Atonement in Proverbs
By lovingkindness and truth iniquity is atoned for, and by the fear of the Lord one keeps away from evil.
As we read through the book of Proverbs, there are many perspectives on the fear of the Lord. It is the beginning of wisdom/knowledge in 1.7/9.10. It is something that we learn to discern when we pursue wisdom in chapter 2, and here in Proverbs 16, through it, a person keeps away from evil. This verse is more nuanced than that, and we observe this by considering what each line of poetry means and how they then relate to each other. So looking at the first line, we see that Solomon draws our attention to lovingkindness and truth. This is the word pair hesed and emet, which indicated the covenantal relationship between God and man. This is to say, through the covenant, iniquity is atoned for. But notice carefully how there is not an actor in this first line. The verb is written in the passive voice. Transgression is covered, but covered for what purpose and by whom? Whose love and truth is the agent? We must fill in the blank with our knowledge of the scriptures. What must be atoned for? Sin must be atoned for. If we remind ourselves of the first few verses of scripture we are reminded that: 1. Man (i.e. Adam) sinned and this sin and death spread to all mankind and 2. God promised redemption. It wouldn’t come in Adam’s lifetime (but the looming judgement of Noah would soon follow). Instead, humanity was to hope and wait for redemption and thus atonement. In the Torah, we see that God brings judgment on humanity for sin. It isn’t always an immediate judgment, but it does come. We see this in the end because every human dies and our bodies are all groaning under the weight of the curse of sin and death.
By lovingkindness and truth iniquity is atoned for,
By the fear of the Lord one keeps away from evil
Iniquity must be atoned for, and in the Old Covenant, there was a way in which it was atoned for: the blood of bulls and goats were sprinkled; but the author of Hebrews teaches us that the blood of bulls and goats could never take away sin, and so there was in fact no atonement. It was only anticipatory of a future sacrifice of the proper quality. The Old Covenant anticipated the atoning work of Christ’s dead and his blood shed. This is the New Covenant in his blood, and so we see Paul refer to this love and truth in Ephesians 4.15: Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love. This is to say that having atonement through the work of Christ, which unites us with Christ in covenantal relationship, we grow into Christ. It is God himself who has made atonement for our sin and sins, and it is by Christ’s lovingkindness and faithfulness that we have this atonement.
But we should consider how the second line relates to this first line. I would suggest that in the end the first line subtly hints at God’s work and avoids any work of man. The second line directs our attention to what might be described as a person’s response. Having atonement of sins, then, by the fear of the Lord one keeps away from evil. There is not necessarily any time element connecting the two lines, but this is contextually required. Does someone keep away from evil if they are not covenantally related? The answer would simply be: no (although it is probably more complex than this, see Romans). As we considered in last Sunday’s sermon, fear of the Lord is akin to saying obedient faith. Once God has enacted a covenant with his people, those who are sealed are obliged to follow the covenant stipulations. But in reality, we shouldn’t think of it so dryly: a husband when he marries his beloved doesn’t simply follow their covenant stipulations because he is obliged to. Instead, because he loves his wife, he goes above and beyond what is demanded based on their covenant. In a similar way, those who entered into a covenant relationship with Yahweh ought to love God as he has loved them. But it is not so easy. In the Old Covenant, there was no empowerment of the covenant people. Although Israel was in covenant with Yahweh, Israel did not love Yahweh like they should have. Instead, they rejected Yahweh. They had no empowerment. In the New Covenant, we have a totally different relationship because those who have entered into the covenant are not only adopted as sons, but they are sealed with the Spirit.
So to bring us back around to this verse, by the fear of the Lord, one keeps away from evil, we understand that the Israelites ought to have kept away from evil through their obedient faith, but were unable to because they were not indwelt by the Holy Spirit. One thing this illustrates for us is this: you may want to say that any man or woman is able to choose to follow God on his own, but this is impossible without the gift of the Spirit. Man will choose what he wants, and that is ultimately to pursue his own sin. And yes there were those who remained obediently faithful to Yahweh, but the story of the Old Testament is clear: Yahweh preserved a remnant. It wasn’t the work of any one man.
So as we meditate on this verse, we are driven from creation and the fall and then to the cross. Not only did humanity need redemption through the work of Jesus, but we needed regeneration through God’s Spirit. And in all these things, we can rejoice. We also may live lives of rejoicing because we have experienced a real and lasting salvation through the atoning work of Christ, through his love and faithfulness, and the abundant power of God’s Holy Spirit.