With the opening lines of the Book of Proverbs, Solomon declares that his collection was compiled in order that readers might acquire skill in discerning wisdom. When teaching biblical studies courses at APU, we faculty seek means to help students respond to God’s Word in ways commensurate with the text’s intentions. If Proverbs aims to make its readers wise, how might that happen for APU students who study it? An approach I have adopted in my sections of the annual course Hebrew Poetical and Wisdom Literature derives from the rhetorical dynamics of proverbial wisdom.
Virtue and Knowledge
In the world of biblical proverbial wisdom, knowledge of virtue is usually acquired through empirical observation of how things work instead of through special revelation. The classical wisdom tradition is a product of many generations of people observing how things tend to go in the natural world and in the dynamics of human interaction. People came to realize that there are reliable patterns of cause and effect that can be learned and taught. Those who discern the order of things and align their own behavior accordingly (the wise) can expect success; and those who do not (the foolish) will have a negative result.
Israelite sages carefully composed pithy brief expressions (each called a mashal or proverb) to teach wisdom. Many proverbs do not instruct any behavior, but instead simply make observations, like Proverbs 30:33:
Pressure on milk brings forth curds,
And pressure on the nose brings forth blood,
And pressure on anger brings forth strife.
Although not stated, the expected response on the reader’s part is to realize—gain insight—that strife can be avoided by reassurance instead of responding to an angry person with pressure. As the reader gives thought to this proverb, one’s own life experiences and observations are called upon to gauge its truth, and then to live in accordance with that truth. In short, one becomes wise by thinking about what one experiences in life in the light of a simple observation about different types of pressure. Each proverb is carefully composed, often through striking juxtaposition of images and reasoning by analogy, to prompt thinking about wise attitudes and behavior as in the “bloody nose” example.
In keeping with the purpose of Proverbs, the midterm exam in my course requires the students to compose their own masterpiece proverb. I urge them to consider: what bit of wisdom have you gleaned from your own observations of life that you would want to pass on to your own children? Craft it into a memorable proverb in Old Testament style (which we study in class), and turn it in. The ultimate objective for students is a richer comprehension of biblical wisdom intellectually and devotionally through an integration of faith and learning.
The results show that our students are often wise beyond their years and well on their way to becoming as intelligent as the Israelite sages would have them be. Here are just two examples from the many gems that students have offered.
Lost is the man who chooses foolish companions,
But good company paves the straight road of wisdom.
Notice the chiastic structure of this wisdom saying, as “lost” diagonally corresponds to its opposite, “straight road,” and “good company” diagonally corresponds to its opposite, “foolish companions.”
The economy of words in this proverb is powerful. The first line alludes to the emotional distress of being lost and never arriving at one’s destination. Using the word “chooses,” the first line also makes it clear that it is within one’s capacity to stay on track. The particular choice of words in the second line is striking: “good company paves” indicates that associating with people of strong character makes easier the acquisition of wisdom; it paves the way before us, which is very different from simply following a road that was already prepared.
This proverb’s author notes: “The absence of God-fearing individuals in my own childhood and teen years ultimately led to much loneliness and insecurity, and eventually, to awful decisions by which I am still haunted. I would be further along in this life than I am this day if I had had the wisdom to avoid certain friendships and temptations and seek individuals who would walk with me on the straight and narrow.”
Like a seed falling upon a stone
Is a word spoken in haste;
But blessed is the man who guards his tongue
Until the Lord has tilled the ground.
Here we find two wisdom sayings integrated into a single antithetical parallelism contrasting poorly and well-timed words. There are several biblical poetic elements included in this proverb about friendship.
First of all, the metaphors are derived from agrarian life (“seed,” “tilling the ground”) in the tradition of biblical poets from Isaiah to Jesus. Secondly, the Bible often attributes rejection of a redeeming word to hardness of heart, and here the first line connotes that negative dynamic. Thirdly, reference to the tongue resonates with dozens of biblical proverbs preoccupied with the capacity of spoken words to enhance or destroy human relationships.
A key theological claim is that God prepares the human heart for truth like a farmer prepares the ground for seeds. Biblical wisdom often recognizes that we must rely on God to bring forth fruit from our efforts; yet, at the same time, it is our responsibility to discern the optimum moment to speak.
To my delight, APU students have embraced this exercise in wisdom. I urge readers of APU Life to consider it as well. Try giving thought to a bit of wisdom that life has taught you, and formulating it into an easily learned proverb. The patron of Proverbs himself, King Solomon, assures that you will be wiser for the effort!