Calvin Theological Journal 36 (2001): 365-371
Copyright © 2001 by Calvin Theological Seminary. Cited with permission.
Scholia et Homiletica
John H. Stek
The book of Proverbs is an Old Testament concentrated graduate course in
the art of living ("for attaining wisdom and discipline. . . for giving prudence to
the simple, knowledge and discretion to the young. . . " 1:2-4). It urges the
young man above all else to get a good education ('Wisdom is supreme; there-
fore get wisdom, though it cost all you have, get
understanding" 4:7). Only
dom will lead into the full promise of life ("Long life is in her right hand; in her
left hand are riches and honor" 3:16. "She is a tree of life to those who embrace
her; those who lay hold of her will be blessed" ). But this education must be
grounded in the knowledge-and acknowledgment--of Yahweh. True wisdom
begins with godliness ("The fear of LORD is the beginning of Wisdom, and
knowledge of the Holy One is understanding" 9:10. See also 3:5-12). Wisdom
shuns all perverse ways and the enticements of perverse persons--in the social
structures of those days that meant for the young man primarily those men
who tried to get ahead in the world by exploiting others (-19) and those
women who sought sexual pleasure outside the bond of marriage (5:1-23; -
25; 7:1-27). It embraces "what is right and just and fair--every good path" (2:9)
and rejects "the ways of wicked men. . . (who) walk in dark ways, who delight in
doing wrong and rejoice in the perverseness of evil. . ."(-14) For
The path of the righteous is like the first gleam of dawn,
shining ever brighter till the full light of day.
But the way of the wicked is like deep darkness;
they do not know what makes them stumble. (4:18-19)
The wisdom here offered to the young man is that which is to be learned at
the feet of his elders ("Listen, my son, to your father's instruction and do not
forsake your mother's teaching" 1:8)~those already experience in life and
who had learned well from those who were before them ("When was a boy in
CALVIN THEOLOGICAL JOURNAL 366
my father's house, still tender, and an only child of my mother, he taught me
and said, 'Lay hold of my words with all your heart; keep my commands and
you will live'" 4:3-4). Ultimately, it is to be taught by Yahweh himself ("For the
LORD gives wisdom, and from his mouth comes knowledge and understanding"
2:6) so that the young man can participate in the very wisdom with which
Yahweh created the world in which we humans live, move, and have our being.
By wisdom the LORD laid the earth's foundations,
by understanding he set the heavens in place;
by his knowledge the deeps were divided,
and the clouds let drop the dew." (3:19-20; cf. -31)
This, in a nutshell, is the substance of the opening series of lectures (1:8-9:18) .
The wise teacher sets before the young man the way of wisdom and the way of
folly, the way of life and the way of death, commending the one--heed the invi-
tations of wisdom-and warning against the other-reject the enticements of folly.
II PROVERBS 1:8-9:18
The opening series of lectures (1:8-9:~8) has been carefully structured, uti-
lizing certain common features of the Israelite literary traditions. Two of these
are especially worthy of note: symmetry and inclusion (envelope pattern).
Diagrammatically the symmetry and envelope pattern of the opening series of
speeches can be shown as follows (the encircled numerals refer to the number
of poetic lines devoted to the several speeches):
Stek: Proverbs: An Introduction 367
It is to be noted that the first and last speeches have to do with enticements with
which the young man is confronted as he faces life: 1:8-19, the enticements of
wicked men to get ahead in the world by doing violence to others; 9:1-18, the
enticements of Lady Folly (depicted as an adulterous woman to steal life's
pleasures-in competition with virtuous Wisdom who invites one to share in
her banquet. The second speech from the beginning, and the corresponding
second speech from the end, are both urgent calls by personified Wisdom, hail-
ing the "simple" as they make their way in the city and urging them to heed her
warnings and advice.
These four speeches, with their A-B-B-A pattern, bracket the main body of
speeches (chaps. 2-7). Careful attention to the central series of speeches makes
clear light that chapters 2-4 are devoted to the commendation of wisdom, while
chapters 5-7 are warnings against being led astray-predominantly warnings
against yielding to the temptations of the adulterous woman, who is illustrative
of and emblematic for Lady Folly. The symmetry of this section comes to light
when it is noted that chapters 2-4 contain four speeches (2:1-22; 3:1-20; -35;
4:1-27), with a total of eighty-four poetic lines, and that chapters 5-7 also con-
tain four speeches (5:1-23; 6:1-19; -35; 7:1-27), with a total of eighty-six
poetic lines. Moreover, the four speeches of the second series (chaps. 5-7)
repeat the pattern (in the number of poetic lines) of the four speeches of the
first series: cf. 22/20/15/27 with 23/20/16/27. (Speeches one and three of the
second series each being extended by one poetic line beyond the length of the
corresponding speeches of the first series.) Although within each series the
four speeches all vary in length, in both, the sum of the first two speeches is
equal to the sum of the last two. This symmetry is too precise and complex to
be coincidental; the overall pattern is carefully designed. There remains the
question whether in each series the first and fourth speech s have been
designed to bracket the intervening speeches two and three.
It is evident that speeches one and four of the first series (chap. 2 and 4) are
extended speeches commending wisdom as the way that guards from evil and
leads to life. Speeches two and three (3:1-20,21-35) differ in for and content
from these but are both formally and materially alike. Both contain an intro-
duction, a body of specific instructions, and a conclusion. In both, the intro-
duction and instructions together are composed of twelve poetic lines (w. 1-12;
21-32). The first of these is devoted to instructions regarding positive virtues
("love and faithfulness," w. 3-4) and a proper relationship with Yahweh ("trust
in the LORD," vv. 5-6; "fear the LORD," vv. 7-8; "honor the LORD with your wealth," vv. 9-10, accept the LORD's loving discipline, w. 11-12). The second is devoted to warnings against wicked ways in dealings with fellowmen ("Do not withhold good," w. 27-28; "Do not plot harm," w. 29-30; "Do not follow
perverse men, vv.31-32).
In the second series (chaps. 5-7), the first and fourth speeches (chaps. 5 and
7) are extended speeches warning against the adulterous worn. Thus, they
formally parallel the first and fourth speeches of the first series. However, the
CALVIN THEOLOGICAL JOURNAL 368
two speeches of chapter 6 (vv.1-19; 20-35) not at first glance relate to each
other in the same manner as the two speeches of chapter 3. They mirror each
other neither formally nor materially. They do, however, continue the theme of
warning that dominates the second series. It is also noteworthy that the two
speeches juxtapose warnings pertaining to e same threats to life that are the
pervasive concern of the author of chapter 1-9, viz., the perverse ways of evil
men and the adulteress, chapter 2:12-19. I is likely, therefore, that the juxta-
position of these two speeches within the bracketing speeches one and four
was intended, in spite of their formal dissimilarity, to function within the sec-
ond series (chapt. 5-7) in a manner parallel to the function of the two speeches
in chapter 3 within the first series (chaps. 2-4).
As has already been noted concerning the two speeches in chapter 3, sym-
metry also characterizes the structure of some of the separate speeches. This is
especially true of the extended speeches found in chapters 2 and 4.
The twenty-two poetic lines (= verses) of chapter 2 fall into two equal halves,
verses 1-11 and verses 12-22, each of which has a three-line conclusion. The
NIV somewhat obscures the fact that the first eight verses of each half also
(repeat the same formal structure. In each the first four lines specify a condi-
tion, while the last four lines indicate the consequences:
vv. 1-8: 1-4 If you heed my wise instruction...
5-6 you will find the knowledge of God who gives wisdom...
17-8 and he will surround you with his protecting care.
vv.12-19: 12-15 If you heed wisdom and so are kept from the ways of
16-17 you will be made. pervious to the seductions of the
18-19 whose enticements lead down to death.
The twenty-seven poetic lines of chapter 4 fall into four strophes, of which
the first (nine lines) is clearly introductory. The remaining three strophes have
a line structure of 8 -2 -8. The two-line middle strophe (the center and heart
of the main body of the speech) contras the two ways: the way of righteous-
ness, which is the way of light; and the way of the wicked, which is the way of
darkness. Furthermore, the two eight-line strophes that bracket it are each
divisible into two four-line subunits. Note parallel between verse 13 and
verse 23 (v. 13: guard well the instruction give, "for it is your life"; v. 23: guard
your heart-where instruction takes root "for it is the wellspring of life").
The second series of speeches (chaps 5-7) is also not devoid of symmetry.
The poetic speech in chapter 5 is made up of four strophes, with a line struc-
ture of 6 -8 -6 -3. Here the last strophe serves as a conclusion--similar to the
three-line conclusions found in 2:9-11; 2:20-22; -35. The first warns against
the adulteress, the third commends fairness to the wife of your youth.
The intervening strophe expands the warning in eight lines, which, like the
Stek: Proverbs: An Introduction 369
eight-line strophes of chapter 4, is thematically subdivided in two four-line
In the first speech of chapter 6, two three-line strophes are devoted to
rebukes of the sluggard, and two four-line strophes warn against villainy. Note
that each of these last. two is composed of a series, and they each contain a like
physiological catalogue of human instruments of evil: mouth, eye, feet, fingers,
heart (w. 12-14); eye, tongue, hands, heart, feet (w.17-18).
Chapter 7 is a speech of six strophes, of which the first (five lines) is intro-
ductory. The five strophes of the body of the speech have the line structure 4 -4
-7 -4 -4. The seven-line strophe contains the enticing speech of the adulteress.
Before leaving the introductory speeches, note should be taken of the sym-
metrical structure of the final speech, chapter 9. Here Lady Wisdom invites,
and Lady Folly entices. Both appeal to the young men who are on the thresh-
.old of public life but not yet matured in judgment ("who are simple,"w. 4, 16).
The speech contains four strophes with the line structure 6 -3 -3 -6. The first
(Lady Wisdom) and the last (Lady Folly) strophes are also perfectly balanced
internally: each has a 3 -3 substructure. In this way, the author has set up the
sharpest possible contrast between Wisdom and Folly, both of whom appeal to
the young men "from the highest point of the city." Both invite to a banquet-
Wisdom invites to a banquet of the fruits she has produced; Folly tempts with
stolen delights. Notice, too, that Wisdom is depicted as a hostess who "has built
her house. . . prepared her meat. . . mixed her wine. . . set her table. . . sent out
her maids" (w. 2-3), while Folly is depicted only as "sitting at the door of her
house" (v. 14).
The two middle strophes, formally balanced, offer Wisdom's contrast
between the "mocker" (who as a confirmed follower of wickedness mocks at
wisdom's ways) and the "wise."
The opening series of lectures in this graduate course in wisdom thus lays
out the fundamental issues in a clear and balanced format. What follows is a
series of collections of particulars that illumine various recurring moments in
human life lived within the created order of Yahweh's world.
III. 10:1-22:16: The Proverbs of Solomon
The first collection, entitled "The Proverbs of Solomon," contains 375 one-
line maxims. This number corresponds exactly with the numerical value of
hmlw (w= 300 + l = 30 + m = 40 + h = 5 = 375). This correspondence is no
doubt intended. The first 180 maxims are virtually all antithetic (the second
half-line presents some kind of contrast to the first half-line). It may be signifi-
cant that the second half of this section (10:1-15:29) begins as follows:
In the way of righteousness there is life;
along that path is immortality.
A wise son heeds his father's instruction,
but a mocker does not listen to rebuke. (; 13:1)
CALVIN THEOLOGICAL JOURNAL 370
The remaining 195 maxims of "The Proverbs of Solomon" are more varied in
IV. 22:17-24:22: Sayings of the Wise
Following a five-line introduction, the author of this section offers thirty wise
sayings of varying lengths (from one to eight lines) on a wide variety of topics.
It seems to be in some degree dependent on the Wisdom Teaching of
Amenemope, an Egyptian work of thirty brief sections usually dated to about
1000 B.C. Out of the first eleven sayings of the present work, ten appear to have
been borrowed from the Israelite composition. In that case, the Egyptian writ-
ing must be dated some five hundred years later. In any event, this section of Proverbs appears clearly to have been oqginally an independent work that was
taken up into Proverbs in its final editing.
His instruction is composed of sixty-eight lines, of which precisely half (thirty-
four) are devoted to two-line sayings. The remaining sayings are a mixed lot as
to length (six of one line; four of three lines; two of four lines; and one of eight
lines). Seventeen of the instructions are warnings. The first saying of the second
half (-25) is a renewed exhortation to heed the "father's" instructions.
V. 24:23-34: Further Sayings of the Wise
Proverbs 24:23-34 represents a small collection of five wise sayings
(vv. 23b-25; v. 26; v. 27; w. 28-29; w. 30-34 of diverse content (but one and four
touch on judicial matters). They are from an unknown source and date.
VI. 25:1-29:27: More Proverbs of Solomon
Since it is ascribed to the "men of Hezekiah," this collection can be dared about
700 B.C. It is composed of 130 lines. As with the former collection, it is largely made up of one-line sayings, and there is a section that is predominantly sayings
of the antithetic type. Here, however, this section comes last (chaps. 28-29 [fifty-
five lines) rather than first. The first part of this collection (chaps. 25-27 [seventy-
five lines] differs from the earlier collection in that there are a larger number of multiple-line sayings (eight of two lines; one of three lines; one of five lines). A five--line saying advising the king to look well to the cultural base of his personal economy concludes this first portion of the second collection (27:23-27).
VII. 30:1-33: Sayings of Agur
It may be that Agur
was a member of the Ishmaelite tribe of
25:14)1 and that King Lemuel was from the same tribe.2 If so, these portions of
1 See NIV footnote on 30:1.
2 See 31:1 and NIV footnote.
Stek: Proverbs: An Introduction 371
were borrowed from the south, perhaps by way of
they both spring from non-Israelite sources.
This unit is made up of forty lines. It contains eleven multiple-line sayings,
with three one-liners interspersed (w. 10, 15, 20). Unique to the section are
seven units composed of lists.3 The first differs from the others in at it contains
a list of only two, followed by a two-line elaboration (vv. 7-9). The other six all
offer lists of four, with the first (w. 11-14) and the fifth (vv.24-2 lacking the
numerical formula that introduces the remaining four (vv.15b, 16 18-19; 21-23;
VIII. 31:1-9: Saying of King Lemuel4
Eight lines developing three topics (
They are ascribed to King Lemuel, but he credits them to his mother and the
sage advice she gave him as king: (1) don't spend your strength on women
(vv. 2,3); (2) don't befuddle your wits with alcohol (w. 4-7); an (3) be the
defender of the powerless (w. 8,9)--advice hardly to be improved on, espe-
cially for a king!
IX. 31.10-31: Epilogue: The wife of Noble Character
The final unit is a twenty-two-line alphabetic acrostic (each succeeding line
begins with the next succeeding letter of the Hebrew alphabet, from Aleph to
Tau--or, as we would say, from A to Z) in praise of the virtuous wife. The young
man addressed in the opening series of speeches (chaps. 1-9) is thus exhorted
to seek, and subsequently honor, such a wife. As the dissolute Wife is there
depicted as illustrative and emblematic of Lady Folly, so here the virtuous wife
is illustrative and emblematic of Lady Wisdom (compare especially 9:1-6). This
final section, therefore, constitutes a subtle return to a central theme of the
opening speeches and forms with them an envelope around the book of
instruction as a whole. Hence, it appears to be a closing recommendation to
marry Lady Wisdom.
3 See 6:16-19 for the only other example in Proverbs. The formula occurs also
nonbiblical wisdom literature from the ancient Near East.
4 See the introduction to the previous section.
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