The Book of Proverbs has had its ups and downs in church history, and one of its ups was the common wisdom — I heard it from Billy Graham — of reading one chapter from Proverbs a day. I have found one chapter in Proverbs to be a long read since each proverb/riddle takes time to process.
Before we get to the proverbs of Proverbs, a word about the introduction, as sketched by Glenn Pemberton in his excellent new book, A Life That Is Good.
There is not that any author must sketch everything important in the opening to a book but Proverbs does begin with the big picture. Glenn translates but I want to provide Goldingay’s First Testament translation:
Aphorisms of Shelomoh [Solomon] ben David king of Yisra’el:
So as to know smartness and discipline, to understand words that express understanding,
To get discipline so as to act with insight, faithfulness, the exercise of authority, and uprightness,
To give shrewdness to the naive, knowledge and strategy to the youth,
So that the smart person may listen and increase in his grasp, the understanding may acquire skill,
So as to understand an aphorism and a parable, the words of the smart and their conundrums:
The first principle of knowledge is awe for Yahweh; dense people despise smartness and discipline.
Pemberton finds these themes for Proverbs, and it leads us to ask directly: What is the reason to pursue wisdom?
First, the book of Proverbs has a set of intellectual goals for the reader: to acquire the content of wisdom (1:2a, 4b) and to understand this content, developing good sense and becoming more mature (1:2b, 4, 6). Becoming wise requires us to learn both a body of information and the ability to comprehend this information.
Second, Proverbs has an explicitly practical goal: to “gain instruction” in how to live wisely or in “wise dealing” (1:3a). The writer clarifies this goal with three key words for ideas that weave throughout the Old Testament in the Torah, the prophets, and now in wisdom literature. Wise living is defined as doing what is right, doing what is just, and treating others with equity (1:3). If only knowing what is right, what is just, and what is equitable were as easy as it sounds!
The sages recognized that the foundation of their teaching-of wisdom-is being in relationship with the Lord: “the fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge” (1:7a).
With these primary ideas in place, all that remains is to remind those who have been walking on this path for some time, “the wise” and “man of understanding” (1:5), that they could still benefit from instruction to “learn more and “acquire [more] skill.
What about the women?
The opening verses provide the clues necessary-clear and strong in Hebrew, if not in English-to the identity of the target audience of the book: young men (1:4b), with older men a secondary objective (1:5). We cannot dodge this conclusion easily. The book of Proverbs comes from a culture far removed from our own and the distance between us and especially what the sages say about women will be all the more difficult to traverse if we don’t acknowledge the obvious and the challenges it brings. The sages have much to say about women and wives, but unless the ode to the wise woman in 31:10-31 is for women (see ch. 2), the book of Proverbs never speaks directly to women. The prologue explains why-the sages are primarily speaking to men-and this may explain why we find such negative statements about quarrelsome and nagging wives (see 21:9,19; 25:24; 27:15-16), but not a single word about quarrelsome or nagging husbands (certainly a problem of equal prominence). Only with this said may we add that the principles of wisdom are no different for women than men.
Very clever and clear image!
Reading Proverbs as women, however, is on occasion much like Ginger Rogers dancing with Fred Astaire. She did everything he did-only backwards and in high heels.