Review of: Calvin Seerveld. How to Read the Biblical Book of Proverbs: In Paragraphs. Dordt Press, 2020. A shorter version of this review article appears in Christian Courier.
Cal Seerveld was my church elder when I was 18 at my home church in Willowdale, Ontario. In 1989 he visited me at one of my lowest and most hellish moments in life—in the trauma unit of Sunnybrook Medical Centre in Toronto after I was in a devastating car accident. I was being put back together after cracking in multiple places, including 17 places on my face. He prayed for me there. But Cal is also a scholar who speaks multiple languages, has travelled far and wide, and he writes books. He is an elder who is also a preacher with a pastor’s heart who wants “to bring God’s Word to ordinary people and to any curious inquirers” (iii).
“So long as you pick up and use Proverbs like a telephone book, you are most likely to get a wrong number.”
– Calvin Seerveld
If you dare, crack open this book and be ready for a jolt. It is a book that strives to refresh the “literary verve and contentious bite” of Scripture. It is a call to get with the Holy Spirit in obedience to God’s creation ordinances, his Word for life, or ruin your life in a slide down to hell.
Many today do not like binaries. They limit choices to two. But surely some things come in twos, and the binary functions as a heuristic, a simplified frame in a complex world. Cain or Abel, evil or good, or in this case: folly or wisdom. Within those two options are a variety of worlds, but it doesn’t negate the fact that sometimes there is a very real fork in the road: “I’ll do what’s right” or “I’m doing it my way.”
Wisdom is both Feminine and the Holy Spirit
Reformational philosopher Seerveld is faithful to Proverbs insofar as he always presents us with a stark choice: following Woman Wisdom or Woman Stupidity, alias “Mistress of Hell.” Attending to the former means being on the “footpath of obeying the Lord of creation with praise and healing joy” that leads to shalom. Being seduced by the latter will land you like dead cattle hanging in the abattoir (photo included p. 27!)
Wisdom is like a woman’s “unobtrusive firm resourcefulness” (130)
(image from pixabay)
Seerveld repeats over and over that Proverbs is not sanctified Egyptian precepts to be understood as “oral one-liners,” “handy maxims” or “atomistic logia treating a miscellany of topics” to help us get ahead and be a success. As the subtitle says, the key is paragraphs: like poetry, they need to be understood in clustered sections, with irony, refrains, extended metaphors, and multiple, at times contrasting voices.
The Book of Proverbs: “Not a collection of handy maxims about the moral P’s and Q’s of a sanctified middleclass life, but faces us with the simple-complicated all-consuming matter of life-and-death—life or death: do you choose to accept the meal of holy Wisdom or want to stay caught in the caress of everlasting Foolishness?” (25)– Calvin Seerveld
This method proves that this Biblical book is not about advice for winning in life but about fear of the LORD, getting our lives straight before the face of God. Wisdom, insists Seerveld, is nothing less than a gift of the Holy Spirit, presented to us in Proverbs as a woman, perhaps because wisdom has a similar resourcefulness, “normally subtle, indirect, quietly persuasive, not calling attention to itself. Dare we call such delicate, piercing judicious, serviceable and nurturing discriminating activity, a particularly womanly trait?”
“Standing in awe of the LORD God is the beginning of wisdom, and true insight is knowing intimately what things are holy” (22). What is that awe like? “Unconditional recognition of God Almighty’s faithful Rule.” (71)– Calvin Seerveld
Wisdom as a Story-Teller and Counsellor
Wisdom is not technique, pious formula, cleverness, or speculative intelligence. Instead it is “quasi-dramatic,” in fact a “consummate story-telling, roundabout, deferential, yet surprising way to bring God’s specific direction to bear on life problems.” We see this most clearly not in prophets, priests, or kings, but in a fourth office: the counsellor, the advisor of kings and queens, the wise man or woman.
Seerveld released his book on Revelation last year, and he released a new work on the Song of Songs in 2018, and a there is more to come, D.V. This book is a collage of translations from the Hebrew, sermons, articles from the 1970s, recent meditations, prayers, illustrations, and even a hymn. It is not quite a full commentary on the Biblical book, but it is a stirring introduction to its stark binaries, placed in the context of the rest of Scripture, including the Newer Testament.
This guide is at once rich and austere. Rich in its “Reformationally Christian reading,” because like Proverbs it addresses all of life, from politics to education to business in language that cuts to the heart of uncompromising obedience.
“God wants resolute, imaginative, merciful, wise, and resourceful men and women as the Lord’s ruling ambassadors in God’s troubled world, who are enabled, believe it or not, to cough up doing good even to one’s enemies while waiting for the LORD to straighten out what has gone crooked.” (110)– Calvin Seerveld
Austere, because it recognizes “the whole web of wasteful stupidities we North Americans politely consume is ruining us as a people!” Let’s be honest about our First World lives: “Our living rooms and dens and offices are over-stuffed with luxuries” (178). It commends a piety that eschews snowmobile thrills, fishing trips, Christmas presents for the kids, talk shows, moon landings, fast cars and chic dress. Indulgent people without “faith guts” are left with a spiritual “whoredom,” such that “every unfounded undermining word uttered will damn us to hell on the last day.”
“Wheeler-dealers who try to cover their guilt with large donations to churches are only gratifying themselves in public.” (88)– Calvin Seerveld
Think of your incidental meetings today and what you said. Applying the Proverbs, Seerveld warns: “The Lord takes ordinary conversation so seriously, backroom politicking talk, and the tiresome infighting so common among serious believers, to tell us that every unfounded, undermining word uttered will damn us to hell in the last day” (119). Evangelical or Mainline believer, you won’t hear that kind of no-nonsense kind of reprimand from the pulpit anymore. We have lost the courage, and maybe the context of such speech, and it is perceived as only “judgmental” rather than conveying urgent daily discernment.
Is this harsh and moralistic or refreshingly politically incorrect? Some may not like reading this book, and I imagine they wouldn’t take too kindly to some of the black and white clarity of the Biblical book either. Such preaching stings our modern ears, and Seerveld invokes too much hell. Yet this is the role prophets take: warning us of the stakes involved, which are life and death. Priests can soothe, but prophets shout.
Rich, Austere, and Pastoral
Yet the writing here also has a pastoral elder’s heart at moments. Seerveld weeps for the wayward youth that has left the ancient and living faith behind: “I cry in my study for those I know who are dead to God and closed to the joy of creaturely life within the Lord’s ordinances because of the ways they were misread the Bible…” It’s not just lost treasure, it’s lost joy, and lost life. Seerveld genuinely believes that this book is not irrelevant, let alone abusive and in need of our modern textual discipline. The text can discipline us–toward joy: “To trust and follow the Way of the ever-faithful LORD God is to be protected from unravelling disarray, despite incidental failures” (112).
The call is love: for “back-alley abortionists, radical ideological feminists, snobbish intellectuals, lukewarm Laodicean churchgoers, those who flaunt a secular gay lifestyle, self-righteous Pharisees, murdering militarists, shameless entertainers.” (38)– Calvin Seerveld
This book is austere, pastoral, and I repeat, rich in its celebration and affirmation of creaturely life. This theme needs extra emphasis and it is where I’ll end my review. This is the Seerveld of God’s riches we have known for so many decades–the patron and practitioner of the arts: “We need to find and support financially artists to write stories, paint paintings, compose songs, and produce independent cinema that tell the imaginative truth about good and evil in God’s world” (40). Nothing that is human is a stranger to this text, nor to this living faith and the two options that lie before every breathing soul.
Speaking of our creaturely life, there is a deeply poignant celebration video of Seerveld’s marriage to his wife Ines, here–commemorating 49 years of marriage. He’s over 80 now and still lives in the house he’s been in for decades in Willowdale. Faithfulness and infidelity are a binary as well, one we have become too casual about of late.
When the second edition of this book comes out, I’d like to see lay people give the blurbs on the back instead of the scholars. I can imagine comments like: “I’m missing God’s best. I forgot how arresting the Bible can be,” and “Reading this made me realize how distracted and confused my life had become. Repentance has become my sweetest song.”
Seerveld’s writing is spiritually electric for both scholars and lay people. Some of this work is intricate and thick, but some of it is ready for the street. What is wisdom? “Insight into doing what is right,” “when you genuinely, thoroughly know what God wants done, what is holy and true to the LORD,” and when you “act like Jesus.” Read this book if you want to know what’s up, and what’s not, from a veteran of the Reformational philosophical school.
“Wisdom and its attendant shalom come to those who give up trying to wrongheadedly to put things right themselves, on one’s own terms, and are instead moved to trust the Lord revealed in Jesus Christ and witnessed to by Proverbs. If one quietly, willingly listens to God speak, and asks to be put on the footpath of obeying the Lord of creation with praise and healing joy, then God in heaven will outfit you with the beginnings of Wisdom.” (116)– Calvin Seerveld
(Note: I did receive a free copy of the book from the publisher, with the hope I would write a review.)