Proverbs and Wisdom Literature

In the church where I grew up, parents frequently requested prayer that their wayward adult children would return to God. This request involved two very emotional issues. The first was: the parent didn’t want their child tortured for eternity in hell fire. This is very sad because they believed hell was where God poured out his wrath on those he hated; they didn’t understand that the Father loves us all and is not interested in punishing us.

The second emotional issue in this request is perhaps even more sad and hurtful; the parents, and the rest of the church, believed that God promised a positive result for their children if parents would just do their job. So the eternal torture of their children was the parents’ fault.

Proverbs of Solomon

Train Up a Child

Proverbs chapter 22 clearly says (in the King James Version which we read):

Train up a child in the way he should go: and when he is old, he will not depart from it.

We understood God’s promise this way: if parents train children as they should then they will never depart from following God. Therefore, if they do depart it is clear that the parent failed to train them properly. What other explanation is there?

Contrite as parents might be, they had failed. And their children were now on the road to hell because of them. Parents bore tremendous guilt and pain for this failure.

However, this verse isn’t a promise at all; it’s a proverb—a bit of wisdom that is generally applicable to life. Of course it is better to train a child well than to allow negative influences to guide them or for parents to model negative behaviors. This is the wisdom of the passage; it is excellent advice, but to claim it as a promise from God is cruel.

This proverb is part of a large collection of Jewish wisdom literature in the Old Testament that includes the books of Job, Psalms, Proverbs, Song of Solomon, and Ecclesiastes. Wisdom literature was common in the ancient Near East, and nations shared wisdom with each other. Most of Proverbs chapters 22-24 are borrowed from the Egyptian writing The Instruction of Amenemope.

Biblical wisdom literature is filled with useful insights based on observation and reflection. It is worth reading, but it is not composed of promises or instructions from God.

There is a Way which Seems Right

When I was young I knew there were other religions, but I knew little about them. After I was accepted for a special comparative religions class, I remarked to a friend that I would now learn why Buddhists bowed to Mecca. That class was immeasurably helpful in my development.

But I was still a fundamentalist. One day I could hold back no longer; I had to go on record about these false religions. I told the class that these other religions were wrong. When they asked for evidence I quoted with confidence from Proverbs chapter 14—in King James of course:

There is a way which seemeth right unto a man, but the end thereof are the ways of death.

This verse is so important that it is repeated in Proverbs chapter 16. Without doubt, I knew exactly what it meant: God was saying that Christianity was the right way and all other ways lead to spiritual death.

The teacher responded, “Well that could mean anything!”

I had never considered this before; I had always read the verse in light of what I had been taught. This was my indefensible proof and she destroyed it without effort.

More Recent Proverbs

Proverbs are not limited to the Bible and other ancient Near Eastern literature. A favorite, more recent, writer of proverbs gives us the following:

  • Little strokes fell great oaks
  • Never leave that till to-morrow which you can do to-day
  • Plough deep while sluggards sleep
  • Remember that time is money
  • Early to bed and early to rise, makes a man healthy, wealthy, and wise

Do you recognize who he is? It is Benjamin Franklin of course. We use his proverbs all the time; some of them sound like they come from the Bible. They are good observations because they provide insight into life that is generally applicable.

However, they are not hard and fast rules to live by. Neither are they promises. In fact, there is no authority at all in Benjamin Franklin’s words. It is the same with the proverbs of the Bible; they are good observations and insights, we can often learn something from them, and they are easy to remember. But they are not authoritative and they are not promises.

Proverbs are one of the genres found in the Bible. Another is midrash; we will talk about midrash next time.

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Have a great day! ~Tim
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17 Responses to Proverbs and Wisdom Literature

  1. Pingback: Recognizing Literary Genres in the Bible | Jesus Without Baggage

  2. michaeleeast says:

    Excellent examples Tim.
    I have always felt that the proverbs in the wisdom literature are more worldly wise than spiritual . Compare the Beatitudes with Proverbs. Or the Good Samaritan with Ecclesiastes. Some of the Books of the Apocrypha etc. are similar. I don’t give them the same importance as Jesus words

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    • Michael I like your comparisons, and I agree that Jesus’ words are the most important part of the Bible.

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      • michaeleeast says:

        A recent article claimed that Jesus was an itinerant Jewish sage In the wisdom tradition. While I agree that Jesus was a Jewish sage I do not think that he comes from the wisdom tradition for the reasons I stated above. Loving your enemies is one example. This is not the type of teaching which appears in the wisdom literature. This is much more worldly wise as I have said.

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  3. Chuck Gatlin says:

    My first reaction was “No way!” until I realized that I couldn’t think of a single passage from Proverbs that seemed authoritative in the same way the Gospels or the Ten Commandments do. Thanks for giving me something to mull over.

    The first question that arose was “Maybe the difficulty with some of the passages, where Jesus seems to be saying somethng in one place that appears to contradict something he says elsewhere, is that he’s using the wisdom genre suggested by a particular situation, rather than making a universal statement of teaching that applies to all situations.”

    An analogy would be with his use of humor with the Syro-Phonecian woman (Matthew 15). He banters with her, but we don’t take that as universal instruction to reject a request for assistance with an ethnic retort.

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  4. jamesbradfordpate says:

    What has interested me is how some people have essentially rewritten that Proverbs passage to fit their situations: Train up a child, and when he is old, he will eventually come back to the faith.

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    • James, I was going to mention that but edited it out due to lack of space. But you are exactly right!

      This is what many people in my church HOPED the proverb meant, and they often clung to this interpretation and encouraged distraught parents by telling them God promised their children would return to their parents’ faith.

      Unfortunately, it was obvious that this is not what the ‘inerrant’ proverb says at all.

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  5. lotharson says:

    Hello Tim.

    “However, they are not hard and fast rules to live by. Neither are they promises. In fact, there is no authority at all in Benjamin Franklin’s words. It is the same with the proverbs of the Bible; they are good observations and insights, we can often learn something from them, and they are easy to remember. But they are not authoritative and they are not promises.”

    I thimk we can only begin to appreciate the Bible if we view it as human thoughts about God instead of words directly stemming from the mind of the Almighty.
    For in the latter case it seems we have to conclude He suffered under a split-brain personality and was often quite tyrannic.

    “The first was: the parent didn’t want their child tortured for eternity in hell fire. This is very sad because they believed hell was where God poured out his wrath on those he hated; they didn’t understand that the Father loves us all and is not interested in punishing us.”

    I just wrote one several minutes ago a post arguing that no sensitive and sensible person can live consistently with such a belief in endless suffering for so many people.

    If you found the time, it would be great if you could share with us your own past struggles there. Your contributions to my posts are always a great enrichment, even when I do not completely agree.

    Lovely greetings and blessings.

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    • Lothar, I like your statement that we should understand the Bible as human thoughts about God instead of words directly stemming from the mind of the Almighty. This would be so helpful to us who follow Jesus.

      I haven’t seen you blog post yet for today. I will read it in a little while.

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  6. Jane Wilson says:

    I appreciate this post today. One of my involuntary past times these days seems to be coming up with way more questions than answers around things that were never supposed to be questioned at all. And one of those questions is, now that all of my black and whiteness is falling away, what do I teach my kids??? This is such a huge thing for parents in church settings – training your child correctly. Of course it is in nearly every sphere, but there is a lot of pressure on parents in the churches I have been involved in. I did have an interesting discussion with my 6 year old about the midrash tradition this week – we are both learning together!! And I am learning that it is not all on my shoulders alone.

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    • Jane, you and your 6 year old are learning about midrash together! How wonderful!

      I believe two important keys to raising children the right way is to answer their questions and to teach them to think rather than what they must believe. When my son was a teenager he had questions about what the youth director was teaching them. Rather than addressing his questions, he labeled my son a trouble-maker. How does that help?

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      • Jane Wilson says:

        Absolutely! The beautiful thing about that is that’s all I can do right now anyway! I’m still figuring out new categories for the bible and where it fits. So when my 6 year old asked me how a loving God can wipe the whole world out in a flood, even if the people have been naughty, previously I would have said something like how we can not presume to define love and really what God did was loving we just can’t understand that yet. My only response these days is to question whether how the story we read on the surface lines up with a loving God, and ask what other reasons the author might have had for writing the way he did.

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  7. Pingback: Midrash in the New Testament | Jesus Without Baggage

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