Interpreting the Book of Proverbs (Part 10)

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In part nine of this series on interpreting Proverbs, we finished looking at the fourth guideline that focused on looking for literary clues. In the next two posts, we will look at the book’s theological framework to assist with interpreting individual passages.

V. Proverbs’ Theological Framework

To understand individual passages in Proverbs, we must understand the book’s explicit theological framework. We can see its theological structure by examining its purpose and theme and its characteristic motifs. With this post we will look at Proverbs’ purpose and theme.

A. Individual proverbs or units and the book’s purpose and theme

Unlike many books in the Bible, Proverbs explicitly announces its purpose and theme in the opening part of the book, 1:2–7.

1. Proverbs’ purpose

The purpose of Proverbs is expressed in 1:2–6. There is a twofold emphasis in this statement of purpose.

One emphasis in Proverbs is to develop moral wisdom, vv. 2a, 3–4. Solomon’s purpose in proverbs includes helping one “to know wisdom and instruction.” The word translated as “wisdom” is a term that focuses on developing “skill.” In Proverbs this term emphasizes biblically-informed skill in living. In light of vv. 3–4, this skill relates to living a life that is morally pleasing to God. The term translated as “instruction” emphasizes “discipline” or “training.” Its emphasis in this context is on a training to develop one’s moral nature.

A second emphasis in Proverbs is to develop mental wisdom, vv. 2b, 6. The last clause in v. 2, “to discern the sayings of understanding,” emphasizes one learning how to compare ideas and make evaluations about subjects. This emphasis is clearly seen in v. 6, emphasizing an understanding of proverbs, parables, and riddles. This type of discernment emphasizes one’s mental acumen.

2. Proverbs’ theme

The theme of Proverbs is found in 1:7, “The fear of the LORD is the beginning of knowledge; fools despise wisdom and instruction.” This reverential fear is the Old Testament counterpart of the New Testament concept of saving faith. The fear of the LORD expresses itself in reverential submission to God and whatever He commands. This type of fear is the “beginning of knowledge.” The Old Testament concept of “beginning” can refer to that which is “first” or to that which is “primary and controlling.” In Proverbs, the concept of “beginning” does not primarily mean that the fear of the Lord is the “starting point” of knowledge. Rather, the fear of the Lord is a “primary and controlling element” in developing wisdom. This same theme is restated in 9:10, toward the conclusion of the first section of material in Proverbs. As such, it sets the parameters for this unit.

My next blog entry on Proverbs will develop three emphases in Proverbs that indicates the book’s overall structure.

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