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Overview of Proverbs (Notes for Class 4)

This “Overview of Proverbs” can be listened to as a podcast here.

What is a proverb? Paul Benware defines it as “wise, concise sayings that are to be used in governing lives.”1)Paul Benware, Survey of the Old Testament, Moody Publishers (Chicago, IL: 2003), p. 174 Ancient Greek authors discussed the meaning of a proverb from a rhetorical perspective.

“A proverb or a maxim is a concise unattributed saying which gives a pithy expression to an insight about life or moral truth, the validity of which is generally recognized and approved. Aristotle defined the maxim (γνωμη) in these words (Rhet. 2.21; 1394a): ‘A maxim is a statement that treats neither particulars—like what sort of fellow Iphicrates is—but things in general, not just anything in general—like the fact that the straight is the opposite of the crooked—but those things pertaining to human action, things that are to be chosen or avoided.’ A more succinct definition is found in the slightly earlier handbook of Anaxinines (Rhetorica ad Alexandrum 11m 1430b): ‘The maxim is, in a word, an expression of one’s personal conviction about some general principle of human action.’ Rherorica ad Herennium is the earliest extant treatise in which sententiae is used as a technical rhetorical term, which he defines as ‘a declaration derived from social behavior, which succinctly presents either what is or what ought to be a fact of life’ (4.24).”2)David Aune, The Westminster Dictionary of New Testament & Early Christian Literature & Rhetoric, Westminster John Know Press (Louisville, KY: 2003), p. 386

 

Genre: Wisdom Literature. Wisdom Literature was a common motif in the Ancient Near East. We possess such texts from Egypt and Babylon. This should not be surprising that Solomon was aware of and capitalized on this genre. “And Solomon’s wisdom excelled the wisdom of all the children of the east country, and all the wisdom of Egypt” (1 Kgs 4:30).

 

Egyptian Wisdom Literature:

  • The Instructions of the Vizzier Ptah-Hotep (ca. 2450 BC), gives advice of how to be a successful statesman.3) Ancient Near Eastern Texts Relating to the Old Testament (ed. James B. Pritchard) 3rd Edition, Princeton University Press (Princeton, NJ: 1969), p. 412-414. Hereafter cited as ANET
  • The Instruction of King Amen-em-Het (1960 BC), the Pharaoh gives advice to his son and successor.4)ANET 418-419
  • The Instruction of Amen-em-Ope (ca. 1300-900 BC), the king’s teachings to his son about life with many parallels to Proverbs 22:17-24:22.5)ANET 421-424

Babylonian Wisdom Literature:

  • Akkadian Proverbs (ca. 1500-1000 BC).6)ANET 425-426
  • Counsels of Wisdom (ca. 1800-1600 BC).7)ANET 426-427
  • The Words of Ahiqar (Ca. 700-400 BC).8)ANET 427-430

 

Author(s) and date:

  • Solomon is the main author (reigned 969-932 BC) (see 1 Kgs 4:32; Ecc 12:9)
  • The book took its final form in the time of Hezekiah (reigned 716-687 BC) (see Pro 25:1).
  • Agur (ch 30) unknown otherwise.
  • “king Lemuel, the prophecy that his mother taught him” (Pro 31:1). No king named Lemuel is recorded. It is probable that it is a nickname for Solomon from his mother. Other references to the mother’s teachings appear in 1:8; 6:20

 

Audience:

  • The repeated admonition is directed to “my son” 23 times (Pro 1:8, 10, 15; 2:1; 3:1, 11, 21; 4:10, 20; 5:1, 20; 6:1, 3, 20; 7:1; 19:27; 23:15, 19, 26; 24:13, 21; 27:11; 31:2) and “ye children” 4 times (Pro 4:1; 5:7; 7:24; 8:32). This would imply it is written for Rehoboam “my son” and Solomon’s many other children.
  • Another opinion is that this terminology is common form for Wisdom Literature, though it is directed to princely students in a school setting. (Pro 22:6)

“This technical understanding is important in Proverbs, which is addressed to “royal sons.” Class distinctions were clearly marked not only in Israel but also at Ugarit, where the only ancient cognate for the term na’ar is a term of status used for guild members serving in the domestic sphere and as superior military figure. Based on the ancient Near Eastern usage of the term as a background for the usage in the Bible, this verse should not be employed for early childhood training, since the proverbial na’ar  was in the process of being apprenticed in wisdom for taking on royal responsibilities consistent with his status.

In the same way, the word hanak (“train up”) is used almost universally with the dedication or initiation of temples, houses, altars, or walls. Thus, the obligation to a young wisdom “squire” would be to recognize his status as and initiate him into his official capacities or responsibilities with the respect fitting his status. Given this understanding, the phrase “on the way they should go” meant “according to the standard and status” of what would be demanded of the na’ar in that culture. Therfore, the acquisition of hokmah “wisdom” (a skill in living life) is a duty obligated to the elite whose role in society was to lead, govern, and rule, a training commensurate with its status.”9)Randal Price and Wayne House, Zondervan Handbook of Biblical Archaeology, Zondervan (Grand Rapids, MI: 2017), p. 158

  • Wisdom cries to all the “sons of man” (Pro 8:1-5) without being limited to the royal household.

 

Outline:

  • Section I (Pro 1:1-9:18 “proverbs of Solomon”)
  • Section II (Pro 10:1-24:22 “proverbs of Solomon”)
  • [Some scholars bracket off 22:17-24:22 as “words of the wise” and 24:23-34 as “These things also belong to the wise.” But this seems to be a superficial division. (see 22:17)]
  • Section III (Pro 25:1 “proverbs of Solomon, which the men of Hezekiah king of Judah copied out.”)
  • Section IV (Pro 30:1-33 “words of Agur”)
  • Section V (Pro 31:1-31 “words of king Lemuel”)

 

Key Phrase or concepts:

  • “Fear of the LORD”—18 times (1:7, 29; 2:5; 3:7; 8:13; 9:10; 10:27; 14:2, 26, 27; 15:16, 33; 16:6; 19:23; 22:4; 23:17; 24:21; 31:33).
  • Contrasts of the “wise…but…fool”—16 times (3:35; 10:1, 8, 14; 12:15; 13:20; 14:1, 3, 16, 24; 15:2, 7, 20; 21:20; 28:26; 29:11)
  • Contrasts the “strange woman” with “wisdom” personified as a woman
    • “Strange woman”—9 times (2:16-19; 5:3-6, 8, 20; 6:24-29; 7:5-27; 20:16; 23:27-28; 27:13)
    • Wisdom personified— 4 times (1:20-33; 7:1-27; 8:1-36; 9:1-12)

 

Wisdom personified: 1 Cor 1:24, 30; “but unto them which are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God, and the wisdom of God….But of him are ye in Christ Jesus, who of God is made unto us wisdom…” Christ is called the “Wisdom.” See also Mt 23:34 “Wherefore, behold, I send unto you prophets, and wise men, and scribes: and some of them ye shall kill and crucify; and some of them shall ye scourge in your synagogues, and persecute them from city to city.” cf. Lk 11:49 “Therefore also said the wisdom of God, I will send them prophets and apostles, and some of them they shall slay and persecute.” in these parallel passages Christ speaks while in Luke it is Wisdom which is said to speak.

  • Wisdom (Pro 1:20-33)
    • They refused Wisdom’s call (v 24-25), cf. they refuse of Jehovah (Jer 7:24-27; Isa 65:12; 66:4)
    • Wisdom laughs at their calamity (v 26-27), cf. Jehovah laughs (Ps 2:4; 59:8)
    • Wisdom refuses to hear when they call (v 28), cf. Jehovah refuses to hear (Mic 3:4; Isa 1:15)
  • Wisdom (Pro 8:22-36)
    • Wisdom preexisted creation (vv. 22-23), cf. Christ preexisting (Mic 5:2; John 1:1-2; 17:24; Col 1:17)
    • God is delighted with Wisdom (vv. 30-31), cf. the Father loves the Son (Isa 42:1; Mt 3:17; John 5:20)
    • Life and grace are found in Wisdom (vv. 35-36), cf. life and grace through Jesus Christ (John 3:36; 14:6; Rom 5:21)
  • Wisdom in Proverbs would develop into Logos (“the Word”) of John (John 1:1-3, 14).

This reveals the purpose of Proverbs extends beyond a mere intellectual endeavor for wisdom, but the need to know the One wisdom emanates from (John 1:18).

 

Hermeneutic principles for Proverbs:

  • “Many of the proverbial maxims should be recognized as guidelines, not absolute observations; they are not ironclad promises. What is stated is generally and usually true, but exceptions are occasionally noted (e.g., cf. Prov. 10:27 with Ps. 73:12).”10)Sid S. Buzzell, The Bible Knowledge Commentary: Old Testament (ed. John F. Walvoord, Roy B. Zuck), Victor Books (1987), p. 904
  • Examples of Proverbs as generalizations (11:4, 8)
  • Numerical sayings: “three things… yea, four” (Pro 30:15, 18, 21, 29); elsewhere as in Amos (1:3, 6, 9, 11, 13; 2:1, 4, 6). “Six… yea, seven” (Pro 6:16); elsewhere (Job 5:19). Such idioms express that the topic being discussed is not specifically limited to the number attributed to the subject.
  • Metaphorical comparisons (Pro 30:18-20)

Exegetical fallacy to avoid:

  • For an example of an exegetical fallacy in Proverbs, Benware states, “Proverbs becomes a collection of individual proverbs dealing with a wide range of subjects. In chapters 10-29 there is a general theme of righteous living but no particular order or grouping of these proverbs.”11) Paul Benware, Survey of the Old Testament, Moody Publishers (Chicago, IL: 2003), p. 177
    • Is Proverbs a bunch of random sayings arbitrarily collecting without contextual relevance, or is there evidence for contextual progress of thought?
  • Topical studies in Proverbs can be very useful. Topics like financial advice, parenting, avoiding wrong companions, or choosing the right woman for marriage, etc. I would recommend for a topical study the very useful book: Topical Studies in Proverbs, by Dr. Scott Hanks.12)Scott Hanks, Topical Studies in Proverbs, Mercy and Truth Ministries (Lawrence, KS: 2008).

Proverb 31:10-31 is an acrostic poem of the virtuous wife.

This poem is probably looking at Ruth as the descendant of Solomon as an example of the virtuous wife.

  • “Who can find a virtuous woman?” (v. 10 cf. Ruth 3:11)
  • “The heart of her husband doth safely trust in her” (v. 11 cf. Ruth 3:10)
  • “worketh willingly with her hands” (v. 13 cf. Ruth 2:2)
  • “She riseth also while it is yet night and giveth meat to her household” (v. 15 cf. Ruth 3:1-5, 17)
  • “Her husband is known in the gates” (v. 23 cf. Ruth 4:1)
  • “She openeth her mouth with wisdom; and in her tongue is the law of kindness” (v. 26 cf. Ruth 1:16-17)
  • “eateth not the bread of idleness” (v. 27 cf. Ruth 2:7)
  • “a woman that feareth the Lord, she shall be praised” (v. 30 cf. Ruth 4:11-12)
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Heath Henning
Heath Henning
Heath heads the Set Free addictions ministry on Friday nights at Mukwonago Baptist Church and is involved in evangelism on the University of Wisconsin Whitewater campus, offering his expertise in apologetics at the weekly Set Free Bible Study every Tuesday evening. He currently lives in East Troy, Wisconsin with his wife and nine children. Read Heath Henning's Testimony

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