When a few weeks ago we first encountered ‘Wisdom Literature’ I wrote of Proverbs as a book of practical wisdom for building a good life. One commentator on the book quotes the old children’s prayer ‘Make the bad people good, and the good people nice’, illustrating the fact that there are many decision we have to make about the way we live which may not be governed by law, but which nevertheless have the power to be ‘nice’ or not. This is the territory of Proverbs, a collection of short sayings or maxims which, if we take notice of them, will make life better for us and for all concerned.
Although the book has been traditionally associated with Solomon, like the Psalms with respect to David it is probably more complex than that. We talk about ‘The Psalms of David’ not in the sense that we believe all of them came from his pen, but in the sense that he is, as it were, the ‘patron saint’ of psalmody. In the same way Solomon is the patron saint of wisdom, but not all this material comes from him: indeed the text tells us that parts were written (or maybe complied) by Agur, Lemuel, and ‘the Wise Men’. The compilation of these different collections of sayings must have happened at a stage much later than much of the original material, again like the Psalms.
Proverbs does not make easy reading, and even harder preaching. It’s a bit like that old joke about someone who read the phone book: not a very good story, but a lot of characters. There are some longer sections which do hang together: instructions on how to use the material in chapter 1, the beautiful hymn in celebration of Wisdom in chapter 8, and the qualities of a good wife in chapter 31 are the most famous. But the bulk of the book is simply a collection of apparently unrelated sayings. Much scholarly ink has been used in trying to find some way of organising the text and making sense of it, but it is probably best not to try too hard.
It has been said that the specifically religious content of Proverbs is a bit thin. There is plenty of sound advice, but you don’t need to be in a special relationship with God in order to heed it and benefit from it. However the recurring assertion that ‘The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom’ tells us that faith isn’t the icing on the cake of a good life, as many today believe, but that it is the foundation-stone. There is also a clear sense of sin which shines through: 20:9 asks ‘Who can say, ‘I have kept my heart pure; I am clean and without sin’? with the obvious implied answer ‘No-one!’ This isn’t just good morality: there is accountability built in. Practical repentance is necessary, and without this even good observances, such as hearing the Law (28:9) is worse than useless.
Whilst I’m all in favour of getting the big picture, and reading biblical books through in one sitting, maybe the best way to handle Proverbs is just one verse at a time, in a long-term project. Who knows – maybe I’ll write a blog called ‘Through Proverbs in just under a millennium’?