Understanding Wisdom Literature | Proverbs

Albert Einstein once said, “Any fool can know. The point is to understand.”


Everyone wants to be wise. No one wants to be thought of as a fool. Yet former professor of biochemistry at Boston University, Isaac Asimov, lamented that “The saddest aspect of life right now is that science gathers knowledge faster than society gathers wisdom.” Our societies today are filled with information coming at us at a billion terabytes an hour. We are overwhelmed and surrounded by knowledge, yet a quick look at the daily news headlines shows that many still lack wisdom. How are we to live in the world as God's people? How are we to gain wisdom and not just more knowledge? God's Word does not leave us without an answer.


The 3 major books of Wisdom in the Bible are Proverbs, Job and Ecclesiastes. These are the books we will look at in this series of articles, but there are other places in the Bible where you might find “wisdom” writings such as in James, Psalms and some even consider the Song of Songs to be wisdom writing for lovers. So, if you're like me and you want to live wisely in God's world, we'd do well to study the wisdom He gives us through His Word.


This series aims to give you short guides to understanding the 3 major books of wisdom in the Bible.


What is Wisdom Literature?

Before we go much further, we should define what exactly is wisdom in the Bible. The ESV Study Bible gives us a clear and short definition of wisdom:

“The skill in the art of godly living.”

Or more fully, wisdom is “that orientation which allows one to live in harmonious accord with God’s ordering of the world.” (ESV Study Bible, p. 866)


So, the Bible’s wisdom literature is meant to help us become skillful in the art of godly living.


Distinctive Marks of Wisdom Literature

There are a few distinctive marks that set wisdom literature apart from other genres in the Bible such as:

  • A keen interest in the way the world works, our place in the world, and how things operate under God’s sovereign care.

  • Most Wisdom Literature is poetry, but not all poetic material is Wisdom Literature. One of the most important things to note about poetry is that poets think in images. It is the imagery that is important and that conveys the meaning. (e.g. the Lord is my shepherd - Psa. 23)

  • Wisdom literature often uses hyperbolic language to convey a thought or point more forcefully. Thus, it is important not to interpret wisdom literature literalistically.

Unifying Themes

You’ll notice these themes in every book of Wisdom Literature:

  • The fear of the Lord

  • The limits of human wisdom

  • The righteous and the wicked in relation to God

  • Grappling with suffering

  • The nature of true piety

Taking note of these themes will help you to understand what the wisdom literature you're reading is trying to communicate.


Wisdom Literature’s Function

The Bible's Wisdom Literature helps us navigate life in the tension of the “already-but-not-yet”. We’ve already been made new in Christ and given a new nature. However, we are not yet in the eternal state and still wrestle with the brokenness of the world and ourselves due to sin. Until that day in glory, wisdom literature helps God’s people navigate the pitfalls of life.


Derek Kidner helpfully notes that:

“Where the bulk of the Old Testament calls us simply to obey and to believe, this part of it… summons us to think hard as well as humbly; to keep our eyes open, to use our conscience and our common sense, and not to shirk the most disturbing questions.” (​​Derek Kidner, The Wisdom of Proverbs, Job and Ecclesiastes: An Introduction to Wisdom Literature, p. 11)

Wisdom as Polemic

Some scholars have noted the similarities between the Bible’s wisdom literature and some of the writings of the surrounding pagan nations of the Ancient Near East (ANE). For example, the ancient Egyptian work, The Instruction of Amenemope from the 13th century B.C. has marked similarities to Proverbs 22-24. There are cuneiform texts from Mesopotamia that wrestle with the problem of a “righteous sufferer” like Job. Psalm 104 seems to share a lot in common with an ancient Egyptian hymnody. And many scholars have seen connections between Aramaic wisdom literature and even later Greek writings. This has led many critical scholars to be skeptical of the Bible’s wisdom literature and think that the Biblical authors just copied their surrounding cultures.


However, far from this sort of critical position, the truth of the matter is that the Biblical authors demonstrate that they inhabited and challenged their contemporary cultural milieu. The questions that ancient Israelites had to wrestle with were not unlike the questions that the Egyptians, Babylonians and Syrians were asking as well. They participated in the wider culture of their day and brought the Bible’s worldview to bear on that culture. Many scholars have noted that the Bible’s wisdom literature is unrivalled in its scope, originality and profundity by the ANE writings.


The Biblical authors were doing what we should continue to do today - the task of cultural apologetics - giving a reason for the hope in us to the culture around us.


The Bible’s Wisdom Literature prepares us to give an answer to the world’s folly by giving us God’s wisdom for life.


Interpreting Proverbs | Wisdom for Living Well

We're going to take a look firstly at one of the most popular wisdom books in the Bible - the book of Proverbs. How do we rightly interpret the book of Proverbs?


What are Proverbs?

One important distinction to make is that proverbs are not promises. Many Christians run into trouble interpreting proverbs as if they were promises. Instead, we should think of them as general truisms.


Proverbs are parables, riddles or short pithy (‘full of meaning’) sayings that are not designed to spoon-feed the reader but rather to prick him/her into deeper thought and consideration by use of word pictures, analogies or sharp brevity. Derek Kidner comments,

“...the very form demands a sweeping statement and looks for a hearer with his wits about him. We need no telling that a maxim like ‘Many hands make light work’ is not the last word on the subject since ‘Too many cooks spoil the broth.’ Just so, Proverbs is not afraid to put two clashing counsels side by side…” (Kidner, The Wisdom of Proverbs, Job and Ecclesiastes, p. 26)

Their refusal to explain themselves and the use of similes and metaphors call for prolonged reflection to unpack them. Proverbs are meant to be mulled over and meditated on to mine all their goodness. We shouldn't expect to get everything from them at first glance. They're not like cheap bite-sized candies that give you just one flavour. Instead, these are like a fine wine that must be swirled around and allowed to marinate on your palette to be able to appreciate all the depth of sensory experience.


Forms of Proverbs

Proverbs come in different forms. Here are the major forms you'll notice:

  • Descriptive Proverbs - general observations about life For example, Proverbs 10:1b - "A wise son makes a glad father, but a foolish son is a sorrow to his mother."

  • Comparative Proverbs - popularly stated as “X is better than Y” For example, Proverbs 15:16 - "Better is a little with the fear of the LORD than great treasure and trouble with it."

  • Prescriptive Proverbs - the right response to a situation or direct instruction For example, Proverbs 20:22 - "Do not say, 'I will repay evil'; wait for the LORD, and he will deliver you."

  • Warning Proverbs - alert us to dangers For example, Proverbs 24:33-34 - "A little sleep, a little slumber, a little folding of the hands to rest, and poverty will come upon you like a robber, and want like an armed man."

  • Insight Proverbs - help us “see” something more clearly. For example, about the lingering influence of gossip on us in Proverbs 26:22 - "The words of a whisperer are like delicious morsels; they go down into the inner parts of the body."

An Outline of Proverbs

At first reading, you may think that Proverbs is just a collection of haphazardly arranged fortune cookie-like sayings. However, it actually has a very intentional and orderly arrangement. Kidner offers a helpful outline for Proverbs:

  • Chapters 1-9 | A Fatherly Approach: exhortations for the young and poetic metaphor to encourage following Lady Wisdom

  • Chapters 10 - 22:16 | A Plain Man’s Approach: Solomon’s collection of sentence sayings. Life’s regularities, oddities, dangers, and delights, noted, compared and evaluated

  • Chapters 22:17 - 24:34 | More Fatherly Teachings: two groups of wise men’s exhortations

  • Chapters 25-29 | More Sentence-Sayings: gleanings from Solomon compiled by Hezekiah’s men

  • Chapter 30 | An Observer’s Approach: musings on the hidden Creator and on the idiosyncrasies of His creatures

  • Chapter 31 | A Motherly Approach: a mother’s home truths and a wife’s example

The book of Proverbs opens with a father’s advice to his son to follow Lady Wisdom and closes with the advice of a mother to her son about a Lady of Wisdom. Thus, Proverbs offers us a "parental" sort of wisdom, inviting us to learn as sons and daughters.


Key Themes

Here are a few key themes you can look out for as you read through Proverbs:

  • The Sovereignty of God The lot is cast into the lap, but its every decision is from the LORD. (Proverbs 16:33)

  • Creation’s Order The LORD by wisdom founded the earth; by understanding He established the heavens (Proverb 3:19)

  • Common Grace The hearing ear and the seeing eye, the Lord has made them both. (Proverbs 20:12)

  • General Principles By wisdom a house is built, and by understanding it is established; by knowledge the rooms are filled with all precious and pleasant riches. (Proverbs 24:3-4)

  • The Experience of Life Disaster pursues sinners, but the righteous are rewarded with good. (Proverbs 13:21)

As you're reading through Proverbs, you can "glean" and collect them into categories and themes to see a more full picture of what wisdom God's Word wants you to get on it.


THE KEYS TO PROVERBS | Chapters 1 - 9

The opening of Proverbs sets forth the purpose of the book in Proverbs 1:1-7.

To know wisdom and instruction, to understand words of insight… (verse 2)

WISDOM - The word ‘wisdom’ (ḥokmâ) is the ability to understand the way God designed life to work and skillfully respond with the appropriate action. It was applied to artists and craftsmen in Exodus 31:1-3 who had ḥokmâ - “skill or applied knowledge”. Wisdom allows one to become skillful in navigating life, by understanding God’s justice and divine order which derives from His righteous character.


INSTRUCTION - Paired with wisdom is the word ‘instruction’ (mûsār). It is also translated as “discipline” because it refers to a chastening lesson that corrects moral faults and shapes one’s character.


These two concepts of wisdom and instruction/discipline are central to the book of Proverbs. Its goal is that we might come to know them, not in a theoretical way but in a practical way that is learned through a variety of life experiences. A great book to check out is Richard P. Belcher Jr's, Finding Favour in the Sight of God.


The Fear Of The Lord

The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge; fools despise wisdom and instruction. (verse 7)

In verse 7 we see the starting point of true wisdom according to the book of Proverbs (and the Bible as a whole). What is it? It is the fear of Yahweh - the holy reverence of the One True God. This is the basis of all true wisdom. If you do not fear God, you will be a fool. Note that verse 2 says that fools (the opposite of the wise) are those who despise wisdom and instruction or discipline.

Richard Belcher Jr.’s comment is helpful:

“The fear of the LORD refers primarily to a subjective response of humility, love and trust in God so that a person is willing to submit his or her life to the ways of God. It is a God-centred view of life that includes a reverence for God. As the beginning of knowledge, the fear of the LORD is the first and controlling principle of a person’s life. Without it wisdom, as defined by God, is not attainable.” (Richard P. Belcher Jr, Finding Favour in the Sight of God, p. 21)

This Proverb also makes use of a tool of Hebrew poetry called “assonance” - which is the repetition of a similar vowel sound. Verse 7a says:

yirat yehvah re’shit daat
The fear of Yahweh is the beginning of knowledge.

The repetition of the “a” sound as well as the “at” sound at the beginning and end of the poetic line help make it memorable and serves as a motto for the book.


The fear of the Lord is the key to Proverbs and wisdom in the Bible. Do you want to have wisdom? You have to fear the Lord. Honour and revere Him in all things as is due to His Holy nature.


A Note on Fools

When the Bible refers to someone as a “fool” it is not just engaging in name-calling. Instead, the terms that are translated to English as “fool” describe a certain type of person. As you read through Proverbs you’ll recognize these descriptions of types of people who display foolish behaviour or attitudes. Here are three types found in Proverbs:

  • Kĕsîl - is a dull or thick-headed person who has a tendency to make wrong decisions because he will not listen to other people. Instead, he loves to hear himself talk (Prov. 18:2, 6–7) and is not able to deal with the present (Prov. 17:24).

  • Ĕwîl - stresses moral deficiency, a lack of self-control as displayed in words or temper (Prov. 12:16). This fool thinks he has all the answers (Prov. 12:15).

  • Nabal - is a disgraceful person who does not have respect for anything or anyone (Prov. 17:7, 21; 30:22), much like the person named Nabal (1 Sam. 25:17).

The goal of Proverbs is to help keep young people specifically and everyone in general from developing into fools by choosing the way of wisdom.


THE WAY OF WISDOM

The first nine chapters of Proverbs teach the reader the way of wisdom by creatively using the scenario of a father teaching his son in a series of lectures. Wisdom is also personified as a virtuous woman - Lady Wisdom who exhorts the simple to follow her ways to find blessing.


There is also the opposite character of Lady Folly - who mirrors Lady Wisdom by calling out to the simple to follow her, but her path leads to destruction. These fatherly lectures and the imaginative allegory of Lady Wisdom and Folly are the focus of the first nine chapters.


At the end of chapter 9, it calls for a choice to be made. Will you follow the way of wisdom or the way of folly? This is what should frame the rest of Proverbs as you read it. It is laying out for you the two paths and bringing you to decide which one you will follow as you live life.


Following Wisdom is Following God

There is more to Proverbs than just sage advice for a good life though. It’s not just like the advice you’d get from a social media influencer or pop-culture guru. Wisdom is presented in a way that parallels what the OT says about Yahweh:

  • Wisdom is presented in ways that parallel what is said about God in other parts of the OT. Wisdom proclaims, ‘I will pour out my spirit to you’ (Prov. 1:23), and God declares, ‘I will pour my Spirit upon your offspring’ (Isa. 44:3; see also Joel 2:28).

  • Wisdom stretches out her hand to those who will not listen, just as God does in Isaiah 65:2: "I spread out my hands all the day to a rebellious people."

  • Wisdom laughs at the calamity of the fool who rejects her just as God laughs at those who seek to throw off his authority (Ps. 2:4).

  • If fools continue to reject Wisdom, there will come a time when they will seek her but not be able to find her (Prov. 1:28). As part of the judgment against his people God promises a time when they will seek him but not be able to find him (Hos. 5:6–7).

Thus, in an immensely practical way, following the way of wisdom is to follow God.


Rival Gods

Another key to understanding Wisdom in Proverbs 9 is that the location of her house is on “the highest point of the city”(v.3). This is a detail that would have been readily understood by ancient readers and is overlooked by us. In the Ancient Near East, only one person had the right to dwell at the highest point of a city - its god. This is why the temple was on Mount Zion in Jerusalem. However, Lady Folly also has her house at “the highest point of the city” (v.14). She represents a false and competing god. Thus, the reader is confronted with rival ‘gods’ calling for him to follow them, dine with them, share intimacy and worship them.


INTERPRETIVE TOOLS

Here are four tools to help you interpret Proverbs correctly:


I. Literary Context

There are some cases where a commentary is helpful to see all that the writer is doing in the literary context of the original language.


For example, the passage in Proverbs 31:10-31 describing the wife of noble character is actually an alphabetical acrostic with each line starting with the next letter of the Hebrew alphabet. In this way, it forms a complete “A to Z” of wifely virtues.


The single sentence Proverbs can often seem to lack context and be disconnected. But they are meant to collectively instruct us in following the way of wisdom. However, there are other challenges that we must understand the literary context to address properly. For example, Proverbs 22:6,

Train up a child in the way he should go, Even when he is old he will not depart from it.

The phrase in Hebrew translated “in the way he should go” could also be translated as “according to his way”. So which is it? Are we to train up children according to their own way if they are selfish then to just let them have at it and become increasingly selfish? Or is it perhaps to train them up according to the way God has made them, factoring in their unique personalities and learning style? Why do most translations not translate it as “in his own way” and instead as “in the way he SHOULD go? Is this a bad translation?


No. The support for the traditional view is that the Hebrew word for "train" (ḥānak) has the sense of starting a young person off with a strong commitment to a certain religious and moral direction to counteract the foolish way. It requires discipline and work to encourage the child in this way and the consequence, generally, of doing this is that the youth will not depart from this initial training because it will be deep-rooted and have built character in him/her. This is the sense we get when we consider all of Proverbs’ teaching on raising children. This is what we mean by considering the Literary Context.


However, this is not an absolute promise - which leads to our next point which we touched on briefly already.


II. Principles NOT Promises

One way to misread Proverbs is to view them as absolute promises that work in a mechanical way. This is the error of the health and wealth ‘gospel’. For example:

No ill befalls the righteous, but the wicked are filled with trouble. (Proverbs 12:21)
The blessing of the Lord makes rich, and he adds no sorrow with it. (Proverbs 10:22)

If we were to read these Proverbs as if they were absolute promises we’d be naming and claiming our fancy jets and million-dollar mansions. If you are blessed then you are righteous and if something bad happens to you, it must be because you did something wrong. This was the view of Job’s miserable friends (which we will explore in our next section), but this is the wrong way to read the Proverbs. As Grant Osborn comments,

“Most important, we dare not read more into the proverbial statement than is there. By their very nature they are generalized statements, intended to give advice rather than to establish rigid codes by which God works.” (​​Grant R. Osborne, The Hermeneutical Spiral, p. 247)

Instead, Proverbs should be understood as statements that are generally true because they help bring us in line with the way God has ordered His creation. They are principles to live by that will, generally speaking, lead to a life that is blessed by God. However, they are not absolute because we live in a fallen world and there are many complexities to life. Even though they do not guarantee a smooth and carefree life, they are the “better” path to take in seeking to follow God.


The Proverbs expound on how the life of the wise person who fears God should live. It deals with probabilities not promises - that is, if you follow the Proverbs, probably your life will go well, but nothing is guaranteed.


Proverbs focus on the general rule NOT the exceptions. The exceptions are actually picked up in the other two wisdom books - Job and Ecclesiastes. Life is too complex for simplistic formulas which is why we need all the wisdom books together to get the big picture.

Another way to think of them is that they are “dependently true now” but will be “ultimately true then” when God consummates His Kingdom on earth.


III. Situational Application

Let’s take a look at Proverbs 26:4-5. It says,

Answer not a fool according to his folly, lest you be like him yourself. Answer a fool according to his folly, lest he be wise in his own eyes.

So are we supposed to answer a fool or not? Which is it?


Well, it depends.


The second half of the proverbs helps clarify. Verse 4 says not to answer him “lest you be like him”. There are some situations where if you were to stoop down to the level of a fool, he’d just beat you with experience and you’d end up looking stupid. We should not take up the same attitudes or tactics as a fool because we’d become foolish ourselves. Verse 5 says that you should answer him because if you don’t, he’ll think himself wise. There are some situations where it would be fruitful to help show a fool the folly of his position by hypothetically taking on his position and showing the absurdity of it. This is often the task of apologetics. We hypothetically take the assumptions of another worldview and show how it collapses when you take it to its logical conclusion.


So, while it may be dangerous to respond to a fool in his own way because you’ll end up becoming foolish in doing so, it is also the duty of the wise to discern when we must show the fool the folly of his/her position.


Proverbs instruct us towards wisdom and also encourage us to use wisdom in applying them to our lives.


A Strategy for Reading Proverbs | Gleaning

One of the best ways to approach the sections in Proverbs that are sentence sayings is to start collecting them together and arranging them by the topic they address to build a more full picture of the wisdom on it. You can do this as you read by keeping a journal. This is like the analogy of putting together a 1000-piece puzzle. Think of this as picking up the puzzle pieces along the way, and then figuring out how they fit together to form the big picture.

A handy strategy is to read through a chapter of Proverbs every day in the months that have 31 days because Proverbs has 31 chapters. My dad used to make this a regular practice for us as kids and it helped me massively to ingest the wisdom of Proverbs through repetition.


I hope that this little guide will help you read the book of Proverbs more profitably and may we all continue to grow in wisdom, asking from the Lord who gives liberally to all without finding fault (James 1:5).


In our next articles in this wisdom series, we'll take a look at the books of Ecclesiastes and Job.


 

Articles in this series:

  1. Understanding Wisdom Literature | Proverbs

  2. Understanding Wisdom Literature | Job

  3. Understanding Wisdom Literature | Ecclesiastes

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