The book pf Proverbs illustrates the point that the Old Testament should not be seen merely as a compendium of “Hebrew literature”.
There is more to it than that. The collection has a greater unity and purpose.
The origin stories in the book of Genesis carry a message about the relationship between God and his world, which begins to focus on the relation
between God and his people.
The story of the Exodus continues on the same line.
Many nations have collections of laws, but the law codes of the Old Testament are also giving us insights into the mind of God.
Many nations have histories based on court chronicles, but the histories of Israel are developing our knowledge of the relationship between God and
his people. The kings and prophets of Israel
Many nations have love-poems, but the Song of Solomon is using that art-form to describe one aspect of the relationship between God and his people.
The unseen husband
In the same way, many nations in the ancient world were collecting the accumulated wisdom of their proverbs, but the Old Testament book of Proverbs
has a running theme of “the fear of the Lord”, testing our conduct against the will of God.
The aphorisms of Proverbs offer different kinds of contrast between characters and modes of conduct, but we keep coming back to the fundamental choice
between Wisdom and Folly, between following or not following God’s will in righteousness.
In fact individual proverbs have a way of combining contrast pairs and cross-referencing them, which makes it hard to break them down into
I can illustrate the point with a fictional example; “The wise man is always peaceable, but the wicked man never ceases to lie”. This kind of
thing combines the contrasting pairs Wise Man/Fool and Righteous Man/Wicked Man, and also the contrasting pairs Truth-teller/Liar and
Peaceable/Quarrelsome. Which leaves me, trying to compile categories, wondering whether I can use this text to show that “The righteous man does not
quarrel” (which is implied), or whether I should look for something more explicit.
Real examples of this puzzle include;
“The mouth of the righteous ponders how to answer, but the mouth of the wicked pours forth evil things” (ch15 v28).
“He who walks with wise men becomes wise, but the companion of fools will suffer harm” (ch13 v20).
“A false witness will perish, but the word of a man who hears will endure” (ch21 v28).
These cases from my threads are the simpler ones. The more complex examples were quoted in parts or did not get used at all.
Frankly, I doubt whether I’ve done full justice to the implications of all these interconnections. They would still repay further study.
The most convenient way of breaking down the topics found in Proverbs was to look at the different characters who appear. Some of them (like the Wise
Man) represent one side of this fundamental choice, while others (like the King) have situations in life presenting both possibilities.
These are the two chief characters of the book of Proverbs, representing the choice between knowing God and not knowing God.
I speculated on the possible connection between “Wisdom” portrayed as a woman, and the “wise women”, who appear in a couple of episodes in 2
Samuel. Were these women thought to be getting guidance from God, a version of what James calls “wisdom from above”, in offering advice on the
conduct of social relations?
The Righteous Man
The Wicked Man
Since knowing God’s will, with willing obedience, is the true wisdom, human conduct is resolved into the difference between righteousness and
wickedness, as represented by these two characters.
The Wise Man
The man who understands God’s will and knows the right thing to do is called “righteous” in his own actions, but he becomes a “wise” man
whenever he shares this knowledge with others. The Wise Man is the man who is teaching the true Wisdom, the Fool is the man who is not listening.
There many different ways of being a Fool, so there are many reports about him. He lies, gets angry, quarrels with other people, and stirs up other
people to quarrel with each other. One important sub-category is the Scoffer, who rejects God’s authority outright instead of just ignoring it.
The Friend may be wise and helpful, or he may be unhelpful, but there is more to be said about the latter kind.
In principle, the Father and the Son stand to each other as Wise Man and pupil. It is the Father’s role (and the Mother’s) to present God’s
wisdom, and the Son’s role is to learn this wisdom and apply it. But there is more that can be said about the Son who doesn’t learn, which is why
this thread also includes the comments about drunken debauchery and wild women.
The King, though powerful, is neither good nor bad in himself. He has the option of working either way. He and his servants may influence each other
for good or for bad, so I included some of what Proverbs says about the Servant.
The Rich Man
Again the Rich Man, though powerful, is neither good nor bad in himself, but might work either way.
The Poor Man
While the Poor Man is not righteous by definition, he has fewer opportunities for the specialised kinds of unrighteousness available to the Rich Man,
and is more likely to be a victim of unrighteousness. The good, simple life, may be found in his humble company.
The most obvious fault of the Sluggard is a failure in practical wisdom, but this may be a symptom of the neglect of God’s Wisdom. The spiritual
difference between the Scoffer and the Sluggard would be that the Scoffer consciously rejects God in his thoughts, while the Sluggard fails to give
thought to the matter at all.
Meanwhile, Proverbs recommends “taking thought for the morrow”, as Jesus puts it, in managing herds and households. Managing one’s life in
righteousness in the sight of God. That is why the book ends with a portrait of the virtuous Wife. Or is it the virtuous nation?