Through the Bible Reading: Proverbs 10-12
30 The fruit of the righteous is a tree of life, and whoever captures souls is wise. (Proverbs 11:30)
There is a verse in today’s reading that, depending on the translation you read from, will have one of two radically different meanings.
In the King James Version, Proverbs 11:30 reads,
The fruit of the righteous is a tree of life, and he that winneth souls is wise.
However, in the Christian Standard Bible, you get,
The fruit of the righteous is a tree of life, but a cunning person takes lives.
(Pro-tip: On biblegateway.com, if you type in a single verse reference, you have the option to compare the wording of that verse in all English translations. It is a great tool for comparative Bible study. Here’s the complete list of all the treatments of this particular verse).
When you look at all the English translations, only a few interpret the second half negatively. Notable are the Revised Standard Version, the Good News Translation, and The Message.
How is it possible for a verse to be so different between translations? There are some foundational principles that all translation teams have to bear in mind as they do their work:
- A verse or passage has one meaning. Multiple interpretations result from human limitations. It’s not God’s intention for His Word to “mean different things to different people.”
- The Bible can never mean what it never meant. Any interpretive grid we apply to Scripture has to be consistent with the what the author, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, intended.
- Scripture interprets Scripture. Our understanding of a particular verse or passage must be consistent with the rest of the Bible, because the Bible doesn’t contradict itself.
Well, the first issue to contend with is that there isn’t a distinct connecting conjunction in the Hebrew. The character vav at the beginning of the word is sometimes used as “and,” but it can also be “but.” Translators have to decide if the two halves of the verse are complementary or contrasting.
The second difficulty is that this phrase is a one off. Scholars call this a hapex legomenon— a single instance. The phrase “Captures souls” is not found anywhere else in the Bible, so translators are not able to compare the phrase in verse 30 to other places where it is used. Since Scripture interprets Scripture, this gives translators one less tool in their toolbox.
A third difficulty: the word translated wise (hakam) is usually translated wise, but can also be translated as shrewd or cunning. So while most English translations see verse 30 as a positive verse about soul winning, it is possible to take the route taken by the Christian Standard Bible and see it as negative cunning instead of positive wisdom.
One commentary (the ESV Reformation Study Bible) acknowledges the ambiguity. It notes that the usual meaning of this phrase is in reference to killing or taking away life, so they end their entry for this verse with “The translation is uncertain.”
Another, the Expositor’s Bible Commentary, suggests that “the idea of “winning souls” means capturing or laying hold of people with ideas or influence.” That would seem to be a positive thing. But curiously, it cross references 2 Samuel 15:6, which is about Absalom “stealing the hearts of the people” when he sat at the city gate and convinced people he would be a better king than his father David. In this case, Absalom was cunning, but not wise.
So which is it? Which translation got it “right,” and how do we decide? Well, I appreciate the humility of the Reformation Study Bible translation team. They acknowledged that it is ambiguous. But if you can’t live with the ambiguity, I’ll give you my opinion.
Laying hold of people with ideas or influence would certainly match one of the larger themes of Proverbs. Over and over, Proverbs tells us that plans fail for lack of counsel (Proverbs 15:22), and that we become wise when we walk with the wise (Proverbs 13:20). So that’s certainly a possibility.
But to be honest, there’s not much in the Hebrew that would suggest this as a possible interpretation. The word translated “souls” is nephesh, and it can mean breath or life. I can’t find anywhere that it means ideas or influence.
And what about the first part of the couplet– “The fruit of the righteous is a tree of life?” Normally, there is a clear connection between the two halves of a verse in Proverbs, either comparison (these two things are similar); contrast (these two things are different) or continuity (this thought is a continuation of that thought). So would Solomon have said, “The fruit of the righteous is a tree of life, and wisdom is found by surrounding yourself with great thinkers and influencers?” Those two thoughts don’t seem to fit together. Remember, in the absence of a distinct conjunction, the translator needs to determine if it is complementary or contrasting.
Here’s a connection I see:
Living things reproduce. They bear fruit. And all throughout Scripture, we are told to produce fruit. In John 15, Jesus told His disciples that if they remained in Him, they would bear much fruit, and so prove to be His disciples (John 15:1-16). All living things produce fruit according to their kind. Apple trees produce apples. Banana trees produce bananas.
What do righteous people produce? More righteous people. Disciples produce disciples. Christ-followers produce Christ followers.
So when Proverbs says that “The fruit of the righteous is a tree of life, I think it means that we who are made righteous in Christ are a tree of life to those around us. Through us, others can be introduced to Christ. Others can begin a relationship with Jesus. Those around us can find eternal life because we bear fruit.
When we think about it in this way, the two halves of verse 30 make sense. The fruit of the righteous is a tree of life for those around them, and thus are active participants of God’s saving work in other people’s lives. Through us, God can capture souls.
We get to be soul winners.