Roger M. Olien

Adult Education: Bible

Episcopal Church of the Holy Trinity

Midland, Texas

January 22, 2000


                        This morning, I will ask some basic questions about the book, as my predecessors have about theirs, then move along to the all important question: “So What?”


1.       What is it?  A collection of collections, complied around 400 BCE, of adages, most of which date after 538, the end of the Exile.  It was compiled from at least four separate collections and the assemblers of three of the final collections didn’t know about the others, hence the redundancy. It is highly repetitious, as you will see.

2.       How is it put together? An overview of the organization of the book: Six basic parts: 1. Introduction and instructions of the teacher, 1:1 through 9:18.  2. 375 collected proverbs attributed to Solomon: 10:1-22:16. 3. Two groups of “Words of Wisdom in 22:17-24:34. 4. Proverbs collected under Hezekiah attributed to Solomon: Chapters 25-29. 5. Collected wisdom of Agur: Chapter 30. 6. Wisdom of Lemuel, with an appendix.

3.   Where did it come from?  “Proverbs of Solomon” was applied to Chapters 10-verse 16 of Chapter 22 and then extended to the whole collection.  A few of them might actually come from Solomon’s time.

                        Heavy borrowings from older texts of other middle eastern people.  Egypt: “Instructions of A-men-e-mo-pe,” of about 1200 BCE. The “Words of Wisdom” section leans heavily on this source. Pasts of Chapters 13, 15, 16, and 27, too.

                        Additional material from “Counsels of Wisdom,” a Babylonian source of about 700BCE.  One part of the “Counsels of Wisdom” Of Proverbs.

                        Also from the Canaanite “Epic of King Keret of Ugaret,” and the Sumerian “Wisdom of Sharuppak.”

                        The core of the book, collected proverbs attributed to Solomon might be borrowings, some tribal and family wisdom, but many parts of it are so common to wisdom literature as to be commonplace or near-universal. 20:1:“Wine is an insolent fellow, and strong drink makes an uproar; no one addicted to their company grows wise.”  19:18: “Chastise your son while there is hope for him, but be careful not to flog him to death.”  19:4: “Wealth makes many friends, but a man without money loses the friend he has.” 17:13: “If a man repays evil for good, evil will never quit his house.” IE “What goes around, comes around.” Tribal wisdom, like “Buy low, sell high,” or “Never draw to an inside straight.”

3.       What did they take from other traditions?

                        Babylon: Verse 8; of Chapter 25: “Be in no hurry to tell everyone what you have seen, or it will end in bitter reproaches from your friend.”

                        Canaan: Verses 10-12 of Chapter 23: “Do not move the ancient boundary-stone or encroach on the land of orphans: they have a powerful guardian who will take up their cause against you.”

                        Egypt: 23:31-32: “Do not gulp down the wine, the strong red wine, when the droplets form on the side of the cup; in the end it will bite like a snake and sting like an asp.”  15:25: “The Lord pulls down the proud man’s home but fixes the widow’s boundary-stones.”  16:33: “The lots may be cast into the lap, but the issue depends wholly on the Lord.”  27: 23-24: “Be careful to know your own sheep and take good care of your flocks; for possessions do not last for ever, nor will a crown endure to endless generations.” An interesting reflection from a civilization with long dynastic histories. Chapter 22, verses 22-33: “”Never rob a helpless man because he is helpless, nor ill-treat a poor wretch in court; for the Lord will take up their cause and rob him who robs them of their livelihood.”  23:1-2: “When you sit down to ear with a ruling prince, be sure to keep your mind on what is before you, and if you are a greedy man, cut your throat first. 24: 5-6: “Wisdom prevails over strength, knowledge over brute force; for wars are won by skillful strategy, and victory is the fruit of long planning.”  24:17-18: “Do not rejoice when your enemy falls, do not glad when he is brought down; or the Lord will see and be displeased with you, and he will cease to be angry with him.” 24: 21-22: “My son, fear the Lord and grow rich, but have nothing to do with men of rank; they will come to sudden disaster; who knows what the ruin of such men will be.”

4.       What was the purpose of this piece of Israelite wisdom literature?  To train young men as scribes at the court schools, first established under David and Solomon on the Egyptian model.  Hence, advice on dealing with princes: 16:14. “A king’s anger is a messenger of death, and a wise man will appease it.”, on  politics” 16:10: “The king’s mouth is an oracle, he cannot err when he passes sentence.” Warnings against drunkenness: 20: 1: “Wine is an insolent fellow, and strong drink makes an uproar; no one addicted to their company grows rich.”, and against prostitutes, probably the temple prostitutes of the Canaanites. 7: 25-27: “Do not let your heart entice you into her ways, do not stray down her paths; many has she pierced and laid low, and her victims are without number.  Her house is the entrance to Sheol, which leads down to the halls of death.” 

5.       Why are the literary forms different from those of most Old Testament books? The literary forms we find in Proverbs were determined by their didactic purpose.  Organized into couplets and quatrains because that made material easier to remember: Chapter 10-22, 25-29 for couplets and parts of 5 and 22 and all of 23 and 24.

                        Couplet: 10:4: ‘Idle hands make a man poor; busy hands grow rich.  Or 19-20: “When men talk too much, sin is never far away; common sense holds its tongue.”  11:1: “False scales are the Lord’s abomination; correct weights are dear to his heart.  11:15-16: “Give a pledge for a stranger and know no peace; refuse to stand surety and be safe.”  13:11: “Wealth quickly come by dwindles away, but if it comes little by little, it multiplies.”  Or in the words of our part of the world, “Please Lord give us another oil boom and we……” 15:25-26: “The Lord pulls down the proud man’s home but fixes the widow’s boundary-stones.”

                        Number problems: 6:16-19: “Six things the Lord hates, seven things are detestable to him:  and so on. Chapter 30, verses 18 and 19: “Three things there are which are too wonderful for me, four which I do not understand: the way of a vulture in the sky, the way of a serpent on the rock, the way of a ship out at sea, and the way of a man with a woman.”

                        An acrostic: 21 verses beginning, in order with the letters in the Hebrew alphabet, on the characteristics of a good woman. Chapter 31, verses 10-31.

6.       What does Proverbs teach? The virtues of Proverbs:  Self-control; listening to good advice; the importance of critical observation; prudence or trained cleverness; political skill; resourcefulness or hustle; intelligence; fear of the Lord—not anxiety or apprehension but “verguenza,” acceptance of the wisdom learned from consideration of an orderly world, created by God. The ungodly are shameless, amoral.

7.       Does it have any other significant perspectives? Resists bumper sticker complacency, with a strong sense of the variability of fortune: 14:12: “A road may seem straightforward to a man, yet may end as the way to death.” 14:13: “Even in laughter the heart may grieve, and mirth may end in sorrow.” 10:7: “When a man dies, his thread of life ends, and with it ends the hope of affluence.” 27:1: “Do not flatter yourself about tomorrow, for you never know what a day will bring forth.” 24:10: “If your strength fails on a lucky day, how helpless will you be on a day of disaster!” 16:9: “Man plans his journey by his own wit, but it is the Lord who guides his steps.”

8.       Are there any significant differences between Proverbs and other Old testament books?  Makes no references to cultic practice.  Perhaps in reaction to the Babylonian belief that the original harmony of life could be restored through cultic practice.  Proverbs, by contrast, claims that moral order is maintained through correct living, not cultic practice. Makes no reference to the Covenant or to the history of Israel.  The various creators of Proverbs make no claim for divine origin or divine inspiration; the authority is the speaker.

9.       Is Proverbs really religious? Some adages contain assertions that scarcely need religious connection: Chapter 29: 23.  “Pride will bring a man low; a man lowly in spirit wins honour.”  Chapter 29: 5: “A man who flatters his neighbour is spreading a net for his feet.” Ch 27:14: ‘If one man greets another too heartily, he may give great offence.”  No “High-fives?”  26:11: “Like a dog returning to its vomit is a stupid man who repeats his folly.” 22”26-27: ”Never be one to give guarantees, or to pledge yourself as surety for another; for if you cannot pay, beware: your bed will be taken from under you.”  There are any references to the Lord, but as many scholars have noted, with substitutions of the identification of the Lord, the proverbs would work in most religions. They can also  pass muster as secular literature, like Poor Richard’s adages, which paraphrased colonial versions of them, recommending hard work, thrift, sobriety, and the virtues of Proverbs.  The difference between Proverbs and Ben Franklin, however, is the assumption in Proverbs that the moral order has divine origins.   There are, however two important elements that are compatible with secular perspectives: that life can be known from reason, which it offers in the form of reflections on experience, and that the end of all moral action is a safe, productive, peaceful, happy social life.

10. Does Proverbs have any place in New Testament spirituality? It shows up in the New Testament.  Proverbs 25: verse 21: “If your enemy is hungry, give him bread to eat; if he is thirty, give him water to drink.  Alluded to in Matthew and quoted in Romans 12:20.  There is the common advice on how to get the better of a creditor—harass him, wear him down--in Proverbs and repeated by Jesus. In the Gospels, there are echoes of concern for widows and orphans with compassion for “the least of these.” New Testament, thus continues a preferential concern for the poor and vulnerable.  The emphasis on reason in Proverbs and the rabbinical tradition also lives on in the New Testament, with Jesus’s custom of answering a question with a question: “Who do you say that I am?” for example, or his preference for teaching through parables, which his listeners had to think through.

11. Does Proverbs have any special significance in Christian tradition? It does in the largest possible sense, in that the whole book consists of reflections on experience. Whereas the Torah and the prophets stressed faith and obedience, Proverbs emphasizes understanding and obedience. The whole book  demonstrates that reflection on human experience is essential to understanding the moral universe.   I think that it is powerful evidence that within scripture itself, as in the Anglican tradition, the truth is grasped through reason and reflections on experience, as prominent  theologians from Richard Hooker forward have taught. The preference for understanding as preliminary to obedience seems very Episcopalian!



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