Bibliotheca Sacra 136 (Oct-Dec. 1979): 302-17

               Copyright © 1979 by Dallas Theological Seminary.  Cited with permission.


The Book of Proverbs and Old

Testament Theology


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

wisdom literature,2 and the lack of reference in Israel's wisdom circles to

national Israel's election and covenants.

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

went so far as to suggest that Israel's wise men attempted to shape Israel into

the image of their pagan environment.4

In contrast to the scholarly success in showing the comparative similar-

ity of Israel's wisdom with its pagan environment, Old Testament theolo-

gians proved unable to integrate the Book of Proverbs into the rest of the Old

Testament which builds around Israel's covenants and its history of salva-

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.

6 J. Coert Rylaarsdam, Revelation in Jewish Wisdom Literature (Chicago: University of

Chicago Press, 1946), p. 20


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-

ise" which he seems to define in terms of Israel's organic covenantal

history.8 Wisdom writers do not mention Israel's covenants or national

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 Israel, there are so few completely antithetical

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 Theology (Grand Rapids: Zondervan

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 [1977]: 267-72).

304 / Bibliotheca Sacra -October-December 1979


age of wisdom occurred simultaneously and that there existed "a common

religious tradition in early Israel from which prophets, priests and wise men

selected specific emphases without necessarily rejecting those emphases

chosen by other groups."12 According to this view prophet and sage together

expressed the totality of Israel's faith which neither could do alone. But

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 Speech (Philadelphia: Westminster Press,


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

common epithets for Israel's deity occur in about the same proportion in

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

mention Israel or the covenant. In short, the sages present themselves as

spokesmen for the same God who encountered Israel through Moses and the

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; Provo 5:21; 15:3). According to both, He is the

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


Scholars frequently allege that Israel's preexilic prophets and wise men

both took a critical stance toward Israel's religious systems with its sacred

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

evidence, that at any time there was in Israel a purely secular proverb liter-

ature From the very outset in Israel's wisdom writings the religious

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

wisdom of those countries (around Israel), such a shift had already taken

place by the 15th century at the latest, well before the inception of Israel's

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

latest religious."29

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, Israel's Wisdom Literature (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1936), p. 69

28 Priest, "Where Is Wisdom to Be Placed?" p. 278.

29 Ibid.

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

to Israel at Sinai out of the fire (Deut. 4:32), to Moses face to face (Exod.

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

the vision granted him at Gibeon (1 Kings 4), God did not speak audibly.

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

parallel in Egypt may be instructive here. In Egypt no legal code existed, and

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

it.31 So likewise in Israel, it was probably sufficient that God's courtier

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

worked effectually in Solomon and Israel's other courtiers (1 Kings 4:26; 2

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. Wilson, The Culture of Ancient Egypt (Chicago: University of Chicago Press,

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

similar way Israel's king, needing no specially mediated audible revelation,

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 (New York: Harper &

Brothers, 1946), pp. 80-81.

37 E. Cassirer, The Philosophy of Symbolic Forms, trans. Ralph Manheim (New Haven, CT:

Yale University Press, 1953-1957), pp. 107-8.

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

evaluates Israel's king on the basis of his heart (cf. 1 Kings 11:4). It is well

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

(16:6; 24:21).

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

Deuteronomy. 48

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,"

pp. 244-74.

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

cogently observed that in Mesopotamia the same ethical values find expres

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

each other.

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 Rome

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

permit joy and security and wholeness" (Walter Brueggemann, In Man We Trust [Atlanta: John

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 (Grand Rapids: Wm.

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

[1953]: 187-92).

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

particularly in the covenant he mediated between Yahweh and Israel “in the

desert east of the Jordan" (Deut. 1:1). As noted, Weinfeld reversed the field

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 (London: Oxford

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

harking back to Israel's covenantal heritage, then why should one not

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-

tial times."63

4. Old Testament theologians must find another center than covenant,

salvation, history, cultus, or even promise -if this be understood in terms

of promises to the patriarchs and Israel -to accommodate wisdom. As

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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