Reading Proverbs – Part 1

For the next week on Coffee with the King, we’re going to look at the OT book of Proverbs. But not verse-by-verse. That would take more than a week; probably more than a year. Instead, we’re going to look at how to read the book of Proverbs – so that you can learn to read it  for yourself in line with the way it was intended to be understood. You know the saying: give a man a fish and feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you can get rid of him for a whole weekend. Or something like that.*

To do this, we’re going to look at three themes in the book of Proverbs. Because understanding these themes will help us read Proverbs more as it was intended, and help us think through how we might live for God in our daily lives.

But today, we’re going to ask the more fundamental question: what are proverbs?

Essentially, Proverbs is a book of wisdom. It’s a collection of short sayings; of wise sayings.  We have plenty of these sorts of proverbs in English, normally trotted out by old people. “Too many cooks spoil the broth.” Or “Many hands make light work.” (And often, like these two, they give seemingly contradictory advice. More on that later.)

As well as short “pearls” of wisdom, it also contains instructions from father to son. A bit like the “sunscreen song” from the 90s, originally an address given to high school leavers (but turned into a song by Baz Luhrmann). Random bits of advice from someone from an older generation:

“Ladies and gentlemen of the class of ’99 – Wear sunscreen. If I could offer you only one tip for the future, sunscreen would be it. … Do one thing every day that scares you. Sing. Don’t be reckless with other people’s hearts; don’t put up with people who are reckless with yours. Floss.”

Proverbs are a bit like that – a collection of advice on how to live, from someone older and wiser, who’s done it all before you.

But Hebrew proverbs are also poetry. So we also need to appreciate the basics of Hebrew poetry to interpret the proverbs correctly. We need to know the genre rules. For example:

If I said, “Knock knock…”, you’d answer “Who’s there?” Why? Because you’ve learned the pattern. There’s an expectation of how a “knock knock” joke works.

Or: “There once was a man from Australia, Whose life was a pretty big failure…” You know to expect a limerick – two more shorter lines with a different rhyme, followed by a final line that rhymes with the first two. (Our options here are reasonably limited: “regalia,” “mail ya,” “drug paraphernalia…” Send your best entries to…)

But if you get: “Roses are red, Violets are blue, But nothing compares to a night in front of the footy with me mates” – your subconscious immediately tells you something’s wrong. There’s no rhyme! There’s no soppy love poem! What’s going on? It doesn’t sound right, because you’ve learned to expect rhyming and mushiness after the words “Roses are red…”

In order to appreciate fully the poetry of Hebrew proverbs, we need to learn what to expect, what to listen for – the rhythms, the patterns, the figures of speech.

The first feature that strikes you about Hebrew poetry is the repetition. It normally occurs as a pair of parallel lines, with the second line saying the same thing as the first – just in a slightly different way. For example:

16:18 Pride goes before destruction, a haughty spirit before a fall.

Pride = haughty spirit; destruction = fall. You don’t need the second line to get sense, but it poetically restates it using a different image.

22:1 A good name is more desirable than great riches; to be esteemed is better than silver or gold.

Other times, the second line states same thing in the opposite way:

14:34 Righteousness exalts a nation, but sin is a disgrace to any people.

Righteousness and sin are opposites; “people” is another way of saying “nation.”

10:1 A wise son brings joy to his father, but a foolish son grief to his mother.

Now this doesn’t mean that the male parent in particular experiences joy in a wise son, and the female parent is the one who especially grieves a foolish son. It’s a poetic parallel, meaning your wise or foolish actions bring either joy or grief to your parents.

Another pattern is the comparison, using words such as, “better…than…”, or “like.” For example:

15:17 Better a meal of vegetables where there is love than a fattened calf with hatred.
11:22 Like a gold ring in a pig’s snout is a beautiful woman who shows no discretion.

Comparisons can be drawn between things God hates, and things he delights in:

11:1 The LORD abhors dishonest scales, but accurate weights are his delight.

Some proverbs are numerical sayings – like a knock-knock joke or a limerick, they follow a set pattern of consecutive numbers:

6:16 There are six things the LORD hates, seven that are detestable to him:

Can’t God make up his mind? Is it six things, or seven? (Well, to tell you the truth, in all this excitement I kind of lost track myself…) Or are there thirteen: six he merely hates, plus seven more he detests? But if you count them in the next three verses there are seven all up (haughty eyes, a lying tongue, hands that shed innocent blood, a heart that devises wicked schemes, feet that are quick to rush into evil, a false witness who pours out lies and a man who stirs up dissension among brothers.) This is a common poetic way of listing things. There are six things he hates, but then, for dramatic effect, he increases both: six + one = seven; hate + one = detest. Kind of like: “there are six things I hate – no wait, there are seven and I really detest them.”

Some have three consecutive numbers:

30:15 ‘The leech has two daughters. ‘Give! Give!’ they cry. There are three things that are never satisfied, four that never say, ‘Enough!’’

Remember the famous verse from Ecclesiastes (also Hebrew poetic wisdom) often read at weddings:

4:12 ‘Though one may be overpowered, two can defend themselves. A cord of three strands is not quickly broken.’

The two strands aren’t the married couple. Neither is the third strand God. It’s just “let n = n + 1” poetry.

To read

An awareness of the forms of poetry used help us to appreciate and understand the proverbs better. We’ll look at some of the content tomorrow, but for now, read Proverbs 10 as an example of some of these sayings. Pay attention to the parallel lines, and see how the second line relates to the first: is it saying the same thing? Is it saying it from the opposite angle? Or is it filling out the first with more detail?

* Or was it: Give a man a fish, and he’ll have a nice pet to keep him company. Teach a man to fish, and the next day he’ll be hungry again, but also sad and lonely because he’ll have killed his pet.

One thought on “Reading Proverbs – Part 1

  1. My personal favourite version of the give-a-man-a-fish proverb is Terry Pratchett’s: “Build a man a fire and he will be warm for a day; set a man on fire and he will be warm for the rest of his life”.

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