Proverbs: Primer for Princes (1)

This article introduces a series on Proverbs, with contributions from various brethren.

The Structure Analyzed

A proverb a day keeps the devil away” is as easily remembered as its mother adage, “An apple a day keeps the doctor away.” Both likely have the same (lack of) truth value, but the comparison is hardly fair to doctors. Nonetheless, a daily chapter in Proverbs is common and profitable reading in many Christian homes. Its thirty-one chapters fit the longest months. Even better, the ancient wisdom and daily relevance of this inspired book fit the needs of younger and older alike.

Their Plenary Inspiration

Considering at least chapter 30, Solomon is not the source of all the proverbs in this book. According to Solomon’s own words (Eccl 12:9), he studied, searched for, and set in order many proverbs, so he may not be the original source of these proverbs. By their nature, proverbs seem to develop by oral tradition. That Solomon spoke 3000 proverbs, of which less than 400 are in Proverbs, may simply imply that he was wise enough to store up the ancient wisdom available to him. Also, his life was inconsistent with what the book’s first nine chapters teach. That may indicate he is quoting his father’s instruction to him (see 4:3), rather than preaching what he himself didn’t practice. Obviously though, that instruction influenced his request for wisdom from God (1Ki 3:9, 12). Although some of the proverbs he spoke were not recognized as part of the Scriptures until over 250 years later in Hezekiah’s reign (25:1), yet the Spirit of God moved the original sources to speak them (2Pe 1:21), preserved the words through the centuries, and superintended their recognition (about 2600 of Solomon’s proverbs were not included). The recorded proverbs are God-breathed (2Ti 3:16). The inspiration of Scripture is amazing!

Their Preliminary Information

The simplest division of the book includes the introduction (1:1-6) and five sections, marked by their opening verse: 1:7- chapter 9; chapters 10-24; chapters 25-29; chapter 30; chapter 31. If, as suggested, David is the source of the first 9 chapters, they embody the instruction of a father (Israel’s greatest king) to a son – Pleas of a Ruler in His Tutelage. The last section embodies the instruction of a mother (perhaps Solomon’s) to the same son – Pointers for a Ruler in His Training. The second section titled “The Proverbs of Solomon” records the wisdom of Israel’s most glorious king – Pearls of a Ruler in His Teaching. One possible translation of the title of the fourth section is “The sayings of Agur, son of Jakeh of Massa . . .” (NIV, mg.). If this is the Bible’s only recorded Massa (Genesis 25:14, 16), he is among the earliest recorded rulers. One text of verse one reads, “. . . I am weary, O God . . .” Trying to know God, he was weary, a brute beast before a transcendent God (30:2, 3) – Principles From a Ruler in His Tiredness. If Solomon had retained this wisdom, (see also 9:10), how different his life and influence would have been! The third section (chapters 25-29) contains proverbs that Solomon spoke, but that were of great value to Hezekiah, a king who knew God and trusted Him as did no other kings (2Ki 18:5) – Provisions for a Ruler in His Trials.

Observing the form of the proverbs helps to understand them. Primarily, they are Hebrew poetry. As such, they are based not on rhythm and rhyme but on a parallelism and balance of thought. The first nine chapters are primarily narrative or protracted poetry, as are the “words of the wise” (22:17 – 24:34). The last 22 verses (31:10-31) are alphabetical, probably pedagogical poetry. The remainder of the book is pithy poetry, concise and memorable. The poetic balance of most proverbs is within one verse; some are two verses in length, and a few extend further, up to 5 verses (30:24-28). Noting these connections helps to interpret the proverbs.

Basically, the parallelism in the lines of poetry is either synonymous (using repetition to emphasize), antithetical (using contrasts, often presenting a choice), or synthetic (building or completing the thought). The repetition of words or phrases helps to give structure to the book. “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of” knowledge or wisdom (1:7; 9:10) forms brackets around the first section of the book. Related words, like tongue, lips, words, and mouth, give us some hints about groupings of proverbs. Observing that the proverbs copied in Hezekiah’s day have specific relevance to his circumstances unifies those chapters (25-29). Since the book is the result of the Spirit’s inspiration, we may expect that it is more than a random collection of sayings.

Their Prospecting Illustrations

With these suggestions in mind, as we do some prospecting in Proverbs, we’ll look for some fine gold. One proverb that gives a basic principle for the entire book is in the form of synonymous parallelism: “Behold, the righteous shall be recompensed in the earth: much more the wicked and the sinner” (11:31). The synonymous repetition is in the understood form of the two parts of the proverb. The righteous will be recompensed in the earth; the wicked and sinner will be recompensed in the earth. The first word, “behold,” draws attention to a truth we shouldn’t miss. This truth underlies the book of Proverbs. We often focus on the fact that righteousness will have eternal results. This book assures us of a positive result in this life when we express God’s character in our daily living. But, says the proverb, if that is true, how much more will it be true for the wicked and sinners. Why “much more”? Is it because of the manifold frustration, self-destruction, disappointment, and hurtfulness of evil that visits the sinner? Is it because the greater the opposition to God, the greater the certainty of a disastrous outcome?

Another example of synonymous parallelism shows how the forms vary: “The fear of the Lord is the instruction of wisdom; and before honor is humility” (15:33). Here the equivalence of the parallel statements is reversed. Before a person receives the instruction of wisdom, he will have the fear of the Lord (see 9:10). Before a person receives honor, he will have humility. But notice the parallelism in the expressions. Receiving wisdom and being honored are equated (4:7, 8). Solomon’s request for wisdom at the beginning of his reign was inseparable from the honor the Lord promised him (2Ch 1:12). Also, humility and the fear of God are equated. Our preoccupation with self and our preoccupation with God vary inversely.

Two quite similar proverbs exemplify synthetic parallelism: “The law (or teaching, JND) of the wise is a fountain of life, to depart from the snares of death” (13:14); “The fear of the Lord is a fountain of life, that one may turn away from the snares of death” (14:27). In both cases, the second part of the proverb (“to depart . . .” and “that one may turn . . .”) completes the thought of the first part. In the first case, the benefit is to others; in the second, to one’s self. Actually, “depart” and “turn away” translate the same word. Both of these verses should be interpreted with the verses that precede them, but just noting their similarity helps for now. Those who heed what the wise teach them will find satisfaction and will be preserved from the wiles of evil. Likewise, one who reveres the Lord will enjoy the same results. Again, notice the equivalence of heeding wisdom and having the fear of the Lord.

Finally, let’s look at examples of antithetical parallelism. “Every wise woman buildeth her house: but the foolish plucketh it down with her hands” (14:1). The conjunction “but” joining two lines of a proverb is often (but not always) the clue that the lines are antithetical. That is the case here where the wise woman and the foolish woman are opposites, as are building and plucking down. By her words, actions, and example, a wise woman recognizes and nurtures the highest potential for God that each one in her house possesses. The addition of the words, “with her own hands,” may be a telling extension of the contrast. The foolish woman may work hard with her hands in caring for her family, but if not guided by wisdom, even her diligence will be destructive to her family. How broad and searching that is! Thank God for women like Rachel and Leah, who, though imperfect women, were builders (Ruth 4:11)!

As an example of a reversal in an antithetical proverb, consider “Deceit is in the heart of them that imagine evil: but to the counsellors of peace is joy” (12:20). Those who devise evil are the opposite of those who consult with others to effect peace (ultimate well-being). But between deceit and joy there is a reversal. Deceit within produces the plan to harm others. Judas is the sad illustration of this. Joy doesn’t produce the plan for peace, but, as with Mordecai, the man who brings peace to his brothers (Est 10:3) produces joy for them (8:15-17). Understood in the antithesis is the incompatibility of deceit and joy: deceit cannot produce joy; joy does not need deceit to exist. The exemplar of the last part of this proverb is no less than our Lord. To make peace for us (Col 1:20), He endured the cross and its shame, because His faith affirmed the truth that “to the counsellors of peace is joy,” and He fixed His eye on that certain outcome, “the joy that was set before Him” (Heb 12:2).