In this famous section of Proverbs, the father exhorts his son, “forget not mylaw; but let thine heart keep mycommandments” (Prov. 3:1), with the promise of length of days, long life, and peace (Prov. 3:2). How can a human father, a fallen, fallible father say such a thing? We see something perhaps equally puzzling in Paul’s repeated use of the phrase “mygospel” (Rom. 2:16, 16:25, 2 Tim. 2:8). Couldn’t this be confusing? Doesn’t this seem a little arrogant?
“My son, forget not my law; but let thine heart keep my commandments:2 For length of days, and long life, and peace, shall they add to thee.3 Let not mercy and truth forsake thee: bind them about thy neck; write them upon the table of thine heart:4 So shalt thou find favour and good understanding in the sight of God and man.5 Trust in the Lord with all thine heart; and lean not unto thine own understanding.6 In all thy ways acknowledge him, and he shall direct thy paths.7 Be not wise in thine own eyes: fear the Lord, and depart from evil.8 It shall be health to thy navel, and marrow to thy bones.9 Honour the Lord with thy substance, and with the firstfruits of all thine increase:10 So shall thy barns be filled with plenty, and thy presses shall burst out with new wine.11 My son, despise not the chastening of the Lord; neither be weary of his correction:12 For whom the Lord loveth he correcteth; even as a father the son in whom he delighteth” (Proverbs 3:1-12).
Heart, Neck, Eyes, Barns, and Discipline
The exhortations in our text are to rather abstract virtues (law, mercy, truth, trust, fear, honor), but they are saddled to intensely concrete bodilyitems: days, heart, neck, eyes, bones, barns, and wine (Prov. 3:2-10). This sets up the equation between virtue and practical actions and decisions. Virtue is embodied. We also see that there are five admonitions, and each exhortation is followed by a concrete promise of blessing: do not forget=length of days (Prov. 3:1-2), keep mercy and truth=finding favor (3:3-4), trust in the Lord=straight paths (3:5-6), fear the Lord=good health (3:7-8), honor the Lord=full barn (3:9-10). So without reducing virtue to a mechanical lever, it is still true to say that virtue is embodied and the blessing that follows virtue is also embodied, either now or in the resurrection (Mk. 10:30). And the father reappears at the end of our text, claiming that his discipline is the embodiment of the Lord’s loving discipline (Prov. 3:11-12).
My Law & Commands
While the idea that virtue is embodied is easier to understand, the question is how the father can claim that his discipline is the Lord’s discipline, that his son should keep his law. Shouldn’t the father make it clearer that it isn’t really his law, rather it’s the Lord’s, and his discipline is only as good as it agrees with God’s discipline? Related is also the fact that the father is promising “long life and peace,” which the father may be able to influence but cannot infallibly deliver. Is it really wise for Solomon (or any father) to speak this way? Surely part of the answer is found in the words of Moses: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart… and these words which I command you today shall be in your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your children…You shall bind them as a sign on your hand…” (Dt. 6:5-9) A faithful father was commanded by God to embrace the law of God and bind it to himself and so teach it diligently to his children. A faithful father believes God’s promise for long life and peace and prosperity for fidelity to His law, and in so far as the father is representing God’s law, the father may relay this as his own possession and sure promise to his children.
Mercy & Truth
But the second admonition suggests that there is even more going on: “Let not mercy and truth forsake thee: bind them about thy neck; write them upon the table of thine heart” (Prov. 3:3). If the first exhortation reminds us of God’s law, this combination seems to be a short hand for the essentials of covenant blessing. In Genesis 24:27, the servant of Abraham blessed God for not forsaking his “mercy and truth” to Abraham by leading him to Rebecca’s family. “All the paths of the Lord are mercy and truth, to such as keep His covenant and His testimonies” (Ps. 25:10, cf. 2 Sam. 15:20, Ps. 57:3, 10, 85:10, 89:14, 100:5). But in Prov. 16:6, Solomon says that by “mercy and truth” atonement is provided for sin. The word atonement reminds us of the Most Holy Place where the Ark of the Covenant was. The golden lid was called the “mercy seat” and the Ten Commandments were inside it (Ex. 25:21, Heb. 9:3-4). All of this pointed to Jesus and specifically His cross, where the mercy and truth of God have come together even more clearly and emphatically: Jesus is both God’s truth about our sin and His merciful sacrifice for it (Jn. 1:14-17). He is our ark, our mercy seat, our “throne of grace” in a time of need (Heb. 4:16, 10:19ff). And Jesus is the embodiment of mercy and truth. When the father says bind mercy and truth around your neck and write them on the tablet of your heart, he is actually saying bind Jesus around your neck and write Jesus on the tablet of your heart.
But it still seems somewhat puzzling: why does the father point to himself in the first instance and not immediately away to God? Part of the answer is that the father does point to the Lord (3:5, 3:7, 3:9) – so every father should do the same. But the father still feels very comfortable calling the law “my law” and likening his instruction/discipline with the correction/chastening of the Lord (3:1-2, 11-12). The answer is found in God’s determination that discipleship be intensely personal and therefore embodied. Discipleship is teaching virtues such as truth and mercy and obedience and honor, but those virtues must be embodied and imitated. Christian discipleship does look to the Lord, but Jesus sent mento disciple the nations. Therefore, discipleship also simultaneously includes immediate human relationships, like father-son. Jesus embodies this in the first instance as the perfect Son of the perfect Father. The scribes and Pharisees were scandalized by His insistence that He is the embodiment of the Father (Jn. 10:29-30), but we often merely chalk this up to the deity of Christ: Jesus is God, so He can say things like that (which is true).
But Jesus also indicates that what He came to do, as an ambassador of His Father, He intends to pass on to His disciples. He calls the disciples away from their earthly fathers and their fishing boats and nets and says He will likewise make them fishers of men, or we might say fathers of men (Lk. 5:10). And we see this in Paul’s own ministry: “I do not write these things to shame you, but as my beloved children I warn you. For though you might have ten thousand instructors in Christ, yet you do not have many fathers; for in Christ Jesus I have begotten you through the gospel. Therefore I urge you, imitate me. For this reason I have sent Timothy to you, who is my beloved and faithful son in the Lord, who will remind you of my ways in Christ, as I teach everywhere in every church” (1 Cor. 4:14-17, cf. Phil. 2:22, 1 Thess. 2:11). As Jesus called the first disciples to “follow me,” Paul imitates and says, “follow me,” and presumably he taught Timothy to say the same thing. This is why Paul frequently refers to the gospel as “my gospel” or “our gospel” (Rom. 2:16, 16:25, 2 Cor. 4:3, 1 Thess. 1:5, 2 Thess. 2:14, 2 Tim. 2:8).
Because we have been given the Spirit of the Father and the Son, we have access to the Father and therefore we have the boldness to represent Him to others. In the gift of salvation, the living and eternal God has taken up residence in you. His law has become your law. His mercy and truth are bound around your neck, written on the tablet of your heart. His gospel is now your gospel. If we understand this, we must learn to say with Jesus: Come, follow me, keep my law and commandments. This is my gospel: Jesus Christ was crucified for sinners and raised from the dead for our justification. My son, my daughter, my friend, do not forget my law. This is all a gift, all of grace, but grace gives this authority. “But by the grace of God I am what I am, and His grace toward me was not in vain; but I labored more abundantly than they all, yet not I, but the grace of God which was with me” (1 Cor. 15:10).