Interpreting the Book of Proverbs (Part 4)

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With part 3 of this series, I itemized the first four types of parallelism found in Proverbs. With this post, we will finish the last two types of parallelism and then conclude the development of the first of six hermeneutical guidelines for interpreting Proverbs by looking at the fifth characteristic of individual proverbs

5. Specification

With this type of parallelism, each line adds more specific details to the first line. Sometimes this specification may be spatial (see Isa 45:12), explanatory (Isa 48:20b–21), dramatic (Ps 72:9) or purpose. Proverbs 4:1 provides an example of purposeful specification.

Hear, O sons, a father’s instruction,

and be attentive, that you may gain insight.

6. Intensification

This is closely related to the preceding category. The second line rephrases the first line in a more forceful or intense manner. It could also reflect a more pointed or extreme manner. This is analogous to an a fortiori argument, if this is so, how much more so the latter. This may be used with numbers for climactic effect as in Proverbs 30:18–19.

Three things are too wonderful for me; four I do not understand:

(1) the way of an eagle in the sky,

(2) the way of a serpent on a rock,

(3) the way of a ship on the high seas,

(4) and the way of a man with a virgin.

The pattern in this type of numerical intensification is commonly referred to as the X/X + 1 pattern. The emphasis in this type of parallelism is generally on the last enumerated item. In our example, this would be “the way of a man with a maid.”

The two dominant forms of parallelism in the book of Proverbs are that of contrast and comparison. The most dominant of the two forms is parallelism of contrast. In Proverbs 10–15 approximately 90% of the proverbs are contrastive. This sets before the reader the responsibility to choose wisdom over folly. The comparative parallelism essentially says that at a common point “A is like B” (Parsons, “Guidelines for Understanding and Proclaiming the Book of Proverbs,” pp. 155–56).

E. A biblical proverb is an observation about life as filtered through special revelation.

A biblical proverb is different than a non-biblical proverb. The non-biblical proverb is a concise, memorable saying expressing a generally accepted observation about life, but it is not necessarily integrated with Scriptural truth. In contrast to wise men who wrote non-biblical proverbs, the biblical sage would additionally integrate his observations with special revelation. He would subsequently express his biblically interpreted observations in written proverbial form. By following the canons of proverbial literature, a biblically-informed sage would express his life observations in a proverbial format that is inherently oriented to be stated as generalized truth, allowing for possible exceptions (Stein, Playing By the Rules, pp. 85–86).

With my next post, we will look at the second of six hermeneutical principles for interpreting Proverbs.

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