992): p 29, Lucas, E, Proverbs: The Act-Consequence Nexus, forthcoming, p 7 suggests these “better than” Proverbs

[5] Waltke, ‘Does Proverbs Promise Too Much?,’ p 326

[6] Waltke, ‘Does Proverbs Promise Too Much?,’ p 326

[7] A position adopted by the NIV but not the ESV, Waltke, ‘Does Proverbs Promise Too Much,’ pp 329-330

[8] Waltke, ‘Does Proverbs Promise Too Much?’, p 327,  notes “they are concerned with events under the sun and focus on the righteous man flattened on the mat for the count of ten; they do not focus on his rising, though they do not rule that out.”

[9] So much so that questions are raised as to whether Israel had any concept of an afterlife. It is fair to say that the notion of a resurrection had developed by the time Paul used it to split the Pharisees and Sadducees – so it is not an idea completely foreign to Old Testament theology. A case could, perhaps, be made for Job’s apparent change of heart regarding “retribution” (Job 27) to be attributed to an eternal view of the world and judgment coming at death.

[10] Waltke, ‘Does Proverbs Promise Too Much?’, p 328 citing Crosser, W “The Meaning of ‘Life’ (Hayyim) in Proverbs, Job, and Ecclesiastes,” Glasgow University Oriental Society Transactions, 15 (1955), pp 51-52

[11] Wright, G.E, The Old Testament Against Its Environment, Studies in Biblical Theology, (London: SCM Press, 1950), p 44

[12] Sinnott, A, ‘The Personification of Wisdom,’ p 41 – Ma’at is important for personal immorality and the “entire basis for the Egyptian understanding of the world”, however, Fox, M.V, ‘World Order and Ma’at: a crooked parallel,’ suggests Ma’at is not a cut and dried “retributive” system

[13] Waltke, ‘Does Proverbs Promise Too Much?,’ p 333

[14] Zimmerli, ‘Expressions of Hope in Proverbs and The Book of Job,’ p 24

[15] Shields, M.A, The End of Wisdom, p 35 suggests that the “apparent distinctive thoughts of Qoheleth” have common ground with Ancient Near East wisdom well before the exile.

[16] Shields, M.A, The End of Wisdom, p 16 suggests the wisdom movement is Job’s target, and that the story of Job demonstrates that God is not subject to the retributive system that had been “established by the sage.”

[17] Waltke, B, ‘Does Proverbs Promise Too Much?,’ p 323, Nonevangelical academics, tend to pit the optimism of the so-called older wisdom represented in the Book of Proverbs against the pessimism of the so-called younger, reflective wisdom represented in the books of Job and Ecclesiastes.”

The author

Nathan runs St Eutychus. He loves Jesus. His wife. His daughter. His son. His other daughter. His dog. Coffee. And the Internet. He is the campus pastor at Creek Road South Bank, a graduate of Queensland Theological College (M. Div) and the Queensland University of Technology (B. Journ). He spent a significant portion of his pre-ministry-as-a-full-time-job life working in Public Relations, and now loves promoting Jesus in Brisbane and online. He can't believe how great it is that people pay him to talk and think about Jesus.