Among the books which comprise the corpus of Scripture that are inherently demanding to sermonize, the book of Proverbs remains the chief culprit. Pastors, teachers, and scholars have, for centuries, grappled with the monolith of wisdom that is the book of Proverbs. Disparate conclusions as to the book’s intent have often led students of the Word into vastly different camps of scriptural interpretation. Nevertheless, the best approach one can take when apprehending the meaning of Proverbs is to begin by defining wisdom itself.
One of the primary misconceptions regarding the OT proverbs remains the notion that the wisdom delivered through them is “purely secular and rational.”1 The absence of overtly theological references can easily sway one to such a conclusion. However, this would then make the sage’s wisdom throughout the proverbs more akin to advice — as if he was disseminating the ethical recipe for a virtuous life. But despite the apparent lack of overt allusions to the redemptive meta-narrative of Scripture, one should not rush to conclude that Proverbs is antithetical to the rest of biblical theology. Indeed, as T. Longman III asserts, “the concept of wisdom is not simply a practical skill but is a theological idea.”2
This can be seen, for example, as one wrestles with the implications of a particularly celebrated piece of wisdom in Proverbs 22:6: “Start a youth out on his way; even when he grows old he will not depart from it.” Under the auspices of sage advice, this proverb might be understood as a consequent promise if adhered to; but that promise takes a dark turn if the youth fails to abide by the wisdom instilled in him by his parents. This, then, makes the wisdom of Proverbs 22:6 “a reason for guilt: the parent must have done something wrong.”3 Such distorted reading of Proverbs miscarries their fundamental premise, turning them into principles corresponding to karmic promises more than anything else. “It is wrong,” Longman affirms, “to treat proverbs as guaranteeing health, wealth, and prosperity for wise behavior and failure and ultimately death for foolish behavior.”4 Such formulaic assumptions fail to reckon with the apparent frustrations of life itself.
Living wisely does not necessarily guarantee that one’s life will be opulent or effortless. (Prv 19:1; Ecc 7:15) This does not mean, as the Preacher of Ecclesiastes would similarly argue, that wisdom should be jettisoned because of its inability to guarantee one rich rewards. Rather, wisdom ought to be pursued because of its ability to manage and minimize life’s inherent frustrations. (Prv 4:23; cf. Ecc 11:10) “A proverb,” Longman avers, “does not give guarantees; rather, it indicates the best route to a desired end.”5
What is that end? It is much more than ethical or unethical living. Such is the precise inference of Proverbs 1—9, which pits the voices of Lady Wisdom and Lady Folly against one another for the audience of a young man, or young men in general. (Prv 1:20–33; 8:1–36) The chorus of proverbs relating to wisdom and folly climaxes in chapter 9, in which the consequent ends are explicitly articulated. (Prv 9:1–6, 13–18) “The point is,” comments Longman, “that the very ideas of wisdom and folly are religious concepts.”6 The choice represented by the sage’s scenario of competing voices between which one must decide which to listen to, is, then, “no less than a fundamental religious choice between the true God and false gods.”7 It is the fear of God alone, learned through the teachings of Lady Wisdom, that afford one the ability to choose the right path on which to walk throughout life. (Prv 1:7; 9:10)
Thus understood, “Proverbs is more than a collection of observations, prohibitions and admonitions,” writes Longman. “At its foundation, Proverbs describes wisdom as a relationship.”8 A deeply theological relationship which finds its culmination not merely in the adherence of wise sayings but in the personification of Wisdom herself in the person and work of Jesus Christ. (Prv 9:3–6, 16–17; cf. 1 Cor 1:30; Col 1:15–16; 2:3) “Jesus is Wisdom herself,” Longman asserts.9 He is Wisdom enfleshed and embodied. This, then, heightens the importance of the sage’s choice of paths between which one must decide: paths of righteousness or paths of darkness. (Prv 1:10–15; 2:13–15, 20; cf. Mt 7:13–14) “The gospel choice,” as Longman concludes, “is a decision whether or not to follow Jesus.”10 Therefore, Proverbs is about much more than ethical or unethical living. It is about life and death.
O. Eissfeldt, quoted in T. Longman III, “Proverbs: Book Of,” Dictionary of the Old Testament: Wisdom, Poetry & Writings, edited by Tremper Longman III and Peter Enns (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2008), 549.