How do we read a book full of fortune cookies? Proverbs is a book full of lots of good ideas, though it often seems to contradict itself (Prov 26:4 with 26:5; 3:9-10 with 13:23). More so, how do we apply it to our lives under the rule of Jesus? Are proverbs always true? If not, when are they?
Old Testament scholar Tremper Longman has written a very helpful, short, and easy-to-read introduction on how to read Proverbs. He divides the book into three sections:
- Understanding Proverbs
- Reading Proverbs in Context
- Following the Themes in Proverbs
In Part One: Understanding Proverbs, answer the “why?” question of reading Proverbs. We should read Proverbs because it guides us on the path of life (chs 1-2). It teaches us how to handle life’s problems, how to deal with difficult people and uncomfortable situations, and how do we express our emotions. The book’s purpose is to make us wise. But isn’t wisdom over how to be handy, how to find a job, or how to make a great cup of coffee. We are to learn instruction what is “right, and just, and fair” (Prov 1:3). These are ethical terms, and we cannot be wise without them.
In chapter 3, Longman shows how Proverbs points us to Woman Wisdom (God’s wisdom embodied in this literary character in Prov 1-9) and away from Woman Folly (as well as the strange and immoral women). The wise person “must be open to God’s foundational role in the world and in their lives” (20). Fools are excluded from God’s life-giving wisdom because they reject God.
Longman understands Woman Wisdom as a representation of God’s wisdom. In Prov 9:3 we read that “her house is located in ‘the heights overlooking the city’” (33). In Israel, the building on the high point of the city was the temple. Woman Wisdom represents God, and Lady Folly the false gods (such as Asherah and Baal).
In chapters 4 and 5, Longman explains different forms of Proverbs and whether or not proverbs are always true. So “a proverb is only accepted as true if applied at the right time,” and “proverbs are not intended to be universally true statements” (38). A single proverb gives us only a slice of life. Longman surveys how parallelism, antithetical parallelism, and the “better-than” proverbs function, as well as how imagery is meant to be used and understood.
The wise person knows when to apply a Proverb. We see this in Proverbs 15:23,
“A person takes joy in giving an answer;
and a timely word—how good that is!”
A wise person knows when to speak and use a proverb tactfully. A fool does not, and it is to others’ harm.
Proverbs 26:7, “A proverb in the mouth of a fool
is like lame legs that hang limp.”
Proverbs 26:9, “A proverb in the mouth of a fool
is like a stick with thorns,
brandished by the hand of a drunkard.”
As Longman notes,
The two quoted proverbs are pointed in their imagery. A paralyzed leg does not help a person walk, so a proverb does not help a fool act wisely. According to the second saying, a fool’s use of a proverb may be worse than ineffective, it may even be dangerous. Using a thornbush as a weapon would hurt the wielder as well as the one being struck. (50)
Longman helpfully applies this idea to Proverbs 23:13-14,
“Don’t withhold discipline from a youth;
if you punish him with a rod, he will not die.
Punish him with a rod,
and you will rescue his life from Sheol.”
This is not law. Parents don’t need to beat their kids for fear that they might end up in the fires of hell. First off, the word for “hell” here (sheol) really means “the grave.” The proverb is teaching that an undisciplined child can engage in behavior that will lead to an early grave (like reckless driving for a teenager).
Longman emphasizes the wisdom of knowing your own child when he writes, “Some children won’t respond at all to physical punishment; indeed, it may hasten their path to the grave. Others may not need physical punishment but simply a strong reprimand. The key is that parents must know their child and the situation as they apply any proverb” (57).
In Part Two: Reading Proverbs in Context, Longman compares biblical proverbs with other wisdom literature from the surrounding ANE nations (ch 6). Solomon and the wise sages of Israel lived in an international context (1 Kgs 4), just like how we live in a global context today.
Longman writes that “there is little doubt that Israel’s wise teachers read, understood, adapted, and appropriated the wisdom of their (pagan!) neighbors.
Does this tell us something about how we should view our own, non-Christian culture, as well as other cultures worldwide?” (77). While we should be on guard against the seductive power of the surrounding pagan culture, we need to be thoughtful observers who reflect on the world around us through a gospel-lens.
In Chapter 7, Longman summarizes the main messages of Job and Ecclesiastes, showing that they are not in disagreement with Proverbs. Humans are not wise on their own. Only God is wise. We are to submit and repent (Job 42:5-6) as we understand God’s greatness. In Ecclesiastes, to put it very simply, “apart from God: life is difficult and then you die” (89). Neither Job, Ecclesiastes, nor Proverbs have a mechanical view of divine retribution. Sometimes the wicked become rich and live happy lives (or at least comfortable lives), and sometimes the righteous have rough lives, but that doesn’t mean they are being punished for some sin.
Chapter 8 shows wisdom being played out in the lives of Joseph (and the comparison between the immoral woman and Lady Folly) and Daniel.
Chapter 9, is titled “Where Is God in Proverbs? Christ, the Treasure of God’s Wisdom.” I think the title is a bit misleading because the focus on “God in Proverbs” is on Woman Wisdom in Proverbs 8. This doesn’t really answer the question of where God is in Prov 10-31. That said, this has somewhat been answered in other chapters since Woman Wisdom represents God, and Proverbs 1-9 lay the foundation of godly wisdom for the rest of the book.
As Longman argues, Jesus is not literally Woman Wisdom. In Proverbs 8, Woman Wisdom is a metaphor, and as a metaphor, the father in Proverbs is not saying God is female, nor that God created a separate deity at the beginning of time to help him create all things. The eternal Son created all things (John 1:1-3; Col 1:15-17; Heb 1:1-3). Prov 8:22-31 makes the point that “God created the cosmos by virtue of his age-old wisdom” (104).
Longman again, wanting to prevent theological error, writes “Woman Wisdom is not a pre-incarnate form of the second person of the Trinity” (110). Rather, “the association between Jesus and Woman Wisdom in the New Testament is a powerful way of saying that Jesus is the embodiment of God’s Wisdom” (110).
I will say that Part Two was my least favorite section compared with the rest of the book. The content was good, but I thought chapters 6-8 were too long and crowded out other insights that could have been here instead. Comparing biblical proverbs with those in the ANE is important, but I don’t imagine most laypeople will give a hoot about it, really. A few comparisons would have been enough to show us the importance of observing the surrounding culture through the lens Proverbs (and the whole Bible) gives us.
In Part Three: Following the Themes in Proverbs, Longman takes a thematic approach and surveys the topics of money, women, and speaking wisely and foolishly in Proverbs. He also explains how you would go about performing such a study yourself.
As he does in The Fear of the Lord is Wisdom, Longman notes that the father is speaking to his son, and at times he teaches him to stay away from immoral women. But what if you are a women? Everything the father says to his son he could easily say to his daughter—stay away from the immoral man.
Longman’s conclusion provides principles for reading the book of Proverbs, which are tips collected from earlier sections of the book plus a few more. He ends with a final word, an appendix on authorship and date, and a second appendix on recommended commentaries.
I quite enjoyed reading this book. Longman is to be commended for writing a clear and simple introduction that is very easy for laypeople to read. Though I don’t think many would find chapter 6 very interesting, I think they would appreciate the summaries of both the books of Job and Ecclesiastes and their take on wisdom (ch 7), as well as the summaries of Joseph and Daniel’s lives and how they correspond to wisdom being lived out.
Teachers wanting to get a quick handle on Proverbs ought to pick up Longman’s book. They will go far if they use Longman’s principles in their study.
- Series: How to Read
- Author: Tremper Longman III
- Hardcover: 176 pages
- Publisher: IVP Academic (September 12, 2002)
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