Interpreting the Book of Proverbs (Part 6)


With part 5 of Interpreting Proverbs, we looked at the seven collections of proverbs that make up the book of Proverbs. With this and the next post, we will look at the third principle for reading this book.

III. Identifying Precise Literary Forms

This third guideline places proverbial literature into more precise literary forms. I am using the term ???form??? as a descriptive category denoting the manner in which wisdom material is presented (Garrett, Proverbs, p. 28). There are two predominant literary forms, instruction and saying, and eight secondary forms. We will briefly examine each of these.

A. Instruction

The instruction form is the dominant form found in Proverbs 1???9 and 22:17???24:22. It is a longer form of the admonition (a command or prohibition), usually involving one or more paragraphs explaining a number of related admonitions. The instruction is directed to ???my son??? or ???sons??? (which may include the concept of ???disciple???) and generally provides a reason for the instruction. It generally praises wisdom and its attributes or provides a warning about the traps of folly and its disciples. The primary point of the instruction is to give advice on wisdom or a related subject or to provide a warning against folly or a related subject (Hubbard, Proverbs, p. 18).

B. Admonition

This is an abbreviated form of the longer instruction form, usually comprised of one to three verses. It expresses either a positive command or a prohibition followed by a motive clause. The motive clause provides a reason why the command should be followed. When we interpret the admonition, we should note the connection between the command and the motive clause. This connection is helpful in understanding the point of the admonition (Hildebrandt, ???Proverbs,??? in Cracking Old Testament Codes, p. 241). A command followed by a motive clause is found in Proverbs 4:23, ???Watch over your heart with all diligence, for from it flow the springs of life.??? The importance of this command is seen by the motive clause, viz., what is manifest in one???s life is an overflow from the contents of his heart.

C. Wisdom Speech

This is a subcategory of the instruction. In this type, wisdom as well as folly, wisdom???s antithetical form, is personified as a woman publicly proclaiming a message. For example, the lady wisdom cries out to deliver its recipients in Proverbs 1:20???33; 8:1???36; 9:1???6. The counterpart to the wisdom speech is folly. The lady folly calls aloud to mislead in 9:13???18 (Hubbard, Proverbs, p. 18).

D. Saying

The saying is the dominant form used in Proverbs 10:1???22:16 and 25:1???29:27. A saying is essentially a sentence involving two parallel lines. While the mood of the instruction form is imperatival, the mood of the saying is indicative. As filtered through special revelation, the force of a saying is found in the wisdom or folly displayed in human experience (ibid.).

E. Comparative Saying

The comparative saying is a subcategory of the saying. It generally uses a simile or metaphor to intensify the main point of the saying. An example of this is Proverbs 26:8, ???Like one who binds a stone in a sling, so is he who gives honor to a fool.??? In interpreting this type of saying, we must note the images being used, the main point of the proverb, and the connection between them. The image in the first clause is that of securely fastening a stone in the sling. The main point of the saying is in the last clause, ???so is he who gives honor to a fool.??? The point of this saying is that honoring a fool is as foolish as making it impossible for a stone to get out of the sling.

At other times, the lines may simply be in juxtaposition. ???A whip is for the horse, a bridle for the donkey, and a rod for the back of fools??? (Prov 26:3). The images in the first two clauses are the horse and donkey. The main point is in the last clause, ???a rod for the back of fools.??? The point of this saying is that the fool, being as difficult to control as the horse and the donkey, must be controlled by strong force.

In looking at the third principle for interpreting proverbs, we have examined the first five of ten literary forms used in the book of Proverbs. With the next post, we will look at the remaining five literary categories.

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