What is the purpose of the this kind of book? And why is it part of the canon of holy scripture? It doesn’t seem to advance the narrative of God’s plan of salvation through the nation of Israel. Neither does it seem to deal directly with the law, the temple or the priesthood, or Israel’s covenant history. It is not particularly messianic in tone.
Is this maybe just ancient lifestyle advice, like we get from our modern-day magazines?
Wisdom literature surfaced in various ways in many ancient cultures in times of stability and peace. Is this little more than another collection of these works, compiled when Israel happened to be thriving? I believe that it’s more than that, and it is included in the canon because, amongst other things, it reflects God’s intimate concern for the transformation of his people, centred around the conflict in our will: the choice between what is wise and what is foolish.
The pithy statement that contrasts “wise or foolish” is the predominating literary feature in the book of Proverbs. It presents a clear distinction in a variety of practical situations and encourages the reader to meditate on these ideas, to learn to discern the way of wisdom. It’s worth noting that being “wise” does not mean simply being a person of penetrating insight, like a royal advisor. The meaning of the term is broad enough to encapsulate a whole-life approach, skills and attitude as well as understanding. And at the root is the assertion that first, we must learn to fear God.
It is also crucial to recognise that the book is written and compiled especially for the covenant community of God. That means it is written with an awareness of, and reverence for God and his attributes, including his justice, goodness and unlimited wisdom. If you are a member of God’s people, then God has already revealed truths to you about Himself, he has given you a sense of community and purpose, a variety of ceremonial institutions, legal and moral guidance. The Wisdom Literature of the bible helps us to develop the skills, the wisdom, to translate the many gifts of God into everyday living: to make the connections between our theology and our practice. When we look at Christ’s teaching, we discover that it regularly reflects a similar concern.
As we read Proverbs, we should reflect on the fact that choosing between the right way and the wrong way is not a skill which comes automatically to God’s people. We are called to join in -to be participants– in the transformation which God has graciously called us to. Holding a deep reverence for the God of justice, we are to commit ourselves to learning and becoming wise, that we might not just understand, but apply.
(thanks to a true “wise guy” Stuart Weir for his help in the preparation of this post!)