Our daily reading plan is moving us from one book of wisdom poetry to another. We are leaving Job and coming into Proverbs.
Proverbs is not like the other books of the Bible. Most books of the Bible are “narratives”. They tell a story of one sort or another, and they are based around a single theme. Even the books of Law which give staccato commandments have some logical arrangement of those commandments, placing them in an order that makes sense and communicates a larger truth.
But that’s not what Proverbs does. Rather, Proverbs simply complies a selection of wisdom statements which King Solomon either wrote or at least knew. There is little if any context to or organization of these statements. There is just a catalogue or collection of them. They are just presented as a list. One proverb simply follows another which follows another which follows another.
What this means is that Proverbs is pretty much “Solomon’s greatest hits”. The book does not collect all the wisdom proverbs Solomon wrote.1 Kings 4:32-33 says he wrote 3,000 proverbs, and not all of those are here. Nor are his speeches about nature.
So what proverbs are collected here must be the best of the best. This must be the best wisdom the king had to offer.
And here are some of my favorites.
The Parent-Child Talk
While it is true that Proverbs does not have the narrative or organization the other books of the Bible have, it is not true that it has zero organization. There is some organization to the book, a structure that may be loose but is nonetheless there.
This organization is most evident in the first nine chapters. These chapters are intended to be an introduction to the book, educating readers about the importance of wisdom and encouraging them to pursue it. They are presented as a parent speaking to a child, and thus I call them “the parent-child talk”.
This talk is different from most of Proverbs. While it is poetry, it is not the standalone couplets that fill most of chapters 10-29, that is, “proverbs” proper. Rather, the talk is made of longer poems that are more like psalms or prophecies.
In these poems are some well-known, treasured verses. We have the “guard your heart” statement of 4:23 (which is the closest thing to a “life verse” I have), the “trust in the Lord with all your heart” statement of 5:5, and the warning against the adulteress in chapters 5-7.
This parent-child talk is the kind of talk I hope to give my child someday, and it is the kind I am happy to receive from my Heavenly Father in these pages.
It is impossible to pick a favorite proverb from the proverbs section. This section runs roughly from chapters 10-29. Most of the proverbs in these chapters are what I called “proverbs proper” above: pithy sayings of just two lines each. There is are a couple groupings around chapter 22 called “Sayings of the Wise” and “Further Sayings of the Wise” which have slightly longer proverbs, but everything in this chapter is still pretty much proverbial.
And there are too many of these proverbial sayings to pick one favorite. You may not realize it at first, but when you think about it you will discover that you know and like many of these proverbs. So picking a favorite is hard.
I can say, though, that I particularly like the ones about “dishonest weights and measures”. There are several proverbs which encourage us to be honest in business dealings, and for some reason that resonates with me. I like the proverbs about the sluggard, too; there are again several of those. There are also several about “the fool” that strike me fairly hard (fool in biblical terminology is not the insult Jesus forbade in Matthew 5:22 but an honest evaluation about someone living in an unwise manner).
There are even some funny ones. The NIV seems to sap the humor out of most of them, but you can see that humor in other translations. For example, in a longer discussion about alcohol in chapter 23, Solomon depicts a person who can’t learn from their bad experience. He puts it this way:
I don’t know whether you find that or any of the other proverbs funny, but you certainly can’t deny their goodness.
The Sayings of Agur and King Lemuel
Near the end of the book we get two short sections that are different from the others. These are called “The Sayings of Agur” (30:1-33) and “The Sayings of King Lemuel” (31:1-9). I don’t know who these men are. They may just be pen names for Solomon, or they may be men Solomon respected and borrowed from. In either case, their sayings are different.
Agur’s sayings are a little longer than other proverbs. Several of them talk about things in groups of four. They also seem more “earthly” to me. That is, they “seem” (and that could be the operative word) to be less about spiritual matters and more about physical matters. For example, in 30:19, he talks about “the way of a man with a maiden”. That’s usually not something we preach about in church, but it is a reality of life. Agur talks about that reality and several others in his proverbs.
King Lemuel records three things his mother told him: stay away from wild women, don’t drink, and be fair. His mom certainly knew what she was talking about
The Woman of Noble Character
More of the loose structure of Proverbs is seen in chapter 31:10-31. There we get what is considered “the epilogue” of the book. This epilogue is a longer poem about “The Wife of Noble Character”. It describes a woman who does wonderful things and is praised by both her family and God for it.
I have heard that some ladies are intimidated by this final poem. They feel it sets a standard they can’t meet. But that is not the way it is to be read. This poem is not meant to tell ladies, “Look at the standard you aren’t living up to.” Rather, it is telling them, “Look at what you can be.” In that way, it is the same as the requirements for elders and pastors in Timothy and Titus. It is not eliminating people but encouraging people. That’s how I hope our ladies are taking this poem.
Living the Proverbs
Proverbs is not a book that can simply be read. None of the books of the Bible are, but Proverbs really isn’t. Rather, it is a book to be lived. The wisdom collected in this book is meant to be consulted over and over again. It is to be something that comes to mind when it is needed and then put into practice.
Reading, of course, is the first step to that process. But remember that you aren’t done with this book after you have read it. You are actually just starting. This book is meant to come out in your life. And if you give it some time and energy, it will.