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 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.