Bibliotheca Sacra 136 (Oct-Dec. 1979): 302-17
Copyright © 1979
The Book of Proverbs and Old
Bruce K. Waltke
Hartmut Gese wrote, "It is well known that the wisdom literature
constitutes an alien body in the world of the Old Testament."1 This implied
consensus is founded on two superficial observations: the striking
similarities between the Book of Proverbs and the ancient, panoriental
literature,2 and the lack of reference in
In an earlier article this writer surveyed the affinities of the Book of
Proverbs with the international sapiential literature in its literary forms,
arrangement, and contents.3 On account of these striking parallels Preuss
so far as to suggest that
the image of their pagan environment.4
In contrast to the scholarly success in showing the comparative similar-
gians proved unable to integrate the Book of Proverbs into the rest of the Old
Testament which builds around
tion. In the heyday of the biblical theology movement Wright commented
that in any outline of biblical theology, the proper place to treat the
Wisdom literature is something of a problem."5 Rylaarsdam put the problem
this way: "This striking neglect of Jewish history and religion by the
canonical wisdom writers clearly indicates that the Hebrew Wisdom move-
ment had not yet been integrated into the national movement."6 The at-
tempts of Eichrodt to integrate wisdom into "covenant" and of von Rad into
1 Hartmut Gese, Lehre und Wirklichkeit in der alten Weisheit (Tübingen: Mohr [Siebeck],
1958), p. 2, cited by James L. Crenshaw, "Prolegomenon," in Studies in Ancient Israelite
Wisdom (New York: KTAV Publishing House, 1976), p. 2.
2 See Bruce K. Waltke, "The Book of Proverbs and Ancient Wisdom Literature," Bib-
liotheca Sacra 136 (July-September, 1979): 226-38.
3 Waltke, "The Book of Proverbs and Ancient Wisdom Literature," pp. 226-38.
4 Horst D. Preuss, "Erwägungen zum theologischen Ort alttestamentlicher Weisheits-
literatur,” ..Evangelische Theologie 30 (1970): 393-417, cited by Crenshaw, "Prolegomenon,"
5 G. Ernest Wright, God Who Acts (London: SCM Press, 1952), p. 115.
J. Coert Rylaarsdam, Revelation in Jewish Wisdom Literature (
The author is delighted to express his indebtedness to students in an Old Testament seminar on
Proverbs (spring 1979) who contributed to his thinking for this article. Papers deserving
recognition include Nigel Biggar, “Wisdom in Weakness"; Kathy Brown, "Wisdom's Veil"
and Judy Krzesowski, "The Power of Words."
The Book of Proverbs and Old Testament Theology / 303
salvation history have proved notable failures.7 Kaiser's recent proposal to
relate wisdom to the rest of the Old Testament by the common concept of
"the fear of God/Lord" also fails because he relates this theme to "prom-
which he seems to define in terms of
Wisdom writers do not mention
promises culminating in the Messianic age.
Moreover, according to others there is a strain of wisdom in the Old
Testament whose posture is summed up as "humanism," meaning here the
ability to attain one's goal through proper education and mental discipline.9
This alleged strain belonging to the age of the so-called" Solomonic En-
lightenment" differs from the prophets not only in its universalism over
against their national particularism, but in its very soul and spirit. McKane,
who accepts this view, says that it is "this-worldly and has no commitment
to ethical values." 10 Fichtner stated the view thus:
In the spiritual history of
phenomena as prophecy and hokmah (wisdom). Two worlds stand in total
opposition: the proclaimer and the admonisher who is seized by God and laid
completely under claim and who carries out his lofty and dangerous mission to
his people without any personal considerations, and the clever and prudently
worldly-wise sage who goes his peaceable way cautiously looking right and left
and who instructs his protégés in the same wise style of mastering life. To
appreciate this vast difference one has only to read a few sentences from. the
Book of Amos and then a few from Prov 10 or 27!11
If one assumes that these morally neutral wise men contributed to the
Book of Proverbs, it follows that the prophetic attack against the wise who
made themselves independent of Yahweh included these men (cf. Isa.
5:19-24). According to many liberal critics the prophets made war against
the priest with his magic; McKane now adds that they made war against the
shrewd sage with his strength of mind.
But others have made a start in challenging this distorted picture. They
have noted that a distinction cannot be established in the Book of Proverbs
between an older, profane, and secular wisdom and a younger so-called
distinctively Israelite strain of wisdom which transformed and supplemented
the former. Accordingly, the Proverbs are not alien to the concepts and spirit
of the rest of the Old Testament. Priest argued that the prophetic age and the
7 cf. Crenshaw, “Prolegomenon," p. 1, and notes from criticisms from many sides.
8 Walter Kaiser, Jr., Toward an Old Testament
Publishing House, 1978), pp. 168-71.
9 For-example, H. Gressman, “Die neugefundene Lehre des Amenemope und die vor-
exilische Spruchdichtung Israels," Zeitschrift für Altes Testament 41 (1924): 289-91.
10 William McKane, Prophets and Wise Men (London: SCM Press, 1965), p. 1.
11 Johannes Fichtner, "Isaiah among the Wise," in Studies in Ancient Israelite Wisdom, p.
429. Most recently D. Kent Clark sides with those who pit prophet against sage ("Between
Prophet and Philosopher," New Blackfriars 58 : 267-72).
304 / Bibliotheca Sacra -October-December 1979
age of wisdom occurred simultaneously and that there existed "a common
tradition in early
selected specific emphases without necessarily rejecting those emphases
chosen by other groups."12 According to this view prophet and sage together
the totality of
Priest did not attempt to demonstrate their common inspiration, and until that
is done his thesis lacks conviction. Weinfeld showed a clear connection
between wisdom and Deuteronomy both in specific legislation and even in
identical wordings (cf. Deut. 4:2; 13:1 and Prov. 30:5-6; Deut. 19:14 and
Prov 22:10; Deut. 25:13-16 and Prov 20:23).13 But he gave pride of place
to wisdom and proposed that the Deuteronomists were schooled in wisdom
circles. Moreover, he restricted his attention to specific verbal and ethical
parallels some of which are also met in non-Israelite wisdom. But in spite of
these limitations it is a start in the reverse direction.
The vein of this article is to demonstrate that the sages and the prophets
were true spiritual yokefellows sharing the same Lord, cultus, faith, hope,
anthropology, and epistemology, speaking with the same authority, and
making similar religious and ethical demands on their hearers. In short, they
drank from the same spiritual well. Noth14 and von Rad15 have shown the
close connection between the Book of Deuteronomy and the works of the
so-called "former prophets," and Westermann16 has demonstrated that the
accusations, threats, sentences, and promises round in the "classical"
prophets correspond with similar literary forms in Deuteronomy. Thus this
writer here uses the term prophetic more broadly to include the Book of
Deuteronomy along with the literature traditionally attributed to the
THE SAME LORD
According to Manley, God's personal name, Yahweh, occurs in the
Book of Deuteronomy either alone or in various compound expressions 593
times, and His generic title, Elohim, twenty-four times.17 In the Book of
Proverbs, the tetragramaton occurs alone forty-six times and thirty-eight
times in various combinations for a total of eighty-four times, and the
12 John F. Priest, "Where Is Wisdom to Be Placed?" in Studies in Ancient Israelite Wisdom,
13 Moshe Weinfeld, “The Wisdom Substrata in Deuteronomy and the Deuteronomic Litera-
ture," Deuteronomy and the Deuteronomic School (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1972), pp.
14 Martin Noth, A History of Pentateuchal Traditions, trans. Bernard W. Anderson (En-
glewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1972).
15 Gerhard von Rad, Studies in Deuteronomy (London: SCM Press, 1953), pp. 74-91.
16 Claus Westermann, Basic Forms of Prophetic
17 G. T. Manley, The Book of the Law (London: Tyndale Press, 1957), p. 37.
The Book of Proverbs and Old Testament Theology / 305
appellative Elohim appears five times. Thus the distribution of the two
Deuteronomy and Proverbs. The distinct meaning of these two names is
widely recognized: whereas the title Elohim contrasts God with man in their
natures, the name Yahweh presents God as entering into a personal relation-
ship with man and revealing Himself to him. More specifically Yahweh is
God's covenantal name, and by using this name the sages present themselves
as teachers within Yahweh's covenant community even though they never
for the same God who encountered
prophets that succeeded him.
Also the wise men ascribe the same attributes and actions to Yahweh as
those ascribed to him by the prophets. According to both circles He is the
Creator of the cosmos (Deut. 10:14; Isa. 40:21-22; Prov. 3:19-20) and of all
mankind (Deut. 4:32; Isa. 42:5; Prov. 14:31; 29:13). He is the same living
God who will avenge wrong (Deut. 32:35, 40-41; Nahum 1:2; Prov. 25:21-
22) and the same spiritual Being who comforts men and knows man's ways
(Deut. 23:14; Jer. 16:17;
sovereign Lord directing history (Deut. 4:19; 29:4, 26; Isa. 45:1-13; Prov.
16:1-9, 33; 19:21; 20:24 et passim) and is yet present in it, withholding and
giving rain (Deut. 11:13-17; Hag. 1:10-11; Prov 3:9-10), disciplining His
children (Deut. 8:5; Isa. 1:4-6; Prov. 3:11-12), and in His mercy answering
their prayers (Deut. 4:29-31; Isa. 56:7; Prov. 15:8,29). According to both
sources He is merciful (Deut. 4:31; 30:8; Isa. 63:7; Prov 28:13), wise
(Deut. 4:26; Isa. 11:2-3; 31:2; Prov. 8:22-31), delights in justice and hates
iniquity (Deut. 10:17; Isa. 1:16-17; Prov 11:1; 17:15), and has aesthetic-
ethical sensibilities (Deut. 22:4-11; 23:10-14; Jer. 32:35; Prov. 3:32; 6:16-
19; 11:20; 15:9 et passim).
To put the matter the other way around, there is no difference between
the way God is described in the prophetic literature and the way He is
described in the Book of Proverbs.
THE SAME RELIGIOUS SYSTEM
took a critical stance toward
site, personnel, sacrifices, and institutions (cf. Amos 5:25-27; Hos. 6:7;
12:9; Isa. 1:10-15; Jer. 7:22; and Prov. 15:8, 29; 20:25; 21:3, 27; 28:9;
31:2).18 But in fact neither is critical of the cultus per se; instead they are
critical of religious ritual devoid of ethical behavior. In fact, the prophets
18 Space does not permit entering the debate here regarding this relationship. For the
purposes of this article it is simply noted that since the turn of the century scholars have
recognized many affinities in the language, style, and thought of these two sources.
306 / Bibliotheca Sacra -October-December 1979
were zealous for a worship established in righteousness (Isa. 43:22-24;
44:28; 56:4-7; Ezek. 45:13-46:24; Zeph. 3:18 et passim), and the sages
assumed its existence. Perdue has argued persuasively that Proverbs 15:8
does not say the Lord accepts prayer as a valid practice and rejects sacrifice,
but rather that the verse condemns both prayer and sacrifice offered by the
wicked.19 He also argued that Proverbs 21:3 and 27 are not lambasts of the
wise against religious sacrifices -though they could be regarded in this
light -but aphorisms affirming with their spiritual peers (the priests and the
prophets) that ethical behavior is more important than religious ritual.2O In
addition to prayers and sacrifices the sages referred to the sacred vow (20:25;
31:2), the sacred lots (16:33), and the firstfruits (3:9). In short, although the
wise men did not initiate the cultus, they assumed it, and with the prophets
and priests they attempted to correct it by an emphasis on the priority of
ethical behavior. There is no reason to assume that the sages had in view a
religious system differing from the one referred to in the Law and prophets.
THE SAME INSPIRATION
As stated above, according to the prevailing consensus, preexilic
prophetic proclamation is grounded in a claim to revelation, whereas
preexilic sapiential counsel is founded in human experience and reflection.
Fichtner stated this view bluntly: "The prophet speaks in large measure on
the basis of the authority conferred with his commission and tells his hearers
'God's Word'; while the wise man -especially in the earlier period! -
gives advice and instruction from tradition and his own insight without
explicit or implicitly assumed divine authorization."21 Zimmer1i in his
pioneering study exploring the structure of Israelite wisdom also under-
scored the anthropocentric character of wisdom thought.22 According to
him, instead of speaking with a categorical, prophetic word (RBaDa), the wise
men offered deliberative, debatable counsel (hcAfe), instead of appealing to
the Creator's authority, they appealed to what is in man's best interest as the
justification for their validity; instead of issuing commands, they sought to
compel assent. Cazelles presented the same view. "Wisdom is the art of
succeeding in human life, both private and collective. It is grounded in
humanism, in reflexion,[sic] on and observation of the course of things and
the conduct of man."23 For Couturier the wisdom tradition began as "the
totality of life experiences transmitted by a father to his son, as a spiritual
19 Leo G. Perdue, Wisdom and Cult (Missoula, MT: Scholar's Press, 1977), p. 156.
20 Ibid., pp. 161-62.
21 Fichtner, "Isaiah among the Wise," p. 430,
22 Walther Zimrnedi, "Concerning the Structure of Old Testament Wisdom," in Studies in
Ancient Israelite Wisdom, pp. 179-99.
23 Henri Cazelles, "Bible, sagesse, science," Revue d'Histoire des Religions 48 (1960):
42-43, cited by Crenshaw, "Prolegomenon," p. 4.
The Book of Proverbs and Old Testament Theology / 307
testament."24 And Rylaarsdam claimed, "the wisdom seeker must rely
entirely on his natural human equipment.”25
But to defend this view one must divide up the sayings in the Proverbs
into earlier secular and humanistic sources and its later religious context,
which was added to validate the strictly utilitarian approach, or into
categories of wisdom, as Crenshaw does. For him there is "court wisdom"
which has a "secular stance," and "scribal wisdom," which has a
"dogmatico-religious" stance along with still other sources.
But in the author's discussion of the history of the wisdom tradition in
the preceding article, it was argued that there is no compelling evidence for
this construction in either Israelite or non-Israelite wisdom texts. 26 Rankin
likewise concluded, "We have no reason to assume, in the absence of actual
that at any time there was in
From the very outset in
sanction of right conduct, the motive supplied by the idea of God's blessing
and cursing was present."27 Priest noted: "Even if, and this is by no means
beyond dispute, there was a movement from the secular to the divine in the
of those countries (around
by the 15th century at the latest, well before the inception of
wisdom."28 Priest also noted that even in Ben Sira, unquestionably later
than Proverbs, maxims appear, which, if they had been found in Proverbs
would have been assigned by many scholars to the earliest strata since they
are obviously "secular" in content and orientation. He concluded, "It is
simply impossible to demonstrate that the earliest strata are secular and the
As the above discussion implies, critics concur that the canonical form
of the Book of Proverbs has a religious stance and that its teachings are
grounded not in humanism but in revelation. Thus in the sayings constituting
the hermeneutical context for interpreting the book it is stated that the Lord
brought forth wisdom before the creation (8:22) and that “from his mouth
came knowledge and understanding" (2:6). Agur assumed canonical limits
to revealed wisdom: "Every word of God is flawless; he is a shield to those
who take refuge in him. Do not add to his words, or he will rebuke you and
prove you a liar" (30:5-6). Without this revelation man casts off restraint
and perishes (29:18).30
24 Guy P. Couturier, "Sagesse babylonienne et sagesse israelite," Sciences Ecclesiastiques
14 (1962): 309.
25 Rylaarsdam, Revelation in Jewish Wisdom Literature, p. 667.
26 Waltke, "The Book of Proverbs and Ancient Wisdom Literature," pp. 226-38.
27 Oliver S. Rankin,
28 Priest, "Where Is Wisdom to Be Placed?" p. 278.
30 The mention of revelation (NOzHA) and law (hrAOH) probably refer to the sayings of the wise
which are otherwise attributed to Yahweh and called torah (Prov. 2:6 and 1:8 et passim).
308 / Bibliotheca Sacra -October-December 1979
But how was this revelation mediated to the sages? God spoke audibly
3:2-4; 5:23-30; 34:10), to the prophets in visions (Isa. 1:1; Jer. 1; Ezek. 1),
and to Job out of a whirlwind (Job 38: 1-42:6). But to Solomon, apart from
vision granted him at
Instead of having the revelation mediated to him, Solomon spoke with the
authority of an anointed king, as the son of God (2 Sam. 7:14). An indirect
this absence is attributed by various Egyptologists -though without con-
sensus to the fact that the word or command (mdw, wd) of the reigning
king was regarded as actual law and no written law could have existed beside
So likewise in
spoke as His anointed representative. The royal sage won truth by reflection.
on what he saw (Prov. 24:30-34) and what he perceived by faith (cf.15:3). It
was the glory of God to conceal the matter; it was Solomon's glory as an
anointed king to find it out (25:2). Moreover, the Spirit of God rested on him
(cf. 1 Sam. 16:13), the Spirit of wisdom and understanding (cf. Isa. 11:1-2;
Prov. 1:23). In short, the same Spirit that inspired Moses and the prophets
effectually in Solomon and
Tim. 3:16), and the circumcised of heart have heard His voice in those
THE SAME AUTHORITY
Crenshaw on firm grounds censured Zimmerli for eroding the ground of
wisdom's authority.32 According to Crenshaw, the wise man's counsel
carried the same authoritative weight as the prophet's word. His study of the
meaning of the root hcAfe and the sociological setting in which the wise men
gave their teachings verify his position. Moreover, the biblical aphoristic
literature claimed authority. If indeed “wisdom” denotes a fixed order
informing the creation,33 then, as Hermission has argued, man is not the
measure of all things but is measured against the creation in which he is
placed,34 and cosmology not anthropology is more central to the book's
thought structure, as Schmid contended.35 More central to wisdom's thought
than anthropology is the reckoning with a Creator who through wisdom
31 John A.
1956), p. 49.
32 James A. Crenshaw, "Prophetic Conflict," Beiheft zur Zeitschrift für die altestes-
tamentliche Wissenschaft 125 (1976): 116-23.
33 Waltke, "The Book of Proverbs and Ancient Wisdom Literature," pp. 226-38.
34 H. J. Hermission, Studien zur israelitischen Spruchweisheit, Wissenschaftliche Mono-
graphien zum Alten und Neuen Testament 28 (1968).
35. H. H. Schmid, "Wesen und Geschichte der Weisheit," Beiheft zur Zeitschrift für die
altestestamentliche Wissenschaft 101 (1966).
The Book of Proverbs and Old Testament Theology / 309
established the cosmos (3:19-20; 8:22-31; 16:11) and upholds with power
the moral order in it (10:3; 16:4; 22:12 et passim). The book calls on the
faithful not to trust the order but the God who stands behind it (3:5; 16:3;
But it took an inspired sage "to search out" this fixed order (25:2) and
give it expression. By giving it expression it can almost be said that he
created it. Cassirer wrote: "In a realistic sense, what happens in language is
that the world is given material expression. Objects are only given form and
differentiation in the word that names them."36 He moved a step even closer
to hypostatization when he reasoned: "Language's power is released when a
word is actually spoken. The act of speaking the word frees the concept's
potentials as it reveals the world to man. Each spoken word has unlimited
and sovereign power over the scope of its thought."37 Even as Adam joined
the Creator in naming and thereby defining the animals, so the Israelite king
took part with Him in coining proverbs revealing His truth. Moreover, it is
important to note the arresting comment added to Genesis 2:19: "And
whatever the man called each living creature, that was its name." In a
coined the rules of moral and social behavior with authority. Thus the wise
man both discovered, created, and maintained order in the personal and
social spheres of life. Obviously their words, by transforming ontological
reality into epistemological categories, carried inherent weight.
This idea of wisdom as a revealed fixed order does not correspond
badly with the sages' references to their teachings as "law" (hrAOT) and
"commandments" (tOc;mi) and their demand that the hearer give them his
ear. Zimmerli called attention to this terminology so similar to the Mosaic
Not only is the entirety of wisdom admonition repeatedly referred to as torah
(1:8; 3:1; 13:14; 28:4, 7 et passim) -with the same designation as the Law
which is authoritative admonition kat 'exochein -the correspondence also
appears in the designation of individual admonitions of the wise, then they often
occur as commands mswt (2:1; 3:1; 4:4; 6:23 et passim).38
Fichtner also recognized that this wisdom spoke with a word no less au-
thoritative than that of Law.39
Moreover, like Moses and the prophets the sages demanded to be
heard. Zimmerli noted this fact along with other additional features that lead
to the conclusion that the wisdom teacher spoke with authority.
36 E. Cassirer, Language and Myth, trans.
Susanne K. Langer (
Brothers, 1946), pp. 80-81.
37 E. Cassirer, The
Philosophy of Symbolic Forms, trans. Ralph Manheim (
38 Zimmerli, "Concerning the Structure of Old Testament Wisdom," p. 179.
39 J. Fichtner, "Die altorientalische Weisheit in ihrer israelitisch jüdischen Auspragung,
Beiheft zur Zeitschrift für die altestestamentliche Wissenschaft, 62 (1933): 82ff.
310 / Bibliotheca Sacra -October-December 1979
Again and again, it is stressed that everything depends on "hearing" -the high
value of the 'zn smct (“ears that hear") is underscored a number of times (15:13;
25:12) since 'zn ("ear") above all is the principal entrance for wisdom.
Wisdom's precepts can be simply termed leqah (that which is to be accepted 1:5;
4:2; 9:9; 16:21,23 ...); obedience to the wise commandment can be desig-
nated lqh "learning/doctrine" (cf. iqh mswt ["authoritative doctrine"] 10:8
etc.). Moreover, when the picture of education in the Egyptian scribal schools is
considered and certain aphorisms of Proverbs concerning the education of the
young man to wisdom are compared with it (13:24; 22:15; 29:15; 23:13f.; and to
the last see Ahikar 81f.), then they seem to round out the picture of how
wisdom-precept is authoritative-command in the strictest sense.40
It is amazing in the light of this clear evidence that Zimmerli later reversed
himself in the same article.
In short, the attempt to construct a model contrasting a prophetic
authoritative word from God against tentative, human counsel is false. The
wise man spoke with the same authority as the prophet.
THE SAME ANTHROPOLOGY
Moses complained about the sinful depravity of the elect and privileged
nation: "For I know how rebellious and stiff-necked you are. If you have
been rebellious against the LORD while I am still alive and with you, how
much more will you rebel after I die" (Deut. 31:27). Jeremiah castigated
man with his famous words: "The heart is deceitful above all things and
beyond cure. Who can understand it?" (Jer. 17:9). The sage observed that
man was both foolish and wayward: "Folly is bound up in the heart of a
child, but the rod of discipline will drive it far from him" (Prov. 22:15).
"Stop listening to instruction, my son, and you will stray from the words of
knowledge" (Prov. 19:27). Solomon's life tragically bore out his own
THE SAME EPISTEMOLOGY
When this writer spoke of the wise men as searching out the fixed order,
and even in a sense creating it, he did not mean to imply that they thought
with the Greek philosophers that this order could be known as some objec-
tive reality apart from man. Prophet and sage concur that their doctrines
could not be "understood" simply by the hearing of the ear; they had to be
understood in the heart. Thus, for example, Moses commented on his own
generation: "But to this day the LORD has not given you a mind that
understands or eyes that see or ears that hear" (Deut. 29:4). Thus, though
not without ambiguity, he exhorted the people, "Circumcise your hearts,
therefore, and do not be stiff-necked any longer" (10:16). The Lord judged
Isaiah's generation by hardening their hearts beyond understanding: "He
40 Zimmerli, "Concerning the Structure of Old Testament Wisdom," p. 179.
The Book of Proverbs and Old Testament Theology / 311
said, 'Go and tell this people: "Be ever hearing, but never understanding; be
ever seeing, but never perceiving. " Make the heart of this people calloused;
make their ears dull and close their eyes. Otherwise they might see with their
eyes, hear with their ears, understand with their hearts, and turn and be
healed.' " (Isa. 6:9-10).
The sages shared the same skepticism about man's ability to understand
without" wisdom" already resident in the heart: "The way of a fool seems
right to him but a wise man listens to advice" (Prov. 12:15). "There is a way
that seems right to a man, but in the end it leads to death" (14:12).
Thus only the weak, the humble, the teachable -in contrast to the
arrogant, the proud, and mockers are capable of "understanding." "A
fool finds no pleasure in understanding but delights in airing his own
opinions" (18:2). The mocker "does not listen to rebuke" (13:lb) and
"resents correction; he will not consult the wise" (15:12).
By contrast, "with humility comes wisdom" (11:2). Thus the sages'
epistemology resolves itself to trust in the Lord and to love Him. "Trust in
the LORD with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding; in all
your ways acknowledge him, and he will make your paths straight. Do not be
wise in your own eyes; fear the LORD and shun evil" (3:5-7). "Whoever
loves discipline loves knowledge, but he who hates correction is stupid"
Probably it was for this reason that they referred to their proverbs as
enigmas, riddles, and dark sayings (1:6). Knowledge, for them, was not a
matter of intellectual control, but of openness of heart. Like the parables of
Jesus they obfuscate reality to the unbelieving heart but reveal it to the
Pascal's debunking of Descartes' human pretensions to autonomy in
epistemology and Pascal's demand for a submissive spirit in order to com-
prehend divine mysteries harmonizes with the demands of the prophets and
the sages. Pascal wrote, "What amazes me most is to see that everyone is not
amazed at his own weakness. Man is quite capable of the most extravagant
opinions, since he is capable of believing that he is not naturally and
inevitably weak, but is, on the contrary, naturally wise.”41
According to saint, prophet, and sage, one must first make himself
open and available to understand the divine Word.
THE SAME SPIRITUAL DEMAND
Both prophet and sage, therefore, concentrated their address to the
human heart. Its spiritual condition in the final analysis determined the
success or failure of their teaching. Moses knew that the Lord had sealed the
fate of Pharaoh and Sihon when He had made their hearts obstinate. The sage
41 Blaise Pascal, Pensèes, p. 374.
312 / Bibliotheca Sacra -October-December 1979
admonished, "Above all else, guard your heart, for it is the wellspring of
life" (Prov. 4:23). Deuteronomy mentions the heart forty-five times and,
Proverbs refers to it fifty-three times.
Moreover, both prophet and sage made a similar claim on the heart.
Moses said, "And now, O Israel, what does the LORD your God ask of you
but to fear the LORD your God, to walk in all his ways, to love him, to serve
the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul" (Deut. 10:12).
This command "to fear God" is found many times in Deuteronomy (4:10;
5:29; 6:2, 13, 24; 8:6, 10; 10:12, 20; 13:5; 14:23; 17:19; 28:59; 31:12-13)
and in the prophetic literature based on it. Indeed, the prophet historian
known that the motto of Proverbs is in 1:7: "The fear of the LORD is the
beginning of knowledge."
Becker concluded from his study of this term in the Law that the fear of
the Lord denotes “reverence of Yahweh and the special aspect of loyalty to
Him as the covenant God.”42 Without question it denotes along with other
terms a commitment to Yahweh and his covenant, and thus it is correctly,
designated a "covenant formula."43 Stähli noted that it is used in conjunc-
tion with the commands to "love" (Deut. 10:17), "hold fast" (10:20),
"walk in His ways" (8:6), "follow after" (13:5), and "serve" (6:13).44 In
contrast to love which denotes a spontaneous commitment out of apprecia-
tion, fear denotes a commitment out of awe and respect. This fear is not the
numinous dread of a moment, but a lifetime stance of submission in reverent
awe. Such an attitude is an essential spiritual condition of the heart if a man
hopes to have a personal relationship with a God whose name and deeds are
"terrible" (Exod. 34:10; Deut. 4:34; 28:58; Mal. 1:15; 3:23) and who is
"great" and "holy" (2 Sam. 7:27; 1 Chron. 16:25; Ps. 99:3; 145:6).
In Proverbs the expression occurs in parallel with humility before God
(15:33; 22:40) and unfailing love and fidelity to Him (16:6) in contrast to
pride and arrogance (8:13; 18:12) and rebellion (1:7). This appropriate
submissive attitude of commitment issues in life (10:23; 19:23), security
(14:26), and spiritual enrichment (15:16), and enables one to avoid calamity
Since the religious issue resolves itself to the heart, both prophet and
sage divide all men into only two categories: the righteous/wise and the
wicked/foolish. Until one understands that the heart is central to man’s
spiritual condition, the biblical distinction into rascals and saints will appear
overly simplistic. Rengstorf cogently observed: "But the basis of the distinc-
42 J. Becker, Gottesfurcht im Alten Testament (1965), p. 85, cited by H. P. Stähli,
Theologisches Handworterbuch zum Alten Testament (Munich: Chr. Kaiser Verlag, 1971), 1:
43 cf. K. Baltzer, Das Bundesformular (1964), pp. 22-23, 46-47.
44 Stähli, Theologiches Handworterbuch, p. 774.
The Book of Proverbs and Old Testament Theology / 313
tion in both the prophetic and wisdom circles is not to be found in the
immoral or ungodly mode of life, but much deeper....The basis of the
distinction is the fundamentally different religious attitudes."45 The pious
are committed in their hearts to God; the ungodly are not. As the Lord Jesus
Christ expressed it, "He who is not with me is against me" (Matt. 12:30).
Sages, prophets, and saints know that there is but one religious com-
mand: "Serve the LORD" (Josh. 24:24).
THE SAME ETHICAL DEMANDS
The phrase "the fear of the Lord" presents a paradox in both the
prophetic and the sapiential literature: It is at one and the same time both the
source and the substance, the cause and the effect. On the one hand, the term
denotes the spiritual prerequisite for all ethical behavior, namely, a com-
mitment to God out of awesome reverence for Him. On the other hand, it
denotes the objective content of that which He demands through His
spokesman whether it be the priest with the law, or the prophet with the
word, or the wise man with his counsel (cf. Jer. 18:18). Thus the sage
promised, "My son, if you accept my words...then you will understand
the fear of the LORD and find the knowledge of God" (Prov. 2:1-5). Stähli
noted that in Proverbs "the fear of the Lord" is a close parallel to terms for
wisdom and can almost be used as a synonym for knowledge (1:29; 2:5; cf.
Isa. 11 :2; 33:6; Job 28:28).46 In Deuteronomy and the prophetic literature the
fear of the Lord is both taught and learned (Deut. 31:12; 2 Kings 17:7, 25,
28, 32-39, 41).
The content of the fear of the Lord overlaps in the prophetic and
aphoristic literature. This point is conceded even by Fichtner.
Without question, there are various points at which the views of the pre-exilic
prophets seem to be directly compatible with those of the wise men of the Book
of Proverbs. Further areas of ethical admonition were cultivated by both groups.
I need only mention here their active championship of righteousness and charity
toward the personae miserabiles (Amos 5:7; Hos. 5:11; Isa. 1:21ff.; Mic. 2:2;
Jer. 22:17 et passim, and Prov. 3:27; 14:21, 31; 22:9; 28:27; 29:14 etc.)47
In addition Fichtner noted that both circles condemned the use of false
weights and measures, partisanship and corruption, disrespect for elders,
etc. Weinfeld cataloged parallels regarding ethical behavior in Proverbs and
But these commonalities do not prove that the sages were drinking from
45 Theological Dictionary of the New Testament s.v. "a[martwlo<j" by Karl Heinrich
46 Stähli, Theologisches Handworterbuch, p. 776.
47 Fichtner, "Die altorientalische Weisheit," p. 430.
48 Weinfeld, "The Wisdom Substrata in Deuteronomy and the Deuteronomic Literature,"
314 / Bibliotheca Sacra -October-December 1979
an Israelite heritage. Weinfeld tried to trace the flow of thought from
non-Israelite to Israelite wisdom and from there to Deuteronomy. More
particularly, Fensham notes, "the protection of wisdom, orphan and poor
was the common policy of the ancient Near East."49 But Fensham also
observed that in
sion in the legal and the wisdom literature and that both forms of texts present
their similar ethical demands in the religious context in which Shamashs (the'
sun-god) upholds the course of justice. For example, in the prologue to the
Code of Hammurabi (1728-1686 B.C.) the statement is made that "the
strong are not allowed to oppress the weak, so that the sun (Utu-Shamash,
god of justice) may rise over the people."50 The same statement occurs in the
epilogue. Moreover, Shamash is called on to maintain justice in the land.
Thus, as in the Bible, religion and social ethics are closely connected.
Fensham then turns his attention to the Babylonian wisdom literature
and finds the same religio-ethical context: "The idea that the poor man is
protected by Shamash and that his is expected as a way of life amongst his
people, occurs frequently in Babylonian wisdom literature."51 Thus Old
Babylonian law and wisdom share the same religio-ethical system.
Moreover, it is arresting to observe that though the ancient Mesopotamian
law-giver and sage share the same spiritual convictions they do not quote
From this Mesopotamian analogy it seems plausible to suppose against
Weinfeld that the Israelite sage derived his ethical convictions not by
borrowing from his pagan neighbors but rather by his common belief with
the other authors of the Old Testament that Yahweh as the Judge of all men
will reward the righteous and punish transgressors. Murphy remarked, "In
the concrete, the sage was a Yahwist, and the worshiper of Yahweh found,
that the wisdom of the sages fitted in with his tradition."52
In any case, the Book of Proverbs is in the biblical canon not because it
contains ethical values similar to those demanded by pagan sages but
because Yahweh encounters the faithful in it with His commandments to fear
Him and to love man made in His image.
THE SAME HOPE
Murphy tersely concluded, "The kerygma of wisdom can be summed
up in one word: life."53 He proceeded by stating that "life and death...are
49 F. Charles Fensham, "Widow, Orphan, and the Poor in Ancient Near Eastern Legal and
Wisdom Literature," Journal of Near Eastern Studies 21 (1962): 129-39.
50 Ibid., p. 130.
51 Ibid., p. 131.
52 Roland E Murphy .'The Kerygma of the Book of Proverbs," Interpretation 20 (1966):
53 Ibid., p. 9.
The Book of Proverbs and Old Testament Theology / 315
central in the doctrine of the Old Testament sages.”54 Kaiser underscores the
connection between the fear of the Lord and life (10:27; 14:27. 19:23.
Life may refer to sheer existence in many days (3:16; 28:12), or the
quality of realizing the highest possible good in this existence,56 or even
existence beyond the shadow of death (12:28).57
The Law and the prophets set forth this same hope (Deut. 8:1; Isa.
55:1-3; Ezek. 33:19 cf. John 17:3). Moreover, in Proverbs as in the rest of
Scripture this hope does not function as a mere “profit motive" within a
eudaemonistic philosophy of life. Instead it denotes the enjoyment of life’s
potentials in the will of God, and thus all material gain possesses sacramental
value as a benefit given from Him.
THE SAME FAITH
In Romans 12:19-20 the Apostle Paul strings together Deuteronomy
32:35 and Proverbs 25:21-22 to support his
exhortation to the saints at
that they show kindness to their persecutors rather than seeking revenge.
This Pharasaic practice was dubbed by Longenecker as "pearl stringing":
"bringing to bear on one point of an argument passages from various parts of
the Bible in support of the argument and to demonstrate the unity of
Scripture."58 Without question both Proverbs and Deuteronomy teach the
common norm that a man not avenge himself.59
But it may escape the casual reader's attention that this ethical behavior
is based on the common faith verbalized in Proverbs 20:22 that Yahweh will
avenge wrong. Commenting on Proverbs 20:22 and 24:29 von Rad ob-
served, "Behind the very serious exhortation not to requite evil done to one
…, not to take matters into one's hand when found with evil men...there
does not lie...a lofty ethical principle, but something else, namely faith in
the order controlled by Yahweh."60 Robinson put this common faith behind
the aphoristic sayings in this way: "There is almost always present a
54 Ibid., p. 10.
55 Kaiser, Toward an Old Testament Theology, p. 171.
56 "It refers to all the assets -emotional, physical, psychological, social, spiritual- which
joy and security and wholeness" (Walter Brueggemann, In Man We Trust
Knox Press, 1972], p. 15).
57 Waltke, "The Book of Proverbs and Ancient Wisdom Literature," pp. 226-38.
58 Richard N. Longenecker, Biblical Exegesis
in the Apostolic Period (
B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1975), p. 115.
59 The reference to "burning coals of fire on the head" should be interpreted on the basis of
an Egyptian expiation ritual, according to which a guilty person, as a sign of his amendment of
life, carried a basin of glowing coals on his head (S. Morenz, Theologische Literaturzeitung 78
60 Gerhard von Rad, Wisdom in Israel (New York: Abingdon Press, 1972), p. 95.
316 / Bibliotheca Sacra -October-December 1979
confidence that Yahweh is active in man's life."61
Out of this common belief to trust God rather than to seek one's
personal revenge, both prophet and sage call the righteous to prayer (Deut.
4:32; Isa. 12:4; Prov. 15:29; 15:8). Both prophet and sage call on their
hearers to trust the living, righteous, powerful Creator.
Several points may be noted in concluding this study.
1. The commonality observed between the prophet and the sage is not
intended to minimize the obvious differences in their lifestyles, fate, pur-
pose, literary forms and manner of receiving and delivering revelation. One
cannot imagine the sages who speak in the Book of Proverbs going about in a
loin cloth like Isaiah or eating dung like Ezekiel or thundering out invectives
like the shepherd of Tekoa. The wise men did not arraign the nation before
the Lord's bar of justice and accuse them of breaking His covenant. But in
spite of these differences, it is maintained that they shared the same
2. This notion of unity with diversity fits well with the belief that the
Creator is also the Lord of the canon. Kaiser stated this point well: "To
introduce the topic of the integration of truth, fact, and understanding is to
appeal to the unity of truth made possible by the one Who created a
UNI-verse. Thus the doctrinal base for any norms of truth and character are
grounded ultimately in a doctrine of Creation and the person of the
3. This article has not attempted to inquire into the common source
from which both the classical prophets and the royal sages drank, but it
seems plausible to suggest that it originated with Moses and even more
in the covenant he mediated between Yahweh and
east of the
by arguing for the priority of the wisdom literature and the dependence of
Deuteronomy on it. The priority of one over the other cannot be proved as yet
by empirical data, but no hard evidence exists to turn upside down the prima
facie witness of the Bible that the addresses attributed to Moses preceded the
Book of Proverbs. This primary witness finds support in the assumption that
both Yahweh and His cultus were well known by the sages. Moreover, the
borrowing of individual non-Israelite sayings by wise men does not support
the notion that these pagan sources shaped the Israelite sage's philosophy.
Those he borrowed were probably consonant with his faith in Yahweh which
he already possessed.
61 H. W. Robinson, Inspiration and Revelation
in the Old Testament (
University Press, 1946), p. 252.
62 Kaiser, Toward an Old Testament Theology, p. 175.
The Book of Proverbs and Old Testament Theology / 317
If recent scholarship is correct in its view -and there is no reason to
think otherwise -that the prophets were not innovators but reformers
suppose the same for their spiritual peers, the sages? The close affinity
between Proverbs and Deuteronomy finds a plausible explanation in the
Law's injunction that the king "write for himself on a scroll a copy of this
law" (Deut. 17:18). Kaiser commented that the similarities noted by Wein-
feld "do illustrate the point that wisdom was not cut off conceptually or
theologically from materials which we have judged to be earlier than sapien-
4. Old Testament theologians must find another center than covenant,
salvation, history, cultus, or even promise -if this be understood in terms
promises to the patriarchs and
Toombs has commented, "As long as Old Testament theology is represented
exclusively in terms of history, institutions and cultus of the Hebrew people,
it will exclude the wisdom literature by definition.”64 Kaiser's suggestion of
looking to "the fear of the Lord" as an expression common to both is
helpful, but it is more apropos to define it in terms of its own use, that is, not
as a reference to promise but to a commitment to serve Yahweh as Lord.
5. Although prophet and wise man occasionally express identical
ethical norms, such as not removing a neighbor's landmarks (Deut. 19:14;
Prov. 22:28) and showing concern for the disenfranchised, for the most part
their areas of ethical concern remain distinct. Kidner introduced his superb
commentary by calling attention to these differences: "There are details of
character small enough to escape the mesh of the law and the broadsides of
the prophets, and yet decisive in personal dealings. Proverbs moves in this
realm, asking what a person is like to live with, or employ; how he manages
his affairs, his time and himself."65
For wisdom, man needs both the priest with his hrAOT the prophet with
his rbADA and the sage with his hcAfe (cf. Jer. 18:18). But above all he needs to
enter into a personal relationship with Him of whom Isaiah predicted, "The
Spirit of the Lord will rest on him -the Spirit of wisdom and of understand-
ing, the Spirit of counsel and of power, the Spirit of knowledge and of the
fear of the LORD " (11:2).
63 Ibid., p. 166.
64 Lawrence E. Toombs, "Old Testament Theology and the Wisdom Literature," Journal of
Bible and Religion 23 (1955):195.
65 Derek Kidner, Proverbs (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1964), p. 5.
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