Making Sense of Wisdom Literature

Part 1 – How to properly read and interpret the Proverbs 

The opening to Parsons’ work on understanding and proclaiming the Proverbs states that preachers and teachers approach the book with little enthusiasm.[1] While, I cannot speak to his specific experiences, I must say that I have had a different experience in my life. Although, perhaps not frequently used in a formal preaching capacity, I have indeed heard and used Proverbs a great deal in small group settings and in personal devotion. The book of sayings is a truly unique and special work that is chock-full of wisdom and insight into the mind of God. Nonetheless, there certainly are more than a few ways in which the book of Proverbs has been mishandled in my memory. The uniqueness of the wisdom literature from other portions of the Bible lends itself to misuse. Thus, guidelines for how to properly read and interpret the Proverbs are necessary.

First and foremost, the Proverbs must be read as advice for godly living but not necessarily as biblical mandates or unconditional promises. It is an easy enough mistake to read the Bible and think that all of it must carry the same weight of authority. But the Bible itself delineates that some parts are more important than others (i.e. the greatest commandment in Matt. 22:36-40). That is not to say that some parts are not important all, quite the contrary. It is simply to say that scripture contains different types of literature. So how do we know that the Proverbs are by-in-large not unconditional promises but are godly adages? Because other biblical books, such as Job, temper the ordered world of the Proverbs, because life experience find that the Proverbs often instruct what ought to happen but not necessarily what is to happen, because some of the book describe behavior but do not prescribe behavior, and because the book itself recognizes its own limitations (e.g. “fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, Prov. 1:7, ESV), to name a few.[2]  Proverbs 3:1-2 serve as an example of the point. While it is true that, in general, godly living will lead to a peaceful life void of self-inflicted trouble, it is not an unconditional guarantee that keeping God’s commandments will grant you a long earthly life. Some proverbs, however, are unconditionally true (see 16:2,33 and 22:2 as examples).

Secondly, individual proverbs must be read within the context of the surrounding passage and of the whole Bible. As in the study of any and every part of the Bible, understanding context is mandatory. The Proverbs are, in fact, a collection of collections of wisdom sayings, with perhaps up to seven distinct sections.[3] The book also has a stated objective seen in 1:1-6, and the rest of the book ought to be perceived as meeting that objective, which is to give instruction for successful moral and mental living. The whole of the book also points to the motto that “fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.” Furthermore, the last check on how to interpret a proverb is to weigh it against the whole of biblical teaching. Here’s an interpretive example using Proverbs 31:10-31: the lofty expectation set for women may seem impossible to achieve and actually be discouraging for some. Helpfully, the context of this particular passage makes use of symbolism and (perhaps) hyperbole to illustrate the point. I have heard it suggested that this depiction of the ideal woman is akin to Christ representing the ideal man—something to be strived after but without full expectation of fulfillment on earth.

Thirdly, when reading the Proverbs pay special attention to the literary forms. The proverbs overtly use poetic language to enhance truths, and the book consists of essentially two literary forms—the wisdom saying (found in 10:1-22:16 and 25-29) and the admonition (found in 1-9 and 22:17-24:22).[4] Wisdom sayings are general observations, such as, “the thoughts of the righteous are just; the counsels of the wicked are deceitful” (Prov. 12:5), and occur in the indicative mood. Admonitions can be positive or negative and occur in the imperative mood. An example is Proverbs 3:5-6: “Trust in the LORD with all your heart, and do not lean on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make straight your paths.” Both kinds of proverbs make great use of poetic parallelism, of which the most common is antithetical parallelism where two separate paths are put forward—one leads to blessing and life and the other leads to cursing and death.[5] This connects directly to the overall theme of the book. Examples of such can be found everywhere in chapters 10-15. Here’s one: “The wise lay up knowledge, but the mouth of a fool brings ruin near” (Prov. 10:14). Understanding the literary forms of the proverbs can help the reader draw the correct application.

 

Part 2 – How to read the Old Testament wisdom books in light of each other

Continuing with theme of how Old Testament wisdom literature should be interpreted, we come across and interesting tension between the book of Proverbs and the books of Job and Ecclesiastes. At first glance they may appear to contradict or weaken each other’s message, but upon further study we find that each of the books work together to strike a perfect balance between a moral code for living and God’s sovereign control.

An important point to remember at the outset is that (as stated above) the Proverbs are not necessarily unconditional promises but instead serve as poetic guidelines for godly living. But even more importantly, to understand how a book like Job—where a righteous man experiences such awful trial—and a book like Proverbs—where moral living is told to bring blessing and life—are in cooperation one must ultimately begin not at their outcome but at their source: God. While the proverbs flow like a stream from the ordered and benevolent mind and character of God, Ecclesiastes and Job bring to view the futility of earthly life and the sovereignty of God. To put it simply, each stress a different truth about the realities existing in God’s universe. Let’s explore more specifically.

The promises and warnings given to the wise man in the Proverbs are perfectly tempered by the wisdom found in the book of Job. As Dr. Yates explains in his lecture video on the message of Job, the book at first appears to contradict the themes in the Proverbs. Job, a righteous man is allowed by God to suffer immensely, losing his health, his wealth, and family—yet not for the cause of ungodly action.[6] When Job’s three friends, Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar come to visit Job and admonish him for what they perceive as inevitable sin in his life, it is easy as the reader to cast judgment on them. Yet, it seems likely that they are well-read in the Proverbs and are simply applying the worldview that the Proverbs teach—the righteous receive blessing and the wicked cursing. Job’s inner moaning is as a result of his own struggling with that same moral dilemma. But the manifold wisdom of God is on display as He answers Job in chapters 38-42. Through a series of questions, God thunderously demonstrates his all-surpassing knowledge and sovereignty: “Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth (Job 38:4) … Shall a faultfinder contend with the Almighty?” (Job 40:2). In response, Job does not repent over his sin, proving his claim of righteousness, but repents of his questioning God. In hindsight we see that the book of Job does not contradict Proverbs but completes it. Job, indeed did for much of his life receive the blessing of godly living, and additionally learned that ultimately God is Lord of his creation and can operate how he pleases. Is there not a sentiment of this truth spoken of in “the beginning of wisdom is fear of the Lord?” (Prov. 1:7).

The realities of blessing and cursing in the Proverbs are also balanced by the message of the book of Ecclesiastes. The message of Ecclesiastes is clear: “Vanity of vanities! All is vanity” (Ec. 1:2). There is a sense of meaninglessness to life on earth, for what truly comes from all the toil of man? What lasts? Along the same lines, there is nothing new under the sun (Ec. 1:9) and God sends rain on the just and unjust. The Preacher even ventures to say: “the wise person has his eyes in his head, but the fool walks in darkness. And yet I perceived that the same event happens to all of them” (Ec. 2:14). How can this be reconciled with the Proverbs? But, Solomon, in the midst of his sermon on vanity, stills moves to contrast wisdom and folly (Ec. 7:1-13), and even more importantly urge the reader to fear God above all else, similarly to the Proverbs (Ec. 5:1-7; 8:10-13). The closing argument of the Preacher climaxes in an admonition to “fear God and keep his commandments, for [that] is the whole duty of man” (Ec. 12:13). As Dr. Yates suggests, Ecclesiastes presents exceptions to the rules of the Proverbs because the world is fallen.[7] The book’s tone and literary form causes the reader to recognize and yearn for something greater, and is in many ways it is a lament that the world does not always work the way it should as described in the Proverbs.

Songs of Songs also attributes to the balancing act of wisdom literature in the Bible in a similar fashion, in that it details an already/not yet redemption of sexuality in a similar way that Ecclesiastes bemoans the not yet redeemed and perfect world. A perhaps less abstract way to glean truth from the book of Song of Songs is to reflect on how it alludes to what man’s relationship to God ought to be—“mutual, intimate, passionate, and exclusive.”[8]

 


[1] Greg Parsons, 1993, “Guidelines for understanding and proclaiming the Book of Proverbs.” Bibliotheca Sacra 150, no. 598: 151-170. ATLASerials, Religion Collection, EBSCOhost, 150

[2] All quotations from scripture will be from the English Standard Version unless otherwise noted.

[3] Parsons, 153

[4] Ibid., 155

[5] Ibid., 156

[6] Lecture, Gary Yates, “The Message of Job,” Liberty University, Lynchburg, Va., Accessed March 11, 2017

[7] Lecture, Gary Yates

[8] Tremper Longman III and Raymond B. Dillard, An introduction to the Old Testament, (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2007), ebook

 

Works Consulted

“14 Reasons Why Song of Solomon Probably Doesn’t Tell a Single Love Story.” Dallas Theological Seminary (DTS). Accessed March 11, 2017. http://www.dts.edu/read/song-of-solomon-love-story-or-love-stories-gordon-h-johnston/.

Phil Shiver

A seminary student living in Greenville, SC.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s