Introduction to Proverbs
A. The Nature of Proverbial Literature
The Hebrew word for proverb is mashal, which referred to a comparison, whether brief or extended. Later the word was used to describe a wide variety of wise pronouncements, from a general maxim to wisecrack. The English word "proverb" derives from the Latin words pro ("for") and verba ("words"), which reflects the idea that a proverb condenses many words into a few.
Unlike the polemical books of the NT, such as Romans, there is no sustained argument in the book of Proverbs, nor is there much of a logical structure in any particular paragraph. Rather, the book of Proverbs is largely a collection of separate, isolated, self-contained observations on reality which tell us how best to cope. They are units of thought unto themselves and could conceivably be placed in any order.
As far as the nature of these self-contained units is concerned, they are best described as pithy sayings (defined by Websters as "having substance and point; tersely cogent). I.e., they are simple illustrations which expose and expound upon fundamental realities of life. Someone once referred to them as compressed experience. They are not unlike our many English proverbs, such as
"A rolling stone gathers no moss"
"Don't throw out the baby with the bathwater"
"A penny saved is a penny earned"
"You can lead a horse to water but you can't make him drink"
"None is so blind as he who will not see", etc.
The book of Proverbs is also universal in spirit. Nowhere is "Israel" mentioned and there are only scattered references to the OT Levitical system. It is not historically grounded and allusions to actual events in redemptive history are minimal. In other words, it is trans-cultural. Its principles are timeless and therefore applicable and relevant to all people in every age.
Bullock has pointed out that "fundamental to the proverbial form is the fact that it bears a truth that has been tested by time. Fads have no place in proverbial literature, except as their shallow nature may need to be exposed" (156). Related to this is the fact that these proverbs give expression to general maxims concerning life. There will often be exceptions to the stated principle. For example, we say, "Like father, like son." But on occasion we find a son who not only does not look like his father but does not act like him either. But this doesn't invalidate the general rule or prove the proverb wrong. The exceptional, unusual and unprecedented are beyond the range of proverbial wisdom.
People have often objected to proverbs because they seem to make life too tidy. They are accused of reducing life to simplistic rules that eliminate mystery. But that is to misunderstand the nature of the proverb. The proverbs are designed to identify and name the underlying patterns and principles which abide more or less constant in the flux of human living. Again, for example, we say "Many hands make light work." There is much truth in this proverbial statement, but it is also true that "Too many cooks spoil the broth."
Even in the book of Proverbs we see what appears to be contradictory counsel. On the one hand we read, "Do not answer a fool according to his folly, lest you also be like him" (26:4). But in the very next verse we read, "Answer a fool as his folly deserves, lest he be wise in his own eyes" (26:5). Or again, "Without counsel plans go wrong, but with many advisers they succeed" (15:22). Yet in 19:21 we read, "Many are the plans in the mind of man, but it is the purpose of the Lord that will be established."
Frequently the Proverbs will extol the merits and the reward that come from diligence, honesty, and hard work, as well as the dangers and ultimate disaster that sloth and injustice bring. But the fact is, experience occasionally sees these reversed. Therefore, we must distinguish between a proverb and a promise or law. Proverbs are not inflexible laws built into God's creation, admitting of no exceptions. Neither are they promises which bind God unconditionally to always fulfill what the proverb says is true. Christians have become discouraged when they "claim God's promises" by holding up to Him some proverbial saying, only then to experience the unusual or exceptional. They conclude that either God let them down or that Scripture is not reliable. Robert Alden has this helpful perspective:
"The Book of Proverbs is like medicine. You cannot live on medicine alone, but few of us go through life without some medicine now and then. At least we take a vitamin. Likewise, a spiritual diet of Proverbs alone would be most unbalanced, but how sick a person might be that didn't occasionally ingest some of these potions and antidotes for the sake of his mental, spiritual, and even financial well-being."
B. Authorship and Structure
The issues of who wrote the Proverbs and how the book is structured are inextricably tied up with each other. For example, the title in 1:1 is misleading, for it appears to indicate that Solomon is responsible for the entire book. But editorial comments elsewhere in the book demand otherwise. Hence the title of 1:1 is not a claim for sole authorship. It is best taken as meaning primary contributor or inspirational genius or some such notion.
In point of fact, the book is a compilation of wisdom sayings authored by several different people, some of whom are anonymous. The book was edited by certain individuals during Hezekiah's reign (715 to 686 b.c.), some 250 years after Solomon. Therefore, we must keep distinct in our minds the date of authorship, on the one hand, and the date of final editing, on the other. The former refers to when the material was first written, whereas the latter looks to the time when the anthology of sayings took on its completed, canonical form.
As to the structure of the book, the following is how most break it down:
(1) A Father's Praise of Wisdom - 1:8-9:18 (the urgency of obtaining wisdom is set forth in the form of a father exhorting his son; see 1:8; 2:1-2; 3:1,13; 4:1; 5:1; etc.)
(2) The Proverbs of Solomon (approximately 375 of them; according to 1 Kings 4:32, Solomon spoke 3,000 proverbs!) - 10:1-22:16 (here we see a shift from urgent exhortation to short, pithy sayings of practical counsel)
(3) The Proverbs of the Wise Men (of which there are two collections back to back) - 22:17-24:22; and 24:23-34
(4) More Proverbs of Solomon: Hezekiah's Collection - 25:1-29:27
(5) The Words of Agur - 30:1-33
(6) The Words of Lemuel - 31:1-9
(7) The Woman of Excellence - 31:10-31
C. Kinds of Proverbial Sayings
(1) Identity or Equivalence - e.g., 29:5; 14:4
(2) Non-identity or contrast - e.g., 27:7; 25:15
(3) Similarity - e.g., 25:25
(4) Contrariety to proper order indicative of absurdity - e.g., 17:16
(5) Classification of persons, actions, situations - e.g., 14:15; 13:1; 26:15
(6) Valuation or priority of one thing relative to another - e.g., 22:1; 16:16; 19:22b
(7) Consequences of human character or behavior - e.g., 20:4; 15:13; 10:8a
(8) Lesser to greater - e.g., 15:11; 11:31
D. The Poetic Structure of Proverbs
We discussed the literary phenomenon known as parallelism when we studied the psalms. Here is a brief reminder of the more important issues.
(1) Synonymous parallelism - This is when there is repetition of the same thought in two different phrases using two different, but related, sets of words. A good example is Proverbs 16:18 and 28.
"Pride goes before destruction, and a haughty spirit before stumbling" (16:18).
"A perverse man spreads strife, and a slanderer separates intimate friends" (16:28).
Notice how each phrase is paralleled by a nearly synonymous phrase in the second part.
(2) Antithetic parallelism
Again, the same thought is expressed in two lines, but this time the author uses antonyms (a word whose meaning is the opposite of another word). Prov. 10:1 is a good example:
"A wise son brings joy to his father, but a foolish son grief to his mother."
Or again, we read in 17:22,
"A joyful heart is good medicine, but a broken spirit dries up the bones."
(3) Synthetic parallelism
In this case, the second phrase appears to complete or supplement or further explain and amplify the idea contained in the first phrase.
"He who conceals hatred has lying lips, and he who spreads slander is a fool" (10:18).
(4) Comparative or Emblematic parallelism
In this case, an ethical or practical truth is explained by an illustration, often taken from nature.
"Like apples of gold in settings of silver, is a word spoken in the right circumstances" (25:11).
"A constant dripping on a day of steady rain, and a contentious woman are alike" (27:15).
"Like a fluttering sparrow or a darting swallow,
an undeserved curse does not come to rest" (Prov. 26:2).
E. The Purpose of Proverbs
The purpose of the book of Proverbs is summarized in the first seven verses of chapter one.
1. Title - 1:1
2. Purpose - 1:2-6
These verses constitute an abstract, so to speak, of the entire book. The purpose is stated in summary form in v. 2 and is two-fold: (a) "to know wisdom and instruction," i.e., to develop moral discipline; and (b) "to discern the sayings of understanding," i.e., to train the mind to think. Thus the focus of the book is both moral and mental.
a. summary statement - 1:2
1) to inculcate moral discipline - v. 2a
Two words sum up the point:
a) wisdom - See the material on the introduction to the wisdom literature. Cohen defines "wisdom" as "an understanding of the principles which control and direct human living at its highest and best" (1). It is skill for living. It entails a quick and discerning mind with diagnostic capabilities; it is the ability to determine the proper goals, the means to them, and the ability to avoid the pitfalls along the way.
In Proverbs, wisdom is personified as a woman, crying out in the streets, beckoning all to come to her (1:20-23) and warning of th consequences if we don't (1:26-33). Elsewhere wisdom is portrayed as a father instructing his son (all of chapter 2; 3:1-26; 4:5-13). Wisdom itself is personified in 8:10-21,32-36.
The message is clear: Wisdom will be your friend when others forsake you, your guardian when danger arises, your wealth even though you possess nothing, your medicine to give you health and a long life, your vindication when others accuse you of evil, your solace in times of grief, your happiness when all others are sad, and your companion at night to protect you while you sleep.
b) instruction - better translated as "discipline," i.e., not the impartation of knowledge but the nurturing of expertise through training (cf. 3:11). It means to quell waywardness or to bring under control. "Man is endowed with instincts and passions which must be kept under restraint or they make him brutish. . . . The instruction of this book, if put into practice, teaches how self-discipline may be exercised" (Cohen, 1).
2) to train the mind - v. 2b
Both the verb and the noun here are related to the Hebrew preposition "between," hence the ability to draw proper distinctions or to discern between right and wrong (cf. 1 Kings 3:9-12); the ability to distinguish between find shades of conduct; to be able to look at the grey and discern black from white!
[In the verses that follow, v. 2a is expanded in vv. 3-5 and v. 2b in v. 6.]
b. moral discipline explained - vv. 3-5
1) from the perspective of the student - v. 3
a) righteousness - conformity to the standard of God and His word
b) justice - the actual doing of what we know to be God's will
c) equity - fairness, moral rectitude
2) from the perspective of the teacher - v. 4
a) prudence - craftiness and shrewdness (cf. Gen. 3:1); here it means the ability to avoid being misled
b) nave - there is no morally evil connotation in this word; it simply means to be unaware, gullible. "The root meaning is 'to be wide open'; so he is a person of undecided views, susceptible to good or bad influence. He is one, therefore, who needs prudence if he is not to be led astray" (Cohen, 2). He has in mind the "greenhorn," the one who is still "wet behind the ears" in terms of his/her experience of the world; the uninitiated.
3) from the perspective of the wise man - v. 5
The point in v. 5a is that even he/she who is already wise, who is not nave and undiscerning, can learn from Proverbs. Indeed, the truly wise person is the one who recognizes the need for more wisdom. The word translated "wise counsel" (v. 5b) is related to the word for a "shipmaster," specifically, the one who controls the ropes and sails; thus, such a one possesses the needed discernment to steer just the right course through life.
c. training the mind explained - v. 6
"So the secondary purpose of Proverbs is to introduce the reader to a style of teaching that provokes his thought, getting under his skin by thrusts of wit, paradox, common sense and teasing symbolism, in preference to the preacher's tactic of frontal assault" (Kidner, 58-9).
3. Theme - 1:7
The fear of God was a common bond among many of the more famous OT saints. It was characteristic of Abraham (Gen. 22:12), Joseph (Gen. 42:18), Job (Job 1:8-9), and even the midwives of Israel (Ex. 1:17,21). But what does it mean to "fear God"? We know what "fear" means in everyday life. It is to experience an anxious dread of some harm that a person or thing might inflict upon us. We fear things or people because we are uncertain of their intentions toward us. Is this what the Bible means by "the fear of God"? Are we to be frightened of God, terrorized by the prospect of some dreadful destiny to which he will assign us? Certainly if one is an unbeliever, the answer is Yes. Every unbeliever ought to live in fear and dread of standing naked in the presence of a wrathful God. But what about the believer?
There are instances in the OT where people of faith were afraid of God: Adam (Gen. 3:10), Jacob (Gen. 28:17), Moses (Ex. 3:6), and David (2 Sam. 6:9). But these appear to be unique cases brought about by unusual circumstances and are not normative for us today. Note especially Exodus 20:20 - "And Moses said to the people, 'do not be afraid; for God has come in order to test you, and in order that the fear of Him may remain with you, so that you may not sin'". What, then, does it mean for the believer to "fear" God?
1. To fear God means to live in reverential awe of who he is, of his majesty, his holiness, his transcendence, his power, his purity. When Moses heard the voice of God and quickly realized where he was, he "hid his face, for he was afraid to look at God" (Ex. 3:6). Consider also the experience of Isaiah (Isa. 6:1-6). This is not the fear that God might one day turn on us and cast us aside. But neither should we let our confidence degenerate into presumptuousness. We must always remember that it is only by his grace that we are not destroyed, for "our God is a consuming fire" (Heb.12:29).
2. To fear God means always to live conscious of his all-pervasive presence (Ps. 139:7-10).
3. To fear God means always to live conscious of our absolute dependence on him (Ps. 139:1-6; Acts 17:28).
4. To fear God means always to live conscious of our complete responsibility and accountability to him.
5. To fear God means always to live fearful of offending him. This is not a fear borne of uncertainty concerning our acceptance with him, or fear of what he might do to us if we sin (Rom. 8:1). It is the fear of hurting or grieving the one who has redeemed us by the blood of his Son.
6. To fear God means always to live conscious of the prospect of divine discipline should we continue in unconfessed and unrepentant sin (Ps. 119:120). But we must always distinguish between the fear that a child has of his/her loving father and the fear that a convicted criminal has of a righteous judge.
7. To fear God means always to live in obedience to his revealed will. See especially Deut. 6:1-2,24; 8:6; Ps. 112:1; 119:63; Lev. 19:11-14; 25:17,35-38,43; Jonah 1:9; Mal. 3:5. Note well: fear isn't so much a motive for obedience as it is the obedience itself!
· Observe those psalms in which we are told how God's favor and protection are upon those who fear him - Pss. 25:12-15; 33:18; 103:11,13,17; 145:19.
Let us look specifically now at what the fear of God means in the book of Proverbs:
1. To fear God is to know God (Prov. 1:29; 2:4-5)
2. To fear God is to hate evil (Prov. 8:13; 16:6)
3. To fear God yields confidence (Prov. 14:26; see also Ps. 27:1)
4. To fear God yields humility (Prov. 3:17; 22:4)
5. To fear God yields contentment (Prov. 15:16; 23:17). If one fears God, wealth is unnecessary. Better is the fear of God with little wealth than to be rich and live in that turmoil which the lack of fear brings.
[What about the fear of God in the NT? See 2 Cor. 5:11; 7:1; 1 Pt. 1:17; 2:17.]
The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge, a word that refers to the first and controlling principle; not a stage that one leaves behind but a foundational and constitutent part to everything that happens subsequently.
"O Lord, I beseech Thee, may Thine ear be attentive to the prayer of Thy servant and the prayer of Thy servants who delight to fear Thy name, and make Thy servant successful today, and grant him compassion before this man" (Neh. 1:11).