Reading Proverbs


OVERVIEW OF PROVERBS
    The larger part of the book of Proverbs is made up of six collections of proverbs/aphorisms, that is, wisdom sayings, mostly couplets (two-liners) that offer guidance to the young-although their value is by no means limited to any age group-on how to live morally and beneficially in the world. On either side of these collections is a prologue of several poems (1:8-9:18) that stress the importance of listening to the sages, and an epilogue of one poem (31:10-3 l) that idealizes a wife who is characterized by wisdom. A preamble (1:1-7) sets forth the book's title, purpose, and theme.

    The groupings of proverbs and aphorisms are all identified within the book itself
  • Proverbs of Solomon I ( 10: 1-22: 16)
  • Sayings of the Wise I (22:17-24:22)
  • Sayings of the Wise II (24:23-34)
  • Proverbs of Solomon II (25:1-29:27)
  • Sayings of Agur (30:1-33)
  • Sayings of Lemuel (31:1-3 1)

    All of these are intended to be read and studied in light of the prologue, with its emphasis on the need to attain wisdom and to reject folly (to walk in righteousness and to shun evil). Here you also find the book's fundamental theological perspective: "The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, and knowledge of the Holy One is understanding" (9:10; cf. 1:7). For even though many of the proverbs are common to other cultures, these have been especially tailored for life in the covenant community of Israel. They presuppose not only the covenant of law (6:16-19) indeed to fear Yahweh is to hate evil (8:13)-but also the life of the people of God in their promised land (2:21-22; cf . 10:27 -30).



SPECIFIC ADVICE FOR READING PROVERBS

    As with the book of Psalms, reading through the book of Proverbs is not the ordinary way of handling the proverbs (who would read a collection of familiar quotations?). On the other hand the preamble, the prologue, and the macro structure of the whole indicate a rather careful overall arrangement, probably intended to be memorized by the young (see 3:3; 4:21;7:3;22:17 -18). So two matters are of importance in order for you to read the book well.

    First, some observations about structure.The preamble (1:1-7) prepares you for reading the book as a whole, setting forth its theme (v.2, attaining wisdom), its purpose (w. 3-5), the basic contrasts between wisdom and folly (v.7), and its theological foundation (v.1).At the same time verse 6 offers an outline of the book, according to its main "authors" (proverbs belonging to Solomon and the sayings of the wise).

    It is important to observe that the contrast between wisdom and folly is also a contrast (primarily) between righteousness and wickedness. These contrasts become the predominant theme in the poems of the prologue (1:8-9:18), where the two main illustrative themes arc eqsy money (money taken by corrupt means) and easy sex (being seduced by another man's wife). At the end of the prologue, wisdom and folly are personified as women calling the young men to follow them. It is therefore no surprise that the central section of these poems (chs. 5-7) admonishes the young man to a lifelong love of his wife (5:15-19) and not to be tempted by a wayward wife, which in turn also loving serve as analogies for wisdom rather than folly (chs. 8-9). This also helps to make sense of the acrostic poem with which the entire collection ends (31:10- 31), where the idealized wife is a model of wisdom, while serving as an analogue for Lady wisdom. It is also not surprising that these poems are primarily in the form of admonitions.

    These contrasts between wisdom and folly carry through the first half of Solomon I (10:1- 15:29), now with mostly antithetical couplets (the second line in sharp contrast to the first) rather than with admonitions. Here wisdom /righteousness means diligence in work and care of the land' prudent use of money (resources), caring relationships with neighbor and in family, proper use of the tongue, and proper attitudes and actions (being humble, avoiding anger, etc.); while folly is pictured as its opposites. The second half of Solomon I (15:30-22:16) continues these themes, now using predominantly synthetic couplets (the second line completes or builds on the first), with the noteworthy addition of several proverbs that focus on the king and his court.

    Second, a few comments about proverbs themselves and what makes them work. First, their form is that of poetry. But the poetry is Hebrew poetry, which means that some things translate into English, and some do not. Think about how difficult it might be to put the following English aphorisms into another language: "A stitch in time saves nine" or "A penny saved is a penny earned" or "An apple a day keeps the doctor away'" Common to these are their rhythmic nature and "sound alike" which are what makes them memorable. Another language can- not always capture these qualities, even though the gist of the proverb may be plain. So it is with these Hebrew proverbs, which are pithy (typically only three or four Hebrew words to a line) and full of alliterations, catchwords, poetic meter, etc.-not to mention allusions and metaphors that belong to their cultural setting, not all of which are easily captured in English.

    Their function is to offer practical instruction for the young, with the focus on how to live uprightly and well in a society that understands itself to be under God. It is important to remember that these proverbs functioned primarily in the home to reinforce the benefits of living prudently and well in everyday life; they are not religious instruction as such. Nonetheless, their goal is to mold the character of the young in ways that conform to the law, even if the law itself is not mentioned.
 
    Their method is the same as with proverbs universally-to express important truths for practical living in ways that are memorable and thus repeatable. This is done by overstatement, by "all or none" kinds of phrases, or by catchphrases that are not intended to be analyzed for their precision. Sometimes it is the overstatement-which speaks truth but not the whole truth-that makes the point. Take, for example, the American proverb, "A penny saved is a penny earned." While true, its point is thrift, not that one should never spend. Or take its reverse, "A fool and his money are soon parted" which reminds one of the need for thrift in a different way. The latter has an earlier counterpart in Proverbs 17:16. "Of what use is money in the hand of a fool, since he has no desire to get wisdom?" Thus what is at stake for you in reading the proverbs is to determine their point by looking carefully at their content and poetic form, but to be careful also not to make them "walk on all fours"-and not to ignore counterproverbs, which also speak truth. 



WALK THROUGH PROVERBS 


The Preamble (1:1-7)

    Several important matters for reading the whole collection are presented
here. The proverbs originate with Solomon, who is significantly noted as the son of David, king of Israel (v. 1); their purpose is given (vv. 2-5)-to attain a prudent life that is also righteous and just; they are addressed to the young and "simple" (v. 4, the latter word meaning something like "gullible"-those who are easily led astray); their content is anticipated (v. 6); and their basic perspective and basic contrasts are spelled out (v. 7).


The Prologue (1:8-9:18)

    To understand the collection of proverbs that begins in 10:1, it is important for you to pay close attention to this prologue. You will see that it comes as a series of ten lessons from a father to his son(s), especially picking up the antitheses set out in 1:7; you will also see that most of this material comes as admonition. Each new lesson begins with an introduction of several couplets ("Listen, my son, to your father's instruction," etc.), followed by the lesson itself. The lessons themselves are carefully structured and arranged, building toward the climax of chapter 9, where wisdom and folly make their final appeals.

 1:8-33Lesson 1 (and Interlude 1): Warning and Rebuke 

    Note that this first introduction (w. 8-9) includes both the father and mother (cf. the beginning of the collection at 10:1). You will see that this lesson is a strong warning against the enticements of wicked men (w.10- l9) who plot evil against others for easy money ("ill-gotten gain").
    You will also see that in the interlude (w. 20-33), personified wisdom speaks, rebuking not the "son" but the "simple ones,, and ..mockers," those who would entice the son away from his parents, wisdom. Her rebuke basically describes the just end of such people.

 2:1-22Lesson 2: Safeguard against the Wicked 

    Watch for the four distinct parts of this lesson. A longer introduction urges the son to seek wisdom (w. 1-4); then he will "understand the fear of the Lord and find the knowledge of God" (w. 5-6), which in turn will protect his way (vv. 7-8) and enter his heart to guard him (w 9- 11). What follows, then, are the two main ways in the prologue the son needs protection: (1) from "wicked men" (w. 12-15) and (2) from the "wayward wife" (w. 16-19). Verses 20-22 then return to his walking in the paths of the righteous.

 3:1-35Lessons 3 and 4: The Value of Wisdom 

    Lesson 3 (verses 1-10) sets forth God's promises and the son,s obligations: love and faithfulness - favor with God and people (vv. 3-4); trust in the Lord = straight paths (w. 5-6); humility = good health (vv. 7-8); tithes and offerings - abundant crop, (vv.9-10).
    Lesson 4 (verses 13-26)presents three poem that highlight the value of wisdom (note the 6- 2-6 couplet arrangement)-its blessings and value (w 13-18; note the "blessed" at the beginning and end); its role in creation (w. 19-20), picking up on "the tree of life"  from verse 18; and its blessings again (w. 21-26), now picking up especially the theme of peace and prosperity from verse 2.
    Now watch how verses 27 -35 at the end of lesson 4 correspond to lesson 3 by offering negative admonitions and warnings.

4:1-27 Lesson 5-7: The Supremacy of Wisdom 
    The first of these three lessons (w. 1-9) emphasizes the family,s heritage of wisdom and thus urges the sons to continue in it. Lesson 6 then urges the son to stay off the wrong wrong, the way of wickedness (w. 10- 19), while lesson 7 urges him not to swerve off the right way, the way of righteousness (vv. 20-27).

 5:1-6:19Lesson 8: Warnings against Adultery, Folly, and Wickedness 

    Picking up from 2:16-19, this lesson warns against adultery (5:3-14,20), which also includes an admonition to marital fidelity (w. 15-19); this is followed by a further warning against the wicked (w. 21-23) and against two kinds of folly (securing strangers, 6:1-5; sloth, w. 6-11). It concludes with the final warning in the prologue against the wicked (6:12-19).

 6:20-35Lesson 9: Further Warning against Adultery  

    Note how this introduction begins as the others did (w. 20-23), but concludes on the warning note (w. 24-25) that will then be elaborated. With a threefold series of couplets (w. 26-29, 30-33, and 34-35), the lesson points out the fearful consequences of adultery (punishment, disgrace, a vengeful husband).

 7:1-8:36Lesson 10 (and Interlude 2): The Unfaithful Wife, and Wisdom's Call  

    This final lesson corresponds to lesson 8, focusing now on the seductive tactics of the unfaithful, adulterous wife. Note that she will also serve as an analogue for the invitation of Folly at the end of the prologue (9: 13- 18; cf. 9: 18 with 7:27; and 9:14 with 5:8).
    Notice how the second interlude (8:1-36) corresponds to the first one (1:20-33), which followed the warning g against the "wicked men." This time Wisdom offers self-praise to the "simple" and "foolish" (v. 5) to recognize her value both to kings and the prosperous (w. 12-21), not to mention to  Yahweh himself (w. 22-31). And at the end (w. 32-36), she steps into the father's shoes and invites the sons to watch daily at her doorway (vis-a-vis the seductress).

 9:1-18Epilogue: Rival Banquets of Wisdom and Folly 

    Note how this final series begins and ends with rival invitations to "all who are simple" to banquet at the houses of Wisdom and Folly (w. 1-6; 13-18), and note especially how Folly both mimics Wisdom and echoes the seductions of the unfaithful wife. Between the two final invitations you will find two brief lessons (w. 7 -9,10-12) contrasting the wise and mockers-all of this to lead you into reading the proverbs themselves with diligence and thoughtfulness.

  Proverbs of Solomon 1 (10:1-22:16)
10:1-15:29 Solomon 1 Part 1 

    Our division of Solomon I into two parts is intended to highlight the fact that most of the couplets in this section are antithetical, thus following hard on the antitheses of the prologue. But in contrast to the prologue, there is scarcely an admonition among them. They begin with a couplet (10:1) that not only picks up the "instruction" of the young from the prologue, but also puts both parents in the picture, along with the contrast between the wise and foolish child.
    As you read through this collection, note how certain themes characterizing wisdom/folly and righteousness/wickedness are replayed over and over in different ways and with different images. Scholars are only recently discovering various patterns that hold smaller groupings together, often in relationship to groupings that precede and follow. But many of these are difficult to trace in English translation. So two things may help you here as you set out to read through the proverbs.
    First, be aware of the many educative proverbs that look very much like the introductions to the lessons in the prologue (e.g., 10:17; l2:1; 13:13). These usually mark "seams" in the collection, so you should look more closely at the smaller groupings before and after these educative proverbs.
    Second you might find it helpful to use a set of colored pencils and mark out some of the recurring themes. Along with the more generic wise/foolish and righteous/wicked themes, note the frequency of themes such as wealth/poverty, work/sloth, speech (truth/lying, etc.), relationships (neighbors, family, king), and attitudes (anger, love/hatred etc.).
    For example, the following may be marked out among the thirty-two couplets in chapter 10: Contrasts between the righteous and the wicked (either expressly or implied) occur 18x, both generically (10x, where this is the point of the proverb [vv. 3, 6-7 , 9, 24-25, 27 -30]) and in conjunction with other themes (8x, vv. 2, 11, 16,20-21,23,31-32); contrasts between wisdom and folly occur 2x generically (w. I, 23) and 8x in conjunction with other themes (w. 5, 8, 13-14, l8-19,21, 31); contrasts between proper and improper speech occur 11x (w. 8, 10- 11, 13-14, 18-21, 31-32) and constitute the main theme in most of their occurrences; contrasts between work and sloth are the subject 3x (w 4-5,26); and contrasts between wealth and poverty occur 3x (w 15-16, 22), occurring in conjunction with work/sloth in verse 4' The only proverb in this chapter that does not belong to these concerns is verse 17, which deals with discipline (cf. also v. 13). The fact that many of these are related and grouped suggests that the arrangement is not simply haphazard. You may wish to try this for yourself on other small groupings that emerge as you read.

15:30-22:16 Solomon 1, Part 2 

    While this section of Solomon I continues the themes and emphases of part r, they are noticeably different in two ways. First, you will see that, even though antithetical couplets still occur, the majority of couplets are now synthetic, so that both lines add up to one point. Second, there is an increase in couplets that reflect the king and his court (and other forms of "vertical" relationships, which began at 1 4:28,35 in part 1).

  The Saying of the Wise (22:17-24:34)
 22:17-24:22 First Collection of the Sayings of the Wise

    Two things mark this collection to distinguish it from Solomon I: (1) The verses are not uniform, having from two to several lines each, and (2) they return to the admonitions that marked the prologue' Note also that they are introduced and numbered as "thirty" (22:20), which probably includes the introduction (22:17-21) as the first of these' watch for the interesting and broad range of topics covered here.

 24:23-34Second  Collection of the Sayings of the Wise 

    This collection is separate,because "thirty sayings" (22:20) sets limits to the preceding correction. The five sayings of this second collection are diverse both in form and content, dealing with relationships with neighbors and diligence in work.

 Proverbs of Solomon 2 (25:1-29:27) 

    Observe how this collection of Solomonic proverbs moves away from the admonitory style that has just preceded it. These were collected by Hezekiah's.men."  Two collections are in evidence (chs. 25-27;28-29),  while the whole is less uniform in style than Solomon 1.

 25:1-27:27Solomon 2 Part 1 

    You will find that in this first part the proverbs are more vivid and diverse in nature, with explicit comparisons becoming more frequent (note the number of verses that begin with "like"). The collection begins with a series relating to the king's court (25:2-8), which also sets a pattern for several longer units (sometimes called "proverb poems": 25:16-17, 2l-22; 26:23-26; 27:23-27). Otherwise most of them repeat themes found in the first collection.

 28:1-29:27Solomon 2, Part 2 

    This second collection is a series of fifty-five (mostly antithetical) couplets that focus primarily on the wicked and the righteous. Note how the first, middle, and final couplets make this theme explicit (28:1, 28; 29:27; but see also 28:12; 29:2,7 , 16), and that they frame couplets that are basically concerned with rulers, teaching, and justice for the poor.

  More Sayings of the Wise (30:1-31:31)
30:1-33 Saying of Agur 

    This diverse collection is full of interest, in terms of both form and content. Note especially the following: how verses 2-4 echo material in Job 38:5-1 1; the prayer in verses 7-9 (the only one in Proverbs); the four classes of wrongdoers singled out in verses 11- 14; and the numerical sayings/riddles in verses 15-31, which seem to contain simply various kinds of observations about life as opposed to specific moral teaching.

 31:1-9Saying of Lemuel  

    This final collection is unique in that it relates sayings of a king taught to him by the queen mother. Both parts of this concluding chapter, therefore, offer examples of wise women-thus serving to bookend the instruction of Lady Wisdom in chapters 1-9.

31:10-31 Epilogue: A Wise/Ideal Wife  

    This final, idealistic portrait of "a wife of noble character" is probably to be understood as another saying that Lemuel's mother taught him. It is an acrostic poem (each verse begins with a succeeding letter of the twenty-two-letter Hebrew alphabet). Note how it idealizes the wife in terms of the values that have been taught throughout the book-a fitting conclusion to the collection.


The book of Proverbs fits into the biblical story by giving practical instruction to the young (all others listening in) order to help them follow in the ways of the Lord and have beneficial, fruitful life on earth.