Some Notes on Proverbs

Overview:  Solomon — the king with great wisdom who also wrote two other Wisdom books, Ecclesiastes and the Song of Songs — is the principal author.  Indeed, he wrote every chapter of Proverbs except the last two, which were written by Ajur and Lemuel, respectively.

I’ll note at the outset that Psalms and Proverbs are the two books of the Bible that most defy summarization.  But I think I can also say with some confidence that the most important verse in the book is 9:10:  “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, and the knowledge of the Holy One is understanding.”  See also 15:33 (“The fear of the Lord is the instruction for wisdom, And before honor comes humility”); and 1:7 (“The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge; Fools despise wisdom and instruction”).


Wisdom and Righteousness:  A question lurking in the background of Proverbs is, What is the connection between wisdom and righteousness?

The answer is not obvious.  Any reader  of comic books know that there are plenty of evil geniuses out there.  Of course, being clever, or really smart, or even a genius doesn’t make you wise.  So much information, so little knowledge; so much knowledge, so little wisdom (I’ll attribute this to Russell Kirk).  But even the wise can be unrighteous. King Solomon himself, though none wiser, made his missteps, marrying and taxing too much.  Conversely, the simple can be righteous — can be pure, can be innocent, with the latter  word denoting after all both lack of knowledge and lack of sin.  Jesus praised children and the childlike.

But surely there is some value in wisdom for the righteous.  It’s important to know what God wants (and how to achieve it — Proverbs deals with both), and what He doesn’t want (and how to avoid it — again, Proverbs deals with both).  There must be a reason that we have a book on wisdom in the Bible rather than one on personal grooming.  And fools are denigrated throughout Proverbs, and surely this is not because God through Scripture wants to belittle the mentally less gifted, but because He wants us all to be as wise — and so become as righteous — as possible.

And we know — and Solomon knew — that God thought wisdom was important:  He was pleased when, at the beginning of his reign, Solomon asked for wisdom rather than riches and fame.  (Solomon asked for it because in order to have “a discerning heart to govern your people and to distinguish between right and wrong” — I Kings 3:9.)

Finally, does wisdom increase righteousness, or does righteousness increase wisdom, or both?  The first is the premise of the preceding paragraph, but the second is suggested by the first part of chapter 2 in Proverbs — e.g., 2:7 (the Lord “stores up sound wisdom for the upright”) and 2:10 (if you’re godly, “wisdom will enter your heart”).  It’s true, after all, that good rules are something to be thankful for (see generally Psalm 19, and especially verse 7, “The statutes of the Lord are trustworthy, making wise the simple”).  And note that what I said was the most important line in Proverbs — “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom” — can be interpreted (in English at least) to support either answer.


Able Alter:  Robert Alter’s excellent translation and commentary of the Wisdom books (discussed at greater length elsewhere on this blogsite) observes, “Much of the wisdom of Proverbs … is oriented pragmatically toward the world of commerce or labor” (240 n.1).  It might even be called bourgeois (like Irving Kristol, and unlike Marxists, I consider this to be praise).  Perhaps the starkest statement here is verse 10:15:  “The rich man’s wealth is his fortress, The ruin of the poor is their poverty.”

I photocopied two longer passages from Robert Alter’s translation and commentary.  Here’s the first (xvi):

Proverbs is the only one of the three canonical Wisdom books that might conceivably reflect the activities of some sort of academy. Composed in verse from beginning to end, it often seems to utilize the mnemonic function of poetry to inscribe in memory principles of right and wrong, and one can plausibly imagine a teacher imparting instruction of this sort to his disciples. The poetry in Proverbs, however, is by no means restricted to serving as an aid to memory, and we shall have occasion to observe a variety of arresting and at times surprising purposes to which poetry is put in this book. 

My NIV study Bible divides the book into three parts, “Wisdom for Young People” (chapters 1-9), “Wisdom for All People” (chapters 10-24), and “Wisdom for the Leaders” (chapters 25-31), and the addressings and contents of the text more or less bear this out, though really all of the book is for all people.  As Alter notes, it’s entirely in verse, though of varying constructions and, my study Bible adds, “most often” couplets — some “contrasting,”  some “comparing,” some “complementing.

Here’s the second long Alter quote (230, discussing Proverbs 8:22-24):

22 The Lord created me at the outset of His way,

the very first of His works of old.

23 In remote eons I was shaped,

at the start of the first things of earth.

24 When there were no deeps I was spawned,

when there were no wellsprings, water-sources.

22. The Lord created me at the outset of His way. Although Lady Wisdom is still speaking, the section from here through verse 31 looks like a new poem or, at the very least, a distinct new segment of the same poem. The speech from verse 1 through verse 21 is a celebration by Wisdom of her powers—her gift of plain and accessible discourse, the preciousness of her words, her indispensability as a guide to all who govern, the material benefits she conveys to her followers. It must be said that much of the poetry of this section deploys boilerplate language, echoing quite similar formulations—or even formulas—that one encounters elsewhere in Proverbs. The poem that begins with verse 22 has a cosmic framework rather than a pragmatic one: Lady Wisdom’s self-celebration goes back to the role she played as God’s intimate before He launched on the work of creation. This cosmic and cosmogonic prominence of Wisdom may well have provided a generative clue for the prose-poem about the Logos (“In the beginning was the word…”) in the first chapter of John’s Gospel. In rabbinic tradition, it was a trigger for the idea that God made the world by following the blueprint of the Torah, which pre-existed creation; and later the Kabbalah would elaborate this notion with a theosophic apparatus. This cosmic vision, moreover, is articulated in soaring poetry that seems quite unlike the poetry of the preceding section.

the very first of His works of old. Or “before His works of old.” It is not entirely clear whether the poet intends this as a literal account of the order of creation, which is how this line was understood by later Jewish and Christian tradition, or whether this whole idea of the primordial presence of Wisdom is a kind of mythic hyperbole to express Wisdom’s crucial importance in the order of things.


Wisdom and Women:  We are told not once but twice that “It is better to live in the corner of a roof/Than in a house shared with a contentious woman.” 21:9, 25:24.  And just ten verses after we’re told this the first time, we’re told likewise that “It is better to live in a desert land/Than with a contentious and vexing woman” (21:19).  There’s a hostile but sexy portrait of an adulteress in chapter 7.

On the other hand, as seen in the Alter passage just quoted, Wisdom is a woman, and the book ends with a glowing portrait of a good wife (I have a post elsewhere on this blogsite of a “A Proverbs 31 Wife for 2018”).  And the fools frequently referred to in the book are not labeled female.   I hope this dispatches with any claims that the book is misogynist.


A Couple of Concluding Notes:  I wonder if Peter borrowed from verse 10:12 — “… love covers all transgressions” — when he wrote that “love covers a multitude of sins” (I Peter 4:8).   See also James 5:20 (“he who turns a sinner from the error of his way will save his soul from death, and will cover a multitude of sins”).

Now that I’m a man of a certain age, I especially like 17:6 (“Grandchildren are the crown of old men, And the glory of sons is their fathers”).