Interpreting the Book of Proverbs (Part 2)

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As announced with my first post, this second one will develop the first hermeneutical guideline for interpreting Proverbs. This guideline relates to recognizing the characteristics of a proverb. I will discuss this principle over the course of three blog entries.

I. Recognizing the Characteristics of a Proverb

The proverb, or aphorism, is found throughout the Bible. It is often assumed that the use of proverbs is confined to the book of Proverbs. The wisdom literature of the Old Testament such as Ecclesiastes and Job are characterized by their use of proverbs. Proverbs are commonly found in poetic literature (Ps 119:105). Jesus also uses proverbs (Mark 12:17). The Epistle of James also contains many proverbs. The proverb is a common literary form used in the Bible.

A proverb is a concise, memorable saying, usually in poetic form, expressing a generally accepted observation about life as filtered through biblical revelation. From this definition, we can observe that a proverb is characterized as being concise and memorable, simple yet profound, specific yet general, usually expressed in poetic form, and observations about life as filtered through biblical revelation. To clarify our understanding of the nature of proverbs, we will examine these five characteristics in individual proverbs.

A. A proverb is concise and memorable.

The verbal conciseness aids in making it memorable. The sage who creates a concise and memorable saying must be skillful in his use of words and syntax. By reducing his observation about life into a proverbial form, the sage was aiming to make his observations permanent. As such, a proverb is a high point drawn from the sage’s observations about life. With the proverb, the sage “captures the clearest and most affective moment and the point of greatest light” (Ryken, Word of Delight, p. 315). A concise and memorable proverb that I vividly remember from my teen age years is Proverbs 12:4: “An excellent wife is the crown of her husband.”

B. A proverb is simple yet profound.

“Every way of a man is right in his own eyes, but the LORD a weighs the heart” (Prov 21:2). The basic point of this proverb is that people think they have an accurate self-evaluation for their actions, but the LORD has an evaluation of their heart that is truly accurate because of His infinite perspective. Though this proverb is simple, it is quite profound. God knows exactly what is in the heart of every single person better than each individual knows himself, and God with His omniscient knowledge evaluates everyone according to His standard of holiness.

C. A proverb is specific yet general.

This is illustrated in Proverbs 26:27, “Whoever digs a pit will fall into it, and a stone will come back on him who starts it rolling.” “Whoever digs a pit” specifically refers to someone laying a trap for another and “a stone will come back on him who starts it rolling” refers to an attempt to place a stone upon one’s opponent but the stone rolls back on its initiator. The result in either case is that the trap backfires. While both part of this verse have a specificity, they communicate a general point that man’s best plans may backfire.

D. A proverb is consistently cast into poetic form.

Hebrew poetry is characterized by brevity in line length, parallelism, and figurative language. If we compare the line length of Proverbs 1 with a narrative such as Judges 1, it is readily apparent that the length of each line in Proverbs 1 is shorter than the length of each line in Judges 1. Proverbs 4:1 is a familiar example of poetic parallelism. Solomon provides an exhortation, “Hear, O sons, a father’s instruction.” The second part of this verse parallels the first part with a specification of his purpose, “be attentive, that you may g gain insight.” The parallelism clearly develops what the sage’s point is, viz., listen to a godly father in order to gain wisdom. Proverbs 4:17 demonstrates the use of figures when Solomon picturesquely compares the unbridled lust of the wicked to their eating habits, “For they eat the bread of wickedness and drink the wine of violence.” Eating “the bread of wickedness” and drinking “the wine of violence” is a graphic way of illustrating that wicked people live for “wickedness” and “violence.”

As noted in the preceding paragraph, Hebrew poetry is characterized by parallelism. Parallelism is essentially a repetition of thought or grammar in a second line of poetry. The predominant form of parallelism is thought repetition. In the past, parallelism has been divided into three basic types: synonymous, antithetical, and synthetic. With a number of recent studies, we have been able to more precisely categorize parallellism. In the book of Proverbs, there are at least six types of proverbs (much of the following is adapted from Klein, Blomberg and Hubard, Introduction to Biblical Interpretation, pp. 230–38). However, a development of these six kinds of parallelism will need to wait for my next two posts.

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