Bibliotheca Sacra  144 (576) (1987) 419-432.

               Copyright © 1987 by Dallas Theological Seminary.  Cited with permission.

 

 

 

 

                           An Analysis of Proverbs 1:1-7

 

 

 

                                                        John E. Johnson

                                                           Senior Pastor

                              Lents Conservative Baptist Church, Portland, Or

 

     

 

 

In his address to the Society of Biblical Literature about 20

years ago, John McKenzie reflected what he believed to be a com-

mon sentiment toward wisdom literature.  Concluding that Pro-

verbs has never been the most thrilling area of biblical study, he

declared, "The wisdom books attract readers from the general

public which reads the Bible, whoever they may be, no more than

they attract scholars."1

      Since that time, however, the church has come to a greater

appreciation of the Old Testament, and wisdom literature in par-

ticular. Articles and books have devoted much space to the

sufferings of Job, the observations of the sages in Proverbs, and the

despair of the Preacher in Ecclesiastes. Scobie recently observed,

"In few areas of biblical scholarship is there more lively interest

at the present time than in the study of 'Wisdom."'2

Yet the material of such books as Proverbs continues to inspire

few sermons. A recent writer suggests this is because of the failure

 

[1] John L. McKenzie, "Reflections on Wisdom," Journal of Biblical Literature 86 (March

1967): 1. See Charles H. H. Scobie, "The Place of Wisdom in Biblical Theology,"

Biblical Theology Bulletin 14 (April 1984): 43, for interesting statistical information.

Ludwig Kohler (Old Testament Theology [Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1957]) and

Th. C. Vriezen (An Outline of Old Testament Theology [Oxford: Blackwell, 1970])

devoted less than 1 percent of their theological studies to wisdom, and Walter Eichrodt

gave only 2.5 percent to it.

2 Scobie, "The Place of Wisdom in Biblical Theology," p. 43.



420             Bibliotheca Sacra / October-December 1987

 

to see the present-day relevance of the book. "The crisis of rele-

vance, which confronts any preacher who tries to bring to life a

two-thousand year old scripture, is especially acute in books like

Proverbs and Ecclesiastes."3 True, the study of wisdom literature

has increased. And yet theological works still give scant atten-

tion to the contribution of wisdom literature to theology proper,

bibliology, and anthropology.

          The secular world, for all its intellectual pursuits, also main-

tains a lack of fondness for wisdom. Carl Henry has summarized

its present condition: "Despite its pursuit of knowledge, our

generation, snared in relativities, is a stranger to wisdom. Wis-

dom--which Augustine viewed as 'the unum necessarium'--is no

longer considered as the mind's indispensable acquisition, even by

most intellectuals."4

The consequence of such priorities is a modern society of intel-

lectual giants who are pygmies in the art of living. Robinson, in

the foreword of Alden's commentary on Proverbs, makes this sad

observation: "Alumni from noted universities have mastered in-

formation about a narrow slice of life but couldn't make it out of

the first grade when it comes to living successfully with family

and friends."5

If Proverbs is to make a greater impact, if it is to be the source

of more sermons, and if it is to be considered more deeply for its

theological contributions, more attention needs to be given to the

proper interpretation of its truths. Too often, bits and pieces of

this wisdom book are grabbed, taken out of context, and abusively

applied.6 The consequence of such actions is the tendency to treat

the book with trivial respect.

 

Approaches to the Introduction

 

Proper interpretation, however, must begin with the intro-

duction of the book in Proverbs 1:1-7. Unfortunately Proverbs  

 

3 John J. Collins, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1980), p. 1.

4 Carl F. H. Henry, God, Revelation and Authority (Waco, TX: Word Books, 1979),

3:306.

5 Haddon W. Robinson, foreword to Proverbs, by Robert L. Alden (Grand Rapids: Baker

Book House, 1983), p. 7.

6 Gordon Fee and Douglas D. Stuart note a number of abuses common to wisdom

literature (How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth [Grand Rapids: Zondervan Pub-

lishing House, 1981], p. 188).

 



                                      An Analysis of Proverbs 1 :1.7                   421

 

suffers the same treatment given to most books. The preface is ap-

proached like a highway in the summer desert: one journeys over

it as expediently as possible to arrive at his destination.

The superficial treatment often given to Proverbs 1:1-7 can be

traced in part to its unusual construction. In addition most

commentaries do little to encourage the student to slow down.

They are anxious to move on to the greener pastures of the book.

Many interpreters find Proverbs 1:1-7 lacking in harmony and

inner consistency.7 If attention is given to this prelude, the focus is

generally on the variety of terms used for wisdom. Alden expres-

ses his appreciation for the "grand array of terms.”8  Crenshaw

refers to the introduction as a collection of words "heaped" to-

gether into a stereometry.9

Crenshaw's assessment may have been influenced by von Rad,

who characterizes the introduction as a cumulation of known terms

presenting the comprehensive nature of wisdom. The "hypnotic

piling up of nouns" is an attempt to fix the limits, to define a spe-

cific area of sense by the use of words that are full of meaning. A

single word would have been inadequate to say what the author

wanted (cf. Bildad's need of four verses to convey the judgment of a

fool, Job 18:7-10). However, rather than "heaped" together, von

Rad concludes that they have been poetically expressed with a

care that "falls little short of that of the modern scientist."10

If any attention is given to the unique syntax of Proverbs 1:1-7,

it is often brief and inadequate. Cox finds a unity that is under-

scored by the grammatical structure, but gives an imprecise de-

scription of the unifying element as the "infinite construct" that

dominates the passage.11 A full discussion is given by Delitzsch,

who says the infinitives in verses 2-6 are the "statement of its ob-

ject," annexed to verse 1.12 In his scheme verse 2 serves as the main

object of Proverbs. Verses 3-5 expand verse 2a, while verse 6 gives

 

7 William McKane, Proverbs (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1970) p. 263.

8 Alden, Proverbs, p. 21

9 James L. Crenshaw, Old Testament Wisdom (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1981), p.32.

10 Gerhard von Rad, Wisdom in Israel (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 19r4), p. 25.

11 Dermot Cox, Proverbs (Wilmington, DE: Michael Glazier, 1982), p. 98.

[1]2 Franz Delitzsch, Biblical Commentary on the Proverbs of Solomon, trans. M. G.

Easton, 2 vols. (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1950), 1:2.



422             Bibliotheca Sacra / October-December 1987

 

a fuller explanation of verse 2b. Likewise both McKane and Toy

connect the infinitives to verse 1, finding the paragraph syn-

tactically a continuation of verse 1.13

Unfortunately the change of construction in verse 5 is often

overlooked. Delitzsch explains it away as a change for stylistic

reasons. Others see the sentence as a parenthesis or editorial in-

sertion. McKane appears to side with Gemser, who suspects that

it is an intrusion, and Toy comment that, "it seems, indeed, not to

belong here."14 Others lump verse 5 with verses 2-4, and take

verse 6 as a consecutive series of purpose clauses, ignoring that

there has been a significant grammatical change.15

These examples reveal a variety of approaches to the intro-

duction. Some are enamored by the multitude of terms for wisdom,

others give brief attention to the grammar, and some attempt to

find contextual design.16 However, none give a satisfying expla-

nation for the changes in verbal forms, nor do they adequately re-

late the content to the grammatical construction. All this pro-

motes the attitude that 1:1-7 does pot playa significant role in

understanding Proverbs.

This article seeks to demonstrate the importance of the first

seven verses of Proverbs. As the book climaxes with careful acros-

tic design, so one finds a work of art in the opening. Synthetic

poetry is skillfully enlisted to state a series of objectives that give

the would-be sage his bearings for the rest of the trip.

 

An Analysis of the Introduction

 

1 The proverbs of Solomon, the son of David, the king of Israel:

2 To know wisdom and discipline;

To discern the words of understanding;

 

[1]3 See also R. B. Y. Scott, Proverbs and Ecclesiastes (Garden City, NY: Doubleday

& Co., 1965), p. 35. He notes, "The series of clauses is syntactically dependent

on the title and with it forms a single unbroken sentence."

[1]4 Crawford H. Toy, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Book of Proverbs,

The International Critical Commentary (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1899), p. 14.

[1]5 See Roland E. Murphy, Wisdom Literature and Psalms (Nashville: Abingdon

Press, 1983), p. 64.

[1]6 Wilson finds careful design in the introduction, corresponding to the theme,

structure, and function of the epilogue of Ecclesiastes (Gerald H. Wilson, "'The

Words of the Wise': The Intent and Significance of Qohelet 12:9-14," Journal of

Biblical Literature 103 (June 1984): 180.

 


                                   An Analysis of Proverbs 1 :1-7                     423

 

3 To receive discipline of insight,

Righteousness and judgment and uprightness;

4 To give to the simple prudence,

To the youth knowledge and purpose-

5 Let a wise man hear and add instruction,

And let the understanding acquire wise counsel-

6 To understand a proverb and a satire,

Words of the wise and their riddles.

7 The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge,

But fools despise wisdom and discipline (author's

translation).17

 

THE INTRODUCTION IDENTIFIES THE BOOK'S LITERARY GENRE

 

The first verse introduces the entire Book of Proverbs. In

these opening words, the basic authorship, the character of the

material, and the kind of literature are established. Similar

verses identify individual collections within the book, as well as

designate the book's structure (10:1; 22:17; 24:23; 25:1; 30:1; 31:1).

The opening verse assigns the authorship of the Book of Prov-

erbs to Solomon much like the authorship of the Book of Psalms is

popularly assigned to David. The title reveals that the book is

set apart as royal literature, written in the context of the court, to

be enjoyed by its patrons and practiced by those close to the king.18

This verse informs the reader about the kind of literature

encountered in the book. It is material set in proverbial form to

encourage the mind to slow down and compare, each couplet serv-

ing as a kind of thesis for discussion among the sages.19 To read

Proverbs rapidly leads to frustration. As Collins put it, "To read

straight through a few chapters of Proverbs is like trying to have

conversation with someone who always replies with a one-

liner."20 Hence from the very beginning the readers are made

ware of the manner in which they must read the book.

 

[1]7 Three types of parallelism are present in this passage. Verses 1-4 and 6 are

synthetic, that is, the second line in each verse takes up and develops a thought

begun in the first line of the verse. In verse 5, there is a close similarity between

both lines, signifying synonymous parallelism. Verse 7 is antithetical; the second

line contrasts with the first.

[1]8 McKane, Proverbs, p. 262.

[1]9 Scott, Proverbs and Ecclesiastes, p. 24.

20 Collins, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, p. 13.

 



424 Bibllotheca Sacra / October-December 1987

 

Within the book numerous comparisons are being made-the

wise woman with the adulteress, one road with another road, and

others. Most statements are placed in poetic parallelism in which

one line compares with and explains the other. These lines are

placed antithetically, synthetically, and synonymously.

Antithetical parallelism in particular lends itself to the

sage's philosophy, for he finds no middle ground between wisdom

and folly. This kind of parallelism dominates chapters 10

through 15. Mankind is divided into two diametrically opposed

groups in which, as Gammie puts it, "a mutual antipathy obtains

between the members of the respective groups."21 In an age of

relativism, in which societies pride themselves on their plural-

ism, this clear measuring device is needed.

 

THE INTRODUCTION DECLARES THE BOOK'S OBJECTIVES

 

Just as the conclusion is set apart by an acrostic, so the intro-

duction is set apart by its own unique grammatical construction. A

verbal pattern is utilized, one line building on another, to explain

why the book was written.

Beyond the opening verses, much of the first nine chapters

contains exhortation or instruction. In much of the rest of the book,

imperfect verbs appear to make neutral assertions, "definitive

observations on a particular topic"22 without any direct appeal to

the listener. Describing them as retrospective with only an em-

pirical value, von Rad writes, "The experiences are cited, the

conclusions are drawn, and the result is produced."23 However,

these experiences, cited from lengthy observations, do take on a

tone of responsibility. What appears as a descriptive ethic has

prescriptive value. "The fact that these are included with.

overtly didactic sayings suggests that they can be used for didac-

tic purposes on a particular level-for reasons other than that of

merely registering an experiential fact."24

Whereas the rest of the book uses imperative or imperfect

verbs to make hortatory or observational statements, much of the

 

21 John J. Gammie, "Spatial and Ethical Dualism in Jewish Wisdom and Apoca-

lyptic Literature," Journal of Biblical Literature 93 (Summer 1974): 372.

22 McKane, Proverbs, p. 413.

23 Von Rad, Wisdom in Israel, p. 31.

24 Roland E. Murphy, "Form Criticism and Wisdom Literature," Catholic Biblical

Quarterly 31 (October 1969): 479

 



                            An Analysis of Proverbs 1:1-7                                       425

 

introduction uses infinitive constructs to set forth a series of pur-

pose statements.25 This alerts the observant reader that some-

thing is different, that there is instruction to be gained before

moving on.

This form of introduction is found in other wisdom literature,

most notably the Egyptian wisdom of Ptahhotep and Amen-em-

opet. Those writings also begin with a title followed by a series of

purpose statements. In the "other book" in Proverbs (22:17-24:34)

infinitive constructs are again employed in the opening verses

(22:19, 21) to declare the objectives.

The origin behind this sort of introduction may be found in the

oral tradition of teaching wisdom, in which a teacher began by

defining his purpose. The unusual length is explained by Murphy:

"Here the prolixity suggests a certain reflection and literary con-

cern on the part of a writer (editor) who wishes to emphasize the

value and importance of what follows."26 However, as the four

objectives of Proverbs are examined, one finds no redundancy here.

Each one stands on its own and is complete apart from the others.

Objective one: to impart an intimate acquaintance with wisdom

and discipline (v. 2a). The first and preeminent purpose of Proverbs

is to state the object with which a wise man must become inti-

mately acquainted-he must know wisdom and discipline (v. 2a).

The all-embracing term for wisdom is hmAk;HA. It conveys the

idea of skill. Proverbs aims to show a person how to become adroit

at the greatest skill of all, the skill of living. Proverbs pictures a

world designed with order, from the tiniest speck to the largest

ocean (Prov. 8:26-29). Man in his foolishness has blurred this de-

sign, and so the first principle of wisdom is to discover the skill to

lead a life of moral order in an ordered universe. The importance

of such an endeavor is summarized by Scott, who says that

Proverbs shows man that a life lived in the fear of God can have

"order" and "meaning."27

The intimate sister of wisdom is discipline (rsaUm). While

refers to prudent, skillful, experienced living, rsaUm suggests

 

25 Five of the six verbal nouns are construct in form. The one absolute infinitive,

from   lkaWA  (v. 3), serves as a substantive.

26 Roland E. Murphy, Wisdom Literature: Job, Proverbs, Ruth, Canticles, Ecclesi-

astes, Esther (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1981), p. 54.

27 R. B. Y. Scott, The Way of Wisdom in the Old Testament (New York Macmillan

Publishing Co., 1971), p. 228.



426             Bibliotheca Sacra / October-December 1987

 

correction or chastening. It refers to the correcting of one's wrong

conduct, the chastening of one's life by God to bring him into con-

formity to His will. Those who beseech God for wisdom need to

realize that it does not come apart from discipline or correction.

Objective two: to impart understanding of wisdom sayings (v.

2b, 6). The second objective is to help the reader recognize and

understand "the sayings of understanding," sayings that reflect

discernment about life.

The wise men did not produce simplified "folk sayings" but a

consciously and laboriously developed piece of art. Crenshaw ob-

serves:

If we are correct in assuming that the wise constituted a distinct

class within Israel, we may make another assumption: that these

sages used a characteristic mode of discourse. It follows that the lit-

erary forms within Job, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Sirach, and Wisdom

of Solomon comprise a special world of communication which can

only be understood in terms of its own categories.28

 

Because God chose to reveal His wisdom in a language von Rad

describes as "highly daring," the serious sage must be competent to

handle its poetic form, the rhythm found not in vowel but in

thought.

The term "understanding" (hnAybi) more accurately refers to

discernment. The person who is truly wise is able to separate, to

discriminate, to read between the lines. On the surface some lines

of poetry seem to have no relationship to each other (e.g., the two

lines in 25:27). Some verses appear to be independent (d. 25:16-

17), while others are connected (26:4-5).

The repetition of the second objective in verse 6 underscores

the difficulties to be encountered. This verse also specifies what a

person desiring wisdom must come to understand. To be wise, he

must pierce the meaning of proverbs, satire, and riddles-

thoughts that deal with the mysteries of life experiences (d.

16:1-3, 9; 25:2-3).

Objective three: to impart moral insight (v. 3). The proverbs of

Solomon have been collected so that a person might receive moral

insight. Like hmAk;HA (“wisdom"),  lk,We (“insight") refers to skill, es-

pecially the ability to understand history and foresee future

 

28 Crenshaw, Old Testament Wisdom, pp.36-37. See also John E. Johnson, "The

Contribution of Proverbs to Ethics," ThD diss., Dallas Theological Semmary, 1984,

pp.100-106.



                   An Analysis of Proverbs                                      427

 

consequences. The second line of verse 3 distinguishes this third

objective-the ability to have insight into what is upright,

moral, and just. True wisdom is never exhibited apart from a

moral framework of right standards.

The Book of Proverbs is a storehouse of moral instruction. Von

Rad writes, "The Book of Proverbs has always been regarded as

containing the concentrated deposit of ancient Israelite moral-

ity.”29 The Old Testament prophets often emphasized the need

for personal and national righteousness. Yet along with the Torah :

the "deposit" of Israelite wisdom literature may have had a

strong moral impact on the prophets (cf. Isa. 5; Jeremiah's frequent

use of the word  rsaUm and Ezekiel's use of the proverbial form).

Side by side, the prophets and the wise men called Israel to high

moral standards. Waltke finds a common cause in both kinds of

leaders, describing them as "true spiritual yokefellows sharing

the same Lord, cultus, faith, hope, anthropology, and epistemol-

ogy, speaking with the same authority, and making similar reli-

gious and ethical demands on their hearers."30

Proverbs was not written to sharpen an individual's ability to

be crafty or cunning. There must be a moral component which

transforms a person of evil devices into a person of discretion, from

craftiness into prudence.

Again the introduction establishes the criteria by which one

way understand the book. The basic moral issues of justice and up-

rightness should be behind all one's endeavors. From doing acts of

charity to disciplining one's children, the motivation is justice.

Objective four: to identify the intended recipients of wisdom (v. 4).

is objective defines the intended readership of wisdom litera-

ture: "To give prudence to the naive, to the youth knowledge and

discretion." Wisdom offers her advice to a wide range of interests:

“Its precepts follow man into all the details of his daily occupa-

tion, and into all the relations of his common life. Wisdom is the

friend and counsellor alike of the monarch on the throne, of the

artisan in the workshop, and of the husbandman in the field."31

Verse 4 declares, however, that there are parameters as to

the recipients of wisdom. Stated in another way, for certain kinds

 

29 Von Rad, Wisdom in Israel, p.74.

30 Bruce K. Waltke, "The Book of Proverbs and Old Testament Theology ," Biblio-

theca Sacra 136 (October-December 1979): 304 (italics his).

31 T. T. Perowne, The Proverbs (Cambridge: At the University Press, 1899) p. 13.

 



428    Bibliotheca Sacra / October-December 1987

 

of people, wisdom is off limits. The fool is not invited into the

sage's classroom because he will only despise the wisdom of the

sage's words (14:9; 18:2; 23:9).

The "naive" and "youth" are listed as the particular recipi-

ents of wisdom. The affectionate address, "my son," is present

throughout the opening chapters. Fathers were responsible for

conveying wisdom to their sons, so that their boys would not enter

society raw and naive. Scott writes, "Specially is the young man

directed to this book. His undisciplined ardor runs to waste. His

mind fluctuates at the mercy of the winds of opinion in the world

around him; and greatly does he need some settled master-princi-

ples to fix his purpose, choice, and conduct."32

It. is challenging to impart wisdom to the young, but it is

especially difficult to give prudence to the naive (MyxitAp; "simple,

open, gullible"). The word for "naive" suggests an openness to in-

fluence and instruction, whether good or bad, an attitude common

among the immature. For both the young and naive, the book is

given not simply to impart knowledge but to give them greater

skill as they grow in that knowledge.

The sage has declared four objectives. If a reader of Proverbs

dares to proceed, he must be willing to submit to the rigors of wis-

dom, he must become proficient at interpreting the vehicle

through which wisdom is conveyed, he must subscribe to the moral

code of righteousness, and he must qualify by being interested in

moving from immaturity to maturity. Having stated the four ob-

jectives, the sage moves on to the means for becoming wise.

 

THE INTRODUCTION EXHORTS READERS TO BE RECEPTIVE

 

In verse 5 the teacher gives his initial exhortation to his stu-

dents: "Hear, increase in, and acquire understanding." Unlike the

verses surrounding it, verse 5 does not join the chorus of statements

that declare the purpose of the book. A significant grammatical

shift has taken place.

From infinitives of purpose verse 5 shifts to imperfects

(which may in fact be jussives). This change leaves the inter-

preter with a dilemma. If there is careful design in the intro-

duction, one must wrestle with the rationale for the change of

structure. Neither style nor parenthesis serves as an adequate

explanation.

 

32 Scott, Proverbs and Ecclesiastes, p. 2.



                        An Analysis of Proverbs 1:1-7         429

 

While it is apparent that the writer was stating his purposes

in verses 2-4, there is a certain awkwardness in the construction.

the governing verb, that normally precedes infinitives, seems to

be absent. There is a sense of incompleteness that may encourage                

the careless reader to hurry over the verses.

If one opts for a governing verb, he has two choices. First, the

infinitives may find their completeness in verse 1. This assumes a

“to be” verb, which is often omitted in Hebrew. Hence verse 1

might read, "The proverbs of Solomon, the son of David, the king

of Israel are for the purpose of-"

On the other hand the infinitives may connect with a verb

that follows. Gesenius gives examples of this grammatical con-

struction, noting that this form occurs when emphasis is placed on

the infinitive33 (also see 22:19). In this case the most likely can-

didate is found in verse 5. It is here that all the infinitives con-

ect, where all the appendages find their attachment to the body.

This construction is substantiated by the normal role of title

verses, which are not linked grammatically to what follows. As-

suming that Ecclesiastes is written by the same author, one finds

that Solomon similarly did not join his inscription with the fol-

lowing words.

Thus Proverbs 1:5 gives the key to reaching the stated objec-

tives. To be intimately acquainted with wisdom (v. 2), to discern

wisdom's language (v. 2b), to develop moral insight (v. 3), and to

move from immaturity to maturity (v. 4), one must be willing to

“hear,” to be receptive. This is the key to wisdom. Though it

sounds simple, it is difficult to achieve. The ability to hear is not

acquired easily. Yet no student can be wise who has not first mas-

tered the art of listening, an attitude of receptivity.

This truth is reinforced at strategic points throughout the

book. In 2:1-4, a number of conditions are established if one is to be

wise, and central to all is a trained ear, a heart inclined toward

instruction (2:2). These two motions are unnatural, evidenced by a

parent's continual need to instruct a child to listen (d. Deut. 6:4-9).

In the "other introduction" in this book (Prov. 22:17-21), the ad-

monition to "incline your ear" is given in the opening verse.

The second line (1:5b) is stereophonic, urging a young person

seeking wisdom to procure wise counsel. The wise willingly ac-

 

[1] Cf. Gen. 42:9; Num. 22:20; Josh. 2:3 (Gesenius' Hebrew and Chaldee Lexicon to the

Old Testament Scriptures, p. 348).



430    Bibliotheca Sacra \ October-December 1987

 

quire counsel from others, counsel that will help navigate them

through life. Similar ideas are repeated elsewhere in the book

(4:5; 23:23).

Verse 6 is positioned to reinforce the beneficial result of being

receptive. The one who listens to instruction and acquires good

counsel will then be able to have insight into the various literary

forms of wisdom and their meanings (cf. v. 2b). The sage was sen-

sitive to embrace both form and content. Only the receptive person

will have the skill to master both.

 

                     THE INTRODUCTION GIVES THE GUIDING

                        PRINCIPLE OF PURSUIT OF WISDOM

 

Verse 7, which concludes the introduction of Proverbs, gives

the guiding principle for the pursuit of wisdom. Once a person un-

derstands the truth of this principle, he is ready for the instruc-

tion in the remainder of the book.

In this final verse another structural change and a shift in

parallelism reveal the author's desire to capture the reader's at-

tention. If the introduction may be compared to the foundation of

a building, this verse is its cornerstone. The introduction ends

with a strong declarative statement, serving as the motto in

which the distinctive feature of Hebrew wisdom is declared-the

fear of the Lord. The sage now turned to the authority which un-

derlies this book. "The point is simple, yet vital; many profound

moral systems collapse, not from lack of substance, but from lack of

foundation or authority. Hebrew moral wisdom presupposes the

existence of God, which in turn gives the whole system coherence,

authority and integrity."34 Though "the fear of the Lord" is often

interpreted as meaning "reverence," Murray gives a more probing

definition: "The fear of God is the soul of godliness." "The first

thought of the godly man in every circumstance is God's relation to

him and it, and his and its relation to God."35

The importance that wisdom and Scripture as a whole attach

to fearing God can hardly be overstated. The fear of God is the

"beginning" of knowledge. This word tywixre is used in two ways: to

refer to something that has priority in time or origin (e.g., Gen.

 

34 Peter C. Craigie, "Biblical Wisdom in the Modem World: I Proverbs," Crux 15

(Summer 1977): 8.

35 John Murray, Principles of Conduct (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing

Co., 1957), p. 229.



                           An Analysis of Proverbs         431

 

1:1), or to a principal part. Both meanings seem to be combined in

Proverbs 1:7, in view of what is said in Proverbs about fearing God.

The sage wants the reader to know that this fear is the initial

point to real knowledge. In 9:10, a parallel verse, the word trans-

lated "beginning" (tl.aHiT;) is always used to refer to something done

at a prior time (Gen. 13:3; 41:21; 43:18, 20; Isa. 1:26; Hos). Von

Rad, after comparing 9:10 with 1:7, concludes: "The sentence

means, therefore, that the fear of God leads to wisdom. It enables

a man to acquire wisdom; it trains him for wisdom."36 The second

line of 1:7, which antithetically states that fools despise wisdom

and instruction, also fits with the sense of priority, as Blocher ob-

serves: "It could be an ironic dart flung at the ungodly: those who

lack the fear of God are ignorant of the very ABC of wisdom; they

lie below beginning level!"37 Also the fact that the author of Ec-

clesiastes makes the fear of God the grand finale to his book

(12:13) supports the idea of priority in Proverbs 1:7. Having tried

every road that life has to offer, the writer concluded that all

eventually end in deadend streets. Only as man fears God does his

life have meaning.

On the other hand the sage is also declaring that the fear of

the Lord is the very essence of wisdom. It is wisdom's discipline

(rsaUm, 15:33). In underscoring this usage Kidner and McKane use

such phrases as "controlling principle of knowledge" and "the

queen of all the rules of steering through life."38 The fear of God

places in capsule form the main truth taught by the writer."39

Thus fearing God is the very heart, the germ, the choice

ingredient of wisdom. One cannot be wise and fail to fear God. It

is the filter through which true wisdom flows, sifting out all that

is ungodly. Waltke describes its all-encompassing nature this

way: "It is at one and the same time both the source and the sub-

stance, the cause and the effect."40 The writer of Proverbs there-

fore was declaring that unless a person fears and reverences God,

 

36 Von Rad, Wisdom in Israel, p. 66.

37 Henri Blocher, "The Fear of the Lord as the 'Principle' of Wisdom," Tyndale

Bulletin 28 (1977): 15.

38 Derek F. Kidner, The Proverbs (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity press, 1964), p.

59; and McKane, Proverbs, p. 20.

39 Walter C. Kaiser, "Wisdom Theology and the Centre of Old Testament Theol-

ogy," Evangelical Quarterly 50 (July-September 1978): 138.

40 Waltke, "The Book of Proverbs and Old Testament Theology," p, 33.



432    Bibliotheca Sacra / October-December 1987

 

he is wasting his time if he proceeds to read the rest of the book.

Perowne captures it best:

 

I am offering, the writer would seem to say, to give you the right of

entering into the House of Knowledge, to conduct you through

some of its goodly chambers, to display to you a portion of the rich

and varied treasures within which it is stored. But as you approach

the portal, note well the inscription which is traced above it. The

House is not a Palace only, but a Temple.41

 

                                       Conclusion

 

In the first seven verses of proverbs, the author first identi-

fied the material; second, he declared the objectives; third, he

called the hopeful to receptivity; and fourth, he pointed up the

motto of wisdom that aspiring "sages" must never forget.

Like a pilot going over a flight plan, the reader of Proverbs is

told the kind of terrain he will find below, the objectives for his

flight, and the guiding compass by which he must ever navigate.

By following this flight plan, it is hoped there will be a greater

appreciation of the book.

 

41 Perowne, The Proverbs, p. 41.

 

 

 

 

This material is cited with gracious permission from:

Dallas Theological Seminary

            3909 Swiss Ave.

            Dallas, TX   75204          

www.dts.edu

 

Please report any errors to Ted Hildebrandt at:  thildebrandt@gordon.edu