Proverbs, Theology of

Proverbs, Theology of

Proverb's theology consists of five aspects: (1) God has immutably structured both the cosmos and society; (2) God has revealed the social structure through this book; (3) the social structure consists of a nexus uniting deed and destiny; (4) adherence to the Lord's ordained structure is a matter of the heart; and (5) words are powerfully effective in shaping young hearts.

A Structured Society. Woman Wisdom, a personification of Solomon's teachings, was both present when the Lord created the cosmos with its vast seas, its high heavens, and its good earth ( 8:22-26 ), and celebrated daily the way in which he fixed the limits of these vast cosmic entities, enabling humanity to live within them (vv. 27-31). She delighted when he set for the random, chaotic sea its limit (v. 29). Wisdom's celebration of the Lord's beneficent cosmic order whereby he restrained chaos in primordial time corresponds to her role in carving out social order, restraining evil within historical time. By following these teachings pertaining, among other things, to the acquisition of enduring wealth ( 10:2-5 ), performing righteous Acts of charity toward the needy (vv. 6-7), and speaking to form loving relationships (vv. 10-14), the faithful carve out for themselves an eternal kingdom ( 8:15-21 ). The wise live securely within the limits of these teachings, but fools, who without discipline wantonly crave what lies outside these prescribed boundaries ( 10:3b ), die by transgressing the Lord's fixed social order ( 4:10-19 ).

These social structures do not exist autonomously, independent from the Lord who ordained them. Rather, the Lord upholds them: "He holds victory in store for the upright, he is a shield to those whose walk is blameless, for he guards the course of the just and protects the way of his faithful ones" ( 2:8-9 ; cf. 3:26 ; 5:21-23 ; 16:1-5 ). The proverbs are true only if God upholds them. One's faith is not in the proverbs themselves, but in the Lord who stands behind them ( 3:5 ; 22:19 ). Indeed, the teachings of this book are equated with knowing God himself: "My son, if you accept my words then you will find the knowledge of God" ( Proverbs 2:1 Proverbs 2:5 ).

A Revealed Structure. Solomon explains why accepting his teachings pertaining to fixed social structures is equivalent to knowing God: "For the Lord gives wisdom, and from his mouth come knowledge and understanding" ( 2:6 ). Solomon's mouth has become God's mouth.

God spoke in various ways in times past to the fathers ( Heb 1:1 ). Unlike Moses, who spoke to God face to face, and the prophets, to whom he gave visions and dreams ( Num 12:6-8 ), the Lord "spoke" to Solomon and other inspired sages such as Agur ( Prov 30:1 ) and King Lemuel ( 31:1 ) through their observations of creation and humanity. The sage's laboratory is the world. "I went past the field of the sluggard, " he writes, " [where] thorns had come up everywhere and the stone wall was in ruins. I applied my heart to what I observed" ( 24:30-32 ). Whereupon he coins his proverb: "A little sleep, a little slumber and poverty will come on you like a bandit" (vv. 33-34). In other words, the inspired sage observes that within the fallen creation there is a principle of entropy that destroys life, but with discipline one can overcome the threatening chaos. Of course, the sage is a moral teacher, not a natural scientist. His exemplar drawn from the cosmic order functions to instruct the faithful that discipline can overcome social chaos.

The book's theology is not a natural theology. Woman Wisdom is not the cosmic order per se, as many claim. Rather, Solomon speaks as the king of Israel ( 1:1 ), and as such has himself been carefully schooled in the Mosaic Law. In this book Solomon consistently uses God's name, "the Lord, " which signifies his covenantal relationship with Israel ( Exod 3:13-15 ; 6:2-8 ). Through the lens of the Mosaic covenant, the inspired king coined his proverbs ( Prov 29:18 ).

Although the sage does not speak with the prophetic thunder of heaven"thus saith the Lord"he does speak with divine authority, using the same vocabulary that Moses used for his revelation: tora [h'r/T], "law/teaching, " and miswa [h"w.xim], "commandment" ( 3:1 ).

The Conduct-Consequence Nexus. The social structure ordained and upheld by God and revealed in this book entails an inseparable connection between deed and destiny. This nexus is represented by the metaphor "way, " which occurs about seventy-five times in the entire Book of Proverbs and thirty times in chapters 1-9, a collection of admonitions to embrace the book's teaching and the hermeneutical key to the book. The metaphor denotes a traversable road, or movement on a road, leading to a destination and connotes at one and the same time "course of life" (i.e., the character and context of life), "conduct of life" (i.e., specific choices and behavior), and "consequences of that conduct" (i.e., the inevitable destiny of such a lifestyle). The wise are on the way of life ( 2:20-21 ); fools are on the way to death ( 1:15-19 ). Whereas Christianity thinks of itself as a "faith, " the Book of Proverbs, like most of the Bible, thinks of the faithful as following a way, a halakah, a life-path.

Life in this book refers to the abundant life in fellowship with the eternal and living God. According to Genesis 2:17, disruption of the proper relationship with the One who is the source of life means death. Wisdom is concerned with establishing and maintaining that proper relationship and so life (see 2:5-8 ). The first pericope ( 1:8-19 ) assumes that the wicked might send innocent blood to a premature death, even as Cain prematurely dispatched the righteous Abel ( Gen 4:1-9 ). The promise of life in this book ( 2:19 ; 3:2 ), as in the Bible as a whole, must entail a reality that transcends clinical existence and outlasts clinical death. If not, the murder of Abel in Genesis 4, of the innocent blood in Proverbs 1:8-19, and of the Son of God deconstructs both the Bible and this book, for the wicked will have triumphed over the righteous.

Solomon likens his teachings to a tree of life ( 3:18 ). The religious literature of the ancient Near East, particularly Egypt, and Genesis 2-3 suggest that the tree of life symbolizes eternal life in the full sense of that term. The seduced fool in Proverbs 5 rues after his body is spent that he wasted his life (vv. 7-14). Without specifying how, the received Hebrew text promises the righteous "immortality" ( 12:28 ) and a secure refuge even in clinical death ( 14:32 ). Yet unlike apocalyptic literature, which draws a sharp distinction between this world and the one to come, Wisdom Literature regards life as both already and yet to come. The sage emphasizes embracing life now.

The book also focuses on the end. "Though a righteous man falls seven times, he rises again, but the wicked are brought down by calamity" ( 24:16 ). Job and Ecclesiastes, in contrast, focus on the present reality "under the son, " when the righteous seem "knocked out for the count of ten." Even as Proverbs 24:16 almost dismisses the fall of the righteous in a concessive clause, other proverbs also, while affirming the moral order, also assert or imply that the righteous suffer while the wicked prosper. It qualifies the conduct-consequence nexus by the "better than" proverbs (e.g., 15:16-17 ; Proverbs 16:16 Proverbs 16:19 ; 17:1 ; 19:22b ; 21:3 ; 22:1 ; 28:6 ). These proverbs link poverty with righteousness and wealth with wickedness and so make it perfectly plain that piety and morality do not lead immediately to a joyous end.

Because of the epigrammatic nature of the proverbs, each expresses a truth with the greatest concentration on its subject matter. To get the full truth, however, one must read them as a collection. For example, after the wonderful promises in 3:1-10, Solomon adds: "My son, do not despise the Lord's discipline" (vv. 11-12). Prosperity and adversity are the wise and necessary mixture of the son's formation. Solomon's explanation, "because the Lord disciplines those he loves, as a father the son he delights in, " shows that the father's tutelage passes into the heavenly Father's. The sage qualifies wisdom's palpable rewards catalogued in 3:13-20 with the admonition "do not withhold good from those who deserve it" (v. 27), an admonition that implies good people may be in need of help. His teachings about wealth in 10:2-5 are not to be read in isolation but together: verse 2 pertains to wealth and ethics, verse 3 to wealth and religion, and verses 4-5 to wealth and prudence. Read in this fashion the book does not teach a wealth and prosperity gospel, but promises that the Lord will reward the faithful.

The Heart. Adherence to the God-ordained social structure(s) is a matter of the heart, a person's emotional-intellectual-moral center ( 2:2 ; 4:23 ). Solomon does not deliver his teachings in cold, rational propositions calling for an equally rational, dispassionate response. Rather, in a fine piece of literary fiction, "Wisdom calls aloud in the street, she raises her voice in the public squares" ( 1:20 ). "She raises her voice" refers to a fervent and emotional situation. Solomon calls on the son in turn to "raise your voice" ("call out, " NIV) to wisdom ( 2:3 ). When Solomon's wisdom is accepted with the whole heart, then wisdom that was in God's heart enters the believer's heart: "For wisdom, " which originated in God's mouth (v. 6), now "will enter your heart, and knowledge [of God and of his teachings] will be pleasant to your soul" (v. 10).

Wisdom promises life to those who love her ( Proverbs 8:17 Proverbs 8:21 ) and asks her lovers to watch daily at her doors as for a bride (v. 34). To have this bride, one must be willing to sell all as her dowry ( 4:7 ). She must be held in awe and reverence: the fear of the Lord is the first principle of wisdom ( 1:7 ; 9:10 ).

By contrast, malformed simpletons, who pass into adulthood without having made a commitment to wisdom, love their openness; fools hate knowledge; and mockers covet the ability to mock ( 1:22 ). The choice or rejection of Solomon's teachings is affective, not merely cognitive. The formative simpleton, to whom the book is addressed ( 1:4 ), needs to make a decision for religious and ethical prudence before entering the city and engaging in its commerce and politics ( 8:3 ). Such a decision is also necessary to prepare them to resist the wicked men and women within it.

The Power of Words. Solomon so ordered this book that covenantal parents could teach it within the home, the place of education in ancient Israel. It is addressed to the covenantal child about to enter maturity. The seam between the generations is most vulnerable to being rent by outsiders at this juncture when pride and passion run at full tide. The voices of both parents ( 1:8 ; 31:26 ) compete with the voices of apostate men and unfaithful wives. Parents are armed by Solomon with all his rhetorical skill in robust man-to-man talk to outduel the temptation to easy money, offered by apostate men ( 1:10-19 ; 2:12-15 ), and to easy sex, offered by unfaithful women ( 2:16-19 ; 5:1-23 ; 6:20-35 ; 7:1-27 ; 9:13-18 ).

The mention of the mother as a teacher is unique within ancient Near Eastern Wisdom Literature. In the Old Testament both parents are put on equal footing before the child ( Lev 19:3 ). For "faithful instruction" to be on the mother's tongue, she herself must first have been taught. Although the book is addressed to "sons" who would take responsibility for the home, daughters are not excluded.

Throughout Solomon assumes the power of speech: indeed, it has the power of life and death ( 18:21 ). Although children are accountable for their own decisions ( Eze 18:20 ), parental training will have its effect ( Proverbs 22:6 Proverbs 22:15 ). Children who make it into the rank of the wise bring their parents joy, but those who fail to embrace the inherited wisdom bring them pain ( 10:1 ).

Bruce K. Waltke

See also Heart; Wisdom

Bibliography. L. Bostrom, The God of the Sages: The Portrayal of God in the Book of Proverbs; B. S. Childs, Old Testament Theology in a Canonical Context; W. Cosser, Glasgow UNIVersity Oriental Society Transactions15 (1955): 48-53; G. Goldsworthy, Gospel and Wisdom; L. Kalugila, The Wise King: Studies in Royal Wisdom as Divine Revelation in the Old Testament and Its Environment; D. Kidner, The Wisdom of Proverbs, Job and Ecclesiastes; K. A. Kitchen, TB 28 (1977): 69-114; W. McKane, Proverbs: A New Approach; C. A. Newsom, Gender and Difference in Ancient Israel, pp. 142-60; R. C. Van Leeuwen, Semeia 50 (1990): 111-44; idem, Hebrew Studies 28 (1992): 25-36; G. von Rad, Wisdom in Israel; B. K. Waltke, Presbyterion14/1 (1988): 1-15; idem, Presbyterion 13/2 (1987): 65-78; idem, Alive to God: Studies in Spirituality Presented to James Houston, pp. 17-33; R. N. Whybray, The Intellectual Tradition in the Old Testament.

Baker's Evangelical Dictionary of Biblical Theology. Edited by Walter A. Elwell
Copyright © 1996 by Walter A. Elwell. Published by Baker Books, a division of
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Bibliography Information

Elwell, Walter A. "Entry for 'Proverbs, Theology of'". "Evangelical Dictionary of Theology". . 1997.