Pete Enns & The Bible for Normal People

7 Things You Need to Know about How the Book of Proverbs Works

In this episode, Pete works through 7 big-picture issues that help us see what Proverbs is all about and why the idea of Wisdom is such an absolutely central and vital biblical concept that many know very little about.

Read the transcript

Pete Enns: You’re listening to the Bible for Normal People, the only God-ordained podcast on the internet. Serious talk about the sacred book. I’m Pete Enns.

Jared Byas: and I’m Jared Byas.

Pete Enns: Hello everybody. Welcome to another solo podcast, where Pete once again attempts to be coherent all by himself without Jared’s adult supervision. I do the best that I can and today’s topic is one that’s really really close to my heart. It’s a book that I’ve come to really just sort of sit under especially in my adult years for a whole lot of reasons and it’s the Book of Proverbs.

So, here are seven things you need to know about how the Book of Proverbs works. 7 things–that’s a biblical number so you know that I’m right. And how the Book of Proverbs works, well let’s just hold on, and we’ll walk through these things and hopefully, it’ll give you a big picture view of how this book works and what it’s designed to do, if that’s even the right way of putting it. What it is, what it isn’t, and what it’s great value is because I think the Book of Proverbs has resonances beyond simply the Book of Proverbs. I think it’s actually a model for us for much bigger and better things.

Wisdom as a Central Concept in the Bible: Joseph and the Coat of Many Colors (1:18)

So, this is a central concept in the Bible. You see wisdom that is not just in Proverbs, but it’s sort of baked into a lot of other books of the Old Testament. And one good example is the story of Joseph. People refer to that, Scholars typically refer that as sort of a wisdom story because, you know, God is not interacting and telling Joseph what to do–do this and do that. He’s just employing his own wisdom to finally navigate his way to a place of wisdom.

At the beginning, he’s sort of a spoiled mama’s boy, or daddy’s boy, because his mother’s not around, but spoiled daddy’s boy where he’s got the coat of many colors and he brags to his brothers, “I’m gonna rule over you and you’re gonna bow down to me.” In return, they throw him down a well and then sell him to traders who go down to Egypt, whereas the story goes, as you know he becomes second in command and he saves Egypt from famine and eventually saves his whole family when they come down. And for a while, he plays with them. He tricks them and it’s a very dramatic story. But see, God’s not really involved in it.

And at the end of the story what you see is Joseph having grown up. He’s gained wisdom because he says “What you meant for evil, God meant for good.” See he learned this lesson. So it’s a story of wisdom gained. And we can go on and on about that, but it’s a central concept and an important concept. And for me, it’s a liberating concept because of how it affects how we look at the Christian life. At least that’s for me. And that’s some of the stuff that I want to share with you–how it works and what difference it makes.

The Structure of Proverbs (3:00)

So first of all, this is number one for those of you keeping score at home. The structure of the book–now these are sometimes very boring discussions, but this is going someplace. I want to say something briefly about the structure. It’s 31 chapters. The first nine chapters are not the Proverbs themselves, but it’s an introduction to the book. We’re going to get into that introduction very shortly, but it’s just enough to know it’s the theological introduction to the book and then the Proverbs themselves begin in Chapter 10 and they go through Chapter 31.

So you’ve got 31 chapters and the first nine is a long introduction that you’re not really sure where it’s going at first, but it’s a very powerful introduction. And then you have the actual proverbs themselves.

And just pause on that second half a little bit–this actually tells us something also about the book and its history maybe even its authorship. See when you start in Chapter 10 and then you go through Chapter 22, about halfway through Chapter 22, that whole section of 13 chapters, is the sayings of Solomon. And, of course, Solomon is the one to whom this book is attributed. The book begins that way, you know, the Proverbs of Solomon. And that’s fine.

But, when you start in the middle of 22, verse 17 to be specific. Through 24, so a couple of chapters. It has a different heading. There we read, it’s the Words of the Wise. mmkay. That’s interesting. And what’s also interesting there is that there’s a section in there that looks an awful lot like a well-known, at least to scholars, a well-known Egyptian wisdom text by this guy named Amenemope. Yes, I just said that. Amenemope. Say that 10 times fast.

Who wrote the Book of Proverbs?

The point though is that it seems like and it is probably the case–most Scholars will say something like this–that this section of Proverbs, that is written by “the wise”, not Solomon but the wise, might be lifting stuff from this Egyptian text. Which is, I think, just totally groovy because wisdom has a universal appeal anyway. All cultures in the ancient world have wisdom traditions and there’s some engagement between Egypt and Israel at various times in their histories. It’s just not a big deal. But the point is that someone else wrote and compiled these.

Then you get to Chapter 25 and now through Chapter 29, you have more sayings of Solomon (so we’re back to Solomon). But the thing is, these sayings of Solomon were collected by the men of Hezekiah’s court. And who is Hezekiah? Well, Hezekiah is one of the kings of Judah who reigned after the empire split into North and South. In fact, after the northern empire came to an end in 722 BCE, that’s when Hezekiah is reigning over the southern nation of Judah. My point here is that it’s around 700 BC when Hezekiah is King and it’s his men who collected other proverbs of Solomon and put them together.

So Solomon probably died, roughly speaking, around 930 BCE, so this is now a good 200, maybe as much as 250, years later that this book still has life. And you might say, well, why would the Bible do that? That seems ridiculous. You know, the Bible would never just evolve like this. But, it is. Because when they’re sitting down to write the Book of Proverbs, they’re not thinking about writing a Bible. They’re recording the wisdom of their tradition and the wisdom of their King. And it’s happening in stages and by different people.

And then when you get to the end of the book, Chapters 30 and 31, you have a section by this person named Agur and then in Chapter 31, at least the first nine verses, you have this guy Lemuel. And, boy oh boy, nobody really knows what’s going on. Who are these people? We have no idea. Are they really their names? Are they pen names, pseudonyms, false names? Is it somebody else? No one really knows who these people are, but somebody thought they were important enough to put their words in this collection.

And then the book rounds off in Chapter 31 with the noble wife, or the noble woman, or translations put it different and we’ll get to that cause that’s a very important section of the book.

But, you see, my point is that you have this two-part structure. And then you have, in the second half (10-31), you’ve got these layers of proverbs written by different people, collected by different people. So the book itself has an evolution. Nobody sat down at one point in time and wrote down the Book of Proverbs as we know it today. It probably evolved and was added to over time.

And if somebody actually did sit down and write it sort of from scratch, it had to be after the year 700. And who knows how long, right? Because that’s when Hezekiah is mentioned. Who knows how long that would be. The problem is there’s no indication in Proverbs of when it was actually written or when the parts were written other than Hezekiah–the mention of Hezekiah–because there are no real historical clues in it. I mean, sometimes in some books you can just see, oh gosh, this must be after the exile or this must be after the conquest because these things are talked about. You know, the Pentateuch is notorious for that sort of thing. Mentions things that had to be much later. So scholars think, you know, this was probably during the time of the exile the Pentateuch came together.

You don’t really have that here in Proverbs. You don’t have those historical hooks. The best we have is this reference to Hezekiah so there’s something going on there. Okay? Okay, that’s brief. I said this was going to be brief. That’s my brief first point. Don’t hang up. Okay.

Two Types of Proverbs: Sayings and Instructions (9:12)

So, second point. There are two types of Proverbs in the book–starting in Chapter 10, where the actual proverbs are listed. And these two types of proverbs are usually called sayings or sentences. And then instruction. And a saying is like, you know, when we think of proverbs today, “a stitch in time saves nine.” “A stitch in time saves nine.” I don’t even know what that means. “A stitch in time saves nine” or “a penny saved is a penny earned.” It’s a saying. It’s a sentence. It’s a bit of wisdom. It’s a nugget of wisdom.

And if you want to see those in action, you almost can open up to any place you want to–and I’m just going to the very first section here of these proverbs in Chapter 10. “A wise child makes a glad father, but a foolish child as a mother’s grief.” And keep going. It’s like–again and again. It’s pages and pages of entirely these sayings. These sentences. And you have to go flipping around. You might even hear me flipping my pages around here. You have to go to other sections to see a lot of the other kind of proverbs, which are instructions–almost sort of like commands you need to do this.

So for example, I mentioned before the sayings of the wise, which begin in 22:17, you see a whole bunch of instructions there. Maybe you’re driving. Like, don’t open your Bible or anything. But just, yea, when you get home…

Chapter 22. Starting in verse 22. “Do not rob the poor because they are poor or crush the afflicted at the gate, for the Lord pleads their cause and despoils the life of those who despoil them.” See, it starts with a command. An instruction. Don’t do this or do this. So, two types of sayings and they’re both important. Sometimes the saying–you have to sort of look at that and say, “Okay, what is this saying to me?” And likewise, the instructions are a little bit deceptive. We’re going to get to this a little later, but they’re a little bit deceptive because they look like they’re eternal and unchanging commands, but it’s a lot more complicated than that. And it’s good news by the way that it’s complicated. This book forces us to grapple with the information. We’ll get back to that.

Okay, so that’s the second point. That was relatively brief. I’m proud of myself.

Proverbs Intended for Young Men Entering Elite Courtly Service (11:40)

Third point. Hopefully even briefer. Is that, and this is something that scholars debate, but by and large–and this is my opinion too, but buy and large it’s agreed upon that this book was originally intended for young men. Probably adolescent age (very important detail) who are being trained for some type of life of like elite courtly service. That is a very important point because it explains why the Book of Proverbs, especially this theological introduction in 1 to 9, talks the way that it does.

So, just keep that in mind. Young men in the court.

Now you might be saying, “Okay, well what about me? What about a young woman? What about all that kind of stuff?” Yea, we’ll get to that.

But, I’m saying originally the intention of this book was for young men entering life in the court and leadership and having to rule. And having to have wisdom in order to rule well, or supervise well other people. So, that’s the third point.

The Personifications of Lady Wisdom and Lady Folly (12:50)

The fourth point–we’re going to connect this with the young men issue in a second.

The fourth issue is, in Chapters 1 to 9, the idea of wisdom is personified. And personification is just a fancy word that means you take an abstract concept and you make it into a person. So you have a couple of personifications in Chapters 1 to 9.

One is wisdom itself. And wisdom is Lady Wisdom and she’s described in various ways. One of which is that she goes around and stands at the crossroads and calls out to people saying “Follow me, listen to me, heed what I say.”

Another personification is the opposite of wisdom, which is foolishness or, in most Bibles will say something like folly. So you have Lady Wisdom and you have Lady Folly.

And they’re personified as both sort of competing to grab the attention of these young men, these naive simpletons who have not lived long enough to know when they’re being trapped. To know a good thing when they see it. They have to be trained and wisdom.

Okay? Got that? So here. Here goes.

In this theological introduction, Lady Folly is, oh here’s the word, concretized as a loose woman. So, Lady Folly is this personification of this abstract concept of foolishness. What is foolishness? Well, she’s personified as a woman.

But then almost–and I’m going to use this word advisedly–almost like an incarnation of Lady Folly is this adulterous woman or loose woman or strange woman, as she’s called and various translations. So you have Lady Wisdom, personification of wisdom, Lady Folly, personification of folly, but then you also have this other character who is like this embodiment–a concrete embodiment of folly and this is a loose adulterous woman. Okay, why?

Because this book is geared towards young men who are adolescents, who are driven by testosterone. Things don’t change that much over history, right? So, the point here is to grab the attention of the young man and to use maybe what would be about as tempting as anything for them as an example of folly.

Okay, it’s not that sex is bad because the point is that this loose woman is an adulterous woman. She’s married and her husband goes on a trip and she says, “Come on inside and let’s do it,” right? “He’s not going to be home for a long time, and we’re safe, and we’ll get away with this, and no one will know.”

What I think is really really important here for understanding this image of this personification of wisdom–again, don’t open your Bibles when you’re driving–but, it basically concerns sort of the middle section chapters 5 to 7. Chapter 5, it’s all about this loose woman and she’s a loose woman and don’t go near her and she’s bad bad bad, right?

So, it’s a warning against this loose adulterous woman.

Chapter 6, at least the first part of it, through like verse 19 or so. It shifts gears entirely to, or what seems to, it shifts gears to talk about warning against falling folly, against foolishness. Not the loose women or the adulterous woman, but against foolishness. And there you see topics addressed. It’s a brief section, but it’s topics like finances, speech–big issue in Proverbs–what comes out of your mouth is very important, how you speak. Gossip, slander, things like that.

These verses in Chapter 6, they already anticipate many of the themes that you’re gonna see in that second half of the book (10-31). So what?

Well, after this section, starting around 6:20 and going into way in the end of Chapter 7 is this extended discussion again of the loose woman. So, just think Chapter 5 and then some of Chapter 6 and Chapter 7, you have these warnings against the loose women. Smack dab in the middle of that, you have a warning against folly. And the point of that is to make it very very clear that resisting folly in any form is like resisting the loose woman.

Or let me put it negatively. Giving in to slander or gossip or treating people unjustly and unfairly as a ruler. When you do that, it’s no different than giving in to the adulterous woman. See, the little things in life have major graphic implications. So you read Proverbs and there’s a lot of mundane stuff and some stuff that just seem like this just doesn’t seem too important. It’s all important because you always have a choice, young man. Listen my son, as the Book of Proverbs repeats. You always have a choice whether you’re going to follow Wisdom or you’re going to follow Folly and foolishness.

And when you follow Wisdom, you’re following the right lady. When you’re following Folly and foolishness by saying the wrong things, or being prideful or hurtful towards other people or unjust and showing partiality and judgements–things like that–at that point, you’re basically committing adultery. And that’s a graphic lesson for young men to learn. And that’s why this book is structured the way it is.

See, this is why when we read these nine chapters, we might want to minimize the sexual focus of these chapters. Maybe it’s embarrassing, we don’t worry about it in church, we don’t want to explain things to our kids, blah, blah, blah. But when we think about why this book was written and its purpose for being written, well, you realize, no, that it’s actually very important for understanding the theology of the text. That there are no little things in life. Everything’s a big thing. Everything is a choice between Wisdom and Folly. Let me illustrate it for you by this example that I know you’re going to get.

…..our transcribing squirrels are busy working. More coming soon!

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In this episode of The Bible for Normal People Podcast, Pete and Jared tackle the question: Do we know God is good from the Bible? If you have a question for Pete & Jared, submit it on the Ask Pete page of the website and it might be featured on an upcoming blog post or podcast episode.

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  • “How can you be certain God is loving? I can’t – in that intellectual sense. I can’t say, ‘Here’s how I am certain.’” @peteenns

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