Bill Mounce

For an Informed Love of God

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Sunday, June 5, 2011

Seek Righteousness; Find Righteousness (Prov 21:21)

We read Prov 21:21 this morning in church. “Whoever pursues righteousness (צדק) and love finds life, prosperity (צדק) and honor (NIV).” Two things should jump out at you.

1. How do you hear the word “prosperity”? I only hear it in financial terms, and with the benefits of wealth such as independence and power. I understand that wealth can be a sign of God’s blessing, but I also understand that much of the Bible is clear about the extreme dangers of wealth. “Now listen, you rich people, weep and wail because of the misery that is coming upon you” (James 5:1, ESV).

2. The second problem comes when you look at most other translations; the same Hebrew word lies behind the NIV’s “righteousness” and “prosperity.”

”Whoever pursues righteousness and kindness will find life, righteousness, and honor” (ESV).

”The one who pursues righteousness and faithful love will find life, righteousness, and honor” (HCSB).”

”Whoever pursues righteousness and unfailing love will find life, righteousness, and honor” (NLT).”

Only the NET has the same type of variation as the NIV. “The one who pursues righteousness and love finds life, bounty, and honor.” So what is going on?

Since this is a Greek blog, I should mention that the LXX is somewhat different. “A way of righteousness (δικαιοσύνης) and compassion (ἐλεημοσύνης) will find life (ζωήν) and honor (δόξαν)” (NET).

I suspect part of the answer is English style. English does not like to repeat the same word in the same context, so often in the NIV you will “stylistic variation.”

Another part of the answer, I would guess, is that the translators thought the author had a slightly different meaning for the same word. One commentator says that in the first “righteousness” we should see conduct appropriate to a covenantal people. The second is the effects of such righteousness.

I have problems with this. The commentator correctly says that there is a word play, and yet it is lost in the NIV and NET. Even if there is some variation in meaning, that would be apparent with consistently translating the same Hebrew word with the same English word. And by using “prosperity” and “bounty,” they have introduced a difficult meaning and one easily open to misinterpretation.

Much better to translate both occurrences of the same word as “righteousness,” and let poetry function as poetry and force the reader to contemplate and think through the meaning.

This comes from an even deeper personal conviction, and that is that genres and (understandable) figures of speech should be left as they are. Per haps it is an issue of inspiration. Perhaps it is an issue of literary style. But I believe it to be a mistake to take the Bible, written with all its different genres and whatnot, and reduce it to prose or to a level of writing that requires little if any thought.

Pursue righteousness; you will find what you are looking for, and much more. Something worth contemplating.