Old Testament | Hebrew-Bible | Study Guide

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Old Testament | Hebrew-Bible | Proverbs | Summary

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Summary

Chapters 1–9 form a discrete section under the heading, "The proverbs of Solomon son of David, king of Israel."

  • An introduction (1:1–7) explains that these collected sayings serve to teach wisdom and insight to the young, the simple, and the wise. It concludes by stating that "the fear of Yahweh is the beginning of knowledge."
  • A lengthy section (1:8–9:18) is framed as a father addressing a son, warning the young man not to be led astray into sin and foolishness.
  • Wisdom is envisioned as a woman calling out in the streets to whoever will listen. The invitation of lady wisdom is contrasted with the enticements of the "strange woman" who would seduce the young man into sin.
  • The fates of the righteous and wicked contrast starkly. God blesses the former but curses the latter.
  • Practical instructions warn the young man to avoid laziness, dishonesty, and adultery.
  • The focus returns to the personified lady wisdom, who calls out along the road and hosts a banquet for all to come and learn wisdom.
  • Proverbs 8:22-31 in particular have drawn much attention, especially among feminist readings of the Bible. In it lady wisdom describes herself as being created "before the beginning of the earth." She assisted in creation, working beside Yahweh, "like a master worker."

Proverbs 10:1–22:16 are a diverse collection of brief sayings under the heading "The Proverbs of Solomon." These statements are primarily descriptive, expressing the authors' perceptions of timeless truths.

  • Numerous proverbs contrast the behaviors and fates of the righteous with the wicked, and of the wise with the foolish. For example, "The hope of the righteous ends in gladness, but the expectation of the wicked comes to nothing" (10:28).
  • Many sayings emphasize the rewards for diligence and conscientiousness, while others warn of the consequences of laziness and idleness.
  • The use of inaccurate weights and measures is repeatedly condemned.
  • Various sayings describe the ideal model of prudent children learning discipline and wisdom from their parents.
  • Assorted proverbs emphasize the justice of God and the inevitability of reward or punishment for good or evil deeds. This conviction underlies much of the material presented in Proverbs.

Proverbs 22:17–24:34 contain two sections of sayings headed with the description "words of the wise."

  • The first section of "words of the wise" (22:17–24:22) changes from the descriptive format of the preceding section to a direct didactic format in which the reader is addressed in the second person.
  • Several instructions pertain to proper behavior in the royal court and elite society.
  • A group of proverbs emphasizes the pitfalls of excess consumption of wine.
  • The final section of "words of the wise" (24:23–34) commends impartiality, honesty, and diligence.

Chapters 25–29 present a collection of proverbs that are attributed to Solomon but said to have been copied by the officials of King Hezekiah.

  • An opening section extols the wisdom of a king and advises humility in his presence.
  • Various sayings use colorful imagery in similes to convey ideas, such as: "Like a dog that returns to its vomit is a fool who reverts to his folly" (26:11).
  • Various proverbs describe foolishness and how to respond to it, occasionally with conflicting advice. Proverbs 26:4 warns not to "answers fools according to their folly," while 26:5 recommends just the opposite.
  • Sayings in Proverbs 28–29 focus especially on justice, righteousness, and generosity to the poor.

Proverbs 30 contains sayings attributed to "Agur son of Jakeh," while Chapter 31 is introduced as "the words of King Lemuel ... that his mother taught him."

  • Chapter 30 begins with a series of rhetorical questions about wisdom and knowledge of God.
  • Several units of proverbs use a progressive counting format to assess thematic groups, as in 30:18: "Three things are too wonderful for me; four I do not understand."
  • Chapter 31 begins with warnings, apparently to King Lemuel from his mother, against the temptations of women and wine.
  • The final section of Proverbs extols in an acrostic poem an ideal virtuous woman who skillfully manages the affairs of her household.

Analysis

Proverbs is named for the pithy expressions of observation and advice that make up most of the book. It emphasizes conventional wisdom regarding piety, wise and righteous living, prudence and diligence, and general propriety. Its short instructions and observations apply this conventional piety and wisdom to all aspects of life. Proverbs represents the general "orthodoxy" to which the other two primary examples of wisdom literature in the Hebrew Bible, Job and Ecclesiastes, respond and from which they partially deviate.

Although the general theological outlook and specific emphases remain consistent throughout Proverbs, different sections contain distinctive formats and voices. Chapters 1–9 are framed as a father speaking to a son. The language in this section is highly gendered; the son is admonished to listen to the voice of lady wisdom and avoid the seductions of the "strange woman." Chapters 10–22 and 25–29 offer descriptive observations and generalized assessments of wise and foolish behavior. "The words of the wise" in Chapters 22–24 return to direct address and didactic format but imply the voice of a teacher to a student. The acrostic poem extolling the "virtuous woman" in Chapter 31 stands out as unlike anything else in Proverbs. These diverse formats and voices demonstrate the complex and composite nature of the collected wisdom that is the book of Proverbs.

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