Posted by Josh Kirby on August 11, 2015

Proverbs is a rich and fascinating book, known for its pithy statements about life and living. Proverbs is somewhat out of step with the mainstream of the Old Testament. There are no references to the great acts of redemption or to the covenant, and there is very little explicit talk about God. Yet Proverbs has a deeply theological message which can be discovered when one understands how to read the book.

The Hebrew word for “proverb” means “parallel,” “similar,” or “a comparison.” In the context of the Old Testament book of Proverbs a proverb is “a moral maxim, a prudent precept, or a sagacious saying.” 1 Proverbs are the result of personal experience, observation, reflection, and instruction (cf. 24:30-34). Contrary to the “one-liners” of American English – an apple a day keeps the doctor away – the proverbs of the Old Testament are generally in the form of two-line parallels - “When pride comes, then comes disgrace, but with the humble is wisdom” (Proverbs 11:2, ESV).

The book of Proverbs is an anthology, composed of a number of texts from different authors and various time periods. The book can be broken into two major sections – discussions of wisdom (chs.1-9) and wisdom proverbs (chs.10-31).  A more detailed outline is as follows:

•    Preamble (1:1-7)
•    Extended Discussions of Wisdom (1:8-9:18)
•    Solomonic Proverbs (10:1-22:16; 25:1-29:27)
•    Sayings of the Wise (22:17-24:34)
•    Sayings of Agur (30); Sayings of King Lemuel (31:1-9); Poem to the Virtuous Woman (31:10-31)

The book of Proverbs is inextricably linked with wisdom. The purpose of a biblical book is no more clearly stated than in Proverbs. The book opens by clearly and concisely stating its objective (1:2–6). The purpose of Proverbs is to reveal, teach, and direct readers toward wisdom. Following the purpose statement is the foundational premise of Proverbs: “The fear of the LORD is the beginning of knowledge; fools despise wisdom and instruction” (Proverbs 1:7, ESV; cf. 9:10). This statement positions Proverbs solidly in the midst of divine perspective. The practical wisdom contained within the book provides divinely given help in understanding human personality and behavior. There is more to Proverbs than a jumble of observations and precepts. Proverbs is a distillation of godly wisdom applied to life and living. Proverbs differs from other Old Testament wisdom books in that, for the most part, it does not discuss the more exploratory aspects of wisdom, but is concerned with the practical expressions of wisdom.

The wisdom discussions of chapters 1-9 give shape and context to the wisdom proverbs of the rest of the book. The dominant themes of the wisdom discussions are the great value of wisdom and the fearful danger of folly. In the first nine chapters the reader encounters two women, both beckoning for attention. The first is Lady Wisdom. Lady Wisdom is established as a figure in 1:20-33, walking the streets, offering an education to the simple. The second is Lady Folly. Lady Folly is first explicitly introduced in 9:13 as a loud, seductive woman. Lady Folly goes by other names, such as “the forbidden woman,” “the evil woman,” and “the adulteress” against whom the author warns (2:16-19; ch.5; 6:20-35; ch.7). While these references legitimately may be used to warn against sexual immorality, it seems the intent of the author is to warn against the dangers of folly in general. The reader is a part of the extended metaphor of the wisdom discussions and is featured as a young man walking along the path of life. As he travels, he hears the two voices of Lady Wisdom and Lady Folly vying for his attention. The metaphor reaches a climax in chapter nine, in which both Lady Wisdom and Lady Folly call to the reader to come to her respective home to dine and to share intimacy. Those who choose to embrace Lady Wisdom are promised life (9:11); those who choose to embrace Lady Folly are promised death (9:18). The choice to follow Lady Wisdom, who represents God’s will and way, or Lady Folly, who represents idolatry and all that is opposed to God, confronts every reader of Proverbs. 

The wisdom proverbs (chs.10-31) should be read in the context of the choice between wisdom and folly, introduced in the wisdom discussions (chs.1-9). Interpreting the wisdom proverbs must be undertaken with great care. A common mistake made by interpreters is to treat the wisdom proverbs as promises, rather than principles; as guarantees, rather than guidelines. Does an apple a day keep the doctor away? Well, not exactly. This well-known American proverb encourages healthy eating practices, but is not making a blanket promise; other factors and habits regulate health. Likewise, biblical proverbs are generally, but not invariably applicable in every situation. Consider, for instance, Proverbs 22:6: “Train up a child in the way he should go; even when he is old he will not depart from it” (ESV). Is this verse a guarantee that children who are well-trained will never rebel? Well, no. Even God, the perfect “parent,” has rebellious “sons” and “daughters,” e.g. the Israelites and all who sin. Proverbs 12:21 is another good example: “No ill befalls the righteous, but the wicked are filled with trouble” (ESV). A mechanical application of this proverb was the impetus behind the erroneous retribution theology of Job’s three friends. In Job’s case this proverb was not applicable; Job was righteous and yet he suffered greatly. Proverbs 22:6 and 12:21, along with the other wisdom proverbs, are principles, rather than a promises; guidelines; rather than guarantees. A few authors, acknowledged in the footnotes, offer similar advice for interpreting the wisdom proverbs. “Many of the proverbial maxims should be recognized as guidelines, not absolute observations; they are not iron-clad promises. What is stated is generally and usually true, but exceptions are occasionally noted” 2. “The proverbs are general statements and illustrations of timeless truth, which allow for, but do not condone, exceptions to the rule” 3. Proverbs are “procedures that we follow, not promises that we claim.” 4 

That Proverbs “does not consist in laws but in…principles does not lessen its relevance as we try to make our way through a difficult world.” 5 Proverbs gives practical expression to the fear of the Lord according to daily experience. Every reader who encounters Proverbs must choose between the fear of God and the godly wisdom it inspires and the rejection of God and the folly it inspires. Which will you choose? “Wisdom is valuable – seek it. Wisdom is practical – follow it. Wisdom is admonitional – hear it. Wisdom is ethical – do it.”6

1 Geisler, Norman L. A Popular Survey of the Old Testament. Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1977. 207. Print.
2  Buzzell, Sid S. The Bible Knowledge Commentary: An Exposition of the Scriptures. Wheaton, IL: Victor, 1983. 904. Print.
3 Wilkinson, Bruce, and Kenneth Boa. Talk Thru the Old Testament. Nashville: T. Nelson, 1983. 165. Print.
4 Hubbard, David Allan. The Preacher's Commentary: Proverbs. Vol. 15. Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 1987. 25. Print.
5 Longman, Tremper. Making Sense of the Old Testament: Three Crucial Questions. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1998. 113. Print.

6 Geisler, Norman L. A Popular Survey of the Old Testament. Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1977. 207-211. Print.


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