This calendar year, I’m reading through the Bible and taking informal notes on the readings. Since we so often read verses and passages of the Bible without appreciating context, I’m especially focusing on the overall narrative and connections among passages.
This week, I’m studying Proverbs. The following is adapted from my article “Practical Wisdom” in Adult Bibles Studies (Teacher), 6:4 (June-July-August 1998), 8-10. My great thanks goes to the editor at that time, Eleanor A. Moore.
What does “wisdom” mean in the Bible? Proverbs 30:24-28 describes it as the quality of industrious creatures like ants, lizards, and others. The word also describes persons with some kind of skill (Exodus 28:3, 36:1-2, Ezekiel 27:8-9, KJV). The Book of Proverbs means that, too, but it also links practical “know-how” with a moral sensibility. Thus God is credited as the giver of wisdom; God bestows his creatures with practical ability but also blesses human beings with a special religious and ethical sense.
In the Bible, among the first “wise men” were women: for instance, the woman from Tekoa in 2 Samuel 14, and the woman of Sheba in 2 Samuel 20:14-22. Joseph is also honored for his wisdom (Gen. 39:1-6, 41:8-39), as is the Old Testament’s #1 wise man, Solomon (e.g., 1 Kings 4:29-34). Solomon, in fact, is a traditional author of Bible books that fall under the category of “wisdom literature,” like Proverbs, Song of Songs, and Ecclesiastes.
There are forms of the proverbs. One is “synonymous”, where the two lines say basically the same thing in different words:
My child, keep my words
and store up my commandments with you (7:1).
Another form is antithetic, teaching via oppositions:
A child who gathers in summer is prudcent,
but a child who sleeps in harvest brings shame (10:15)
The righteous gives good advice to friends
but the way of the wicked leads astray (12:26).
Another form is synthetic, elaborating on teachings:
Commit your work to the ord,
and your plans will be established (16:3)
A fool takes no pleasure in understanding
but only in expressing personal opinion (18:2).
The Book of Proverbs is divided into sections. Chapters 1-9 features key themes for the book: the merits of wisdom, the temptation of women, and the personification of wisdom as a woman. Verses 1:2-6 introduces the section, which has longer proverbs than some of the other sections. The key verse of the whole book is 1:7:
The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge;
fools despise wisdom and instruction.
Chapter 1 warns against wickedness and disdain for instruction. Chapter 2 extols the gifts of wisdom and its reliability to keep a person upright. Chapter 3 teaches about the blessings of God, the social implications of wisdom, and the value of right conduct—-themes that continue in chapters 4 and 6. A favorite passage for many of us is 3:5-6:
Trust in the Lord with all your heart
and do not rely on your own insight.
In all your ways acknowledge him,
and he will make straight your paths.
I don't know about you, but that passage describes my life! Although my trust in God is imperfect and often falters, God has guided me throughout my life, in often surprising ways that I couldn't have foreseen.
Also in the first section: Proverbs 5, 6:20-35, and 7 warn against the temptations of the adulteress, the goodness of a faithful wife, and the evil of adultery. But chapter 8 contrasts the wicked woman with wisdom depicted as a woman who bestows the wonderful benefits of wisdom.
The second section of the book is 10:-22:16, attributed to Solomon. These are 375 antithetic sayings that variously extol right living, happiness, discipline, upright conversation, generosity, and the destructiveness of the wicked life.
The third section, 22:17-24:34, is the “Sayings of the Wise,” perhaps of Egyptian origin but adapted for Israel. These sayings concern upright action compared to the evils of excess.
The courth section, 25 through 29, are of similar content and are designated as Solomon’s as well.
The fifth section, chapter 30, is attributed to the otherwise unknown Agur son of Jakeh. Surprisingly, at this stage of the book, Agur is sad that he has not yet learned wisdom! But gaining wisdom is, after all, a lifelong process.
The sixth section (31:1-9) and the seventh (31:10-31) are attributed to the otherwise unknown King Lemuel. Verses 1-9 warn again against alluring women and strong drink, while praising concern for those in need. Verses 10-31 are an acrostic poem (each line beginning with consecutive letters of the Hebrew alphabet) about the goodness of having a capable wife.
As I discussed in another post, Wisdom literature differs from Torah in seeking life lessons and experience through experience and observation rather than through specific mitzvot, although they aren't mutually exclusive. Job, for instance, seeks answers to the possible reasons for his suffering, though his righteousness implies that he doesn’t deserve it. “The preacher” of upcoming Ecclesiastes also seeks answers to life’s puzzles, since “life” seems to imply emptiness and vanity. Proverbs is a more generally upbeat book that reflects on life, morals, and experience through epigrammatic sayings and wise teachings.
In Proverbs, a person’s growth in wisdom and knowledge (compared to the fool who is lazy and unconcerned) is not only recommended, but also ordained by God. As an author in The Interpreter’s Bible puts it, “The highest type of family life is extolled; monogamy is taken for granted; the respect for mother and wife is emphasized throughout; chastity and marital fidelity are enjoined for all. The glutton, drunkard, and sluggard, the robber and oppressor of the poor are all roundly condemned. Those who live in accordance with wisdom’s laws are prosperous and happy. A belief in the one true and living God who rewards the righteous and punishes the wicked permeates the book from cover to cover.” (Charles T. Fritsch, “Introduction to the Book of Proverbs,” The Interpreter’s Bible, volume 4 [Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1955], 777.)
There are many important connections of Proverbs with the New Testament. In fact, some of the New Testament’s most well known passages allude to or quote from Proverbs, for instance, Jesus’ words about the wise man and the foolish man who built their homes on rock and sand echo Proverbs 10:25 and 12:7. Jesus also echoes Proverbs 3:28, 11:4, 11:17, 11:28, 16:19, and 30:8-9 during his Sermon on the Mount. Proverbs 25:21-22 admonishes the wise to take care of one’s enemy rather than retaliate, and the Apostle Paul makes use of the saying in Romans 12:20. Jesus’ maturity (Luke 2:52) echoes Proverbs 3:4 Jesus also alludes to Proverbs 16:1, 18:21, 24:12, 25:6-7, 27:1, 28:24, 29:23 in the course of his teaching (see Matt. 10:19-20, 12:36-37, 16:27, Luke 14:7-11, Luke 12:16-21, Matt. 15:4, 6, Luke 14:11 and 18:14b, respectively). (Charles T. Fritsch, “Introduction to the Book of Proverbs,” The Interpreter’s Bible, volume 4, 777-778.
I wrote in 1998:
"Occasionally the proverbs overemphasize the 'results' of righteousness and wickedness. Other wisdom looks, especially Job and Ecclesiastes, remind us that righteousness is not always rewarded and wickedness is not always punished. But the proverbs do teach us that our actions have consequences and that individual morality is related not only to one's social standing but also to the health of one's whole society. Most of all, the proverbs teach us that the wisdom born of experience is a priceless gift; indeed it is a gift of god! All the more reason to seek it diligently."