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Excerpts from the Book of Proverbs are read in the Office of Readings next week, the Sixth Week in Ordinary Time. This book might be described as the Bible’s compendium of practical wisdom or guide for successful living.
The first verse ascribes the proverbs to Solomon because he was known for his great wisdom, but he in all likelihood didn’t write them.
He did, however, create a climate in Israel that allowed wisdom to flourish. The book consists of various collections of Israelite wisdom spanning five or six centuries before they were finally edited, in the form that we have today, around the middle of the fourth century B.C.
Two poetic sections frame the proverbs. The beginning tells us the purpose of the proverbs, “that men may appreciate wisdom and discipline, may understand words of intelligence” (Prv 1:2). The second poetic section, the ode to the ideal wife (Prv 31:10-31), concludes the book because the editor thought that she is the model of wisdom. This is an acrostic or alphabetical poem, although that is not evident when translated into English.
Many of the proverbs are written in what we call parallelism. There are three types of parallelism. The first is synonymous parallelism. It repeats the thought of the first line in the second line, with a slight variation. For example, “My son, forget not my teaching, keep in mind my commands” (Prv 3:1).
The second is antithetic parallelism, which contrasts ideas. For example, “The patient man shows much good sense, but the quick-tempered man displays folly at its height” (Prv 14:29).
The third is synthetic parallelism. The second part of the line moves the idea toward a new thought. For example, “Gray hair is a crown of glory; it is gained by virtuous living” (Prv 16:31).
The proverbs teach that wisdom is practical, not theoretical, and that acquiring wisdom requires perseverance, commitment and discipline. Wisdom demands virtue, above all the fear of the Lord—respect for him on account of his sovereignty, goodness and justice toward men.
Other virtues of the wise person include humility, prudence, honesty and discretion. Social justice is the fruit of wisdom.
There is advice for parents. The first section has the form of parents’ instructions to their son. “Hear, my son, your father’s instruction, and reject not your mother’s teaching” (Prv 1:8). The instructions cover topics that parents must teach to their children, including the need to make friends with reliable people, and to avoid temptations of illicit sexual activity.
The New Testament writers were familiar with the proverbs. They are obvious particularly in the Gospel of St. Matthew, especially as background for Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. For example, “The Lord loves the pure of heart” (Prv 22:11), “He who pursues justice and kindness will find life and honor” (Prv 21:21), and “Those who counsel peace have joy” (Prv 12:20). They are also present in some of Jesus’ parables about the kingdom.
Other New Testament books that show a similarity to the Old Testament proverbs are the Letter of St. James, the First Letter of St. Peter, the Letter to the Hebrews and St. Paul’s Letter to the Romans. †