BIBLIOTHECA SACRA 150 (April-June 1993): 151-70

               Copyright © 1993 by Dallas Theological Seminary.  Cited with permission.

 

 

 

                             GUIDELINES FOR

                        UNDERSTANDING AND

                  PROCLAIMING THE BOOK OF

                                    PROVERBS

 

                                                        Greg W. Parsons

 

 

The Book of Proverbs includes many practical and

down-to-earth sayings. Yet few sermons are preached from this

book. For many preachers the Book of Proverbs apparently seems

like "nothing more than a deserted stretch of highway between

Psalms and Ecclesiastes" that appears "dry and barren."1

Collins asserts that "the crisis of relevance" for the preacher is

particularly acute for the Book of Proverbs since it provides little

inspiration or excitement. He opines, "With the exception of

Leviticus, it is doubtful that any biblical book is viewed with less c

enthusiasm by the preacher."2 Why is it that, although Proverbs

is a rich source of devotional reading, preachers and teachers

normally bypass Proverbs for public presentation?3

Several problems face the expositor in seeking to understand

and proclaim the Book of Proverbs. (1) Some proverbs seem to

conflict with human experience (10:27; 22:4) or seem contradic-

tory to one another (26:4-5; cf. 6:6-11 with 15:16).4 (2) Many

 

Greg W. Parsons is Professor of Biblical Studies, Baptist Missionary Association

Theological Seminary, Jacksonville, Texas.

 

1 Thomas G. Long, Preaching and the Literary Forms of the Bible (Philadelphia:

Fortress, 1989), 53.

2 John J. Collins, Proverbs Ecclesiastes, Knox Preaching Guides (Atlanta: John

Knox, 1980), 1.

3 David A. Hubbard, Proverbs, The Communicator's Commentary (Dallas, TX:

Word, 1989), 17.

4 Elizabeth Achtemeier, Preaching {rom the Old Testament (Louisville: West-

minster/John Knox, 1989), 171.



152                 BIBLIOTHECA SACRA / April-June 1993

 

proverbs, on the whole, appear to be secular common-sense say-

ings, almost devoid of theological content. (3) Some proverbs

seem excessively moralistic (20:13) or overly concerned with the

status quo (24:21).5 (4) Others seem totally amoral observations of

society (14:20; 17:8). (5) Proverbs 10:1-22:16 and chapters 25-29

consist of hundreds of individual sayings seemingly uncon-

nected with what comes before or after.6 (6) Some proverbs may be

culturally problematic. Can Proverbs 23:13 be utilized by the

Ipreacher who faces a society full of child abuse?7

How can the biblical expositor deal with such enonnous ob-

stacles to his understanding and proclaiming the Book of

Proverbs? Are there any guidelines to assist him in running

through this "obstacle course"? Few have written even minimal

guidelines for either interpreting or preaching biblical poetry or

the Book of Proverbs in particular.8 Recently Hubbard has laid

an excellent foundation for understanding the Book of Proverbs.9

Other authors offer some insights for preaching from Proverbs

but seldom in detail.10 Collins gives a brief "preaching guide" to

Proverbs from a neoorthodox perspective.11 However, he offers no

specific guidelines.

Therefore this article offers guidelines for both understand-

ing and proclaiming the Book of Proverbs.

 

5 Long, Preaching and the Literary Forms of the Bible, 53-54.

6 Achtemeier, Preaching from the Old Testament, 171. However, chapters 25-29

sometimes have small clusters of proverbs on certain subjects (apparently the work

of Hezekiah's scribes, 25:1). See Derek Kidner, The Wisdom of Proverbs, Job & Ec-

clesiastes: An Introduction to Wisdom Literature (Downers Grove, IL: InterVar-

sity, 1985), 32.

7 Long, Preaching and the Literary Forms of the Bible, 61-62.

8 For instance, the recent helpful book by Sidney Greidanus (The Modern

Preacher and the Ancient Text: Interpreting and Preaching Biblical Literature

[Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1988]) contains nothing on the poetic books or Proverbs

in particular.

9 Hubbard lists six useful guidelines for interpretation and proclamation that

the present author has adapted (Proverbs, 17-30). However, though Hubbard's

guidelines rightly emphasize the hermeneutical, few remarks specifically inter-

face with proclamation. Valuable hermeneutical "rules" for Proverbs have been

suggested by Gordon D. Fee and Douglas Stuart (How to Read the Bible for All Its

Worth [Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1981], 195-203). See also the helpful work of C.

Hassell Bullock, An Introduction to the Old Testament Poetic Books, rev. ed.

(Chicago: Moody, 1988), 146-65, esp. 161-65.

10 See Long, Preaching and the Literary Forms of the Bible, 53-66. Achtemeier

treats the Book of Proverbs in conjunction with her treatment of wisdom literature

(Preaching (rom the Old Testament, 165-76).

11 Collins, Proverbs Ecclesiastes.



Guidelines for Und«8tanding and Proclaiming the Book of Proverbs                 153

 

1. SUGGESTED HERMENEUTICAL GUIDELINES FOR PROVERBS

 

GUIDELINE ONE: INTERPRET INDIVIDUAL PASSAGES IN LIGHT OF THE

OVERALL STRUCTURE, PURPOSE, AND "MOTTO" OF THE BOOK OF

PROVERBS.

Overall context of the book as an anthology. The overall lit-

erary structure of Proverbs suggests that the book is not only an

anthology of sayings but is also "a collection of collections of

wisdom materials.12 The headings that introduce its major

sections at 1:1; 10:1; 22:17; 24:23; 25:1; 30:1; and 31:1 may indi-

cate seven distinct collections that vary in form and content.

Therefore initially it seems prudent to interpret each indi-

vidual proverb or wisdom unit primarily within the context of its

own individual collection. Then one must consider the context of

the Book of Proverbs as a whole. The use of a concordance is es-

sential for the precise meaning of words in the wisdom (or

proverbial) vocabulary.13

Purpose and setting. In contrast to many books of the Bible,

the purpose for Proverbs is clearly stated in 1:2-6. As a primer of

right conduct and proper attitudes, Proverbs gives the inexperi-

enced youth (1:4)--or even the older Immature person-wisdom

and instruction necessary to conform to God's will.14 A twofold

emphasis is indicated: to give moral prudence and skillfulness

for holy living (1:2~, 3-5); and. to give mental discernment (1:2b,

6).15 The latter Includes dIscernIng the meanIng of various

kinds of wisdom sayings such as proverbs, riddles, and figura-

tive maxims or expressions (v. 6).16 The proverb in the mouth of a

fool is inappropriate and can even be hazardous (26:7, 9). Dis-

cernment may also refer to knowing the difference between sham

and reality so as to sift out the satanic counterfeit of wisdom.17

Though the setting of Proverbs has been debated (whether it

was the royal court or the home), the data seem to indicate that the

Book of Proverbs in its canonical form was an "instructional

manual"18 designed "for use by the young men of Israel's society

 

12 Hubbard, Proverbs, 18.

13 Ibid., 25-26.

14 Bullock, Introduction to Old Testament Poetic Books, 152-53.

15 Allen P. Ross, "Proverbs," in The Expositor's Bible Commentary (Grand

Rapids: Zondervan, 1991), 5:904-6.

16 The precise interpretation of the Hebrew word  hcAylim; "parable" (NIV) or "figure"

(NASB) is disputable.

17 Ross states that this involves insight concerning lessons of life "such as distin-

guishing permanent values from immediate gratifications" ("Proverbs," 905).

18 See Bullock, Introduction to Old Testament Poetic Books, 152-53.



154                 BIBLIOTHECA SACRA / April-June 1993

 

who were being groomed for positions of leadership,"19 However,

the individual sayings reflect the family (or clan) wisdom of

centuries past handed down from father to son throughout the gen-

erations (cf. Prov, 4:1-4),20 As Johnson states, the Book of

Proverbs is "the boiled-down summation of many generations of

experience in living."21

Motto. The motto of the book is found in 1:7 and 9:10 ("The

fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge/wisdom"), This

serves not only as a literary inclusio22 but also as the compass to

give orientation to chapters 1-9,23 This motto rectifies the view

that Proverbs is basically secular in its orientation,24 Proverbs is

designed to teach people how to steer their lives properly (cf, 1:5)25

under the command of Yahweh.

 

GUIDELINE TWO: RECOGNIZE THE VARIOUS LITERARY FORMS AND DE-

VICES (THE "BUILDING BLOCKS" OF THE INDIVIDUAL PASSAGES OR

PROVERBS) AS A CLUE TO THE CONTEXT.

The purpose of Proverbs involves "the enhancement of un-

derstanding through an instrument of finely turned language

that needs to be properly grasped" (see 1:2, 5-6),26 The terms in

 

19 Hubbard, Proverbs, 26. He cogently argues that the centralization of govern-

ment under David and Solomon called for many administrators to be trained for

positions of responsibility. Beginning in Solomon's day there may have been some

kind of schooling system such as was known in Egypt, Assyria, and Babylonia.

Hezekiah may also have had a similar system (Prov. 25:1).

20 Hubbard, Proverbs, 26-27. However, at the same time, the frequent use of "my

son" (or my child) in Proverbs apparently indicates that the wisdom teacher was a

sort of substitute parent to the person seeking wisdom from him (Fee and Stuart,

How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth, 190). i

21 L. D. Johnson, Israel's Wisdom: Learn and Live (Nashville: Broadman, 1975),

30. Waltke says that the original setting of the wisdom material in Proverbs was

the home of the courtier, a high court official addressing his son (Bruce K. Waltke,

"The Book of Proverbs and Ancient Wisdom Literature," Bibliotheca Sacra 136

[July-September 1979]: 230-32).

22 "The woman who fears the Lord" (31:30) is part of an inclusio for the whole book.

The technical term inclusio is the literary envelope structure whereby a unit be-

gins and ends with the same or similar phraseology, .

23 Bullock observes, "Thus in Proverbs the underlying basis of life is one's rela-

tionship to God. Out of that relationship grow moral understanding and the ability

to judge what is right (2:6-22), a proper attitude toward material possessions (3:9-

I10), industrious labor (6:6-11), the necessary equilibrium and sense of security for

living in the world (3:21-26), and the right relationship toward one's neighbor (3:27-

29) to mention only a few of the more practical benefits of that relationship"

(Introduction to Old Testament Poetic Books, 148; cf. 166).

24 Cf. Collins, Proverbs Ecclesiastes, 4-6, 10,

25 The NIV translation "guidance" in 1:5 reflects the Hebrew term tOlBuH;Ta, an ap-

parent nautical term cognate to lkeHo ("sailor") who is "the one who pulls the ropes"

to guide a ship.

26 Robert Alter, The Art of Biblical Poetry (New York: Basic Books, 1985), 167.



Guidelines for Understanding and Proclaiming the Book of Proverbs                155

 

verse 6 (especially lwAmA and hcAylim;) are preeminently literary

terms that indicate that the reception of wisdom requires careful

reading of Proverbs to determine its literary forms.27 Conse-

quently it is essential for the expositor to recognize its various lit-

erary forms and devices.

Two basic literary forms. In general there are two basic lit-

erary forms or types of proverbs: the wisdom sentence and the ad-

monition. The wisdom sentence (or saying) is an observation

based on experience which is stated in the indicative mood (e.g.,

Prov. 12:4). This type occurs primarily in 10:1-22:16 and chap-

ters 25-29.28 The admonition, which occurs in the imperative

mood (in either the second or third person),29 is found mainly in

chapters 1-9 and 22:17-24:22.30  It may be a positive instruction or

command or a negative prohibition. The admonition may add

the reason(s) or motivation(s) often introduced by "for" (see 3:1-2

and 1:15-16, which combine both negative and positive compo-

nents). Frequently there are extended admonitions to the "son"

(esp. chaps. 1-9).31

Basic types of poetic parallelism. Though all the basic types

of poetic parallelism can be illustrated from the Book of Proverbs,

the most significant are antithetic and emblematic paral-

lelism.32

Antithetic parallelism is the most common category in

Proverbs, particularly in chapters 10-15,  in which about 90 per-

cent of the proverbs are of this type.33 This type emphasIzes the

importance of choosing correctly to avoid the fate of the fool. It

 

27 Cf. ibid. 167-08 175.

28 The two main literary subtypes of the wisdom sentence are comparisons and

numerical sayings (the latter being frequent in chapter 30 and sometimes involving

several verses). See Hubbard, Proverbs, 20-21, for more details.

29 The Hebrew jussive (third person positive or second person prohibition) is fea-

tured in this type.

30 Hubbard, Proverbs, 21. His statement that both collections of the wise (22:17-

24:22 and 24:23-34) feature the admonition is not precisely stated. Only a small part

of the second collection (viz., 24:27-29) contains admonitions.

31 Ibid., p. 18. These extended wisdom speeches or poems of 10 or 20 lines make up

roughly one-third of the Book of Proverbs, according to Alter (The Art of Biblical

Poetry, 179).

32 Synonymous parallelism is fairly common (see Prov. 20:1a; cf. 17:4 and 18:7), es-

pecially in chapters 18 and 19. Synthetic parallelism, frequent in chapters 16-22,

has two main variations-either completing the thought (16:3, 6-7, 10, 12) or advanc-

ing the thought (16:4) (Hubbard, Proverbs, 19, and Ross, "Proverbs," 888). Also see

Greg W. Parsons, "Guidelines for Understanding and Proclaiming the Psalms,"

Bibliotheca Sacra 147 (April-June 1990): 179-81.

33 This estimate comes from Johnson, Israel's Wisdom: Learn and Live, 20.



156                             BIBLIOTHECA SACRA / April-June 1993

 

contributes greatly to the teaching of "the two ways,"34 setting

"before the reader the choice between the wise and profitable way

versus the foolish and disastrous way" (cf. 12:5).35

Emblematic parallelism is actually a type of synonymous

parallelism in which one line is figurative and the other line is

literal36 (see 10:26; 25:25; and 26:20). Proverbs of this type may

also qualify as riddles since every statement "A is like B" im-

plies the question "How is A like B?"37 Therefore one must de-

termine the common denominators in the comparison, ascertain-

ing the main point of the comparison within its historical-cul-

tural milieu.38

In analyzing the meaning of half of the parallelism, one

must consider the proverb as a whole, utilizing both halves of the

verse. For instance Proverbs 10:1 reads, "A wise son makes a

father glad, but a foolish son is a grief to his mother." The two

halves of this antithetic proverb must not be isolated so as to con-

clude mistakenly that a mother has no joy in a wise son or that the

"macho" father shows no grief over a foolish son. Rather the par-

allelism of "father"/"mother" means "parents" who share emo-

tions of joy or grief. 39  Thus the total message may be greater than

the sum of its independent components; it emerges from the har-

monious interaction between the two lines.40

The clues in the various English translations as to the proba-

ble kind of parallelism need to be observed carefully. Antitheti-

cal parallelisms normally use the word "but." Emblematic par-

allelisms have the word "like" or ''as'' at the beginning of one

line.  However, since a translator frequently has added these

 

34 Hubbard, Proverbs, 19.

35 Ross, "Proverbs," 888. However, as Hubbard observes, this type also plays a sig-

nificant role in chapters 1-9 in numerous antithetic summaries where "two back-

to-back verses or lines state the positive and negative outcomes of heeding or

spurning wisdom" (Proverbs, 19). See 1:32-33; 2:21-22; 3:33-35; 4:1&-19; 8:35-36; 9:12.

36 William S. LaSor, David A. Hubbard, and Frederick W. Bush, Old Testament

Survey (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1982), 308.

37 See William E. Mouser, Jr., Walking in Wisdom (Downers Grove, IL: InterVar-

srty, 1983),60.

38 Cf. ibid., 60-64. The expositor must avoid the temptation to judge the signifi-

cance of the parallelism from a modern Occidental perspective.

39 LaSor, Hubbard, and Bush, Old Testament Survey, 309,316.

40 Alter notes that one problem for many readers is that much of Proverbs has in- i

deed become proverbial in English with the result that only a portion of the indi-

vidual proverb is quoted. This tends to divorce one half from its mate and distorts

the proverb's meaning (The Art of Biblical Poetry, 164). Ronald Barclay Allen gives

the analogy of stereophonic sound to illustrate the need to "hear" both lines of He-

brew poetry (Praise! A Matter of Life and Breath [Nashville: Nelson, 1980], 51).



Guidelines for Understanding and Proclaiming the Book of Proverbs    157

 

words from the context (as in 25:25-26, 28),41 the reader must be

cautious about the "announced" kind of parallelism. These clues

may sometimes convey an incorrect message.42

Since so much of the Book of Proverbs consists of individual

proverbs (which may be compared to color slides placed somewhat

randomly in a projector tray), the hermeneutical caveat implied

in the proverb, "A text without a context is a pretext," must be

applied in a unique manner. (a) The internal context of each in-

dividual proverb is heightened. (b) Other verses in the immediate

paragraph(s) or chapter(s) are not nearly so important as the lit-

erary and theological context of the whole collection. A topical

study of the subjects and words will provide a perspective helpful

in interpreting an individual proverb.43 Proverbs employs the

technical jargon of wisdom literature. Through the use of a good

concordance (especially in Hebrew), the expositor can analyze

the specialized meanings of such words as "way" (or "path") or

"law." A study of these words will reveal rich dividends.44

Though a study of "way" (j`r,D,) in Proverbs 22:6 will not resolve

all difficulties, the expositor may find help in coming to his own

conclusions.45 The word "law" (hrAOT) usually does not mean the

Law of Moses but the authoritative instruction of a parent or

teacher (cf. Prov. 3: 1).46

41 Students of Hebrew realize that the conjunction  v; may be translated "and" or

"but" or "so" or a variety of other ways. Sometimes the two lines are connected in

asyndetic fashion (a mere juxtaposition) with no conjunction at all.

42 Mouser, Walking in Wisdom, 32-33, 74.

43 Though all usages of a specific word or phrase in Proverbs are important, per-

haps the first priority should be occurrences within the primary context of a spe-

cific subcollection (e.g., 10: 1-22: 16).

44 Proverbs uses several Hebrew words for "path" or "way." Proverbs 4:11-19, 25-26

illustrates most of them. Verse 11 refers to the "way" (j`r,D,) of wisdom and the right

"paths" (lit., "wagon-tracks" [lBAf;ma]) of uprightness. Verse 14 contrasts the

"pathway" (Hraxo) of the wicked with the "way" (j`r,D,) of the evil ones. Verses 18 and 19

contrast the "pathway" (hraxo) of the righteous as light and the "way" (j`r,D,) of the

wicked as darkness.

45 The specific use of this word with the pronominal suffix suggests that the

translation of "his way" may mean "his (own) way" (cf. 16:9; 11:5) in contrast to the

traditional viewpoint of "the way he should go." Cf. Douglas Stuart, Old Testament

Exegesis: A Primer for Students and Pastors, 2d ed. (Philadelphia: Westminster,

1984),51-52. This may mean training should be given with consideration for his in-

dividuality (or habits). However, the context of 22:5 and 14:12 suggests that this

meaning does not allow the child to have his own way (Derek Kidner, The Proverbs:

An Introduction and Commentary [Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1964], 147).

On the other hand, since Proverbs presents only two ways a child can go (the way of

the righteous and wise or the way of the wicked and fool) there may be merit in re-

taining the traditional view (Ross, "Proverbs," 1061-62).

46 Hubbard, Proverbs, 25-26. However, Kidner argues that where the Hebrew hrAOT

occurs in the book unqualified (as in 28:9 and 29:18) it refers to divine law, but



158                 BIBLIOTHECA SACRA / April-June 1993

 

The theological context of the "motto" (1:7; 9:10) must always

be considered.

In longer units in chapters 1-9 or 30-31, certain literary

clues should be noted as evidence of structural links or grouping.

The use of repetition, catchwords, and inclusios are some of the

most prominent devices.47

 

GUIDELINE THREE: BEWARE OF THE ERRONEOUS ASSUMPTION THAT

PROVERBS ARE UNCONDITIONAL PROMISES.

 

It is important for the expositor to become aware of the as-

sumptions and nature of proverbial wisdom literature.48

Assumptions of proverbial wisdom. Bullock correctly ob-

serves that the Book of Proverbs as wisdom literature assumes "a

fundamental relationship between the natural and social/moral

order."49 Proverbs 3:19-20, which states that Yahweh created the

universe through wisdom, and the many references to His acts of

creation (8:22-31) demonstrate that creation is viewed as the basis

for order in the universe. The implication is that God through

wisdom placed "order" in the very fabric of the cosmos. These

verses set the stage for the whole book, which is designed to exhibit

the order that holds together all of life.50 Within this context there

is a "solidarity" between all parts of God's creation, over which

He is Ruler, from the universe itself down to a colony of ants

(6:6). What one observes in the natural cosmos has implications

for understanding the social and moral order.51

Proverbs assumes that the physical and moral universe op-

erates by cause and effect. Therefore good behavior is rewarded

and bad deeds are punished (e.g., 10:30). In Hubbard's words, the

various analogies and comparisons between animal life and

human experience make sense (see chap. 30) because behind both

 

when qualified (as in 1:8; 3:1; and 13:14) it refers to home teaching (The Proverbs,

63). This conclusion should be evaluated in light of the specific data. Hubbard ar-

gues that a dogmatic position cannot be taken on 28:9 (Proverbs, 290-91).

47 See Hubbard, Proverbs, 23-24, for examples. .

48 Cf. some general assumptions of wisdom literature as part of what Bullock

calls "biblical humanism" (Introduction to Old Testament Poetic Books, 54,63-65).

49 Ibid., 162.

50 Hubbard, Proverbs, 25. Also see Waltke, "The Book of Proverbs and Ancient

Wisdom Literature," 233. For a helpful summary of those who view wisdom as basi-

cally "a search for creation's order so as to master life" and for those who reject

this, see Roy B. Zuck, "A Biblical Theology of the Wisdom Books and the Song of

Songs," in A Biblical Theology of the Old Testament, ed. Roy B. Zuck (Chicago:

Moody, 1991), 211-13.

51 Bullock, Introduction to Old Testament Poetic Books, 162; Kidner, The Wisdom

of Proverbs, Job & Ecclesiastes, 14.



Guidelines for Understanding and Proclaiming the Book of Proverbs    159

 

stands the hand of the one Creator. It is that hand which underlies

the cause-and-effect pattern of proverbs, where good conduct car-

ries its own reward and bad behavior brings its own woe."52

The nature of proverbial wisdom. Because proverbs are wise

observations based on experience, they must not be understood as

Iunconditional promises but as pragmatic principles (or proce-

dures) to follow.53 Neither are the proverbs "legal guarantees

from God" but rather "poetic guidelines for good behavior."54

Thus the proverbs tell what generally takes place without making

an irreversible rule that fits all circumstances. This is a key to

understanding problematic proverbs such as 22:6.55 This verse

should not be considered a promise but a general "principle of ed-

ucation and commitment."56

Furthermore certain proverbs that make amoral observa-

tions (e.g., 14:20; 17:8) must not be seen as condoning or encour-

aging evil.57 A distinction must be made between what is de-

scribed and what is prescribed as proper.58

The proverbs are limited by the characteristics of brevity and

catchiness. On the surface some proverbs read almost like an al-

gebraic equation or mechanical law (22:4).59 However, Fee and

Stuart aptly state that proverbs are "worded to be memorable"

Irather than "technically precise."60 The very literary form ne-

cessitates that they overstate the case and oversimplify without

including "fine print" or "footnotes" with "lists of exceptions."61

So one must be alert to the following limitations implied from an

overall study of the context of the Book of Proverbs.62

 

52 Hubbard, Proverbs, 25 (italics his).

53 Cf. Bullock, Introduction to Old Testament Poetic Books, 162.

54 Fee and Stuart, How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth, 98-99, 203.

55 Walter C. Kaiser, Jr., The Uses of the Old Testament in the New (Chicago:

Moody, 1985), 199.

56 Bullock, Introduction to Old Testament Poetic Books, 162.

57 Cf. Achtemeier, Preaching from the Old Testament, 171.

58 Walter C. Kaiser, Jr., Toward Old Testament Ethics (Grand Rapids: Zonder-

van, 1983), 66.

59 Alden observes that the verse seems to say, "Obedience plus humility equals

riches, honor, and life" (Robert L. Alden, Proverbs: A Commentary on an Ancient

Book of Timeless Advice [Grand Rapids: Baker, 1983), 160).

60 Fee and Stuart, How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth, 196,201-3.

61 Hubbard, Proverbs, 25.

62 Ironically the person who desires to use the Proverbs in the pursuit of wisdom

must use wisdom in reading and employing the proverbial genre (Long, Preaching

and the Literary Forms of the Bible, 58).



160                 BIBLIOTHECA SACRA / April-June 1993

 

Examples of specific limitations stated or implied in the Book

of Proverbs.

1. Proverbs 26:4-5 demonstrates limitations to certain cir-

cumstances. These side-by-side, opposite proverbs should not be

considered as inconsistent or contradictory but as defining spe-

cific situations noted in the biblical text.63

Complementary proverbs imply that the application of a spe-

cific aphorism must be tempered by certain conditions. Proverbs

15:22 praises careful planning with the use of human counselors;

however, this is balanced with the warning that while man pro-

poses, God disposes" (19:21; 16:9; cf. 20:24; 21:30-31).64 Zuck sug-

gests that folly, which according to 22:15 is "bound up in the heart

of the child," may introduce a situation that is an exception to the

general principle of 22:6.65

2. Proverbs may be limited to a certain tendency of things to

cause a particular effect (see 15:1). A gentle answer may turn

away wrath, but at times such an answer may have no positive ef-

fect on stubborn individuals.66

3. Proverbs may be limited to what ought to be done not

(necessarary) what actually takes place (see 16:10).67

The llterary context of wlsdom llterature as a whole. This

brings a more balanced understanding to the Proverbs. The tra-

ditional wisdom of Proverbs, which deals with the "built-in regu-

larities which make nine-tenths of life manageable," is chal-

lenged by Job and Qoheleth.68 The message of these two books

lustrates that the proverbs are ultimately limited by the mystery of

Yahweh's sovereignty. The natural order God established in the

universe cannot tell everything about God. Hubbard rightly con-

cludes that fear of the Lord69 should restrict self-confidence in us-

ing the various proverbs to determine how God will act.

 

63 Kaiser, Toward Old Testament Ethics, 64.

64 Kidner, The Wisdom of Proverbs, Job & Ecclesiastes, 26. Cf. Hubbard,

Proverbs, 25.

65 Zuck, "A Biblical Theology of the Wisdom Books and the Song of Songs," 234.

66 Kaiser, Toward Old Testament Ethics, 64. Cf. Kaiser, The Uses of the Old Tes-

tament in the New, 199.

67 Kaiser, Toward Old Testament Ethics, 65.

68 "Proverbs seems to say, 'Here are the rules for life; try them and see they will

work.' Job and EcclesIastes say, 'We did, and they don't (David A. Hubbard, The

Wisdom Movement and Israel's Covenant Faith," Tyndale Bulletin 11 [1966]: 6).

These books operate in "creative conflict" with Proverbs. See Kidner, The Wisdom

of Proverbs, Job & Ecclesiastes, 36, 116-24).

69 The fear of God is a common denominator in wisdom literature (see esp. Prov.

1:1; 9:10; Job 28:28; Ps. 111:10; Eccles. 12:13; and numerous other instances).



Guidelines for Understanding and Proclaiming the Book of Proverbs    161

 

We cannot use proverbs like subway tokens, guaranteed to open

the turnstile every time. They are guidelines, not mechanical

formulas. . . . We heed them as best we can, try to gain the wis-

dom that experience can teach, and then leave large amounts of

room for God to surprise us with outcomes different from what our

plans prescribe.70

GUIDELINE FOUR: REALIZE THAT SOME PROVERBS ARE UNCONDITION-

ALLY TRUE (E.G., PROY. 16:2, 12, 33).

The recognition that the proverbs have limitations does not

nullify the fact that some proverbs may always be true. Fre-

quently these are connected to an attribute or action of God (11:1;

12:22; 15:3; 16:2, 33; 22:2). However, this does not mean that be-

cause the name of the Lord is used in the proverb there is a "blank

check" to use in an unconditional fashion. For instance 15:25

and 16:7 must not be forced to apply to all situations. The experi-

ence of mankind will often alert the expositor to proverbs that

have exceptions. However, ultimately the way to decide whether a

proverb is always true or limited to certain circumstances is not

by means of a subjective "vote" but by correlation with the rest of

the biblical canon, beginning with the context of the Book of

Proverbs and of wisdom literature as a whole and concluding

with the New Testament evidence.71

 

GUIDELINE FIVE: INTERPRET THE BOOK OF PROVERBS IN LIGHT OF THE

HISTORICAL-CULTURAL CONTEXT OF EXTRABIBLICAL WISDOM LITERA-

TURE.

This is imperative for at least two reasons. First, Solomon

was not the sole author of all the Proverbs but the inspired editor or

collector of wise sayings from other cultures.72 Second, the Book

 

70 Hubbard, Proverbs, 25.

71 For instance the promises of long life, peace, riches, and honor to those who

obey the commandments of parents or wisdom teachers in chapter 3 (see esp. vv. 1-

2, 16) can be clarified by noting Jesus' life. Though He embodied wisdom and ful-

filled all the requirements of Proverbs 3, He did not have a long life, riches, or

much honor while on earth (in seeming contradiction to the text). This does not

mean that these proverbs are inaccurate or uninspired; rather this illustrates that

they are general precepts which describe the norm but are not without exception.

Ephesians 6:1-4 includes a "promise" of blessing and long life on earth. Though the

commandment to obey and honor parents must be considered as absolute (Exod.

20:12), the motivation or reward must not be interpreted as an unconditional

promise. God in His sovereignty may make an exception as in the case of Jesus.

72 This is clear from the plain statement that Proverbs includes the words of King

Lemuel (31:1), apparently a non-Israelite. Further support is derived from the pos-

sible translation of the word "oracle" in 30:1 and 31: 1 as "Massa," which may iden-

tify Agur and Lemuel as Ishmaelite converts from northern Arabia (cf. Gen. 25:14).

See Kidner, The Wisdom of Proverbs, Job & Ecclesiastes, 33 (also n. 1) and Bullock,

Introduction to Old Testament Poetic Books, 164, 176. Furthermore the several par-

allels between Proverbs and Egyptian literature (esp. 22:17-23:14 and the Egyptian



162                 BIBLIOTHECA SACRA / April-June 1993

 

of Proverbs shares the literary forms of the proverbial and wis-

dom literature of the ancient Near East.73 This common literary

background may help the interpreter achieve one of the purposes

of the Proverbs, namely, to understand the various types of wis-

dom literature including proverbs, instructions, riddles, and fa-

bles (1:2b, 6).74

An awareness of the historical-cultural, and literary back-

ground of Proverbs minimizes the temptation to interpret

Proverbs from the modem Occidental perspective. A common er-

ror is to forget that Proverbs is an ancient wisdom book. For ex-

ample one would totally miss the meaning of Proverbs 26:17 if

one envisioned a pet dog being taken by the ears. In the ancient

world, dogs were wild scavengers similar to jackals.

Sometimes figures of speech complicate the problem of un-

derstanding the ancient text. The meaning of "you will heap

burning coals on his head" (25:21-22; Rom. 12:20) is confusing to

the modern reader. An awareness of Egyptian culture may pro-

vide the answer. One clue may be in the next verse (25:23), which

has perplexed commentators because in Palestine the north wind

does not bring rain.75 However, since this statement is true for

Egypt, it may suggest an Egyptian milieu for the proverbs in this

section. One Egyptian text records that a penitent would go to the

one he wronged carrying a clay dish on his head with burning

coals. Thus the possible meaning of the proverb is that if one acts

charitably he may bring his enemy to repentance.76

 

"Instruction of Amenemope[t] demonstrates that the Book was not written in a

vacuum. See Kidner, The Wisdom of Proverbs, Job & Ecclesiastes, 126-32, for some

specific parallels, and Waltke, "The Book of Proverbs and Ancient Wisdom Litera-

ture," 234-35.

73 Chapters 1-9 and 22: 17-24:22 share many of the same literary forms as the in-

struction genre of Egypt and Mesopotamia. For an extensive introduction to this

extrabiblical literature including analysis of literary forms, see William McKane,

Proverbs, The Old Testament Library (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1970), 51-208.

Concerning the commonality of literary forms between Proverbs and the Egyptian

literature, See the brief but beneficial remarks of Waltke, "The Book of Proverbs

.and Ancient Wisdom Literature," 223-26.

74 Ross, "Proverbs," 884-85, 906. It may assist the student in understanding vari-

Ious abstract concepts which are conveyed through figures of speech. For instance .

the personification of wisdom found in chapters 1-9 is similar to the personifica-

tion of ma'at, the Egyptian term for wisdom. For implications of the concept ma'at

for understanding biblical "wisdom," See Waltke, "The Book of Proverbs and An-

cient Wisdom Literature," 232-34.

75 The KJV translation, "the north wind driveth away rain," is incon-ect, perhaps

being influenced by the translation of Jerome's Vulgate. Jerome's knowledge of the

weather patterns of Palestine caused him to mistranslate the Hebrew word. See

Mouser, Walking in Wisdom, 62-63. f

76 See Peter Cotterell and Max Turner, Linguistics and Biblical Interpretation

(Downers Grove, IL:  InterVarsity, 1989) 302-5.



Guidelines for Understanding and Proclaiming the Book of Proverbs    163

 

SUGGESTED HOMILETICAL GUIDELINES FOR PROVERBS

 

GUIDELINE ONE: IN SEEKING TO APPLY A PROVERB, BE SURE TO VALI-

DATE THE APPLICATION THROUGH THE CONTEXT OF THE BIBLE.,

Note the context of Proverbs and wisdom literature. A com-

mon error is to take the proverbs out of context and misapply them

in a literalistic way. For instance, Proverbs 10:22, which speaks

of God's blessing of wealth, is sometimes preached as a sign that

God wants all believers to prosper matenally.77 However, the

immediate context is a contrast between the righteous who work

diligently and the wicked who are negligent (10:3-5), both of

whom the Lord will pay accordingly (10:16). The application

must be tempered by the larger context of other verses which

clearly imply that godly individuals may be poor78 (see 15:16;

16:8; 19:1; 28:6).

Doing topical studies in Proverbs with the help of a good con-

cordance provides an initial safeguard against using any single

proverb as a "proof text."79

An awareness of the overall context of Proverbs may clarify

certain passages (e. g., 31:10-31). To read this passage in a literal

fashion and preach It as the pattern for women today may leave

Imany wives and mothers feeling inadequate. As Fee and Stuart

observe, this passage could seem to "the literalistic reader to be a

pattern of life impossible for any mortal woman to follow.80 But

is this the purpose of the acrostic poem? The numerous parallels

between the feminine imagery of chapters 1-9 and 31:10-31 sug-

gest that the ideal woman embodies the essence of wisdom that has

been espoused in the book.81 Therefore it seems likely that hyper-

 bole has been used to emphasize the joy a good wife and mother

 

77 Grant R. Osborne, The Hermeneutical Spiral: A Comprehensive Introduction

to Biblical Interpretation (Downers Grove, IL: lnterVarsity, 1991), 192.

78 Ibid.

79 Kaiser argues cogently that the Bible "gives no aid to the view that poverty is in

all its forms a result of the judgment of God and an evidence that the persons so af-

flicted are outside the will of God. Such a universal categorization is a caricature

of the biblical position" (Walter C. Kaiser, Jr., "The Old Testament Promise of Ma-

terial Blessings and the Contemporary Believer," Trinity Journal 9 [Fall 1988]:

166). Though many have become poor through laziness (10:4-5; 12:24; 20: 13), ignoring

discipline (13:18), or through gluttony and drunkenness (23:20-21), others are

impoverished only because of the providential will of God (29:13); therefore the

poor must not be mocked (17:5).

80 Fee and Stuart, How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth, 201-2.

81 For a summary of the most significant parallels, see Claudia V. Camp, Wisdom

and the Feminine in the Book of Proverbs (Sheffield: Almond, 1985), 188-89; also

see Zuck, "A Biblical Theology of the Wisdom Books and the Song of Songs," 237 -38.



184                 BIBLIOTHECA SACRA / April-June 1993

 

brings to her family.82 These parallels plus the mention of the

fear of the Lord in 31:30 serve as a literary inclusio to balance out

the first main section (chaps. 1-9).83 Through somewhat ideal-

ized language and the use of the alphabetic acrostic, the passage

implies that the young man ought to marry someone like Lady

Wisdom.84 Since the description is couched in the language of

ancient Israel's culture and may include hyperbole, one must ex-

ercise care in transferring this to today's society.

Note the context of the Bible. Though Proverbs does not men-

tion the "salvation history" of Israel as in the Pentateuch and the

Prophets, the expositor must not ignore the implicit covenantal

context of the book. The foundational motto concerning the fear of

Yahweh, the covenant God of Israel, tied creation and covenant

together.85 The Proverbs were spoken in a culture in which the re-

ligious character of life permeated everything. Consequently

Long argues, "To listen to a proverb without at the same time

hearing its covenantal background is to pry a gem from its set-

ting."86  Therefore the "antecedent theology"87 of the Pentateuch

and other books may be important in interpreting some of the

proverbs. For instance the proverbs condemning dishonesty in

business may be a poetic reflection of the legislation of the Torah.

Those referring to false weights and measures as being abom-

inable to the Lord (11:1; 20:10, 23; cf. 16:11) imply the commands

of Leviticus 19:35-36 and Deuteronomy 25:13-16.88 Kaiser sug-

 

82 Fee and Stuart, How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth, 202.

83 See Henri Blocher, "The Fear of the Lord as the "Principle' of Wisdom," Tyn-

dale Bulletin 28 (1977): 4-5.

84 Herbert Wolf, "Proverbs," in The NIV Study Bible (Grand Rapids: Zondervan,

1985), 945. This does not mean that the text has no application for today. By con-

trast Collins expresses doubt that this description can be used as a job description

for the modern woman (Proverbs Ecclesiastes, 68-70), Zuck cites valid objections to

the view that the ideal woman is merely the personification of wisdom ("A Biblical

Theology of the Wisdom Books and the Song of Songs," 237-38). For instance, in

contrast to personified wisdom of chapters 1-9, the woman of chapter 31 is de-

scribed as having a husband (v. 11) and as a mother (vv. 15,28). But the literary ev-

idence implies that the poem describes not only a wise woman and mother. The

portrait is idealized to remind the reader of Lady Wisdom.

85 As Hubbard rightly notes, Israel's wise men did not have a different religion

from the psalmists and the prophets (Proverbs, 29).

86 See Long, Preaching and the Literary Forms of the Bible, 58-59.

87 This is Kaiser's term to describe the "informing theology" of chronologically

previous scriptural teachings available to the recipients of a particular book of the

Bible (Walter C. Kaiser, Jr., Toward an Exegetical Theology: Biblical Exegesis for

Preaching and Teaching [Grand Rapids: Baker, 1981], 161).

88 Alden, Proverbs, 91.



Guidelines for Understanding and Proclaiming the Book of Proverb.                165

 

gests that the seemingly materialistic motivations of Proverbs

Imay find clarification in Leviticus 26 and Deuteronomy 28.89 As

Hubbard wrote,

This covenant setting is what keeps the proverbs from shriveling

into legalism. Their ground rules for life are not a prescription

for salvation. ...The proverbs are not bite-size tablets of the law

but neither are they sparkling tokens of grace. . . . They are de-

signed to enable us to live out the full meaning of the life that .

springs fresh daily from the hand of the Creator and Savior .90

Thus the expositor must consider the impact of the coming of

Christ and the New Covenant In seeking to understand and apply

proverbial wisdom. The New Testament portrays Christ as the

wisdom of God (1 Cor. 1:24, 30). Therefore the invitations of

Lady Wisdom (Prov. 8:32-36) should be proclaimed in tandem

with that of Christ (cf. Matt. 11:27-30).91 Furthermore one must it

carefully note any quotations, allusions, or New Testament par-

I allels to the Proverbs.92 Also the practical wisdom of the Book of

James and other portions of the New Testament, written under

wisdom influence, must be explored.93

 

GUIDELINE TWO: UTILIZE THE CHARACTERISTICS AND NATURE OF

PROVERBIAL WISDOM AS A FOUNDATION FOR GRAPHIC COMMUNICA-

TION OF TIMELESS PRINCIPLES.

Certain essential characteristics of the proverbs, namely,

brevity, intelligibility, and "flavor ,"94 make them ripe for

 

89 Kaiser argues that those promises of material blessings for the covenant keep-

ers involved Israel's corporate calling ("The Old Testament Promise of Material

IBlessings and the Contemporary Believer," 156-57). Therefore corporate blessing,

not individual blessing, may be the ultimate intent of these passages. However,

i this thesis should be tested with the specific evidence. Proverbs 3:7-10 seems to of-

fer material blessing to the individual (Hebrew singular pronouns are used).

90 Hubbard, Proverbs, 30.

91 Cf. Kidner, The Proverbs, 16, and Achtemeier, Preaching from the Old Testa-

ment, 175-76.

92 For a convenient listing of New Testament quotations (or paraphrases) of

" Proverbs with a comparative analysis in English of the possible source of the quota-

tion (whether Septuagint or Masoretic Text), see Robert G. Bratcher, Old Test-

ment Quotations in the New Testament, 3d rev. ed. (London: United Bible Soci-

eties, 1987), 85-86 and various other pages. Readers who know Hebrew and Greek

may consult Gleason L. Archer and Gregory Chirichigno, Old Testament Quota-

tions in the New Testament (Chicago: Moody, 1983),00-93.

93 According to Osborne, other key passages which have imbibed wisdom influ-

ence are aspects of the Sermon on the Mount (especially the antitheses of Matt.

5:21-48 and the emphasis on ethical conduct), the practical exhortations of Romans

12 and portions of the Book of Hebrews (3:12-19; 4:11-13; 6:1-12), social codes (Eph.

5:22~:9; 1 Pet. 2:11-3:7), and "vice or virtue lists" (Gal. 5:19-23; Col. 3:5-17) (The

Hermeneutical Spiral, 198).

94 R. C. Trench, cited in LaSor, Hubbard, and Bush, Old Testament Survey, 538.



188                 BIBLIOTHECA SACRA / Apil-June 1993

 

proclamation. Josh Billings stated that "genuine proverbs are

like good kambrick needles-short, sharp, and shiny."95 They

are thought-provoking to the interpreter. On one hand they prick

the mind through their "teasing refusal to explain themselves."

On the other hand they prick one into thought by the sharpness of

brevity and by vivid pictures and analogies.96  Recapturing this

flavor of being simple and clear yet profound97 helps produce a

good sermon. These characteristics make proverbs memorable,

an excellent "handle" on which to attach a timeless principle.

Proverbs are stimulating, not boring. Although not enter-

taining in the strictest sense, they are sometimes humorous (e.g.,

11:22; 26:13-14; 27:14). Through this type of "honest humor," in-

struction is more likely to be received and retained than through

a sermonic tone.98

Another important characteristic of proverbs is that they are

universal and timeless, not restricted to ancient Israel. Because

they have been germinated in the soil of time and experience,99

the expositor can transplant them into modern society.

The experiential richness of proverbs means that the environment

where they really come to life is the everyday situation where

they apply. . . . The best way to teach or study biblical proverbs is

to supply a context for each one from someone's actual experi-

ences or from observations of what is going on in society and the

world.100

Also the expositor should consider the literary and rhetorical

effect of proverbs as a factor in making valid and relevant appli-

cations. Long suggests that the rhetorical effect of a proverb is to

propel the reader in two directions--both backward and forward.

The proverb makes a reference backward by summoning the

reader to imagine the kind of experiences that caused its devel-

opment. It also sends the readers on a memory search for suitable

examples. It pushes the reader forward by implying yet future in-

cidents in which it will apply. It provokes the imagination to

 

95 Cited in John H. Scammon, The Book of Proverbs: Good Advice for Good Living

(Valley Forge, FA: Judson, 1979), 16.

96 Kidner, The Wisdom of Proverbs, Job & Ecclesiastes, 19.

97 See Leland Ryken, Words of Delight: A Literary Introduction to the Bible

(Grand Rapids: Baker, 1987),315.

98 Bullock, Introduction to Old Testament Poetic Books, 149-51. Also see Kidner,

The Wisdom of Proverbs, Job & Ecclesiastes, 31.

99 Bullock, Introduction to Old Testament Poetic Books, 19, 147.

100 Ryken, Words of Delight: A Literary Introduction to the Bible, 316-17. One

reason for the applicability of proverbs is the practical orientation inherent in the

design to instruct the young person in his proper place in society. See Osborne,

The Hermeneutical Spiral, 192.



Guidelines for Understanding and Proclaiming the Book of Proverb.                167

 

ponder "other situations in which the wisdom of the proverb may

apply and thereby provides an ethical guide for wise response."101

A sermon from Proverbs should seek to "do the same work and

create the same effect as the proverb out of which it grows."102

Designed as a manual for successful living, Proverbs pro-

vides both negative and positive guidelines. The instruction

genre (or admonition form) provides a good foundation for appli-

cation with its dual emphasis: a prohibition or a negative exam-

ple to avoid, and/or a positive command or example to be emu-

lated.103 Proverbs demonstrates that there are only two paths to

follow--the way of the righteous (or wise) and the way of the

wicked (or fools). This anticipates the New Testament teaching

that there is no middle ground.104

Though Proverbs is fertile ground for modern application,

some cautions are urged. First, one must remember that the

proverbs do not necessarily fit all situations and are not

promises. A particular proverb can properly apply only when it

corresponds with those situations "that are similar in key ways to

the ones that called it forth."105 Second, one must recognize that

some proverbs are problematic because of cultural considera-

tions. One must determine whether they are still applicable (as

worded) or whether modern equivalents should be substituted in

the transfer to today's society. The problem of Proverbs 23:13-14

has already been cited. The context of verse 14 in conjunction

with the similar proverb in 13:24 helps clarify the intent of the

text. Proverbs 23:14 and 13:24 clearly give love as the motivation

for discipline. The latter verse shows that diligent (and perhaps

"careful," as in the NIV106 discipline is in view rather than an

angry and unrestrained beating.107

Several proverbs express their wisdom according to practices

and institutions that are foreign to modern audiences. Unless the

 

101 Long, Preaching and the Literary Forms, 56-57, 59.

102 Ibid., 59. In discussing Proverbs 15:17, Long illustrates the concept of calling

forth memories that illustrate a proverb (ibid., 62-65).

103 Cf. Lasor, Hubbard, and Bush, Old Testament Survey, 547, 552, and Mouser,

Walking in Wisdom, 137-38.

104 See especially John's writings; cr. LaSor, Hubbard, and Bush, Old Testament

Survey, 552, and Crenshaw, Old Testament Wisdom: An Introduction, 80.

105 Long, Preaching and the Literary Forms, 57.

106 The Hebrew word rHawA is probably best translated "treat early with discipline"

(see Francis Brown, S. R. Driver, and Charles A. Briggs, A Hebrew and English

Lexicon of the Old Testament, 1007, and Ross, "Proverbs," 982).

107 Cf. similarly Osborne, The Hermeneutical Spiral, 199.



168                 BIBLIOTHECA SACRA / April-June 1993

 

expositor understands this and is able to translate them properly,

the meaning will seem irrelevant or become completely lost.108

Two examples are Proverbs 25:24 (repeated in 21:9) and 27:15. In

the former case, one must realize that flat-roofed houses of Bible

times enabled people to sleep there especially in hot weather.109

paraphrase for "corner of the roof" might be attic110  or patio or

porch. The other verse (27:15) illustrates the need to comprehend

cultural aspects to understand the figures of speech in Proverbs.

The meaning is enhanced when one realizes that the dripping of

rain did not lull a person to sleep. Rather the dripping referred to

the common but obnoxious sound caused by a leaky roof or by bad

drainage. Thus a modem equivalent to the irritating noise

might be "a leaky faucet."111 Collins believes that some of these

sayings are a "trifle chauvinistic."112 Whether one agrees with

this assessment, the expositor should be aware that the Proverbs

were written in a culture in which women were not prominent.113

In transferring these sayings to modern culture, the teachings of

the New Testament should be carefully studied and applied with

discernment in light of the concerns of women today.114

Thus to understand the cultural background is not all that is

needed to make the right transfer to today. For instance it does not

guarantee the correct understanding of the figures of speech. The

interpretation of 26:8 is complicated since the cultural reference

("tying [or binding] a stone in a sling") is combined with a figure

of speech comparing it to the giving of honor to a fool. Osborne

rightly suggests that since the sling was used as a weapon, the

substitution of the word "gun" would be a modern equivalent.115

However, he probably misses the point of the comparison by isolat-

 

108 Fee and Stuart, How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth, 202.

109 Alden, Proverbs, 155.

110 Hubbard, Proverbs, 427-28, and Osborne, The Hermeneutical Spiral, 201.

111 Mouser, Walking in Wisdom, 59-60,63.

112 He asserts that they must not be taken as assigning blame to the woman any

more than the man (Collins, Proverbs Ecclesiastes, 50).

113 Hubbard concludes that the masculine orientation of Proverbs is consistent

with the initial purpose to provide leaders for a society in which women did not

have the opportunities present-day society gives (Proverbs, 27-28).

114 Hubbard, Proverbs, 28. Cf. Kathleen A. Farmer, Who Knows What Is Good?: A

Commentary on the Books of Proverbs and Ecclesiastes (Grand Rapids: Eerd-

mans, 1991), 8-11. The present author does not necessarily agree with the conclu-

sions of either of these writers in this matter.

115 He paraphrases, honoring a fool is like putting a bullet in a gun; it will soon

go off and disappear" (The Hermeneutical Spiral, 201). But as noted above, this is

probably not the point of the comparison (in view of the context of 26:1).



Guidelines for Understanding and Proclaiming the Book of Proverbs    169

 

ing it from the context of Proverbs. As McKane argues, the con-

text of 26:1 is an important key in understanding the point of the

figure, namely, the incongruity of giving honor to a fool. There-

fore to bind a stone in a sling is "nonsense and an absurdity"

since it was designed to be hurled as a projectile.116

 

GUIDELINE THREE: EXPLORE THE CREATIVE USE OF PROVERBIAL

CHARACTERS .

Imagination and sense of humor may be used in imitation of

the proverbial characters. Proverbs 26:14 was not intended as a

serious portrait of the sluggard but as a caricature.117 Kidner

states that lessons are better learned from these characters "by a

flash of wit than by a roll of sermonic thunder."118 The tragic

comedy of the sluggard and other fools119 is a seedbed for one's

own imagination to illustrate in today's society.120

Proverbs 4 could be used by the expositor to warn young people

of the dangers of not deciding for the Lord and to motivate them to

commitment. Life is a series of forks in the road where deci-

sions must be made.121 Youth must pay attention to the road (4:21,

25-27) in order not to miss the correct turns. Ultimately there are

only two routes to take: 'Wisdom Lane" (vv. 10-13), which could

be illustrated as a small ordinary-looking lane going up a big

hill, and Folly Freeway (vv. 14-17), an eight-lane expressway

leading downward with apparently no obstacles or red lights.122

Verse 19 shows that the ultimate destiny of the fool who falls to

heed the warning signs is darkness, symbolizing destruction.123

 

116 McKane, Proverbs, 598.

117 R. N. Whybray, The Book of Proverbs (Cambridge: Cambridge University

Press, 1972), 13.

118 Kidner, The Wisdom of Proverbs, Job & Ecclesiastes, 31.

119 Cf. Kidner, The Proverbs, 39-43.

120 For instance the present writer has compared the "simpleton" to the carica-

ture of the "mugwump," the proverbial "fence-straddler" in American political his-

tory who was portrayed with his "mug" leaning over one side of the fence and with

his "wump" (backside) on the other. The tragedy is that while the "simpleton"

thinks he is "walking the fence" of a noncommittal lifestyle he is gradually becom-

ing more and more the fool as he follows the stronger pull of folly. See the New

Testament verdict for those who fail to make a decision on the highway of life (John

3:18).

121 Alden observes, "The precepts of Proverbs are like signposts" at the critical

crossroads of life where the believer might miss the right road (Proverbs, 48).

122Compare Jesus' teaching in Matthew 7:13-14.

123 In light of the New Testament this ultimate destination could be compared to a

great canyon (the pits of hell). The wise person will listen to the advice of godly

parents and wise teachers concerning the proper route to choose (4:1-2, 10). He

must reject the counsel of the wicked man or woman (context of 2:10-20) in order to

avoid the treacherous road leading to destruction.



170                 BIBLIOTHECA SACRA / April-June 1993

 

Whybray wisely remarks that the use of creative imagina-

tion to visualize the circumstances behind Proverbs 26:14 and

other sayings will "reveal a vivid picture of a real human society

in all its variety." Much like the great novels of Charles Dick-

ens, "a host of characters pass through its pages: the farmer, the

courtier, the drop-out, the dishonest trader, the adulterous woman,

the husband absent on business, the street gang, the schoolboy and

the teacher, the rather simple young man, the prostitute, the thief,

the gossip, the royal messenger, and many more."124

These various characters are good object lessons for young

people concerning the foolishness that leads to death, the tragic

comedy of the sluggard, the ridiculous naivete of the simple, and

the irreverence and doom of the scoffer. The strong warnings

against adultery in Proverbs 5-7 and 9 are very relevant for to-

day's society.125

Also drama may be used to communicate the message of the

proverbial characters.126 The possibilities are almost unlimited

for depicting the vivid characters in the Proverbs through drama.

The characters in Proverbs may also be correlated with other

biblical personalities (whether named or unnamed) who illus-

trate wisdom themes. For example, Joseph is a classic example of

a wise man who feared God.127 The wise woman of Tekoa (2

 Sam. 14) illustrates shrewdness in dealing with others.

 

CONCLUSION

 

Five guidelines for interpreting the Book of Proverbs have

been suggested, and three suggestions were made to assist the ex-

positor in proclaiming proverbial wisdom. It is the prayer of the

present writer that readers have been challenged to utilize

Proverbs more in their teaching or preaching ministry.128

 

 

 

124 Whybray, The Book of Proverbs, 13.

125 For instance the expositor must alert young and old alike to the bitter results

of adultery (5: 1-14) and the beauty of intimacy in marriage (5:15-23),

126 For instance when the writer's friend A, Dale Travis was preaching on the

sluggard, his son came into the church dressed like a "hobo" or "bum." A

"conversation" ensued in which the message was illustrated and reinforced.

127 See Kidner, The Proverbs, 15-16.

128 Not only is there a need for more preaching from the wisdom books, but the

writer agrees with Osborne's recommendation that the wisdom material be used

more often "as secondary texts to anchor the application of other Scriptural texts"

(The Hermeneutical Spiral, 192-93).

 


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