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Jewish Poetry (3): Proverbs

A proverb is a short saying, which states a general truth or gives advice.

The book of Proverbs certainly contains many of these pithy, wise "sayings" (i.e., adages, or apothegm), but it also includes longer poetic sections, employing various rhetorical devices, including parables, allegories, and fables. Thus, the Hebrews use the broader term, mishle (roughly: exemplifications), to describe the book.


The vast majority of the Proverbs were written by Solomon, the third king of Israel (c. 1000-930 B.C.). Solomon, perhaps the most prosperous of the kings of Israel, was the son of David, the "man after" God's "own heart" (Acts 13.22).

At the Lord's prompting, David named his son, Solomon (viz., the peaceful), evincing the fact that he wished for him a life of peaceful pursuits rather than a life of turmoil and war (contrary to David's own life, cf. 1 Chron. 22.8-9).

But God, knowing in advance the virtue and wisdom Solomon would seek, also named him, Jedidiah (i.e., the Lord's beloved) (2 Sam. 12.24-25; 1 Kngs 3.5f). His proverbial literature demonstrates a penchant for both peace and love for the Lord.

Scripture informs us that Solomon was responsible for three thousand proverbs (1 Kngs. 4.32). He is mentioned three times in the book of Proverbs (1.1; 10.1; 25.1), and is likely accountable for the first twenty-nine chapters in the book. But as there are less than one thousand verses in Proverbs, much of his proverbial literature is no doubt lost to us.


Several of these "wise sayings" are written from a purely practical standpoint (i.e., how things work best in the earthly environment) rather than from a moral perspective (cf. Prov. 5.15-17; 6.30f; 11.16; 26.4-5; 19.7; 20.14; 31.1-7; see also, Ecc. 10.19-20; 7.1f). The perceptive student of Proverbs will learn to distinguish between practical earthly advice and moral instruction.

Most of the Proverbs, however, are intended to provide instruction (via knowledge, or, fact-accumulation, which lifts us out of intellectual simplicity, cf. 1.22; 8.5; 14.15-19; see also Rm. 16.18; 1 Cor. 14.20) and strength to live righteously before God (via wisdom, or, superior judgment based on experience and knowledge) (cf. 1.1-7; 2.1-9).

Since the Creator is the source of truth, morality, knowledge, wisdom, and love, these ought to be pursued without fail (cf. 3.3-8; 4.5-8). If we pursue these things, we will find deliverance from evil companions (cf. 1.8-19; 2.10-22) and from spiritual turbulence (cf. 4.10-13, 18, 22). If not, however, we will be pursuing folly and spiritual hardship (cf. 4.14-17, 19; 6.32-35).

Proverbs 1.7

"The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge; But fools despise wisdom and instruction."

One of the chief aims of the book of Proverbs is to instill in others a firm respect for divine authority. It is this respect — or, "fear of the Lord" — which carries man into true knowledge (1.7), wisdom (9.10; 15.33), hatred of evil (8.13), liveliness (14.26-27; 19.23), and hope (23.17-18).

The fear of the Lord embraces more than mere dread, though it certainly comprehends that sense (cf. Isa. 8.13; Mt. 10.28; Heb. 10.31). It also includes a sense of awe for God's mightiness (cf. Ps. 33.8-9; 139.14) and a devotion to keeping his commands (cf. Deut. 6.2; Psalm 119.38; Col. 3.22-24; Heb. 5.7-8).

This respect for divine authority is "the beginning of knowledge." "Beginning" may be understood as meaning,

1) the starting-point; i.e., as the first step to gaining true knowledge (cf. Jn. 2.11; 2 Chron. 1.8-12);

2) the principle aspect; i.e., as the essence of true knowledge (cf. Prov. 4.7; Job 28.28);

3) the origin; i.e., the cause or initiation of knowledge (cf. Rev. 1.8; 3.14; Col. 1.15-18; Prov. 15.33; 2.5-9).

Without a firm respect for the eternal God, a man's knowledge remains partial and diminished. Loving God puts life into clearer focus, giving man purpose, and places his time on earth into a broader context.

By contrast, "fools despise wisdom and instruction." The attitude of the Bereans, set in contrast with the unbelieving Thessalonians, illustrates this proverbial difference (cf. Acts 17.1-11).

God-loving people remain open to delving ever deeper into the complexities of sacred knowledge, no matter how difficult or laborious the task (cf. 2 Pet. 3.14-18; Col. 1.9-10; 2.7; 3.16). But fools are not only not willing to consider anything new or unfamiliar to them, but tend to oppose and scorn those who attempt to instruct them in such matters.

May we learn to seek the wisdom of Solomon, tempered mightily by a healthy disposition to fear the Lord.

Part 3: Jewish Poetry (3): Proverbs


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