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KD Old Testament Lesson 31: Proverbs

Posted by Karl D. on August 11, 2010

Gospel Doctrine
Lesson: Proverbs
Reading: Proverbs

1 A Note on approach

These represent the notes I made during my reading of the scriptural text for this lesson. It is not a lesson outline or a lesson plan but really notes about issues and questions that struck me as interesting during my reading. Consequently, the notes do not have a conclusion and very little mention of application. I like to let those things arise while I teach.

2 Introduction

2.1 Fools and Folly

Read Proverbs 26:4

4 Answer not a fool according to his folly, lest thou also be like unto him.

And also the proverb in the next verse:

5 Answer a fool according to his folly, lest he be wise in his own conceit.

  • What do you think of these two proverbs?
  • Do you think these proverbs give us any insight into how we should approach the book of Proverbs? About how we should read the different proverbs? About how the different proverbs relate to each other?
  • These two proverbs are sometimes held out as good examples of why the instruction in Proverbs is only situationally and not universally true since the two proverbs seem to contradict each other1.
  • Do you think these two proverbs contradict each other? Are there any other possibilities?
  • If they do contradict each other, does that suggest anything about how we should think about the advice or moral instruction in proverbs?
  • Also, these two proverbs are sometimes used to suggest that the book of Proverbs should be used as a starting point in terms of thinking about what is wise rather than offer something final or authoritative. Do you agree? Is this a reasonable inference to draw from these scriptures? And does the preceding describe a sensible or appropriate approach to the book of Proverbs?
  • Finally, these two verses are sometimes used as an example2 of the lack of “theological consistency” in the scriptures. Do you think these verses are a good example of the lack of consistency? Why or why not?

2.2 Moral Life and Nature

Proverbs often use imagery and metaphors from nature. Let’s take a quick look at some proverbs that utilize this imagery and see if we can pick up on any themes.

Read Proverbs 26:21

As coals are to burning coals, and wood to fire;
   so is a contentious man to kindle strife. (Proverbs 26:21)

Read Proverbs 27:28

Whoso keepeth the fig tree shall eat the fruit thereof: 
   so he that waiteth on his master shall be honoured.

Read Proverbs 25:25

As cold waters to a thirsty soul,
   so is good news from a far country.

Read Proverbs 25:28

He that hath no rule over his own spirit
   is like a city that is broken down, and without walls.    
  • What do these proverbs have in common?
  • Why the comparison between moral life and nature?
  • How would you summarize or describe the nature imagery in terms of what they underscore to you as the reader?
  • What is the link between the nature metaphors and the “wisdom” in these proverbs?
  • Is it fair to say that these proverbs remind the readers of occurrences in nature where there is an obvious or transparent cause and effect mechanism, and that these proverbs are trying to suggest a kind of transparent theological cause and effect with regard to moral or social outcome?
    • Do you you agree that this is one of the major messages of these proverbs? Why or why not?
    • If you do agree that the preceding is one of the major messages of these proverbs, do you also agree with the message? Why or why not?

3 Proverbs in Two Parts

K. T. Aitken in The Oxford Bible Commentary provides a useful way to think about the structure of Proverbs:3

Part Description
Didactic Discourse (1-9) Extended poems with instructions on wisdom
Short Sayings (1-31) Sayings usually two lines in parallel thought

Didactic Discourse

Part Verses
Introduction 1:1-7
Avoid Evil Men! 1:8-19
Wisdom’s First Speech 1:21-31
Wisdom as a Guard And Guide 2:1-22
Trust in God 3:1-12
Wisdom’s Benediction 3:13-18
Wisdom and Creation 3:19-20
Kindness and Neighborliness 3:27-35
Get Wisdom! 4:1-9
The Two Ways 4:10-27
Avoid the Seductress 5:1-22
Four Warnings 6:1-19
The Price of Adultery 6:2-35
The Wiles of the Seductress 7:1-27
Wisdom’s Second Speech 8:1-36
The Two Banquets 9:1-18

Short Proverbial Sayings

Part Verses
The First Solomonic Collection 10:1-22:16
Sayings of the Wise 22:17-24:22
The Second Solomonic Collection 25:1-29:27
The Saying of Agur 30:1-33
The Words of Lemuel 31:1-9
The Good Wife 31:10-31
  • Do you see any patterns or points of emphasis in the outline?
  • Does anything in the outline surprise you?

4 Proverb’s Introduction

Read Proverbs 1:1-7

1 The proverbs of Solomon the son of David, king of Israel; 2 To know wisdom and instruction; to perceive the words of understanding; 3 To receive the instruction of wisdom, justice, and judgment, and equity; 4 To give subtilty to the simple, to the young man knowledge and discretion. 5 A wise man will hear, and will increase learning; and a man of understanding shall attain unto wise counsels: 6 To understand a proverb, and the interpretation; the words of the wise, and their dark sayings. 7 The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge: but fools despise wisdom and instruction.

  • What is the purpose or goal of the book?
  • Who is the primary or intended audience?

4.1 Wisdom

What is meant by wisdom? I am going to just lift Jim F’s discussion of wisdom from his reading notes for this lesson:

The word “wisdom” doesn’t have just one meaning in these books. At its simplest, it means “knowing how to get by” or “shrewdness.” (Some of the stories we read earlier, such as that of how Jacob got his father’s blessing in the place of Esau, were probably intended to show, among other things, that Jacob and Rachel were shrewd. Shrewdness was a valued trait.) The word “wisdom” also means “having sound judgment” and “having moral understanding.” We see both of these kinds of wisdom in the book of Proverbs. Finally, “wisdom” can denote the ability to think about profound human problems, the kind of wisdom that we see in Ecclesiastes and Job. As you read from Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, or other books of wisdom literature, ask yourself what kind of wisdom is under discussion at any given place.

In addition, I am also intrigued by a couple of scriptures that mention wisdom. Consider the following scriptures that mention wisdom:

And all the women whose heart stirred them up in wisdom spun goats’ hair. (Exodus 35:26)

Them hath he filled with wisdom of heart, to work all manner of work, of the engraver, and of the cunning workman, and of the embroiderer, in blue, and in purple, in scarlet, and in fine linen, and of the weaver, even of them that do any work, and of those that devise cunning work. Ezekiel 35:35

  • How is wisdom being used in the previous two verses? Does this change your understanding of what is meant by wisdom?
  • Why and how is wisdom related to “skill?” What is the connection? Does this change how you think about wisdom? Is there really such a thing as “moral skill?”

4.2 Simple and Young

Verse 4 mentions the simple and young:

4 To give subtilty to the simple, to the young man knowledge and discretion.

  • What does it mean to be simple in this context? Could it suggest that we are talking about a group that is open to persuasion or easy manipulated?
  • What does it mean to give subtilty to the simple?
  • Is the parallelism important here? Is “young” equivalent to “simple” in the context?

4.3 Dark Sayings

Verse 6 mentions dark sayings:

5 A wise man will hear, and will increase learning; and a man of understanding shall attain unto wise counsels: 6 To understand a proverb, and the interpretation; the words of the wise, and their dark sayings.

In all modern translations I looked at “dark sayings” was replaced with riddles.

  • Are proverbs best thought of or at least usefully thought of as riddles? Or at a minimum are some of them usefully thought of as riddles? Say for example?
As a ring of gold in a swine's snout,
   So is a lovely woman who lacks discretion.  (Proverbs 11:22) 
  • If proverbs are, at least in part, riddles does this affect how we should approach or read the book of Proverbs?

4.4 Fear of the Lord is the Beginning of Wisdom

In verse 7 and other places in Proverbs we read:

7 The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge: but fools despise wisdom and instruction.

  • What does it mean to “fear of the Lord?”
  • Do you view “fear of the Lord” as an antiquated way to say “reverence for the Lord” Why or why not?
  • Richard Clifford in his commentary on Proverbs suggest the following context to the phrase “fear of the Lord”:4:

“[F]ear of a god” does not refer primarily to an emotion or a general reverent attitude. Rather, it means revering a particular deity by performing the god’s ritual and obeying the god’s commands.

“Fear of the Lord” has a specific background. In the view of Near Eastern peoples, the world was established by gods exclusively for their own benefit. Human beings were created as the god’s servants. Individuals had to learn to live optimally within a hierachized world were the gods occupied the highest tier and human beings the lowest as slaves of gods. The first step in living happily and avoiding trouble was to know one’s place – to “fear the god(s)” in obedience and reverence.

  • Assuming the preceding is part of the cultural backdrop for the phrase, how should we understand the phrase today? How should we update or translate it into our modern religious world?
  • One of the things that the phrase “fear of the Lord” reminds me of is the distance between God and me. Is our relationship with God both close and distant? Is it important that we are reminded of the distance between us and God? Why or why not?
  • Does “beginning” here mean “the first step” or the “best part?”


1 see, for example, Enns, Peter, 2005, Inspiration and Incarnation: Evangelicals and the Problem of the Old Testament

2 see, for example, Enns, Peter, 2005, Inspiration and Incarnation: Evangelicals and the Problem of the Old Testament

3 Aitken, K. T. , 2001, The Oxford Bible Commentary, Oxford University Press, 405.

4 Clifford, Richard, 1999, Proverbs: a Commentary, Westminister John Knox Press, 25-36

3 Responses to “KD Old Testament Lesson 31: Proverbs”

  1. As I just began teaching the Gospel Doctrine class I find your website very useful to use in teaching my lessons. thank you for your assistance. Alvin

  2. Dan Bluth said

    Today is my first-time as viewer and asker-of-questions. (I appreciate the efforts expended here; all participants seem to be like me, seekers – yet much more erudite. I’m grateful.)

    What of Margaret Barker’s (and, by citing her, other Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship contributors’) inclusion of “wisdom literature” as things lost during Josiah’s reforms (vis a vis Sunday School Lesson 30)?

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