PROVERBS 1-11. From the Prophetic literature we return to the Wisdom literature for the last segment of Old Testament readings in this program. Though scholars often make a big distinction between the two sorts of biblical literature, I actually find much in common. Both assume a moral order to the universe, as part of God’s Creation. The Prophetic works apply this moral order to bigger themes of time, and nationhood, while the Wisdom works, especially Proverbs, applies this same moral order to individual lives and small scale relationships. Whether we’re talking national policy or personal conduct, “the fear [awe and submission] of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom,” (1:7).
The Proverbs are ascribed to King Solomon as the collector, at least, although other authors will appear in other sections of Proverbs in later chapters. Suffice it to say that collecting proverbs was part of Solomon’s project of stockpiling wisdom and knowledge (2 Kings 3), although Solomon increasingly abandoned the wisdom of Proverbs as he aged, making him perhaps the world’s most foolish king, as well as the world’s wisest, because of how much better he knew. As a more contemporary proverb says, “Knowledge divides, while wisdom unites.”
Indeed, the wisdom emanating from this book values the kind of intellectual knowledge Solomon sought and stockpiled. Yet it is a wisdom accessible even to the least formally-educated. For it is finally an orientation toward God and life, as much a wisdom of the heart as the head, stockpiled by action, not just by study. It is a wisdom that is rooted in the very source and nature of Creation itself (8:22ff), maybe even the Word by which John’s Gospel names Jesus.
Chapter 1:1-7 gives us the basic tools for acquiring wisdom, even, the most basic wisdom itself: humility and “the fear of the Lord.” One must be wise in this sense to be able to appreciate and gather more wisdom (9: 7-12). Subsequent verses (1: 8-19) show us what wisdom is up against: the assertive, attractive and beguiling power of evil. One wonders how the modern economy, based so strongly on speculation and the hunt for ever higher rates of return, stacks up against the humility, common sense respect for limits and justice of the fatherly Master Teacher (chs. 2 and 3) and even of Wisdom herself, who issues her invitation to her banquet of life (1: 20-33).
In contrast to Wisdom is the vamp-like figure of the prostitute and adulteress (5:3-14). More than a sexual figure, she symbolizes the false, seductive and destructive nature of all evil temptations, including that of illicit and extravagant wealth. Some object that the feminization of temptation and the masculinizing of the teacher and the pupil (“my son, don’t forget…..3:1)” do women a great dishonor, and reinforce male dominance. A shallow reading of Proverbs could lead to that. But wisdom is feminized as a gracious host (ch.9). And the wisdom that the son is to learn is not the typical masculine arts of warfare, statecraft and social dominance of Israel’s pagan neighbors. Rather, it is domestic, relational and oriented toward the welfare of the weak, the aging, children, descendants and the community, a wisdom that is often easier to grasp for those who bear and nurse children, and which makes life bearable, dignified and possible for them. This kind of wisdom parallels the moral vision and the eschatological promises of Israel’s great prophets. It is a gift of God, as well as a serious, lifelong human endeavor worthy of whatever sacrifice it takes to attain it. It is about character, as well as smarts.
Another problem for the modern reader of Proverbs is the automatic way wisdom is linked to peace, prosperity and respect, when experience says that all too often, “no good deed goes unpunished.” But there are two kinds of suffering in life: that which we can choose to avoid, and that which is unavoidable. Proverbs is about side-stepping the former, and responding constructively to the latter.
After we get down the basic orientation toward wisdom that is itself wisdom, in chapters 1-9, we begin, in chapter 10, to unpack wisdom in the form of parallelisms and couplets, contrasting things like a wise son and a foolish one (10:1) illicit gain versus justice (10:2), laziness versus labor, etc.
Proverbs are common to all cultures and languages. Most are metaphorical and symbolic, such as, “Whenever you prepare to go fishing, prepare also to get wet” (from Mali). In other words, don’t be surprised by surprises.
Such wisdom amounts to prudence and preparation for all sorts of endeavors, whether they are morally neutral, criminal or virtuous. The thief should take such a proverb into account, as well as the Emergency Medical Technician. Our biblical proverbs, by contrast, are much more straightforward and go behind matters of prudence and skill to discerning the very causes to which we must apply our thinking skills, e.g., justice rather than quick wealth, marriage, rather than promiscuity. That is wisdom, rather than prudence.
…is a lament over the injustice of false accusations (v. 5b) and of false friends and family (v. 9). Christ is prefigured in the sufferer (compare v. 10 and Jn.2:17). The imprecations of verses 22-29 don’t sound Christ-like. But consider that such prayers for vindication, and for the reversal of misfortune upon those who unjustly caused it, were all that the poor, the vulnerable and the defenseless had in their favor in the justice system of the ancient world. Such imprecatory prayers are dangerous: they are either the sole recourse of the poor, or, lacking any justice, they could bring down upon the heads of the pray-er the same punishments, or worse. It is surprising, by the standards of the wider ancient world, that the God being invoked is attentive not to the semi-divine regents in the palace, but to the poor and weak, and active on their behalf. Like most Laments, this one ends with words of praise, either for before or after God has answered the lament. The hardships of the psalmist are finally compared with the hardships and suffering of Judah and its displaced people.