Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Six thoughts on Proverbs

Proverbs can feel like the ultimately accessible book. Pithy sayings that are immediately available and applicable. What are we to make of this book? We have it as we have it - what to make of it's form? What is its message?

I'm no expert, but here's six things that seem worth considering...

#1 Proverbs claims to be by King Solomon.
Like the Song of Songs, and stands as one of the three books (with Ecclesiastes) recognised as being by David's son, though the authorship of all three would be disputed by many. These aren't the words of any old wise person, but of the King. Words for a nation, words for the community - but words that immediately carry a Messianic direction. It's going to be about Jesus.

#2 It offers itself as a book of riddles, asking who can solve the problem! 
Intriguing. The sayings are easy to fit in your mouth but rather chewy, requiring some meditation and careful application. After a while one has to ask whether we're meant to just apply them straight to ourselves or not... the final riddle is the riddle of the wife in chapter 31. Who can find such a woman?

#3 The book comes in five parts, like the Psalms and Pentateuch. 
Five books of Moses, of David, of Solomon. You have to ask why? Part 2 and 3 appear to be a jumble of sayings. Some even suggesting, there is purpose earlier and then Solomon gave up. No attempt is made in the middle sections to collate themes, and so tempting as it is to extract the proverbs from their contexts perhaps they are to be chewed upon as they come? That's not to say - don't collate the themes - it's in the image of God for us to seek The Scheme of Things, but before we schematise, let's hear Scripture as it comes.

Some of these are attributed to Hezekiah's men, suggesting at least some later editing beyond the days of Solomon. Divine inspiration is big enough to handle this. Parts 4 and 5 are brief and more coherently composed. Similarly divine inspiration can handle sections of the Proverbs being borrowed from other wisdom sources in Egypt and beyond, and included where they are in the context of this book in its five parts, and within the Canon. All creation sings of Christ, but we only recognise its song by the word of Christ.

#4 Chapters 1-9 are a coherent proverbial story.
"What do you know when you know a story?", it has been asked. A lot in the case of Proverbs! 

The king teaches a prince about who to marry, primarily. With Solomon evidently not being the Messianic Son of David, we have to ask whether his son will be... or his son... or his son. This is a classic gospel story. Will this son be like the First Adam and give his heart to folly, or will he be a second and last Adam who could give himself to Lady Wisdom? A similar question can be asked of The Blessed Man in David's Penta-songbook. Is he so wise that he is the wisdom that was with the Father before creation itself? The Son will take a bride... but who? This is gospel. The righteous one will be blessed. This is gospel. The cross may not be fully spelled out - though it is unsubtly implicit in all the talk of marriage. The stage is well and truly set. The Christ is the Wise one, and those who trust him become wise in him. Christ is our wisdom. His name is Jesus.
(Much credit to Peter Leithart's The Dramatic Structure of Proverbs.)

Proverbs 8 is vital to understand Christ. In the early church and perhaps as recently as Spurgeon and others, it has been obvious that this referred to Christ. The heretic Arius said it implied that Christ was created, to which the church fathers said it means Christ is "begotten not made!" - and then in our day we say it's not even about Christ at all... let us recover the one at the heart of all the Scriptures.

#5 Who is the Proverbs 31 wife?
Is she a model for all women - a high capacity stay-home Mum running a global business from the household? A soul-destroying portrait of perfection or a source of inspiration? Or is she rather The bride of the Wise Son? Might the story climax with his spotless bride? A portrait of the church? Is the answer to the riddle - the Son who gave himself to win a bride for himself?

#6 First The Son, then us in the Son.
Because the kings son is wise then there is wisdom for us to follow as we entrust ourselves to the son who was tested and disciplined and remained faithful. As we live in him with changed hearts and relationships, our hearts, our words, our work, our relationships begin to become more wise. Not simplistically rule keeping but wisely following Jesus, bearing much fruit in him. Wise living and Spirit-filled living coincide. Live by a list of Proverbs and you cut yourself off from Christ, live in Christ and Proverbs are rocket-fuel in your renewed heart, love languages, patterns by which to be entrusted to Christ, to live with his people and to serve all who bear his image in his world.


  1. Interesting article, thank you. I must read Leithart's book. I'm working on Proverbs at the moment, and have a theory on ch.8 which ties in with much of what you've written, that if true influences the application elsewhere too. I'd value your thoughts.

    I was thinking about how Jesus as a youngster would have read this. Solomon (or possibly David addressing Solomon as some take it) is talking to his son, or his Son, as surely he must have had 2 Sam 7 in mind. He implores his Son to marry wisdom, who speaks herself in ch.8. As you say, marrying wisdom and keeping in step with the Spirit in are actually the same life, described in two different ways. Wisdom then is the fruit of the LORD fearing, Spirit-filled life, and the bride in 31 is more than an example to women and a lesson to guys to pick a bride they can build a godly, productive life with rather than just one that looks god in a bikini (though surely it's not less than that either); ultimately as you say it's a portrait of the Spirit-filled Church.

    My hesitation is that I have found lots of people (as you mention) who see ch.8 as the voice of Christ; I'm yet to find anyone who reads it as the voice of the Spirit. I think ch.1-9 make sense as a plea primarily to Christ but also to all who follow him to resist temptation and grow in wisdom i.e. be increasingly filled and in step with the Holy Spirit, but think that having an unusual take on a passage compared with Church history is rarely a good thing!

  2. I've heard people say its the Spirit, but I forget who!