Making Sense of the Wisdom Literature

Introduction to Proverbs
Proverbs is the primary source for biblical wisdom. Proverbs must not be viewed as “unconditional promises”[1] but as generalizations that function within a relationship of “cause and effect”.[2] The existence of wisdom literature seems to predate the Hebrew canonical collection. The historical critical approach to proverbs sees the superscription to Solomon as “loosely”[3] associated. This seems to be accurate when we see that sections of the book are associated with different authors (Agur, Lemuel e.g., Proverbs 30-31). Moreover, the historical critical approach has sustained its perspective that at least some parts of proverbs are drawn from Egyptian sapiential literature.[4] Despite this, the uniqueness of the Hebrew canonical collection of proverbs is not contested.[5]
 Superscription in Proverbs
The book of proverbs is an anthology. The starting place for a proper hermeneutical approach is to observe the function of the ascription in verse 1:1. Some suggest that the ascription functions to convey Solomonic authorship for the entire anthology.[6] Others interpret the ascription to convey that Solomon played a “major role”[7] in the sapiential tradition of Israel. Childs suggests that the ascription to Solomon is more significant than we think.[8]
The ascription to Solomon requires a reflection back to 1 Kings 3-4. In 1 Kings 4:29-31, Solomon’s wisdom is identified on an international scale. If Solomon’s wisdom and renown are linked to an international scale, then the book of Proverbs cannot be viewed exclusively from the historical tradition of Israel alone.[9] According to Childs, the ascription then serves not as a “secondary context”[10] to the Law and the Prophets, but rather a link to the wisdom narrative in 1 Kings which implies an international scale. This restricts the interpreter from infusing a context that is foreign to the wisdom literature e.g., Mosaic Law. Childs continues by suggesting that the superscription is present to protect against negligence on the part of the interpreter who often inserts “dominant biblical themes”[11] without warrant.
If the essence of proverbs is rooted in an international scale, then there is justification for an origination of some proverbs to be from outside sources. Parsons comments on the challenges that expositors face by suggesting the essence of proverbs, at least in some examples, is rooted in “secular common-sense sayings .”[12] This perspective is affirmed by Childs who suggests that the title of Proverbs implies a “canonical warrant”[13] for comparing them to extra-biblical materials which is “unusual for the biblical tradition.”[14]
 Divisions of Proverbs
Proverbs is to be viewed from a framework of two divisions, chapters 1-9 form the first division while chapters 10-31 form the second division. The first division is “radically different”[15] from the second division. Scholars agree that the second division (10-31) contains the earliest and more traditional form of Israel’s sapiential literature.[16] The second division contains the traditional bicola, or “wisdom sentence,”[17] representations of wisdom. In addition, the second division also contains antithetic and emblematic parallelism.[18] The purpose of these literary devices is to examine truth from two different perspectives e.g., 10:31. Moreover, the use of antithetical parallelism provides a contrast between the righteous and the wicked (12:1). It must be understood that proverbs is not expressing an absolute truth in each wisdom sentence (11:8), but rather a general principle of the cause and effect relationship to human action inside of the ordered universe that God has created.
The first division of proverbs provides the “hermeneutical guide”[19] for interpreting the entire book. The prologue (1:1-7) identifies that the beginning of wisdom is the “fear of Yahweh” (Prv 1:7 ESV). [20] Dallas Willard says that the relationship of the fear of Yahweh to the proliferation of wisdom is the “indispensable beginning … and the principal part.”[21] Childs affirms this same sentiment by saying, “commitment to Yahweh is inextricably linked to the search for human knowledge.”[22] The issue at stake is not a reconstruction of sapiential tradition within the Israelite community to connect them to religious or secular ideals. It could be that part of the anthology is comprised of pre-existent secular sayings, however the redactional effects of the prologue make it clear from which perspective the entire book is to be read. The editors sought to bring into unity three primary areas of human experience, “intellectual, experiential activity, and religious behavior”[23] to establish a religious perspective to buttress a proper interpretation and understanding.
Interpreting Proverbs
To treat the text of proverbs correctly, an appropriate understanding of the purpose of proverbs must be understood. Proverbs 1:4-6 identifies the purpose of the anthology, namely to direct all persons to an introduction (1:4), understanding (1:5b), and continuation (1:5) of their conduct and attitudes in a worldview that presupposes Yahweh as Lord (1:7).
Proverbs is made up of literary forms that are not explicitly true, but rather serve to instruct the reader of casual relationships that exist in the created order by emphasizing “pragmatic principles”[24] e.g., Prv 15:1. These literary forms are characterized as “instruments”[25] that convey meaning, not absolute truth. From a form perspective, a division be drawn between a wisdom sentence (Prv 12:7) and admonition (Prv 2:1-5).[26] A wisdom sentence is an observation from experience. An admonition serves to instruct the pupil. From a device perspective, divisions can be drawn between antithetical parallelism (Prv 13:20) which juxtaposes the path of the righteous and the path of the wicked, and emblematic parallelism (Prv 26:21) which associates a figurative element to a literal element, requiring the interpreter to elucidate the proper application to contemporary culture.[27]
Proverbs are not grounded in Mosaic Law. According to Childs, the dominant form of proverbs is rooted in a subjective imperative form, whereas the Mosaic Law is rooted in an objective imperative form.[28] The final form of proverbs takes on a didactic role where a teacher addresses a pupil (Prv 2). The emphasis is not on promise akin to Mosaic Law, but towards right conduct.[29] Proverbs is structured for “catchiness”[30] and not unconditional promise (Prv 18:2).
Conclusion
The tendency is to treat proverbs in the objective imperative form synonymous with other areas of the canon. It is a mistake to treat proverbs as a sensus plenior of Mosaic Law. It is true that human actions, which proverbs speaks to, in some ways reflect Mosaic Law, they are not direct moral imperatives and require “intellectual and pragmatic activity”[31] on the part of the individual. Nevertheless, according to Childs, Proverbs and Mosaic Law point to a commitment to God and his divine order which justify the inclusion of proverbs into the canon.[32] Proverbs are essential in highlighting the divine order of the cosmos but they are not exhaustive. There are things that we can infer from the natural operation of God’s creative order and proverbs seeks to highlight these inferences, nevertheless there are things that we cannot know about God in this lifetime. Being this the case, there are times when specific proverbs are not true in every instance (Prv 19:29; 21:23).
Old Testament Wisdom Books
It is plain to see that contrary positions exist within the wisdom books e.g., Proverbs 10:4; Ecclesiastes 1:3 or Job 21; Psalm 1:4-5. These contrary positions present challenges to a proper understanding of the wisdom books. Despite this, there is a unified message that is spoken in the wisdom books. The purpose of this short essay is to (1) understand the wisdom books from a canonical perspective (2), understand that absolute truths are not always presented in the wisdom books and (3), make sense of the overall message that the wisdom books purvey.
Canonical Perspective of the Wisdom Books
 The wisdom books represent human endeavoring to understand the casual link between action and reaction (Prv 11:19-21). Yahweh has placed order in the cosmos (Prv 3:19; Ps 145:12) and wisdom seeks to understand (Prv 2:2). The message that is purveyed in the wisdom books directs the reader to Yahweh. In the book of Job, wisdom literature addresses theological issues that are consistent to all peoples, not just the Israelites.[33] Yahweh acts according to his will; the central message is to fear Yahweh and that human wisdom is limited in understanding (Job 28:28). According to Gordon Wenham, the book of Psalms sees its central message to be one of hope and justice to an oppressed people.[34]  The books of Psalms begins with the imperative to walk in the way of the righteous and juxtaposes two paths (Ps 1). The book of Proverbs highlights the divine order of the cosmos but it is not exhaustive in its understanding of the cosmos. It interprets wisdom from an international scale,[35] and finds its purpose in examining truth from two different perspectives (Prv 1:7). Proverbs evidences that a fear of Yahweh is the beginning of wisdom (Prv 9:10). Ecclesiastes presents an “attack”[36] on wisdom and offers a counter-perspective that serves as an “official corrective”[37] to the wisdom tradition. The central message is found in the epilogue; the duty of man is to fear God who will judge all human behavior (Ecc 12:13-14). The message of Song of Solomon is the mysterious relationship of human love and marriage. It reflects on the divinely instituted order of Yahweh and is tied to Solomon to warrant the inclusion into the wisdom literatures.[38]
Truth Assertions in the Wisdom Books
The wisdom literature provides a juxtaposition of two ways of life (Ps 1; Prv 1:7; Job 42:2-6; Ecc 12:13-14). The imperative of these passages is to choose to follow Yahweh or choose to follow man. Wisdom seeks to investigate the realities of the ordering of the cosmos but can never fully understand the ways of Yahweh. Proverbs serves to evidence the fruitfulness of man’s investigation into the ways of life (Prv 19:25) but man’s investigation can never offer a warrant on expected outcomes (Job 42:2-3; Prv 25:2). These generalizations of wisdom must be juxtaposed with the suffering and oppression of this world (Ps 137; Ecc 4:1). In totality, there are things that we can infer from the ordered operation of creation but we will never fully understand the ways of Yahweh (Isa 55:8-9). These assertions are not to be taken as absolute truth with foreknown outcomes, but as predictions that evidence what is likely to happen when man chooses to follow his own path.
The Message of the Wisdom Books
The message of the wisdom books is clear – Fear Yahweh, then you will have a proper understanding. In the book of Colossians, the author posits a very important truth “the knowledge of God’s mystery, which is Christ, in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge” (Col 2:2-3). This is a universal affirmative statement.[39] When rewritten to treat logically we can understand it more fully, “All the treasures of wisdom and knowledge are hidden in Christ.” This is the true epistemology. Not all wisdom and knowledge are found inside of Christ, but all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge are found inside of Christ. The book of James highlights the alternative which is earthly wisdom (Jas 3:15). This is should be seen as the juxtaposition of the path of the righteous and the path of the wicked.
Earthy wisdom is committed and bound to worldly standards, and as Kenneth Barker, John Kohlenberger III, and Donald Burdick say “makes personal gain life’s highest goal”.[40] In Perspectives on Wisdom-ing, Adam Blatner describes wisdom as “more of a verb (or gerund) than a noun”.[41] If the action of producing and purveying wisdom is dependent on man, and man is fallen by nature (Rom 3:23), then is not man logically bound to exclusively produce and purvey earthly wisdom? When man gives rise and subsequently purveys earthly wisdom we see variations of epistemologies and philosophies.[42] This is evidence of the fact that man is not capable of producing true wisdom apart from Christ.
Conclusion
The wisdom books highlight two paths that man can take. The path of the Righteous and the path of the Wicked. Pragmatically speaking, taking the path of the righteous will produce successful results in life, a direct effect to the cause of a disposition to fearing Yahweh. Alternatively, the path of the wicked will produce negative results in life, a direct effect to the cause of a disposition to not fearing Yahweh. However, there are exceptions to these rules and above all a disposition that fears Yahweh is to be sought. This disposition is highlighted in Daniel 3:16-18. Even though the outcomes in life as we seek Yahweh may not be positive, nonetheless we are to serve and fear him.

 

[1] Greg W. Parsons, “Guidelines For Understanding And Proclaiming The Books Of Proverbs,” Bibliotheca Sacra, no. 150 (April-June 1993): 158.
[2] Ibid,, 158.
[3] Brevard Childs, Introduction to the Old Testament as Scripture (Philadelphia, PA: Fortress Press, 1979), 548.
[4] Ibid., see also Greg W. Parsons, “Guidelines For Understanding And Proclaiming The Books Of Proverbs,” Bibliotheca Sacra, no. 150 (April-June 1993): 151-170.
[5] Childs, Introduction to the Old Testament as Scripture, 548.
[6] Tremper Longman III and Raymond B. Dillard, Introduction To The Old Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2006), 267.
[7] Longman III and Dillard, Introduction To The Old Testament, 269.
[8] Childs, Introduction to the Old Testament as Scripture, 551.
[9] Ibid., 552.
[10] Ibid.
[11] Ibid.
[12] Parsons, “Guidelines For Understanding And Proclaiming The Books Of Proverbs,” 152.
[13] Childs, Introduction to the Old Testament as Scripture, 552.
[14] Ibid.
[15] Longman III and Dillard, Introduction To The Old Testament, 269.
[16] See for example, Brevard Childs, Introduction to the Old Testament as Scripture (Philadelphia, PA: Fortress Press, 1979) and Tremper Longman III and Raymond B. Dillard, Introduction To The Old Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2006).
[17] Parsons, “Guidelines For Understanding And Proclaiming The Books Of Proverbs,” 155.
[18] Ibid., 155-156.
[19] Childs, Introduction to the Old Testament as Scripture, 553.
[20] Unless otherwise noted, all biblical passages referenced are in the English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2011).
[21] Dallas Willard, Renovation of the Heart (Colorado Springs, CO: NavPress, 2012), 50.
[22] Childs, Introduction to the Old Testament as Scripture, 553.
[23] Ibid.
[24] Parsons, “Guidelines For Understanding And Proclaiming The Books Of Proverbs,” 159.
[25] Ibid., 154.
[26] Ibid., 155.
[27] Parsons, “Guidelines For Understanding And Proclaiming The Books Of Proverbs,” 156.
[28] Childs, Introduction to the Old Testament as Scripture, 554.
[29] Ibid.
30] Parsons, “Guidelines For Understanding And Proclaiming The Books Of Proverbs,” 159.
[31] Childs, Introduction to the Old Testament as Scripture, 558.
[32] Ibid.
[33] Childs, Introduction to the Old Testament as Scripture, 538-539.
[34] Gordon Wenham, The Psalter Reclaimed: Praying and Praising with the Psalms (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2013), 119.
[35] Childs, Introduction to the Old Testament as Scripture, 552.
[36] Ibid., 584
[37] Ibid.
[38] Ibid., 578-579.
[39] Stanley W. Jevons, “Lesson IX, The Opposition of Propositions,” in Elementary Lessons in Logic: Deductive And Inductive, With Copious Questions And Examples, And A Vocabulary Of Logical Terms (London, 1870), 78.
[40] Kenneth L. Barker, John R. Kohlenberger III, and Donald W. Burdick, eds., The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, abbr. ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1994), 1031.
[41] Adam Blatner, “Perspectives on Wisdom-ing”. Revision 28, no. 1 (Summer 2005): 29-33. Accessed January 22, 2017, http://www.heldref.org.ezproxy.liberty.edu/revision.php.
[42] Greg L. Bahnsen, “God In the Dock,” in Presuppositional Apologetics: Stated and Defended (Powder Springs, GA: American Vision Inc., 2011), 16.

 

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