Click here to get started today!
by Peter Pett
Commentary On The Book Of Proverbs
By Dr Peter Pett BA BD (Hons-London) DD
The Book of ‘Proverbs’ or ‘Sayings’ (mashal) covers a much wider range of saying than that encompassed in our term proverbs, although including such proverbs within it, for the word mashal includes the idea of many different ways of expressing wisdom and knowledge, both figuratively and literally, including proverbs, pithy sayings, longer dissertations and illustrations from nature. Thus the first nine chapters of the book are not a collection of what we might call proverbs (which commence in chapter 10), but are a dissertation on true wisdom, which, in the writer’s case, is closely related to ‘the fear of God (YHWH)’, and on what it means to walk with God.
To him wisdom is found, not by those who ‘hate knowledge (i.e. hate the knowledge of God - Proverbs 2:5) and do not choose the fear of YHWH’ (Proverbs 1:29), but on the contrary, it is found in knowing God and being in loving and obedient awe of Him. For it is the reverent fear of YHWH which is the beginning of wisdom (Proverbs 9:10; compare Proverbs 1:7), whilst it is the knowledge of God which is true knowledge (Proverbs 2:5). So to the writer the basis of all true wisdom and knowledge is found in knowing God and His ways.
That is why men should ‘trust in YHWH with all their hearts and not lean on their own understanding, knowing Him in all their ways so that He might direct their paths’ (Proverbs 3:5-6). Wisdom in Proverbs, as much as in prophecy, is seen as very much God-based. This is what makes Proverbs so different from the Wisdom teaching found among other nations. Solomon has obsereved it, taken it, selected from it, reworked it, and added to it, based on the idea of knowing God and His ways and the fear of YHWH, something which to him lies at the very root of wisdom.
That is why these chapters explain the source of wisdom as being in eternity past, as being in existence therefore before all else, from the very beginning of God’s ways (Proverbs 8:22-23). Wisdom is not general wisdom or humanistic wisdom, it is God’s wisdom, and God-revealed wisdom (Proverbs 2:6), already present at creation. But while in Proverbs it is personified, it does not represent a person, because it is also ‘understanding’, ‘knowledge’, ‘disicplinary instruction’, ‘shrewdness’, and the like. It sums up God’s wisdom. At the same time the chapters give practical examples of how those who have this wisdom will behave, in contrast with the foolish and naive (unwise, simple, gullible). It is those who follow his teaching and his wisdom who are the truly wise. So to the writer God is at the root of all true wisdom, and his purpose is therefore to make men wise in God’s ways. And in order to demonstrate this he calls on a number of sources.
It is noteworthy that Wisdom is portrayed as a ‘she’, and is in contrast to another woman named Folly (Proverbs 9:13). Wisdom is thus seen as feminine (all women will approve). This may have arisen because Wisdom was seen as God’s counter to the allurements of the ‘strange women’ which form such a prominent part of the first nine chapters (Proverbs 2:16-20; Proverbs 5:3-14; Proverbs 6:24-25; Proverbs 7:5-27; Proverbs 9:13-18), with the idea that Wisdom too has an allure of her own. Or it may have been in order to prevent her from being deified. For Israel had a horror of the idea of a goddess, and did not even have a word for goddess. Those were the corrupt inventions of other nations.
So whilst we can learn much from Wisdom about the One Who is the Word (John 1:1-14), God has made clear by this distinction that we must not equate the two. The personification of wisdom does not make it a person. Indeed personifications of this kind are common in the Old Testament, see for example Proverbs 2:11; Proverbs 13:6; Proverbs 13:21; Job 25:2; Psalms 43:3; Psalms 45:4; Psalms 57:3; Psalms 85:10; Psalms 96:6; Isaiah 51:9. They are also common in other wisdom literature. Perspnification was a regular way of vividly expressing truth. It is true that our Lord Jesus Christ has been made unto us wisdom from God (1 Corinthians 1:30), but that is by His being made unto us righteousness, sanctification and redemption, thereby revealing God’s wisdom in the way in which He saves men. In contrast wisdom in Proverbs (often paralleled with Understanding and the like) is God’s wisdom, revealed in creation and conveyed to men, and in the light of which men should walk.
As such the book is regularly cited or referred to (often from LXX) in the New Testament. Compare for example Romans 12:16 with Proverbs 3:7; Romans 12:20 with Proverbs 25:21-22; Hebrews 12:5-6 with Proverbs 3:11-12; James 4:6 with Proverbs 3:24; James 4:13-14 with Proverbs 27:1; 1 Peter 4:8 with Proverbs 10:12; 1 Peter 4:18 with Proverbs 11:31; 1 Peter 5:5 with Proverbs 3:24; 2 Peter 2:22 with Proverbs 26:11. It is precisely because it is God’s wisdom that it so often appears to equate to God Himself, especially as seen in our Lord Jesus Christ, but the two must always be distinguished. In Proverbs Wisdom is not truly personal. It is an extension of God.
Indeed, as Solomon makes clear, his concentration is not on some unique person called ‘Wisdom’, but on wisdom, knowledge, understanding, discernment, shrewdness, and disciplinary instruction. And in Israel this is closely involved with the fear of YHWH and the true knowledge of Him and His ways.
The Background To Wisdom Literature.
Wisdom literature (teaching by pithy sayings, and figurative speech and proverbs) stretches back into the far past being witnessed to in both Egypt (e.g. the teaching of Ptahhotep - c 2450 BC; and others) and in Mesopotamia (e.g. Sumerian proverbs - early 2nd millennium BC; and others), and thus long before the time of Moses. Both Joseph and Moses would have been familiar with it in Egypt, and Joseph’s special God-given wisdom was in mind when Joseph was described as ‘a father to Pharaoh’ (Genesis 45:8). He was seen as a ‘wise man’ (Genesis 41:38). But that does not mean that he was ‘a wisdom teacher’, for Pharaoh recognised in him special qualities that arose from his relationship with God. He was a ‘wise man’ because he was a man ‘in whom the Spirit of God is’ (Genesis 42:38). Thus ‘wisdom’ was not seen as restricted to a particular approach.
Material found in chapters 8-9 of Proverbs regarding Wisdom can to some extent be paralleled in Ugaritic literature (c.14th century BC), demonstrating that it need not be seen as ‘late’, whilst the source or background material (whether written or oral) behind the (Egyptian) Teaching of Amenemope (c. 1200 BC), in other words the wisdom teaching in the milieu in which he wrote, seems to have been known to, and used, by the author of Proverbs in Proverbs 22:17 to Proverbs 24:22, although undoubtedly considerably reworked (see below). Thus there was a firm background of wisdom teaching throughout the Ancient Near East long before the time of Solomon. But Solomon reputedly brought it up to new heights (1 Kings 4:30-34), and certainly imbued it with a deep spirituality. He did not copy it. He drew from it and transformed it.
Comparison of the Teaching of Amenemope with Proverbs.
Much is made by some of the similarity between some of the teaching in Proverbs and the teaching of Amenemope, an Egyptian wisdom teacher (especially in Proverbs 22:17 to Proverbs 24:22), a similarity regularly ensured by the way the text is translated by some scholars and by convenient amendments. So it might be fitting at this point to note some of the parallel ideas found in Proverbs and the teaching of Amenemope, and the similarity and differences. It will soon be apparent that while both certainly reflect the wisdom milieu of the Ancient Near East, in each case they interpret it in order to suit their own aims and beliefs. In our view they are clearly not directly borrowing the one from the other. This is not to deny that Solomon knew, and had a record of, the teaching of Amenemope, as he no doubt had records of other wisdom teachers. He may well have read it and striking truths may well have stayed in his mind. This must be seen as very probable. Solomon had close contacts with Egypt and had a great interest in wisdom teaching. It is rather arguing that, however much Solomon and ‘the wise’ were influenced by what they read, what they wrote was finally the substance of their own inspired thinking and not just mere copying. Let us briefly consider some examples:
Give your ears, hear what is said,
Give your heart to understand them.
To put them in your heart is worth while,
(But) it is damaging to him who rejects them.’ (ANET Pritchard, 1958: 237)
Incline your ear and hear the words of the wise,
And apply your heart to my knowledge;
For it is a pleasant thing if you keep them within you,
If they be established together on your lips,
That your trust might be in YHWH,
I have made them known to you this day.’ (Proverbs 22:17-19).
The language of both is reminiscent of those days. It was how men wrote. But we should note that in the case of Amenemope we have a parallel (line one with line two) followed by an antithesis (lines three and four), whilst in the case of Proverbs we have two parallels (line one with line two, then line three with line four). In the former case the stress is simply on hearing what is being said, whilst in the latter case there is a stress on the source, that is on the fact that the words are ‘the words of the wise’ and are to result in the hearer’s trust being in YHWH (compare Proverbs 1:6-7 where ‘the words of the wise’ are immediately linked with ‘the fear of YHWH’), and on the fact that they come from the basic ‘knowledge’ of the writer (‘my knowledge’), a knowledge which is the knowledge of God (Proverbs 2:5). His words have divine revelation and response to God in view (compare Proverbs 2:5-6). In the case of Amenemope a warning is given as to the general danger of rejection of the words, whilst in the case of Proverbs there is no such warning. Instead there is an exhortation to retain what they have received, in order that they may be able to teach it to others, and might learn to trust in YHWH. Thus the similarities are in general overall thought, rather than in the detail, whilst the emphasis is very different.
This is reinforced by the fact that we have similar words in other parts of Proverbs, consider for example Proverbs 4:20:
‘My son attend to my words,
Incline your ear to my sayings,
Do not let them depart from your eyes,
Keep them in the midst of your heart.’
This too could have been argued to be a parallel to Amenemope, but is far more likely to have been based on a the general approach of wisdom teaching current at the time. Compare also Proverbs 2:1-4; Proverbs 3:1-2; Proverbs 4:1-2; Proverbs 4:10; Proverbs 4:20-21; Proverbs 5:1-2; Proverbs 7:1-3; Psalms 78:1. Words like these were clearly a regular introduction to wisdom sayings.
Indeed, in The Teaching of Amennakht, we find a similar idea:
‘Pay attention and listen to my words,
Do not pass over what I say.’
This reminds us that similarity of subject matter must not necessarily be seen as indicating direct borrowing.
Guard yourself against robbing the oppressed,
Against overbearing the disabled (the broken of arm) (ANET Pritchard, 1958: 237),
Do not rob the poor because he is poor,
Or crush the afflicted at the gate,
For YHWH will plead their cause,
And take the life of those who rob them. (Proverbs 22:22-23).
It will be noted immediately that the first is a general admonition against robbery of the poor and oppression of the disabled, whilst the second specifically has in mind the cases where the courts of justice are used in order to gain advantage over the poor and afflicted (these courts met ‘at the gate’), and adds the fact that YHWH will Himself intervene on their behalf and take vengeance on those who misuse them. Thus what is common to both is just a general concern for the poor and weak, which is in fact found in a number of wisdom texts.
Better is bread when the heart is happy,
Than riches with sorrow. (ANET Pritchard, 1958: 241).
Better is a little with righteousness,
Than great income with injustice. (Proverbs 16:8).
Again it will be noticed that the emphasis of Amenemope is on happiness in contrast with sorrow, a very human aim, the purpose being of bringing pleasure to oneself, whilst in the book of Proverbs the emphasis is on righteousness in contrast with injustice, a very moral aim, the purpose of which is to be pleasing God Who is the Judge of all.
‘Do not lean on the scales or falsify the weights,
Do not damage the fractions of the measure.’ (ANET Pritchard, 1958: 241).
Differing weights are an abomination to YHWH,
And a false scale is not good. (Proverbs 20:23).
Once again Amenemope’s are simple injunctions not to misuse measuring equipment, whereas Proverbs makes clear that a righteous God is involved. It is He Who does not approve of differing weights (weights which claim to measure the same amount but do not) and of false scales. Indeed they are an abomination to Him. Note also how Amenemope refers to the vendor ‘leaning on the scales’, something absent in Proverbs, where the scales are themselves false scales, and of him ‘damaging the fractions of the measure’. With him, but not with Solomon, the emphasis is on the direct activity of the vendor, acting in a dishonest way. Thus whilst dealing with the same concept, both writers do it in a very different way. (It should in fact be noted that Amenemope’s words include a number of statements about weights and measures, and are not limited to this).
In this regard we might note the words of Deuteronomy 25:13-15 a;
You shall not have in your bag differing weights,
A great and a small,
You shall not have in your house differing measures,
A great and a small,
You shall have a perfect and a just weight,
You shall have a perfect and just measure.’
Thus if comparisons are made Proverbs 20:23 should more likely be seen as an abbreviated version of these words in Deuteronomy.
‘They (stolen riches) make themselves a great hole,
As large as they are,
And sink themselves in the underworld,
They make themselves wings like geese,
And fly to heaven.’ (Amenemope X.5)
Will you set your eyes on that which is not?
For (riches) certainly make themselves wings,
Like an eagle which flies towards heaven.’
It is claimed that the last two lines in each must be seen as one copying from the other. But Amenemope is speaking of ‘stolen riches’ whilst Solomon is speaking of ‘riches’ as a whole, and whilst there is otherwise certainly a general similarity of thought, once given the idea of riches flying off (which is found in other literature), the coincidence is not unlikely. Birds do fly towards heaven. And in fact this idea of riches being like a bird is not limited to Amenemope and Proverbs. For a Sumerian proverb says:
Sumerian Proverb I.18-19.
Riches are like migratory birds which cannot find a place to settle down.’
It will be noted that it is Proverbs and the Sumerian proverb which are more parallel, emphasising the transitory nature of riches fairly earned, whereas Amenemope is speaking about stolen riches which are uncertain. There is thus a very different emphasis in Amenemope, and this speaks against direct borrowing. At the most the writer in Proverbs, possibly unconsciously, draws on a phrase which has become fixed in his mind, altering it to suit his purpose. Furthermore the idea of something ‘taking wings’ and being lost is found elsewhere in the Old Testament. Thus we find:
‘As the sparrow in her wandering,
As the swallow in her flying,
So the curse which is causeless does not alight’.
‘As for Ephraim,
Their glory will fly away like a bird.’
It is not only riches which fly away like a bird, it is things both good and bad. Thus flying away like a bird is a common general idea. And clearly they fly towards heaven.
As for the scribe who is experienced in his office,
He will find himself worthy to be a courtier. (ANET Pritchard, 1958: 243).
Do you see a man skilled in his work?
He will stand before kings,
He will not stand before obscure men. (Proverbs 22:29).
Once again we note the similarities and the differences. In the one case the reference is to ‘a scribe’, the other to ‘a man’, in the one case he is experienced in his office, in the other he is skilled in his work. In the one case the emphasis is on what he is worthy of, to stand before kings, in the other case the emphasis is on his aim, to stand before kings rather than obscure men (the verb used for ‘to stand’ means to stand ready for action). Thus whilst we can see a similar general pattern, it is different enough in each case to exclude the idea of direct borrowing. We see both conforming to the general ideas of Wisdom literature, but with Proverbs putting a greater emphasis on what is right, and good, and approved of (or otherwise) by God.
This last example reminds us that Wisdom teaching especially developed under the aegis of great kings, who would constantly consult their ‘wise men’ (Exodus 7:11; Isaiah 19:11-12; Daniel 2:2 with 12; Esther 1:13), something exemplified in the courts of David and Solomon (1 Chronicles 27:32-34). Indeed Solomon himself, having a great deal of leisure, was seen as a superlative exponent of wisdom teaching (1 Kings 4:30-31). And he clearly had a knowledge of the wisdom teaching of other nations. Israel thus shared a common heritage of wisdom teaching, and the prophets honoured, or criticised, both the wise men of Israel and the wise men of other nations (1 Kings 4:30-31; Isaiah 19:11-12; Isaiah 47:10; Jeremiah 49:7; Ezekiel 28:3 ff.; Daniel 1:4; Daniel 1:20; Obadiah 1:8; Zechariah 9:2; Job 2:11 ff.), whilst acknowledging their status. One major difference, however, as exemplified in the Book of Proverbs, was that much wisdom material in Israel was specifically moral and was connected with the fear of YHWH. Indeed it was intended to make men ‘trust in YHWH with all their hearts’ (Proverbs 3:5; compare Proverbs 22:19), whereas other wisdom literature tended to be marred by its association with an amoral polytheism. That is not to exclude the moral element, which all men of conscience would have in mind (morality has been in the world since Adam), but it is not as emphatic outside Israel. Biblical wisdom had a deeper moral basis rooted in the will of YHWH.
Wisdom In Israel.
An indication of wisdom teaching as present in Israel can be found in the sophisticated parable of Jotham, son of Gideon, in Judges 9:7-15, for such parables are a feature of wisdom teaching and his exquisite parable must surely indicate that he had had some training in the use of them. Furthermore we know of a town in the time of David which was famed from of old for containing a number of wise people (2 Samuel 20:18), and which at that time contained a wise woman spoken of as ‘a mother in Israel’ (2 Samuel 20:16; 2 Samuel 20:19). Compare how Deborah the prophetess had also earlier been called ‘a mother in Israel’ (Judges 5:7), seemingly a designation for a ‘wise woman’, a woman who was looked up to as a guide in the way of YHWH. Thus it would appear that throughout Israel’s history there were those who were accepted as ‘wise men’ and ‘wise women’, (although not as ‘wisdom teachers’) and who were looked to for counsel. Ahithophel appears to have been such a one (2 Samuel 16:23), and presumably Hushai also (2 Samuel 15:34), whilst, as we have seen, by the time of David such wise men were officially seen at court (1 Chronicles 27:32-34). But they did not necessarily give orthodox wisdom teaching. On the other hand, the rise of Solomon as a wisdom teacher is best explained by the fact that he learned under orthodox Wisdom teachers.
For whilst Solomon was given special wisdom by God (1 Kings 4:29) the way in which he expressed it appears to indicate training in ‘wisdom’, for he made use of the tools of wisdom teaching, such as proverbs, pithy sayings and lessons from nature (1 Kings 4:32-33), and was acknowledged as a greater wisdom teacher than those in Egypt and Edom/Arabia (1 Kings 4:30-31, which suggests a fairly wide knowledge of that teaching), so much so that wisdom teachers flocked to hear him (1 Kings 4:34). It is not surprising therefore that we find some of his wisdom recorded in the Book of Proverbs. Indeed it would have been remarkable if some of his teaching had not survived. And it is noteworthy that it is actually stated that some of this was recounted by the wise men in the time of Hezekiah as being the wisdom of Solomon which had come down to them (Proverbs 25:1), either orally or in writing or both.
There would thus appear to have been a considerable amount of ‘Solomonic teaching’ which was passed on from one generation to another. (It is an interesting question as to why some who accept that the Teaching of Amenemope was written by someone called Amenemope, can in the next breath deny that what is said to have been written by Solomon, was in fact his work). This reference to ‘the men of Hezekiah’ demonstrates that the earliest date at which the book as a whole could have been completed is late on in the reign of Hezekiah (early 7th century BC), and it may well be that their activity resulted in a book which, incorporating earlier written material by Solomon (possibly 1-24), formed the nucleus of the Book of Proverbs, as the book itself claims. We have, on the other hand, no means of dating ‘the wise men’ (Proverbs 22:17; Proverbs 24:23); ‘King Lemuel’ (Proverbs 31:1), and ‘Agur the son of Jakeh’ (Proverbs 30:1), some of whose works may have been added later. But the whole was probably completed by the 5th century BC, if not before.
Much is often made of the Aramaisms found in the book, but had the Ugaritic literature been passed down through the centuries scholars would undoubtedly have dated it late on the grounds of its Aramaisms. Outside Scripture, and apart from Ugarit, we have comparatively little evidence of Hebrew/Canaanite writings around that time so that there is no real way of judging how much Aramaic might have affected it. But what we can say is that the time of Solomon was a time when the nations converged on Jerusalem, when Jerusalem was full of foreign elements, when diplomatic correspondence was widespread, and exactly the time when Aramaisms may well have become popular. In consequence any criticism on that basis is purely arbitrary. Indeed, were it not for Ugarit, which demonstrates that Aramaisms came in much earlier, we could have used them as an argument for Solomonic authorship.
References To YHWH Or ‘Your Maker’.
It should be noted that, whatever may have been true of wisdom elsewhere, the wisdom in Proverbs is firmly rooted in YHWH. His name is introduced in every chapter apart from 4, 7 (in the Prologue); 13 (in the proverbs of Solomon), 26, 27 (in the further proverbs of Solomon). The purpose of Proverbs is thus the inculcation of the knowledge of God (Proverbs 2:5) and it is His ways which lie at the root of the whole book. Indeed, the aim of the book is to enable men to walk in the fear of YHWH (Proverbs 1:7; Proverbs 2:5; Proverbs 3:7; Proverbs 8:13; Proverbs 9:10; Proverbs 10:27; Proverbs 14:26-27; Proverbs 15:16; Proverbs 15:33; Proverbs 16:6; Proverbs 19:23; Proverbs 22:4; Proverbs 23:17), which is parallel to the knowledge of God (Proverbs 2:5; Proverbs 9:10). It is therefore far from being mere humanistic wisdom.
Wisdom as found in Proverbs is given by YHWH (Proverbs 2:6) and YHWH is specifically concerned with its practise (Proverbs 3:32-33; Proverbs 5:21; Proverbs 11:1; Proverbs 12:22; Proverbs 15:9; Proverbs 15:26; Proverbs 16:2; Proverbs 16:5). In love He chastens and corrects men to this end (Proverbs 3:11-12). Thus in order to please YHWH it is necessary to abide by His wisdom as revealed in the book, a wisdom which lies at the root of the Universe (Proverbs 3:19; Proverbs 8:22). Indeed, we observe wisdom, especially as it relates to the poor, precisely because He is ‘our Maker’ (Proverbs 14:31; Proverbs 17:5; Proverbs 22:2), the Maker of all both rich and poor, and the poor are therefore of great concern to Him. And this wisdom is found by ‘trusting in YHWH with all our hearts, and not leaning to our own understanding’ (Proverbs 3:5). The reader is thus to see the teaching in Proverbs as directly from YHWH, and to follow it for that reason. Those who follow His wisdom ‘know Him in all their ways’, and are thus directed by Him into the right paths (see Proverbs 3:5-6). In other words Proverbs is to be seen as revealing to men the very heart of God, and its teaching is not just to be observed as a moral exercise, but precisely because it is the teaching of YHWH. It is to be an expression of personal faith.
The Contrast Between Life And Death In Proverbs.
A major theme in Proverbs is the contrast between life and death (Proverbs 11:19). Life is for the wise (Proverbs 13:14; Proverbs 16:22). Death is for the unwise. Sometimes ‘life’ and ‘death’ simply mean being alive, or dying, in the way in which most people think of it. But in other cases it clearly means more than that. Thus those who walk in the way of righteousness, and are clearly therefore already alive, will ‘find life’ (Proverbs 8:35). Whilst those who walk in the ways of darkness will enter Sheol, the grave world (Proverbs 5:5; Proverbs 7:27; Proverbs 9:18; Proverbs 15:24; Proverbs 23:14), and Sheol is paralleled with death as being the fate of the unwise (Proverbs 5:5; Proverbs 7:27). It is quite clear from this last that there is a kind of ‘death’ which is reserved only for the unwise (compare Proverbs 12:28).
In contrast for those who walk in the way of righteousness there is life (Proverbs 12:28). Indeed, they walk in the paths of life (Proverbs 2:19; Proverbs 6:23; Proverbs 10:17). Seen from this viewpoint life includes ‘long life and length of days’ (Proverbs 3:2; Proverbs 4:10; Proverbs 9:11), and ‘spiritual life’ (Proverbs 3:18; Proverbs 3:22; Proverbs 4:22-23; Proverbs 8:35; Proverbs 10:16; Proverbs 11:30; Proverbs 19:23; Proverbs 21:21; Proverbs 22:4), that is, a quality of life which is superior to that of others.
On the other hand all knew that many unwise also had long lives and length of days. Thus even having ‘long life and length of days’ must here be suggesting not just living, but having an extra quality of life (as Proverbs 3:17-18 makes clear). However, they were well aware that all men in the end die and go into the grave. Thus what is threatened to the unwise must mean more than just that. ‘Death and Sheol’ for the unwise indicate their permanent situation, a situation that the wise are clearly seen as avoiding (otherwise why the warning?). It would therefore be untrue to suggest that Proverbs sees us all as ending up in the same way in the end.
And there are verses which specifically indicate that it will be otherwise when interpreted in the light of these facts. Thus, ‘riches do not profit in the day of wrath but righteousness delivers from death’ (Proverbs 11:4). Theoretically this could indicate that when wrath came on Israel through natural disasters or invasion the righteous would escape physical death. But it would be so obvious to all from experience that this was patently untrue that we must question whether the verse could mean that if it is to have any meaning. It goes along with the verses above which see the unwise as suffering ‘death and Sheol’ in a way that the righteous will avoid.
Consider again, ‘the law of the wise is a wellspring of life, to depart from the snares of death’ (Proverbs 13:14; compare Proverbs 10:2), and ‘the fear of YHWH is a wellspring of life, to depart from the snares of death’ (Proverbs 14:27). In both cases partaking of the wellspring of life, either through the instruction of the wise or through the fear of YHWH, will result in departing from ‘the snares of death’. Furthermore, ‘when the whirlwind passes the wicked is no more, but the righteous is an everlasting foundation’ (he is never ‘no more’) (Proverbs 10:25). He ‘has hope in his death’ (Proverbs 14:32). And even more emphatically, ‘to the wise the way of life goes upward, that he may depart from Sheol beneath’ (Proverbs 15:24). This is a clear statement that Sheol as a permanent place of existence will be escaped by the wise, because he goes upward from Sheol beneath.
Thus if words are to have any meaning Proverbs is indicating that what lies ahead for the wise in both life and in death is qualitatively different from what lies ahead for the unwise.
That being so we must consider these verses in terms of other teaching found elsewhere in the Old Testament, namely in Psalms of David. There also we find a similar idea. ‘For you will not leave my life to Sheol, nor will you allow your holy one to see corruption. You will show me the path of life. In your presence is fullness of joy, and at your right hand are pleasures for evermore’ (Psalms 16:10-11). If it did not in some way indicate conscious life beyond death this would be very misleading. The Psalmist says again in Proverbs 17:15, ‘as for me I will behold your face in righteousness, I will be satisfied when I awake in your likeness’ (Psalms 17:15). It is true that we cannot read these as giving a full blown picture of a future life as indicated in the New Testament (and suggested in Isaiah 25:8; Isaiah 26:19 with Proverbs 26:14; Daniel 12:2-3). But we must surely see in them an assurance that for those who were truly His, death was not to be the end of existence. In some way they would continue to enjoy ‘life’ in His presence. And we may see this as confirmed by the words of Ecclesiastes 12:7, ‘and the dust returns to the earth as it was, and the spirit returns to God Who gave it’.
Taken individually all these verses could be interpreted differently if we worked on the basis of the wording alone. But taken as a whole in the light of their context they clearly indicate for the wise a hope for a future ‘life’ in the presence of God. It is the only idea that makes sense of the promises and warnings in Proverbs when taken together.
Brief Outline Of The Book.
The book divides easily into sections:
1) Introduction (Proverbs 1:1-6).
2) Prologue. A dissertation on wisdom, in preparation for the proverbs which follow, demonstrating that wisdom is firmly rooted in God. It is headed up by an attribution to ‘Solomon, the son of David, the king of Israel’ (Proverbs 1:7 to Proverbs 9:18).
3) Presentation of wisdom. A selection of proverbs following the less detailed subheading ‘these are the proverbs of Solomon’ (Proverbs 10:1 to Proverbs 22:16).
4) The words of the wise (Proverbs 22:17 to Proverbs 24:22), although unless the text is unjustifiably amended there is no subheading. These are seen rather as a continuation of the proverbs of Solomon, presumably having been appropriated by him and refashioned.
5) Further words of the wise, which follow the subheading ‘these also are of the wise’ (Proverbs 24:23-34).
6) Further proverbs of Solomon as put together in the days of Hezekiah which follow a more detailed subheading, ‘these also are the proverbs of Solomon, which the men of Hezekiah, king of Judah, copied out’ (Proverbs 25:1 to Proverbs 29:27).
7) Words of Agur. These follow a major heading ‘the words of Agur the son of Jakeh’ (Proverbs 30:1-33).
8) Words of King Lemuel (Proverbs 31:1-9). These follow the major heading ‘the words of King Lemuel’.
9) A description of the ideal wife (Proverbs 31:10-31). No heading. This may well, however, be part of the words of King Lemuel ‘which his mother taught him’.
This pattern of a main heading and introduction commencing a prologue, followed by one or more subsidiary sections headed by minor subtitles is a feature of much early wisdom teaching. Thus Proverbs 1:1 to Proverbs 24:34 can be seen as following the regular pattern of ancient wisdom literature, with the headings (main heading followed by subheadings) confirming its unity rather than militating against it. This confirms that they are to be seen as a unity. Furthermore the regular use of parallel couplets point to an early date. for they were prevalent in the wisdom literature of 3rd and 2nd millenniums BC, and not so much in that of the 1st millennium BC. These factors, along with the main heading and the genuine reputation that Solomon had for wisdom (1 Kings 4:29-34), which however taken indicate extensive activity, point to Solomonic authorship of that material.
the Fifth Week after Easter