Introducing the Wisdom Literature (and Proverbs)
The Book of Proverbs is found exactly half way through the Old Testament section of The Bible. It is classified to be part of “The Wisdom Literature” or “The Writings”, alongside Psalms, Job, Ecclesiastes and Song of Songs.
The Wisdom literature contains songs, poems, stories, and images relating to issues of life, including sex, Life, death, G_D, money, power and vengeance. Their purpose is to raise and discuss the issues, with the simplicity of expression that starts inwards and moves outwards.
These art forms are written to encourage an act of faith and engagement. According to Draper, (2012, ln.1225), “the emerging inner form of our lives requires an outer form in order for us to express it within the world. The outer form is not about superficial appearance, however, it is about the way we act”. To put it another way, wisdom is not knowledge or learning unless reflected in prayer and applied in life (Pawson)
The key theme of the Wisdom Literature is to capture the essence of the G_D life, and live our lives as fully and as holy as possible. This is linked to a relationship with the Creator and Redeemer of humanity. We humbly submit to the teaching and worship of G_D and whatever he chooses to reveal to us (ABC, 2010, p.570).
Objections to the book of Proverbs
There are many objections being used for not reading the book of Proverbs, and these include mistaking it for part of the Apocrapha, seeing it irrelevant, anti-grace or structureless.
The Apocrapha is defined as being a selection of Old Testament books not approved for public reading, but valued for private study (IVP, 1980, p.75). It consists of 12 books including The Wisdom of Solomon / Book of Wisdom, which is sometimes confused with the Book of Proverbs”. It is clear at first reading that both books encourage the reader to seek Wisdom and this is a good thing. However the key difference and reason for the exclusion, of the apocrypha’s Book of wisdom is that it is believed to be influenced by Greek / Hellenistic thought, whereas The Book of Proverbs is clearly Jewish.
Other Christians simply dismiss “The Book of Proverbs” as irrelevant. There is a tendency to neglect the book in the worship and teaching of the modern church. Many liturgies choose to favour readings from the book of Psalms, which are perhaps more attuned for singing in various styles.
However, Selvaggio (2011, ln.45) states that the book of Proverbs is about wisdom, and how “we can learn how to live in light of what is really true about ourselves, one another and this wonderful yet deeply flawed world”. Furthermore “a proverbs driven life values wise living and wise speech as essential and inseparable” (Selvaggio, 2011, ln.42).
Additionally, many modern believers are obsessed with a blessed life. However, it is also argued that the purpose of the book was to teach people how to continue in the blessing that they were experiencing during the reign of Solomon. A biblical blessing meant the imparting of divine favour. It meant being open to the “unlimited goodness that only GO_ has the power to know about or give to us” (Wilkinson, 2000, p.23).
Another reason for the neglect of proverbs may be down to its structure. The book has no story line, and can appear at first glance to be very random. This causes problems for anyone trying to write commentaries regarding the book.
In practice, the book of Proverbs could be further divided into two sections, as there are marked differences between chapters 1-9, and 10-31. The 1st nine versus are mostly speeches or discourses, whereas the chapters 10 onwards contain little sayings of observation, rules and encouragements.
There are 31 Chapters to the Book of Proverbs, and they contain the key proverbs and sayings from this time. The late Selwyn Hughes was encouraged to read a chapter a day as a warm up to his main study during his quiet time. This way he read the whole book, at a rate of a chapter a day every month.
The advantage in such circular reading is that it can be used to ground the bible student so that they keep moving heavenwards in a circular way and never diverting too far from the centre (Christ). This is similar to a spiral staircase, in which every rotation provides something new to see or discover, and it mirrors life which is marked by the rotation of the sun, and the changing seasons.
With every rotation in Proverbs, the reader is forced to return to the same questions, eg: what does it mean to serve a GOD of Love when regarding the treatment of others, business practice etc. Often it is not so much about the destination, but the journeying, as the exile sets out and return home again (Adams, 2012, ln.216).
Finally, some Christians’ wrongly believe that the book is anti-grace in it’s message. However the book does not denounce the action of what YHWH has done for us, but guide us as to how to live our lives. A key proof regarding grace relates to how the book prohibits vengeance (Pr25.21).
However, Claiborne and Campolo (2012, p.11), make the point that “if our gospel is only about personal salvation, then it is incomplete. If our gospel is only about social transformation and not about a G_D who knows us personally and counts the hairs on our heads, then it, too, is incomplete”.
Many churches favour New Testament teaching like the Sermon on the Mount, or the words that are attributed directly to Jesus (also known as “red letter Christianity”). However Jesus himself reminds us that all the writings and the prophets relate directly to him, so therefore this book is about Jesus and contains clues about his character, for example, in Proverbs 30 Agur acknowledges the fatherhood of G_D, and asks “what is his son,s name? Surely you know.”
The Background to the Book of Proverbs
The majority of the book can be linked to the lips of King Solomon, before he stopped listening to YHWH and following his guidance. When Jerusalem became a centre of learning, scholars came from all over the world to marvel at Solomon’s Wisdom, and to exchange ideas. It is assumed that some of these ideas may have made it into the book (NIrV, p.578). This dates the book to approximately 970 to 930BC (Longman and Enns, 2008, p.539).
Another key source of the book is Oralytic wisdom, relating to poetry and other oral teaching composed in a non literate setting. Notably Proverb’s other authors include Agur and King Lemuel’s mother. Both of these have identities which are unknown, however, here the focus is on what they say, not who they are.
This was a time of great discovery within Israel. They Kingdom remained united, safe, and booming under their third king. The temple was built for the first time, and there was a natural minimum standard of living as everyone had homes, their own vines and a fig tree to sit under (2 Kings 4.25). Art flourished as Solomon himself “spoke 3000 proverbs, and his songs were 1005” (2 Kings 4.32 ESV).
Although the Christian faith in the UK, or the nation itself may not be experiencing a boom and golden age: the proverbs are time tested and relevant today. At a corporate level, the proverbs can be systematically read, and examined by a congregation experiencing revival or renewal, or even when treading water. They provide clues to the blessed life and how to sustain it.
Many cultures, and especially those linked to tradition, have their own proverbs, which are often passed down from generation to generation. For example, Archaeologists have discovered papyrus scrolls called “The Wisdom of Amenemope” which are considered similar to those of the Book of Proverbs.
Proverbs are often like the tweets / twitter of their day in that they are weird little sayings shared widely for all who would listen by people who were considered to be famous, wise, or learned.
Proverbs provide clues for individuals as how to best live in the environment in which they find themselves. However it is argued that biblical proverbs as contained in the Book of Proverbs differ as they have to be seen in a covenant context, and relate specifically to how YHWH relates to his people (ABC, 2010, p.773)
A Proverb is a comparison in Hebrew (ABC, 2010). They offer choices between two extremes, eg; life and death, and riches or poverty. Mixed pairs are well established in Hebrew literature and their is documented evidence dating back to the 1930s in both Hebrew and Ugaritic literature. (Longman & Enns, 2008, p.498).
An example of mixed pairs is found in Proverbs 13.21-22, where the first verse starts with sinners and the second ends with sin. This is in line with the basic construct of parrelelism because there is a link between the first and second verse. The second verse focuses the reader in an alternate direction, either of warning or aspiration (Longman and Enns, 2008).
The Hebrew word for “proverbs” is “Masal”, and it is sometimes translated as “parables”, and this is not far of the truth. For example; proverbs 7 versus 6 to 27, relates to a man making unwise choices, and being led away by immorality. In the story, he chooses to go to a bad area of town, in the evening, and makes bad company. The story ends with his destruction and ruin. The use of parables was later taken up by Jesus as a teaching aid. They provided warnings and encouragement, and were in the tradition of the parables.
Biblical proverbs are sometimes viewed as “short sentences from long experience” (Missler, 2011). It is possible that some of the proverbs may have been taught to Solomon, by David and Bathsheba. Therefore they will have been influenced by the consequences of their own sin. In this respect, they provide practical tips for living and avoiding the mistakes of others (Know your bible)
Biblical proverbs often take the form of “numericals or acrostics” (Temper & Enns, 2008). Primarily: numericals are found whenever it is necessary to list certain features, in order to make a point. They often relate to ethics, nature and basic theology. Eg; “three things are too wonderful for me: four I do not understand: the way of an eagle in the sky, the way of a snake on a rock, the way of a ship on the sea, and the way of a man with a virgin” (proverbs 30.18-19 ESV). The emphasis in numerical is nearly always on the last sentence or comparison, and this case relates to the treatment of women. (Longman and Enns, 2008)
Acrostics occur when each verse starts with a different letter of the Hebrew alphabet, and these are good for memory purposes, however do not always translate well into English. An example is found in the woman who fears the LORD (Proverbs 31.12-end, ESV), which relates to the characteristics of a good wife.
The role of Proverbs
Proverbs is a collection of wise sayings brought together as a kind of self help book (NIrV, p.731). They offer advice regarding situations in life and the application of the word, especially the ten commandments (Longman and Enns, 2008).
If life is a journey, then proverbs could be likened to a gyroscope, especially when dealing with the ethical situations of life. “A gyroscope is an instrument that refers you to the true north and is not subject to magnetic fields that can scramble a compass. It will point you in the right direction whatever the circumstances, no matter how choppy the seas, no matter what interference surrounds it” (Draper, 2012, ln.240).
Holiness includes acting in a fair way and this may be separate from the law. The problem being that what is legal, may be unholy or unethical, especially where leadership or business is concerned. This is a problem, because the church of G_D is called to be holy and blameless in the eyes of YHWH and mankind, which means (in a free faith society), we should usually aim to be Holy and legal.
In business it is possible to obey the law and treat people wrongly, therefore disobeying the spirit if not the letter of the law. Years later, Jesus was to condemn this very thing in his addresses to the pharasees, for example: thithing their dill but neglecting justice. Examples of bad ethical / unholy practices may involve economic trading practices or manipulating employees or suppliers. It could also involve leadership practices or accounting procedures.
The key role of the Book of Proverbs is to fill us with wisdom, or a skill for living our lives correctly. The key verse is Proverbs 1.7, which says “”the fear of the LORD is the beginning of knowledge (Wisdom): fools despise wisdom and instruction” (ESV) The fear of the LORD has been defined as many things. Floyd McLung described it as “a desire not to sin” and Proverbs 8 describes it as “hatred of evil”. Proverbs 14.2 (NET) says “he who goes on his way in righteousness has before him the fear of the LORD”.
However it would be a mistake to like fearing G_D as a negative thing. Proverbs 14.27 (ESV) says “The fear of the LORD is a fountain of life, that one may turn away from the snares of death”. Furthermore, “the fear of the LORD is the instruction in Wisdom; and humility comes before honour” (Proverbs 15.33, ESV). There is also provison linked to fearing GOD as proverbs 19.23 says that whoever fears the LORD “will rest satisfied” (ESV). “The reward for humility and fear of the LORD is riches and honour and life” (Proverbs 22.4 ESV).
Others link a fear of the LORD to a life of devoted worship, and argue that to truly worship G_D we need to acknowledge his divine attributes, and be motivated to live our lives to please him (Anderson, 2012). In other words, “wonder is the beginning of wisdom” (G Hughes, 1985, ln 219). It is about excepting that God is God, and he alone is sovereign and in charge. However as Ruis (2006, p.18) points out “the fragrance of worship is justice.. Where there is no justice there is no fragrance”.
There are many definitions of wisdom, in theological and philosophical circles, and arguably no definition fully defines the nature, purpose and character of Wisdom, especially as portrayed in the bible. Most people tend to view wisdom as knowledge viewed over time, however Philosophers and theologians disagree and describe wisdom as a moral rather than an intellectual quality (Eastons bible commentary, 2012).
The Philosopher Aristotle defined wisdom as the capacity to order all parts of the self, and all the components of action in a realistic and effective way (Novak, 1996, p.105). He viewed Wisdom as being like an archer using available knowledge (like wind direction) to hit a target. The archery image has impacted Christianity’s understanding of sin, as a failure to hit the mark, and wisdom has been reduced to a means of being more godly. Therefore “wisdom may be linked into failure” (Sacred Space, 2012), and learning from mistakes.
Additionally,“Wisdom is the practical use of knowledge” (lloydbottom, 2009, p.32-33). Similarly, wisdom is “the ability to judge correctly and follow the best course of action” (Leitch, 1996). This can lead to an arrogance that makes people think they are superior to others. St Paul was later to write “If anyone among you thinks that he is wise in this age, let him become a fool that he may become wise. For the wisdom of this world is folly to G_D” (1 Corinthians 3.18-19 ESV)
Systematic theologians have attempted to define wisdom in mathematical and strategic terms. For example:
“Wisdom is excellence + creativity + integrity” (Johnson, 2010, day 263). Although a good means of focussing on moving forward in wisdom, and developing a wiser character, the problem is that it reduces wisdom to mans’ efforts only.
Selwyn Hughes, (2007) said the world was designed for wisdom. Those who follow wisdom find the world made for them”. Furthermore the acquiring of wisdom is linked to G_D, and his purposes, for “no wisdom, no understanding, no counsel, can avail against the LORD” (Proverbs 21.30 ESV).
During the exile, Daniel and his friend were to receive Wisdom after adhering to food laws, by only eating vegetables. This obedience when blended with a desire for learning led over time to amazing results. The bible records (Daniel 1.17-20) that the men were 10 times better than anyone in Nebuchanezzar’s kingdom who claimed to get knowledge by using magic.
Sacred Space (2011) acknowledge that wisdom often comes from the consequences of failure (like being exiled). This gives a chance to repent, refocus and the ability to see the bigger picture, and develops patience in difficult circumstances. However by being open to G_D’s presence, you are able to progress along wisdom’s path.
Another approach to wisdom is to view it as being a divine gift, or act of grace. In this context, wisdom “is G_D giving you something and you knowing what to do with it” (Lloydbottom, 2009, p.32-33). Wisdom is grace given, and the proof is that Solomon would neither have got it, or retained it based on his behaviour. Furthermore his lineage (David and Bathsheba) was steeped in sin and human error.
Solomon received Wisdom as being a divine gift or reward from God, and used it to rule his kingdom well (Johnson, 2008. p.262). According to Evans (2011), The gift of wisdom helps to solve our problems and makes our life more productive and pleasant. Like all gifts, it has to be used correctly, and in a way that glorifies G_D. In Solomon’s life this included the best ways to rule his kingdom, administer justice, and improve the lives and worship of his people. Unfortunately the blessings (women, money, etc), that followed proved too much and led him astray.
Finally wisdom could be considered to be prophetic in nature. Many scholars believe that Wisdom adopts human form, and lives among us. Proverbs 8. 2 (NET), says “at the top of the highways, at the meeting of the roads, she takes her place, where the roads go into the town her cry goes out, at the doorway her voice is heard”.
In Old Testament times Wisdom was personified through creation, and the witness and example of God’s people modelling God’s way to future and present generations. However: even Agur (an author of Proverbs), acknowledge that his wisdom was limited and perhaps unknowingly prophesied a fuller Wisdom to come.
“I have not got wisdom by teaching, so that I might have knowledge of the Holy One. Who has gone up into heaven and come down. Who has taken the winds in his hands, prisoning the waters in his robe. By whom have all the ends of the earth been fixed? What is his name, and what is his son’s name, if you are able to say?” (Proverbs 30.3-4 NET).
In the New Testament; Jesus calmed the waves, and stopped the wind, healed the sick and performed great deeds. Furthermore when Jesus was ministering the congregation was amazed at his wisdom (Mk 1.21-22). He even used parables as his main teaching style. Paul goes even further and defines Jesus as wisdom itself, in whom lies “all the treasure of wisdom and knowledge” (Colossions 2.3). According to Claiborne and Campolo (2012, p.7) the “beautiful thing about the incarnation is that Jesus shows us what G_D is like with skin on – in a way we see, touch, feel and follow”.
According to Selvaggio (2011, ln.146), it is vital to remember that the goal of Proverbs is not about finding earthly prosperity or even wisdom itself. The goal of Proverbs is to grow ever closer to the G_D who is Wisdom”.
Wisdom and error
There are many misunderstandings relating to the Book of Proverbs. Leitch (1996) highlighted that two common errors including mistaking folk wisdom and customs for wisdom, and following rules not the spirit of the law.
In the case of folk wisdom, he was referring to sayings, which do nothing to help the Christian / Jewish cause. For example, the saying “he is guilty because his eyes are too close together”. This is likely to be in-factual, and a case of providing bad judgement. In fact; the book of Proverbs has a lot to say about ensuring fair justice, for example, Proverbs 31.9 says “open your mouth, judge righteously, defend the rights of the poor and needy” (ESV).
An example of bad customs might include the stag, from which we get the modern stag night. This was supposed to be a fertility ritual designed to diversify limited gene pools. In reality it was an excuse for immorality.
Some feminists wrongly consider or place Wisdom as an extra (predominantly female) member of Trinity, when plain and simply Wisdom is not the same as G_D. This error is often propagated by feminist theology, that seeks to have a female component within the Trinity. An example of a misquoted verse would be “Wisdom is building her house” (Proverbs 14.1, NET), which has a female pronoun.
It is worth noting the challenges that Proverbs 31 would have provided, because its source was the mother of King Lemuel, a women who taught proverbs as if there were from G_D. Furthermore phrases like “do not give up on the teaching of you mother” (Proverbs 1.8 NET), may be seen to lend support to a feminist viewpoint.
However the use of female pronouns has simpler explanations. Primarily, in Solomon’s day, women had less equality than today. They were considered less intelligent, and often excluded from faith discussions. The use of female pronouns challenged sexism and confirmed the value of women as the leader in the home. Therefore the proverbs were said predominantly (but not exclusively) for men of the time, to encourage respect for women, but now apply to both sexes equally.
Lady Wisdom versus Lady Folly
The use of lady Wisdom (Proverbs 9) could be seen as a challenge to marry only Jewish or godly women, and to choose marriage partners wisely.
Chapter 9 of Proverbs sees the options clearly laid out. Lady Wisdom (G_D’s way) calls from highest standards. She encourages repentance from her audience. She is openly hospitable to the needy. Wisdom does not lie, and is truthful. The ways of wisdom will increase and not shorten your life.
Compare this to Lady Folly (not following G_D’s way). Disobedience means following the lowest standards, and deviation from decency. A lack of wisdom results in secretive and greedy behaviour. Finally you cannot trust an unwise person with your life or future, because they are prone to lies.
It is noteworthy that, the book makes no distinction between white lies, intended to save face or major (outright) lies, thus indicating that God demands the truth always. Some faiths do not make this distinction, but G_D does, so this helps identify a true / false prophet.
This links to the choice between temple worship or worshipping Baal, and acknowledges the persuasive influences of other religions, which today could be likened to religions like Islam or Hinduism. Certainly it is a clear call to worship rightly, to fear the LORD, and this is linked to justice in all areas of life.
The 7 Pillars of Wisdom
One of the most debated versus of the Book of Proverbs relates to Proverbs 9.1, which says “Wisdom has made her house, putting up her seven pillars” (NET). Most scholars agree that the important thing is that the house in question could be applied equally to the life of the individual Christian and the church as a whole. The implication being that they become a place in which G_D’s word dwells through the power of the Holy Spirit.
The confusion usually relates to what the seven pillars are, because amusingly the Book of proverbs does not specify.
Certainly, there are many uses of the number 7 in scripture, for example, “The 7 Churches in Acts”. The Dummy’s guide to the bible suggests that the seven pillars relates to a complete number, with six representing incompleteness. The implication here is that we have a duty to complete any tasks set us and live righteously for G_D in all areas of our lives.
It is interesting to note that there are 7 messianic feasts relating to the messiah in the Jewish calendar. The feast point to reasons to celebrate as well as providing support throughout the year. However, critically there were 5 other feasts.
A negative viewpoint links the 7 pillars to seven things that GOD hates, and suggest that these provide clues. These are listed (Proverbs 6.16-19), as being eyes of pride, a false tongue, hands that kill without cause, a heart of evil designs, feet that go after sin a false witness, and a person of violence.
Selwyn Hughes (2007) suggested that the 7 pillars could relate to seven recurring themes in the Book of Proverbs. His seven pillars are off equal importance and all essentially crucial for spiritual growth and faith involves multiple efforts in all areas of life. It also requires a constant refocus on what has been learnt before. Furthermore all of the themes need other themes to be successful, for example, personal purity in marriage is never achieved without trust, friendship and integrity.
The key point of pillars is that they hold things up, by combining the overall weight on several key areas. These pillars also provide a visible witness of what the architect was trying to say, especially when they are ornately decorated. In the time of Solomon, the best and largest structures had pillars as support, and therefore this verse could be seen as proof of the greatness of The Holy One.
Similarly, there are 7 candles on some menorahs which give more light than a single candle. Key to this assumption is the fact that The Temple of Solomon had a large 7 candled menorah which lit the entire courtroom. Furthermore, it would not be unreasonable for there to be a link with the Temple of Solomon, and further study is needed to identify any occurrences of the number 7 in the temple’s structure or contents.
Conclusion and Summary
In conclusion, the essay highlighted that the Book of Proverbs is often viewed as difficult to read, sometimes as being negative or grace less. However it is full of wise instructions, and was originally designed to help G_D,s people retain a blessed life. To this end: Chuck Missler (2011), summed up the Book of Proverbs with the sentence “wise up an live”.
This essay also highlighted the connections between godliness and justice, and between a life of blessing and fear of the Lord. The essay discussed the fact that the fear of the LORD involves rejecting evil, and living in a state of worshipful wonder, always contemplating what The Holy One desires. If the “fragrance of worship is Justice” (Ruis, 2006), then the essence of the Book of Proverbs is to continue in his presence by offering the worship he requires. .
The best way to relate to the book is to read it in a circular manner, being always open to learn more, and tap into the divine power of YHWH. Like a spiral staircase that you climb heavenwards, getting a different view with each rotation, and a different challenge regarding what to change.
Spiritual growth involves the grace to receive the gift of Wisdom, but also the practical application and careful living in all areas of life and faith. The essay discussed and critiqued the various viewpoints regarding Wisdom, and what they mean in practice. Accepting that all views have something to offer, it is important whether doing business or even raising a family, you must endeavour to obey the whole law and the spirit in which it was written.
Furthermore a life of wisdom means being open to what the Shekinah (Holy Spirit) can do through you, and prophetically accepting the rule of Jesus in your life, because the book points continuously to him.
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