Proverbs: An Introduction

Like I said in my previous post, we’ll be taking the next few months to get an in-depth look at Proverbs. Before we really get started though, it’s important to know some background information. This is actually stuff that I hadn’t realized before, so hopefully you’ll be able to learn something too. The information we’re discussing here today is probably available in a lot of places, but I’m getting it from the CSB Apologetics Study Bible. I’ve only had it for a couple of weeks, but I’m really liking what I’m seeing out of it so far. But enough with the sale’s pitch, let’s get down to business. Maybe we’ll even defeat a few Huns on the way. Probably not, but who knows?

As most people know, much of Proverbs was written by King Solomon, the son of David. However, it appears that Solomon not only wrote his own observations, he also gathered wisdom from other cultures. At first glance, that might seem counter-intuitive. Why would a man who had prayed for – and received – wisdom straight from God also receive wisdom from pagan peoples? Egypt in particular seems to be one of Solomon’s sources for some of his wisdom. So how does wisdom from a culture that enslaved the Israelites for generations make its way into their holy book?

In order to understand that, you need to first understand how the Israelites looked at wisdom. When you look at the book of Proverbs, you’ll notice that very little of it is actually theological in concept, it’s mostly stating observations about life and how to live a good one. Regardless of the source of the observation, the Israelites understood that God created a universe of order, not chaos. Therefore, it had rules that could be seen and understood by anyone who was paying close enough attention, which is why they didn’t have a problem taking in the wisdom of other cultures.

Although they were open to receiving wisdom from others, there were two main qualifications that needed to be met by each incoming piece of wisdom. First, it could not be derived directly from their religion, as that would go directly against the God who created the order that any wisdom is attempting to understand. Second, as the Author of all knowledge, the Israelites pursued wisdom in reverence to God. They saw wisdom through the lens of their understanding of God, not the other way around. Any piece of wisdom that attempted to usurp that order wasn’t seen as valid.

One issue that I’ve struggled with before is the fact that there are a number of proverbs that seem to either not be entirely accurate on their own merits or even contradict other proverbs. What I’ve learned, though, is that proverbs aren’t meant to be taken at face value. The purpose of a book of wisdom isn’t simply to instill knowledge, it’s to make you think. The ones that seem inaccurate, or at least not wholly true, such as proverbs that state “long life for the righteous, but premature death for the wicked,” say something that obviously isn’t true in all circumstances. But it isn’t supposed to be a law of nature, it’s a statement of general truth. If you live a life of debauchery, you’re much more likely to find yourself at the end of your life much sooner than if you live a healthy, orderly one (Pro-tip: there are plenty of studies out there that show living a Biblical lifestyle will actually improve your life-span and quality of life overall). Then there are the ones that contradict one another. Proverbs 26:4-5 reads like this: “Don’t answer a fool according to his foolishness, or you’ll become like him yourself; answer a fool according to his foolishness, or he’ll become wise in his own eyes.” Obviously, you can’t both answer a fool according to his foolishness and not do it at the same time. So what can we learn from verses like these? Well, like we said earlier, these are statements of general truth, not absolute truth. So in some situations, it’s better to leave the conversation or else be dragged down with the fool, and in others it’s better to have the argument/debate/whatever to show the fool correction. Different circumstances will require different approaches, and Solomon (and the other wisdom writers) recognized this. Proverbs are probably some of the easiest verses to take out of context because there’s no narrative for it to be taken out of, but if you only take 26:4 or 26:5 without the other, you’re omitting crucial data. Many of the proverbs are ambiguous, and that’s done purposefully to provoke thought, not just to allow you to bend it to whatever view you tend to hold.

So as we make our foray into Proverbs, let’s make sure to keep these things in mind: not all of the proverbs came directly from Solomon or even the Israelites, but from around the world (but that doesn’t mean they aren’t valid); wisdom needs to be seen through the lens of an understanding of who God is and how He created the world with order; proverbs are statements of general truths, not absolutes; ambiguous statements are meant to provoke thought, not thoughtlessness.

With all that said, let’s jump in. If you want to join with me, I’ll be reading one chapter of Proverbs per week, re-reading the same chapter each day of the week. I’ll be writing about a different aspect of the chapter each day, focusing in on a couple of verses. Disclaimer: this doesn’t mean I’ll be posting every day, but you’ll probably see at least two or three posts a week from me while we do this (don’t worry, they won’t all be this long, I promise). New chapters will start on Mondays, so this first week will be a little short, but then we’ll have a regular schedule.

Thanks as always for reading, and I’m looking forward to getting a little wiser with all of you.

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