December 12, 2014

From the Editor Emeritus / John F. Fink

Old Testament: Book of Proverbs teaches wisdom

John F. Fink(Forty-ninth in a series of columns)

Normally, in this series about the Old Testament, the next book I’d be writing about is the Book of Psalms. However, back in 2009 I wrote a series of 17 columns about that book, so it seems best to skip to the Book of Proverbs.

Of the seven Wisdom Books, the Book of Proverbs is probably the one that best provides the guide for successful living that the ancient Israelites sought. But, of course, it isn’t only the Israelites who struggle with questions about the meaning of life. Every culture does. So this book has universal appeal and significance.

The purpose of the Book of Proverbs, spelled out in the first chapter, is to teach wisdom: “That men may appreciate wisdom and discipline, may understand words of intelligence; may receive training in wise conduct, in what is right, just and honest” (Prv 1:2-3).

It then goes on, in 31 chapters, to present eight different collections of proverbs—usually short pithy sayings that express basic truths or practical precepts—applicable to people in various walks of life. Some are addressed to children, others to young men, and still others to citizens. The final chapter describes the ideal wife, whose “value is far beyond pearls” (Prv 31:10).

Many of the proverbs in these collections employ what is known as parallelism, usually two parts in a poetic construction. Sometimes the second part repeats the first part with a slight variation: “On the way of wisdom I direct you, I lead you on straightforward paths” (Prv 4:11). More often it contrasts ideas: “Hatred stirs up disputes, but love covers all offenses” (Prv 10:12). And sometimes the second part advances the thought of the first part: “A cheerful glance brings joy to the heart; good news invigorates the bones” (Prv 15:30).

In chapter 1, the book tells us “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge” (Prv 1:7). This concept is repeated in chapter 9: “The beginning of wisdom is the fear of the Lord” (Prv 9:10). This fear is a reverence and awe of God because of his sovereignty, goodness and justice. Besides being the beginning of wisdom and knowledge, this “fear” is also the foundation of religion.

The authors of these collections of proverbs believed that God created an order in nature and, if we could discern how that order operated and managed our lives accordingly, we would achieve wisdom, live successful lives, and find happiness.

The cultivation of virtue was seen as an important part of achieving wisdom and happiness. Discipline and self-control were seen as essential, and honesty, diligence, docility and humility were considered necessary for a good reputation.

Chapter 5 is a warning to young men against adultery and the seduction of women. It apparently was not deemed necessary to warn young women since, in a patriarchal society, they were kept in seclusion to guarantee their fidelity and only seductresses had freedom of movement.

The Book of Proverbs doesn’t seem popular today, but there’s a great deal of wisdom in this book written some 2,500 years ago. †

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