Attempts to read straight through the Bible rarely make it as far as Proverbs. The descriptions of the tabernacle in Exodus often knock out the first group of would-be “Bible in a year” neophytes. If that doesn’t do, Leviticus is waiting, and after the surprising relief of Numbers being a delightful if also disturbing book, Deuteronomy is waiting after that. It’s a LONG way to get to Proverbs. But if you’ve ever gotten there, after the first nine nice, well-behaved chapters, the book gives way to a litany of short, staccato sayings, the things traditionally known as proverbs. And if you’ve tried to read straight through, one after the other, it’s not long before your eyes are glossing down the page, reading, yes, but comprehending nothing. On their own, some of the individual proverbs seem like they might be relevant for an ancient Israelite or even relevant for our own day, but it is difficult to understand how each individual saying is supposed to relate to the others – or if there is any relation at all.
Perhaps that is because, as Wolfgang Mieder has famously said: “The proverb in a collection is dead” (1974). Or is it? Mieder’s perspective on the usefulness of an individual proverb within a collection is shaped by the assumption that the original oral context out of which the proverb arose is the most important context to consider. That assumption is shared by many folklorists and anthropologists, and it is one that has shaped biblical scholarship at least since early twentieth century.
Mieder’s saying leads us to the first possibility of what we are to do with individual proverbs in a literary collection: reconstruct the original environment out of which it arose, so that we can understand the proverb in that original environment. But even if this were clearly the best solution, such a reconstruction is nearly impossible, given how distant ancient Israel and Judah are in space and time and how little we know about those cultures from an ancient perspective.
So if we cannot confidently re-build the oral context out of which an individual proverb arose, what are we supposed to do? Is the wisdom of these proverbs necessarily lost on us?
Opposed to Mieder’s dictum is Michael Fox’s perspective that the proverbs in chs. 10-29 may be viewed as a “heap of jewels.” He states, “A proverb is like a jewel, and the book of Proverbs is like a heap of jewels. Indeed, it is a heap of different kinds of jewels” (2009). But they are only jewels to those who think such things are beautiful and who know how to employ them properly. A proverb by itself is not necessarily beautiful or true. There are many places in the Bible where the prophets and wise men point out the limits or even falsehood of proverbs in certain situations. So, for example, the prophets Ezekiel (18:1-4) and Jeremiah (31:29-30) both respond to an apparently popular saying: “The fathers eat unripe fruit, and the teeth of the sons become blunt.” This proverb is being used by the people of Judah to blame their plight in exile on the actions of their parents. But both prophets emphasize that it is the one who sins who will be punished and that they cannot blame their current suffering on their parents. The book of Job is also full of proverbs offered by well-meaning counsellors to a pious sufferer, and many of their sayings sound very much like what one might find in the book of Proverbs. However, the audience knows that many of their sayings do not apply to Job, and Job even finds them harmful. He says, “Your utterances are proverbs of ashes. Indeed, your answers are answers of clay” (Job 13:12).
So, if proverbs are to be jewels and not clay, one must use the right proverb in the right place at the right time. The book of Proverbs itself talks about fittingness or timeliness. As Proverbs 25:11 says, “Golden apples in silver engravings is a word spoken in the right way.” The terms translated here as “right way” could mean at the proper time or even in the proper manner (i.e., tone or meter), but any way one construes it, it is clear that using proverbs rightly is about fittingness. And part of that fittingness relates to the situation. The theme of the next verse, in fact, is a good case in point. Proverbs 25:12 says, “A ring of gold – even an ornament of fine gold – is a sage rebuking a listening ear.” Even this proverb suggest that a sage’s rebuke is only beautiful if it is given to someone who is attentively listening to it. Thus, the proverb does not suggest that sages must always rebuke, or that a sage’s rebuke will always produce beautiful results. Other proverbs in wisdom texts like the apocryphal book Sirach treat the untimely rebuke: “There is a rebuke that is untimely, and there is the person who is wise enough to keep silent” (Sirach 20:1, NRSV). And a few verses later: “The wise remain silent until the right moment, but a boasting fool misses the right moment” (Sir 20:7, NRSV). And again, in the same chapter: “A proverb from a fool’s lips will be rejected, for he does not tell it at the proper time” (Sirach 20:20, NRSV).
As we can see from this brief survey of one theme, proverbs are not immutable laws. They are situational. The wise person must know when to rebuke and when to refrain from rebuke, and when the sage does rebuke, it must be done at the proper time. This is perhaps why the book of Proverbs itself contains contradictory sayings that are sometimes set back-to-back, such as in Proverbs 26:4-5: “Do not answer a fool according to his foolishness, so that you will not become like him yourself. Answer a fool according to his foolishness, so that he should not become wise in his own eyes.” So, should one rebuke a fool, or not? It depends.
This leads to one of the most obvious, but also most perplexing, aspects of using proverbs wisely: they must be used by a wise person. This shows us that the acquisition of wisdom is not a linear process. One must be wise in order to use proverbs rightly. But one also must study the proverbs and use them in order to become wise. Contrary to many who view the proverbs as a sort of elementary school form of education, the prologue to the book of Proverbs states: “Let the sage listen and add teaching, and let the discerning acquire guidance, by discerning a proverb and a parable, the words of sages and their riddles” (Proverbs 1:5-6). One can never become so wise that one no longer needs proverbial wisdom. The Jewish sage Ben Sira describes the study of the wise person similarly: “He seeks out the wisdom of all the ancients, and is concerned with prophecies; he preserves the sayings of the famous and penetrates the subtleties of parables; he seeks out the hidden meanings of proverbs and is at home with the obscurities of parables” (Sirach 39:1-3, NRSV). Thus, one cannot be a fool and use the proverbs rightly. There is in fact a series of proverbs that treat that very issue in the same passage from Proverbs 26 cited above. “Legs dangle from a cripple, so also a proverb in the mouth of fools… A thorn going up into the hand of a drunk, so also a proverb in the mouth of fools” (Proverbs 26:7, 9). Proverbs in the mouths of fools are limp and even destructive. One must be wise in order for proverbs to produce wisdom, and one must study the proverbs in order to become wise. Proverbs lie at both the beginning and the end of the quest for wisdom.
Many proverbs have come down to us in larger collections of sayings. It is such collections that Mieder thinks render a proverb “dead,” but there is another sense in which these larger collections can give a proverb new life.
In addition to the several proverb collections within Proverbs 10-29, there is a vast collection of proverbial wisdom in the apocryphal book of Sirach, not to mention the many scattered throughout the book of Ecclesiastes. Such proverb collections are known throughout the ancient Near East, from Egypt to Mesopotamia, with sayings in Egyptian, Aramaic, Sumerian, Akkadian, and more. Also striking is the degree of fluidity between these collections. One finds similar – and sometimes even identical – sayings throughout all these collections, and it seems clear in many cases that sayings “traveled” between cultures or were well known to many at the same time. This suggests that it is not necessarily the content of the individual proverb itself that is unique but the employment of such a proverb by the right person and the right situation with the right motivation, and in the context of the worship of the right god. That is, proverbs are not fixed units that give us wisdom beyond context.
Circling back to Mieder’s saying that “the proverb in a collection is dead,” it is worth asking: Why do these proverb collections exist, and what do they do? There are many potential answers to this question: (1) Proverb collections are a convenient way of collecting oral sayings together so that they can be accessed easily (like almanacs or joke books). (2) Proverb collections are a way of gathering together famous wisdom connected to wise figures like Solomon, as a way of carrying on their legacy (see 1 Kings 4:32 and following). (3) Proverb collections were used to educate, as a way of reinforcing reading and writing by students copying them and learning their basic values in the process. (4) The proverb collections themselves serve to qualify and even interpret the individual sayings within the collections.
This last possibility suggests that at least some portions of the book of Proverbs were edited and arranged with a certain mode of interpretation or theology in mind. The exact nature of such larger interpretive structures in the book is debated. While there are some passages that clearly show detailed and intricate arrangement, others do not. But let us consider briefly two passages in the book of Proverbs that use the exact same saying (“The words of a whisperer are like delicious morsels; they go down into the inner parts of the body. Proverbs 18:8//26:22) to make different points. A glance at the larger context of Proverbs 18:6-8 will show that the focus here is on a fool’s lips and mouth, with words being portrayed as something that tastes delicious and is going down into the body of the whisperer. The point in this passage is what the fool’s words to do the fool. Proverbs 18:7 implies that, once swallowed, the fool’s words will ruin the fool. The saying in Proverbs 18:8 is repeated verbatim in Proverbs 26:22, but with a different focus. The larger context of Proverbs 26:20-26 suggests a focus on gossip and quarreling. The point is that the gossiper is malicious within, and that this wickedness comes out to create fights. And verse 26 emphasizes that this wickedness cannot remain inside the body of the gossiper forever. It will eventually be exposed and judged in the assembly.
This one example suggests the possibility that proverbs have sometimes been situated in their current literary context in a collection to make different points. While this aspect of understanding the meaning of a particular proverb requires time, reflection, and careful attention, it is clearly a part of how the book of Proverbs teaches wisdom and breathes life into sayings whose original oral context is largely lost to us.
A further benefit of larger proverbial collections is to provide what one scholar has called “balancing correctives” to single proverbs. Roland Murphy’s comment to this effect is somewhat famous among scholars of Israelite wisdom literature: “Any gnomic conclusion relative to God, world, and man needs a balancing corrective” (1970). What Murphy means by this is that proverbial sayings are not absolute rules; they are applied to one’s circumstances and situations. So when two proverbs contradict one another, it may well be a necessary part of how proverbial wisdom works, not a flaw. Consider the case of the oft-used English proverb, “The early bird gets the worm.” It may be true that, many times, one who takes initiative, wins. But it is also true that “The second mouse gets the cheese.” In some situations, it is not good to be first. Or: “Many hands make light work.” It is often the case that many workers can make a job easier, but it is also the case that too many workers can make things more difficult. That is gist of the proverb about “too many cooks in the kitchen.” And while it may be the case that “opposites attract,” it is also true that “birds of a feather flock together.” This kind of “balancing corrective” is also on display in Proverbs 26:4-5, about answering a fool according to his foolishness. Sometimes you should, sometimes you shouldn’t.
So, with all of that, how do we, mere mortals, reflect on and learn from the book of Proverbs? Traditionally, there are three ways we can study the proverbs: individually, thematically, and literarily. Each has its place, and each has its own method.
Proverbs may be studied individually. Slow down. Do not read over them too quickly. Despite Mieder’s comment that a proverb in a collection is dead, the original oral context is no longer primary. Many of these proverbs have likely been shaped and fashioned for their literary context, and they can be highly sophisticated in themselves. It may take some time to explore the complexity that often lies beneath their simple surface. Read them out loud, and repeat them to yourself.
Take as an example Proverbs 16:1: “The plans of a heart belong to humans, but from the LORD is an answer of the tongue.” Note that “heart” and “tongue” are in parallel here, as elsewhere in the book of Proverbs. This proverb seems to be saying that while humans may have made arrangements in their mind as to what they will say, it is ultimately the LORD who gives words. This is reminiscent of Luke 12:11-12, where Jesus tells his disciples that the Holy Spirit will give them words to speak when they are brought on trial. But the focus of this proverb is not quite so much on a situation in which one doesn’t know what to say. Instead, the proverb focuses on the difference between what humans plan and what God provides. According to the perspective of this proverb, humans don’t “own” the answer formed on their own tongues. And so perhaps humans should not be all that proud when they come up with a good answer. Wise speech comes from the LORD.
The book of Proverbs deals with many practical themes, from speech to money to marriage to how one should behave before the authorities. Proverbs dealing with each of these themes are scattered throughout the book, and one might take the time to “batch” all the proverbs on one given theme together by writing them down all in one place. But the editors of the book of Proverbs have also done some of this for you. Some chapters or groups of chapters return to one main theme several times. Proverbs chapter 16 is a case in point.
A glance through chapter 16 suggests that we may gather several proverbs of the same theme together and consider their message as a whole. Others could be added to this list, but 16:1, 2, 9, 25, and 33 pop out:
16:1 The plans of a heart belong to humans, but from the LORD is an answer of the tongue.
16:2 All the ways of a man are pure in his eyes, but the LORD examines spirits.
16:9 The heart of a person devises his way, but the LORD fixes his steps.
16:25 There is a way that seems right before a man, but its end are ends of death.
16:33 Into the lap the lot is cast, but every one of its decisions is from the LORD.
Together, these proverbs contrast the plans, ways, and heart of humans with the LORD’s role in providing answers, examining motives, guiding steps, and giving decisions. Only one proverb in this group focuses on human misperception without mentioning the LORD’s role explicitly (16:25). Collectively, these proverbs teach that human knowledge is often incomplete or even wrong, and that humans don’t really control the future.
But this kind of thematic analysis brings with it the danger of generalization. It is all too easy to flatten proverbs that treat a similar theme into saying the same thing in slightly different words. But the proverbs are carefully wrought, and every word counts. While it may be true that, taken together, this group of proverbs speaks about human designs which are many times different from what the LORD brings about, each proverb gives us a slightly different angle on that issue. And each of these angles – from desires of the heart to human perception to the mechanisms by which one attempts to discern the future – says something specific that is important and irreducible. The different formulations of various proverbs are, in fact, the proverbs’ way of resisting one-size-fits-all generalities.
As mentioned above, the nature of large-scale literary arrangement in the book of Proverbs is somewhat debated. While there are places that such detailed and intricate arrangement are obvious, that is not always the case. And even when the editors of the book have set groups of proverbs side-by-side in such a careful way, their relationship to one another is often less clear in translation than it is in Hebrew (and even then, it is difficult). Still, one can often take a step back and try to see the forest for the trees. After tunneling down into the intricacies of a single saying or the themes treated by several sayings, try to read in bigger chunks and see if some of these larger sections connect or contrast with one another in some way.
Again in chapter 16, we can see that verses 1-9 talk about the LORD, whereas verses 10-15 talk about the king. In addition, there is a loose unit in verses 16-24 and a cluster of proverbs in verses 27-30 which describe different sorts of bad guys (on all this, see Fox 2009). But to focus on the two sections in verses 1-9 and verses 10-15, it seems that the king in verses 10-15 is being presented somewhat analogously to the LORD in verses 1-9. The king is the one who issues decrees and who brings about death and values honest speech. Just as one must be aware of the judgment and power of the LORD, so also must one be aware of the judgment and power of the divinely ordained king. But there is another sense, I think, in which the king in verses 10-15 is also to be viewed as the human in verses 1-9. Whatever the king may say or whatever justice the king may render is ultimately made effective by the LORD. In this way, the interrelation of sections of proverbs within a chapter and within the book can create a larger scale theology in which one section qualifies and supplements the other.
I hope you do decide to read through the Bible in a year. And I hope you do make it as far as the book of Proverbs. There is value to reading big swaths of scripture and reading quickly. But this sort of large-scale reading must be supplemented by careful, time-consuming reflection on each of the jewels piled into the book. A large heap of diamonds does look pretty from afar, but the sages invite us to pick up each one with our fingers, hold it up to the light, and turn it to reveal its many facets.
Fox, Michael V. Proverbs 10-31: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary. Yale Anchor Bible 18B. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2009.
Mieder, Wolfgang. “The Essence of Literary Proverb Studies.” Proverbium 23 (1974) 888-894.
Murphy, Roland. “The Hebrew Sage and Openness to the World,” in Christian Action and Openness to the World, ed. J. Papin. The Villanova University Symposia. Villanova, PA: Villanova University Press, 1970, 219-244.
Van Leeuwen, Raymond C. “In Praise of Proverbs,” in Pledges of Jubilee: Essays on the Arts and Culture, in Honor of Calvin G. Seerveld, eds. Lambert Zuidervaart and Henry Luttikhuizen. Grand Rapids, Eerdmans, 1995, 308-327.
Weeks, Stuart. An Introduction to the Study of Wisdom Literature. London and New York: T&T Clark, 2010.