He that winneth souls is wise.
The above fragment of a verse (Prov. 11:30b) is the driving force behind many evangelical programs. But what does it mean? It seems odd to take a fragment of a verse in the book of Proverbs and turn that into the main mission of the church or of every Christian. In the LCMS there are committees set up to determine which churches are the most successful at soul-winning. Success is determined by number of adult baptisms, adult confirmations, and professions of faith. In other church circles, success is determined by how many people are coerced into saying a sinner's prayer or even simply visiting the church. The term "soul-winning" seems to be an excuse used to support whatever programs the organization has already determined to carry out. What does it mean that the person who wins souls is wise? Does it simply mean that winning souls is a smart thing to do? Or does it mean that if someone is able to win souls that means they are a smart cookie?
The translation presented by the KJV seems to form the basis for these soul-winning programs but even a footnote in the KJV acknowledges that the Hebrew says "He that taketh souls is wise." Also this verse is part of a larger context. Following is a pretty literal translation of vss. 28-31 found in Bruce Waltke's commentary:
As for the one who relies on his wealth, he will fall.
but like foliage the righteous sprout.
The one who ruins his household inherits wind,
and a fool is a slave to the wise in heart.
The fruit of a righteous person is a tree of life,
and the one who "takes lives" is wise.
If the righteous person is repaid in the earth,
how much more the wicked and the sinner.
I think it's clear from the above that vs. 30 is not intended to be instruction on how to start some new program in your church. What the exact meaning is of the second half of vs. 30 is a bit of a mystery. The phrase "takes lives" is used in every other instance in Scripture to speak of killing someone.
1 Samuel 24:11 "Moreover, my father, see! Yes, see the corner of your robe in my hand! For in that I cut off the corner of your robe, and did not kill you, know and see that there is neither evil nor rebellion in my hand, and I have not sinned against you. Yet you hunt my life to take it.
1 Kings 19:10 So he said, "I have been very zealous for the LORD God of hosts; for the children of Israel have forsaken Your covenant, torn down Your altars, and killed Your prophets with the sword. I alone am left; and they seek to take my life."
1 Kings 19:14 And he said, "I have been very zealous for the LORD God of hosts; because the children of Israel have forsaken Your covenant, torn down Your altars, and killed Your prophets with the sword. I alone am left; and they seek to take my life."
Psalm 31:13 For I hear the slander of many; Fear is on every side; While they take counsel together against me, They scheme to take away my life.
Proverbs 1:19 So are the ways of everyone who is greedy for gain; It takes away the life of its owners.
Ezekiel 33:6 But if the watchman sees the sword coming and does not blow the trumpet, and the people are not warned, and the sword comes and takes any person from among them, he is taken away in his iniquity; but his blood I will require at the watchman's hand.'
Waltke says that in Proverbs 11:30 the phrase is an intentional irony and should be understood as "to take away to life." The majority of commentators follow this or some other route to avoid saying "the one who kills people is wise." I will continue to study this passage, but at this point it seems much better to understand the passage for what it actually says rather than for the opposite of what it says. It is difficult to understand why the book of Proverbs would be telling us that the one who takes lives is wise. But it's also difficult to understand a variety of statements in Proverbs. Verse 29 of the same chapter says that "a fool is a slave to the wise in heart." Verse 29 is not a command for the wise and righteous man to enslave idiots but speaks to the reality of what happens when people are unwise and destroy their household. In certain situations it may be necessary for the wise man to take the lives of foolish men to keep them from destroying everyone else. Or perhaps God is the wise One spoken of in verse 30 who takes lives. Either one of these explanations would be in general harmony with Septuagint. The Septuagint is the Greek translation of the Old Testament based on a different textual tradition from the current standard Hebrew Bible and standard Old Testament text used by early Christians. The Hebrew reads:
The one who takes lives is wise.
The Septuagint reads:
The lives of transgressors are taken away untimely.
It seems better to find an interpretation that harmonizes the meaning of these two versions of the proverb rather than opt for an interpretation to use as a proof-text for an evangelism program.