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Proverbs — An Introduction

by Alex Wilson

Many have found the book of Proverbs a treasure which enriches their spiritual lives. And since it contains 31 chapters, and many months have 31 days, some–including Billy Graham–have formed the longtime habit of reading the entire book every month in addition to their other Bible reading. Yes, this book is a rich resource .for us. But since our culture communicates in proverbs much less than ancient cultures did, we often need help in appreciating and adjusting to this way of thinking.

The Author

1 Kings 4:29-34 tells us that God gave Solomon wisdom, insight and understanding “as measureless as the sand on the seashore…..He was wiser than any other man” in the world at that time. In all the surrounding nations he became famous as what we now would call a scientist: studying and describing plants, animals, birds, reptiles and fish. He was also a world-class musician, composing and/or collecting 1,005 songs. And he excelled in wisdom as well, speaking 3,000 proverbs. (The book of Proverbs has under 1,000, and a number of them were not written by Solomon, as we’ll see.)

The Book’s Purpose and Theme

Notice the first seven verses in the New International Version.  “The proverbs of Solomon, son of David, king of Israel: for attaining wisdom and discipline; for understanding words of insight; for acquiring a disciplined and prudent life, doing what is right and just and fair; for giving prudence to the simple, knowledge and discretion to the young-let the wise listen and add to their learning, and let the discerning get guidance-for understanding proverbs and parables, the sayings and riddles of the wise. The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge, but fools despise wisdom and discipline.”

Footnotes in the NIV point out that “the Hebrew words rendered fool in Proverbs, and often elsewhere in the Old Testament, denote one who is morally deficient,” and the word rendered in English as simple “generally denotes one without moral direction and inclined to evil.” In other words, it’s not mentality but morality–not IQ but character–which this book emphasizes.

Prov. 1:20-22 brings out the urgent importance of moral wisdom: “Wisdom calls aloud in the street. She raises her voice in the public squares; at the head of the noisy streets she cries out, in the gateways of the city she makes her speech: ‘How long will you simple ones love your simple ways? How long will mockers delight in mockery and fools hate knowledge?’

Here Wisdom is pictured as a woman (“wisdom” in Hebrew is a feminine noun). She is a teacher, but more than that. Today we might call her a school recruiter or promotional director. Since magazine and TV ads are not available for her to use, she stands at busy street corners calling to the crowds, urging them to stop and listen to her teach¬ing. This is vivid symbolism. Wisdom comes to life and pleads with us to become her pupils and to pay her the fullest attention.

Wisdom is pursuing us, as it were. God is eager to impart it to us. But we also must pursue wisdom. We don’t become wise in our sleep, or while merely twiddling our thumbs, or even while sitting passively in a classroom. “Wisdom is supreme; therefore get wisdom. Though it cost all you have, get understanding” (Proverbs 4:7). Proverbs  2: 1-11 puts this fact in neon lights for us. It’s true, as we saw above, that Wisdom cries out and calls aloud for us to enroll in her school. Thus we should “call out for insight and cry aloud for understanding….look for it as for silver and search for it as for hidden treasure” (Proverbs 2:3-4). To gain wisdom far exceeds winning the state lottery!

Proverbs as Literature

In literary form, proverbs are of two kinds–popular proverbs and polished, philosophical proverbs. R N. Whybray’s commentary has some interesting thoughts for us on the former type.

Every language has its own popular proverbs…which enrich and enliven ordinary speech. “The early bird catches the worm”; “A stitch in time saves nine”; “Too many cooks spoil the broth” — these are characteristic examples of English proverbs…..They represent the accumulated experience of a people and express it in a brief and memorable form. Among uneducated people especially they function as a rough and ready philosophy and a set of practical rules, and are handed down from one generation to another. “Spare the rod and spoil the child,” for example, has served through many generations as a rudimentary educational theory.

Ancient Israel was no exception. The Old Testament contains a number of popular proverbs…for example, “Like mother, like daughter” (Ezek.16:44); “One wrong begets another” (1 Sam. 24: 13); “The lame must not think himself a match for the nimble” (1 Kings 20:11).

The book of Proverbs deals with all kinds of every-day situations. And numerous sorts of people pass through its pages: the farmer, thief, king, court-official, dishonest salesman, adulterous woman, husband away on a business trip, teenage gang, prostitute, servant, gossiper, lazy loafer, etc. We are dealing with real life here.

Second, there are polished, philosophical proverbs. Usually the popular proverb is a “short, pithy, memorable saying in prose.” But most proverbs in this book are in poetic form (in their original Hebrew language), more literary in style. Rather than being short and simple, many use elaborate phraseology. Rather than originating among the common folks, we know that many of them were composed by “wise men” — counselors, educators and philosophers, and another king be¬sides Solomon. A few of these other authors are named in the book-Agur son of Jakeh; King Lemuel (Proverbs 30:1; 31:1)–but we know nothing more about them.

So while Solomon composed many proverbs, he compiled many others. Some were no doubt written by Israelites, but not all of them. “Wisdom Literature” was in fact a well-known form of literature in the ancient world. There was the Egyptian style, which was commonly advice and warnings by a father to his son. Most often they were given as commands); do this; don’t do that. Compare, “My son, if sinners entice you, do not give in to them” (Proverbs 1:10). Then there was the Mesopotamian style, usually statements describing life. Compare, “Like cold water to a weary soul is good news from a distant land.” Also, “Wealth brings many friends, but a poor man’s friend deserts him.” (Proverbs 25:25; Proverbs 19:4).

So the Bible contains both Egyptian-style and Mesopotamian style proverbs. Not only so, but in a few places our book seems to copy proverbs from secular, heathen sources! Notice the Words of Ahikar (probably Assyrian in origin): “Do not hesitate to take the rod to Your son if you cannot restrain him from wickedness. If I strike you, my son, you will not die, and if I leave you to your own devices you will not live.” This is almost identical with Proverbs 23: 13-14.

You may be about to explode, “Wait A Minute Here! What About The Inspiration of Our Bible?” That’s a good question. I am glad you’re not asleep as you read! I definitely believe in divine inspiration. Nonetheless, the facts in the preceding paragraphs are true. But there’s really an easy solution to the seeming problem, and here it is: All truth is God’s truth, even that which is spoken or written by unbelievers. Inspiration does not mean that all truth is in the Bible (and nowhere else), but that all the Bible is truth (when rightly interpreted). To believe that our book of Proverbs was divinely inspired and infallible means that Solomon, its compiler and. editor (and the author of much of it), was guided by God to recognize those Assyrian statements as true and valuable and to include them in Scripture. In the very same way, in their inspired letters Paul quoted a philosopher of Crete who lived before Christ, and Jude quoted the apocryphal Book of Enoch. (Titus 1:12-13a; Jude 14-15.) Why? Because they, like Solomon, recognized those particular statements were true, im¬portant and relevant to their messages. They were not, of course, endorsing all that those authors taught or those writings included.

Write Some Proverbs!

Some Christians in their lifestyle and work stress planning, preparation and organization. Others stress being spontaneous, speaking and doing on the spur of the moment what they think God is leading them to say and do.

In the same way, some proverbs may have “come” to Solomon and others in a flash of intuition from God, as they spontaneously “saw” some truth in a moment. But other proverbs resulted only from study, planning and careful preparation. How do we know? Because Proverbs 31: 10-31, for example, the famous passage about the worthy woman, is an acrostic poem. Each verse begins with a successive letter of the Hebrew alphabet. In a similar way Psalm 119, the longest chapter in the Bible, is an acrostic. The first 8 verses all start with the first letter in the Hebrew alphabet, aleph. The next 8 verses all begin with the second letter, beth; etc. The psalmist gave some prolonged thought to that composition. Even the entire book of Lamentations, written by Jeremiah from the depths of despair and anguish, is an acrostic. Imagine that!

Those inspired writers took time and thought and effort to com¬pose those three works of art which are in God’s word — the Holy Spirit guiding them and supervising the whole process. (2 Peter 1:21.) We don’t write divinely inspired Scripture today; the canon of the Bible is closed. But you could try to compose some helpful-even-if-uninspired proverbs! (Or a psalm, or an epistle to your Timothy.) The result might bless others; it will at least give you a deeper appreciation for Solomon and the other writers whose sayings are in the book of Proverbs. Give it a try!

 

 




2 Responses to “Proverbs — An Introduction”

  1. David Moldez says:

    Thanks for the many insights regarding Proverbs. I teach this book at CBS from time to time.

  2. Dick Lewos says:

    Good job Alex!!!



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