Sitting at the dinner table with a prince, the Little Mermaid grabs a fork and combs her hair. Without the proper context, we can easily comb our hair with Proverbs rather than use it for nourishment. Abounding with metaphor, simile, and personification, the proverbs make observations about what usually happens, not guarantees about what will happen. We find insights about general principles, not promises of rewards and punishments. Each morsel focuses on a single experience in life. It’s not the whole of theology, but the whole of theology is wrapped up in it.
the nature of the proverbs
the big picture
The first nine chapters of the book of Proverbs use longer poetry and speeches to present a big picture of wisdom and its relationship to our lives. We all make a choice—pattern our lives after God’s way or value the way of the wicked. The poetry in Proverbs illustrates this through divergent paths and different women (the personifications of Wisdom and Folly). With these images, the wise teacher presents the world as created and structured by God. We are living in a battlefield between cosmic forces of good and evil, and battles are fought in our daily actions and habits. All of life happens in front of our Creator. Living within God’s order leads to freedom and life. Trespassing God’s good boundaries brings destruction and death. These chapters reveal the truth of Proverbs 1:7, that “the fear of the LORD is the beginning of knowledge.”
Chapters 10–31 of Proverbs move to short sayings that give practical examples of ethical living in various situations. These nuggets play out the view of life from chapters 1–9. These are often parallel statements, either stacking two images or contrasting two types of action. We see the hardworking person and the sluggard, the wise person and the fool, the honest woman and the crooked, the faithful friend and the gossip, the humble and the proud. These proverbs observe how these different people act, speak, and relate at work, at home, or in the political realm. They illustrate noble, virtuous living as well as harmful patterns. For example, “Whoever is greedy for unjust gain troubles his own household, but he who hates bribes will live” (Proverbs 15:27) shows how the selfish and unethical pursuit of material goods destroys your own family life. “A man’s gift makes room for him and brings him before the great” (18:16) notes how courtesy and hospitality make a favorable impression. We see what we should value: “Better a dry morsel with quiet than a house full of feasting with strife” (17:1). These proverbs even guide our feelings about aging: “Gray hair is a crown of glory: it is gained in a righteous life” (16:31).
Most importantly, the proverbs disclose how God feels about the wise and the fool: “The LORD is far from the wicked, but he hears the prayer of the righteous” (15:29).
As we watch how life unfolds for the righteous and the wicked, we get a feel for what virtues to pursue, what vices to avoid, and what to value. From this we glean general principles for a life of integrity, diligence, and generosity.
Practice this idea. Read Proverbs 17:1. What metaphor does the author use? To what does he compare it? What should we value? Whom do you know that exemplifies this?
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