APR 29 2018: Proverbs – Literary Features

The book of Proverbs is what the title implies— a collection or anthology of individual proverbs. In addition to being teachers and authority figures, the wise men of ancient cultures were literary craftsmen— careful observers of the human condition and masters of a particular kind of discourse (the proverb). 

The first nine chapters of the book are wisdom poems that extend over several verses, urging the reader to pursue wisdom. Chapters 1– 9 provide the ideals and motivation for pursuing wisdom, giving the right frame of mind in which to read the one-sentence proverbs. The proverbs proper— the concise, memorable statement of two or three lines— begin in 10:1. 

A proverb works by making a comparison, and leaving it to the reader to work out how the proverb applies to different situations, following current cultural conventions. In English, “You can lead a horse to water but you cannot make him drink” is regularly applied to human relationships rather than ranching, and the competent reader knows this. 

A feature of wisdom literature is its concreteness: That is, the principle is often given in terms of a specific circumstance or a specific person, rather than in terms of a generalization about people. The false balance, contrasted with the just weight (11:1), is a particular instance of the difference between swindling and honesty in one’s work ethic and commercial dealings. A father speaks to his son, recalling his own boyhood (4:1– 4), as a specific parent speaking to a particular child (rather than to one’s children or to children in general). The idea is not to exclude, say, fathers speaking to daughters (or mothers speaking to sons and daughters); rather, by reflecting on a specific instance the wise reader will perceive the application to his or her own situation (making the appropriate adaptations).

In some cases individual proverbs seem to supply contradictions; the best example is 26:4– 5, admonishing not to answer a fool, and then to answer a fool. These are only contradictory if it is forgotten that they are proverbs, and not laws: the successive verses apply in different situations. Most languages have the same phenomenon: English has “Many hands make light work” and “Too many cooks spoil the broth.” At first sight these seem contradictory, but wisdom includes competence in matching the proverb to the right situation. 

Proverbs of necessity focus on consequences, and this raises the question of whether they are “promises.” Proverbs by nature deal with general truths, and are not meant to cover every conceivable situation. Consider the English proverb, “Short cuts make long delays”; the very form of the proverb forbids adding qualifiers, whether of frequency (often, usually, four times out of five) or of conditions (except in cases where …); these would lessen the memorability of the sentence. The competent reader knows that the force of the proverb is not statistical, but behavioral— in the case of the English proverb cited, to urge due caution. In biblical proverbs, the consequences generally make God’s basic attitude clear, and thus commend or discourage behavior. 

Proverbs often seem to be mere observations about life, but their deeper meanings will reveal themselves if the following grid is applied: (1) What virtue does this proverb commend? (2) What vice does it hold up for disapproval? (3) What value does it affirm?

* Taken from ESV Study Bible.

This Week’s Bible Reading Schedule:

Monday: Proverbs 11 Thursday: Proverb 14
Tuesday: Proverbs 12 Friday: Proverb 15
Wednesday: Proverb 13 Saturday: Proverb 16

Bible Column & Reading Plan by Rev. Chang Soo Lee
Mississauga Camps Lead Pastor