Proverbs 1:2-6 provides Solomon’s goals for the entire book.
“To know wisdom and instruction, to understand words of insight, to receive instruction in wise dealing, in righteousness, justice, and equity; to give prudence to the simple, knowledge and discretion to the youth— Let the wise hear and increase in learning, and the one who understands obtain guidance, to understand a proverb and a saying, the words of the wise and their riddles.”
It is clear that Solomon is addressing these lessons to the younger generation. He uses two words that make this clear. The first is the word “simple.” While this could be used as an insult, the idea in proverbs is one without experience, someone who is naïve or ignorant. When we use this term to describe someone who is older and should know better, it is not a good thing. But this is the natural state of a child or adolescent. My 9-year-old son has not experienced enough life to understand these concepts already. He is simple and naïve. It is to someone like him that Solomon addresses these lessons. This point is driven home further by the repeated use of the phrase “hear my son.” The parallel structure of verse 4 equates “the simple” with “the youth.”
One of the most important abilities children must develop is the ability and focus to think through things: their attitudes, actions, and decisions. This requires a depth of understanding and knowledge that comes with experience. Solomon’s goal is to short-circuit this process by teaching what he has learned. “To give prudence to the simple, knowledge and discretion to the youth.” The word for prudence can be understood negatively as “shrewd, cunning, or deceptive” and is used of Satan in the garden. But in Proverbs it is always positive and, according to Longman, “describes one’s ability to use reason.” The term discretion is used as a parallel to prudence and means to think, plan, or devise.” These are lessons that must be learned if we want to succeed in life and the sooner we learn them the better off we will be.
There is within Solomon’s prologue a bit of a paradox: “Let the wise hear and increase in learning, and the one who understands obtain guidance.” To an extent, Solomon says that the wise will become wiser. If we truly want to grow in knowledge and wisdom, then we must understand that we need to be able to learn from others. We must have the humility to know that we don’t know it all. Socrates was told by the Oracle at Delphi that he was the wisest man in all the earth. He didn’t believe it because he knew how much he didn’t know. This caused him to seek out others in a quest for wisdom and knowledge.
If we are going to be wise servants of God, we must understand that we do not know it all and that we should be willing to learn from others. Such is one sign of true wisdom.
The book of Proverbs begins with a prologue (1:1-7) concerning the goal of the book. The major author introduces himself, lays out the objective, and provides the foundation upon which all wisdom stands.
1:1 – “The proverbs of Solomon, son of David, king of Israel”
While we are usually tempted to overlook the introductory statements of many books of the Bible, we need to understand that they are there for a reason. If we are going to learn about wisdom, then who should do the teaching? When we want to learn about something, we usually want to talk to an expert on that subject. If you need guidance in personal finance, you might consider Dave Ramsey. If you want to know what a “low pressure system” is, then you might call James Spann. When it comes to wisdom, specifically biblical wisdom, Solomon is the man.
Sure, there are others who are noted as being wise. Ezekiel 14:14 comes to mind: “Even if these three men, Noah, Daniel, and Job, were in [the land], they would deliver but their own lives by their righteousness, declares the Lord God.” But Solomon is synonymous with wisdom. We all know and teach our children the story of God’s offer to Solomon in 1 Kings 3. God offers Solomon a blank check. And, in humility (and wisdom), Solomon asks God for the wisdom to be the king the people need him to be. From that point on, Solomon is famous for his wisdom.
If the creator and sustainer of this universe delivered to Solomon the wisdom, knowledge, insight, and discretion needed to live in this world and succeed then we’d be silly not to open the very textbook Solomon authored. When we open the book of Proverbs, we are not reading the collected wisdom of men throughout the ages. We are not reading the best quips of Benjamin Franklin or the deep thoughts of Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle. We are reading that which God passed to Solomon about how we should live our lives.
Knowledge and Wisdom
I’ve already mentioned Dave Ramsey. In guiding people out of debt, he regularly says that personal finance is 10% head knowledge and 90% action. We usually know or can quickly learn what we need to do. The hard part is putting it into practice. One of the issues mentioned in the prologue and that is evident throughout the book is knowing what to do but also knowing when to do it. Maybe this clarifies the distinction between knowledge and wisdom. Miles Kington said, “Knowledge is knowing a tomato is a fruit; wisdom is not putting it in a fruit salad.” I know it is almost a silly statement, but I’ve always thought it helpful.
The book of Proverbs is not about salvation, the promises made to Abraham, eschatology, or doctrinal orthodoxy. It is God’s effort to help man keep tomatoes out of the fruit salad. Will we listen?
In our last article we discussed some of the features of Hebrew poetry; specifically, synonymous and antithetical parallelism. There are a few more literary devices I would like to mention before we start in on the text of the book of Proverbs.
The first might be described as numerical parallelism. It is an “X + 1” formula authors use to indicate that numerous examples could be provided but only a certain number will be. This is easier to understand with a biblical example:
“There are six things that the Lord hates, seven that are an abomination to him: haughty eyes, a lying tongue, and hands that shed innocent blood, a heart that devises wicked plans, feet that make haste to run to evil, a false witness who breathes out lies, and one who sows discord among brothers.” Proverbs 6:16–19
Notice that seven things are listed. This device is also used to lists the sins of various nations in the prophets. Some argue that there is an emphasis on the final item in these types of lists. I am not sure that is always the case. Here are a few more examples:
“Three things are too wonderful for me; four I do not understand: the way of an eagle in the sky, the way of a serpent on a rock, the way of a ship on the high seas, and the way of a man with a virgin.” Proverbs 30:18f
“Three things are stately in their tread; four are stately in their stride: the lion, which is mightiest among beasts and does not turn back before any; the strutting rooster, the he-goat, and a king whose army is with him.” Proverbs 30:29–31
A final literary device that plays a role in the poetic sections of scripture are acrostics. This is a structure in which each line or section begins with a corresponding letter. Maybe you’ve seen this one before:
J – Jesus
O – Others
Y – Yourself
The original purpose of this feature seems to have been for memorization. This is seen in numerous Psalms, most famously Psalm 119. In most Bibles they will have the next letter in the Hebrew alphabet before each section. The book of Lamentations is written as an acrostic. And in the book of Proverbs, the section on the “worthy woman” is an acrostic. This is a literary device which is typically lost in translation. However, it may help us see the author’s intended structure of the text.
Understanding the literary devices of Hebrew poetry is not essential to learn from the book of Proverbs but it can help us to understand better what the wise man of old had to say about living life. Any advantage we can get in understanding the word of God ought to be utilized and I hope to do some of this as we begin to explore the text of Proverbs together.
When we think of poetry, we often think of lines of similar length which end with words which rhyme.
“Roses are red, violets are blue.
Sugar is sweet, and so are you.”
I understand that this is not the defining characteristic of poetry, but it is a generally quality which calls our attention to the poetic verse of what we are reading or singing.
One of the main characteristics of Hebrew poetry is parallelism. The Anchor Bible Dictionary says that parallelism is “the most prominent rhetorical figure in ancient Near Eastern poetry…it can be defined as the repetition of the same or related semantic content and/or grammatical structure in consecutive lines or verses.” While this may sound technical it is very simple and also very important to understand for interpreting Job, Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Solomon, and much of the prophets.
There are two main forms of parallelism, with a third that is not as common, though we see it in scripture.
The phrase “synonymous parallelism” is used when two lines express similar ideas with similar language. There is some debate over whether or not the second line adds to or builds upon the first. Some might refer to this as “synthetic parallelism” but it is just synonymous parallelism. For those who are more numerically inclined, we might express this as a math problem.
This is the basic structure of the proverbs:
- “Righteous lips are the delight of a king, and he loves him who speaks what is right.” Proverbs 16:13
- “Slothfulness casts into a deep sleep, and an idle person will suffer hunger.” Proverbs 19:15
- “Plans are established by counsel; by wise guidance wage war.” Proverbs 20:18
You should be able to see how the second phrase is synonymous with the first. It might be helpful to separate the proverb into two lines. Consider Proverbs 23:12. I’ve divided it by phrase and emphasized the synonymous aspects of the proverb.
“Apply your heart to instruction
and your ear to words of knowledge.”
This proverb has an A-B-A-B pattern. Sometimes the proverb might present itself as an inverse statement. Consider again Proverbs 16:13:
“Righteous lips are the delight of a king,
and he loves him who speaks what is right.”
This proverb has an A-B-B-A pattern.
The phrase “antithetical parallelism” is used of two lines which express similar truths using oppositional language. Again, we can present this numerically:
The same point is being made, but the writer approaches it from both positive and negative sides. This is basically, the other half of the structure of the proverbs:
“A wise son makes a glad father, but a foolish son is a sorrow to his mother.”
“The tongue of the wise commends knowledge, but the mouths of fools pour out folly.”
“The way of the guilty is crooked, but the conduct of the pure is upright.”
We can do the same breakdown with these proverbs. Consider Proverbs 28:5
“Evil men do not understand justice,
but those who seek the Lord understand it completely.”
The evil men are contrasted with “those who seek the LORD.” What is the difference between the two? The first group does not understand justice. They second group does.
A subgroup of antithetical parallelism is the “better than” statements we read in Hebrew poetry. Typically, these proverbs pair some righteous or wise behavior with a poor setting and proclaim that condition superior to a sinful or foolish behavior with a prosperous setting.
- “Better is a little with the fear of the Lord than great treasure and trouble with it.” Proverbs 15:16
- “Better is a dinner of herbs where love is than a fattened ox and hatred with it.” Proverbs 15:17
- “It is better to be of a lowly spirit with the poor than to divide the spoil with the proud.” Proverbs 16:19
- “It is better to live in a corner of the housetop than in a house shared with a quarrelsome wife.” Proverbs 21:9
We will look at a few more literary devices used in Hebrew poetry next time.
As we begin to think about the book of Proverbs, we might start by defining the term. Dictionary.com has the following definitions: 1. a short popular saying, usually of unknown and ancient origin, that expresses effectively some commonplace truth or useful thought; adage. 2. a wise saying or precept; a didactic sentence. 3. a person or thing that is commonly regarded as an embodiment or representation of some quality; byword. 4. Bible: a profound saying, maxim, or oracular utterance requiring interpretation.
When you begin to look at the definitions offered by Biblical scholars, you see a whole host of different ideas which express the concept of a proverb. In Paul Koptak’s commentary on Proverbs he notes the irony that it is easy to recognize a proverb but difficult to define it. Numerous descriptions have been provided in the past. “Short sentences drawn from long experience” (from Don Quixote). “The wit of one and the wisdom of many” (Lord J. Russell). Kenneth Burke argued that a proverb was like shorthand for situations that occur often enough that people recognize them. These are helpful but Klyne Snodgrass goes to the root of why proverbs are meaningful: he says it connects with our human desire to think in comparisons.
We understand what proverbs are and we use them every day. They apply to specific circumstances that we easily recognize and there are proverbs for every situation. Notice these examples:
“Early to bed, early to rise makes a man healthy, wealthy, and wise.”
“Two wrongs don’t make a right.”
“The pen is mightier than the sword.”
“Keep your friends close and your enemies closer.”
“If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”
Proverbs offer advice on relationships, morals, work ethic, and so much more. The proverbs of the Bible are no different. In fact, they are often random, just like life. One moment Solomon offers advice on controlling your anger and the next he says to be diligent in your work.
Jesus taught in proverbs. “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” “It is better to give than to receive.” “Take the beam out of your own eye, then you can see to remove the speck out of your brothers.” “Those who are well have no need of a doctor.”
The beauty of proverbs is that they are practical and powerful. Something becomes proverbial because it is almost universally true and only a fool would not act on such advice. But how much more powerful are proverbs which come from God? Think about this: the one who created life and everything in it has given us a book which tells us the best way to live here on earth! Only a fool would not act on such advice.