In the immediate aftermath of the historic announcement that Osama Bin Laden had been killed by U.S. Military personel, Facebook and Twitter erupted with reactions — including from many pastors and Christian leaders.
For example, some posted this from Proverbs:
”When justice is done, it brings joy to the righteous but terror to evildoers” – Proverbs 21:15
And others posted this:
“Rejoice not when thine enemy falleth and let not thine heart be glad when he is overthrown.” — Proverbs 24:17
Seems like a contradiction, doesn’t it? Or at least you could say “see… you can make the Bible say anything you it to!” — true, but only if you use flawed hermeneutics. (I have written a lot more about hermeneutics and good interpretation of the Bible here.)
Here is we an important and basic hermeneutical principal at work: the difference between DESCRIPTIVE WISDOM and PRESCRIPTIVE WISDOM.
Proverbs 21:15 is an example of DESCRIPTIVE WISDOM. That is, it describes what happens in a given situation. It says, in this case, that when justice is done, certain things happen. There is not a judgement made whether these things are good or bad; it is merely a descripotion of what is. And one of the things about WISDOM is that it accurately describes reality.
On the other hand, Proverbs 24:17 is PRESCRIPTIVE WISDOM — it tells us what wise people SHOULD DO. The grammar in the sentence tells us this. It is in the indicative case. “Rejoice not…” — almost a command. It is PRESCRIPTIVE.
So in this case, bother verses are saying different things and both are true.
But here is the important point: when it comes to building a Biblical worldview and a Biblical ethical paradigm, it we remember which is descriptive and which is prescriptive. As Christians — and even more, simply as wise people — we should follow the advice of Proverbs 24:7, not fall into the pattern described in Proverbs 21:15.
As you can see, good heremeneutics really does matter.