Summary: These proverbs give us good guidance in considering how to live a life that is pleasing to the Sovereign Lord.
In the previous verses we learned that God is in control of this world and our lives, and that he does punish the wicked. Keeping those things in mind, it is good to consider how to live a life that is pleasing to the Sovereign Lord. These proverbs give us good guidance in that regard.
6 Through love and faithfulness sin is atoned for; through the fear of the LORD a man avoids evil.
This proverb is tougher to get a handle on than it first seems. Certainly sin is atoned through love and faithfulness. But, then, whose love and faithfulness, and, for that matter, whose sin? Is the proverb saying that through God’s love and faithfulness man’s sin is atoned for? Or is it saying that a person, through his own love and faithfulness, may atone for his sin? Or is it saying that a person, through love and faithfulness, may atone for another person’s sin, similar to Proverb 10:12 which speaks of love covering a multitude of sins?
Obviously, God does atone for our sins through his love and faithfulness, and Scripture often ascribes to God this combination of attributes. The central passage is in Exodus 34. Moses received the Ten Commandments, found the people in rebellion, broke the tablets in anger, and then had to appeal on their behalf to God that he not destroy them. God called Moses back onto the mountain to write the commandments down again and then he passed before Moses, who had boldly requested to see God. Here is the report of the scene:
Then the LORD came down in the cloud and stood there with him and proclaimed his name, the LORD. 6 And he passed in front of Moses, proclaiming, “The LORD, the LORD, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, 7 maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin” (Exodus 34:5-7).
As much as they may strive to uphold the Law and to be faithful in offering sacrifices, each Jew understood that God forgave, not out of compulsion, but out of his love and faithfulness.
But taking a cue from Proverbs 3:3,4, I think the application intended is for us to emulate love and faithfulness. Consider those verses:
3 Let love and faithfulness never leave you;
bind them around your neck,
write them on the tablet of your heart.
4 Then you will win favor and a good name
in the sight of God and man.
The point here is that these traits ought to characterize the wise person so that he wins favor with God, as well as with man.
Now add this thought to the latter half of the proverb: through the fear of the LORD a man avoids evil. The concern of the whole proverb seems to be how a person handles sin so as to be in favor with God. How then does he? Through love and faithfulness he makes atonement for his sin, and through the fear of the Lord he avoids getting into deeper trouble.
What does it mean to fear God? It is to be in awe of him in such a way that you feel it in your bones that he is the Sovereign Creator and Lord of the universe. It is to feel humble before him, not because you will get into trouble if you don’t, but because this is the one Being before whom you know that you exist for his glory.
This proverb is not teaching salvation by works: I sin, therefore I do something nice for someone else or do some kind of sacrifice of penance. This is, rather, another statement that it is the condition of the heart that matters. Do you want to be right with God? Then you need a heart like God’s and that fears God. Giving money to charity cannot substitute for showing love and faithfulness. Keeping good church attendance does not fulfill the fear of the Lord.
This proverb teaches what other scriptures teach. Jesus taught this when asked what is the greatest commandment.
“‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength. 31 The second is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself’” (Mark 12:30,31).
The same message is taught in Micah 6:6-8:
6 With what shall I come before the LORD
and bow down before the exalted God?
Shall I come before him with burnt offerings,
with calves a year old?
7 Will the LORD be pleased with thousands of rams,
with ten thousand rivers of oil?
Shall I offer my firstborn for my transgression,
the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?
8 He has showed you, O man, what is good.