Introductory Issues in Proverbs
Alphabetical An acrostic is a play on words or a word game in which the first letter of each line in a document spells out another message. One biblical example of an acrostic is Psalm 119 in which the consecutive subsections of the psalm feature the… poem
This literary genre appears in the Hebrew text in 31:10-31. The alphabetical acrostic was beloved by biblical writers (see Psalms 9-10; 25; 34; 111; 112; 145; and especially 119), probably as a memory-aiding device. Testimony to the effectiveness of the alphabetical acrostic is the fact that most persons of my generation can sing or recite from memory the words to “The Alphabet Love Song,” “‘A,’ you’re adorable, ‘B,’ you’re so beautiful…,” which was a hit in the late 1940s (words and original music by Buddy Kaye, Fred Wise, and Sidney Lippman; copyright © 1948, Music of the Times Publishing Corporation). Scholars continue to find new hidden or obvious acrostics in biblical literature.
Autobiographical stylizing (24:30-34)
Every speaker uses the device of reporting a real or imagined first-person observation and then drawing a conclusion from it. “A funny thing happened to me on the way to this meeting….” Notice that the “punch line” in verses 33-34 must have been a saying that circulated independently; it occurs in another setting in 6:10-11. See also A psalm is a song of praise. In the Old Testament 150 psalms comprise the psalter, although some of the psalms are laments and thanksgivings. In the New Testament early Christians gathered to sing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs. 37:25, 35-36 and Sirach 51:13-30 for further first-person materials.
“Better x than y” statements
Some of these forms were likely invented just for the sheer aesthetic delight, much as one might enjoy composing limericks or rhymes. Examples in Proverbs include: 16:8, 19; 17:1, 12; 21:19; 22:1; 25:7, 24; 27:5; 27:10b; see also Ecclesiastes 4:6, 13; 7:2, 3, 5, 8; Sirach 40:18-27. The genre might also serve a pedagogical purpose: one can imagine a teacher asking, “What is better than a house full of feasting with strife?” and a pupil answering, “A dry morsel with quiet.” “And what does this mean?” the ancient or modern teacher might continue, setting the scene for a discussion of family life.
Since much of the material in the book was originally intended for young men who would grow up to take positions of leadership in the government, efforts must be made to address the materials in ways also relevant to feminine readers. The warnings against the “loose woman” in chapters 5 and 7 will obviously have to be considered in the context of sexual responsibility in general. When read in the context of family devotions, the reader may have to exercise editorial freedom to adjust or even excise certain passages.
Instruction or imperative speeches
These speeches in chapters 1-9 and 22:17-24:22 are dominated by the imperative mood. Crucial to the interpretation of each of these pieces is the identification of the subunits within each chapter. For example: chapter 1 consists of 1:1-7, 8-19 and 20-33; one’s own sense of style or a good study Bible will be helpful in this task. The use of the imperative mood means that the material was designed to be used for providing advice or instruction to an individual or a group. While chapters 1-9 were formerly considered to be the latest material in the book, recent scholarship contests that view.
Numerical sayings in the form x, x+1
These were also probably composed for aesthetic delight; see 6:16-19; 30:15b-16; 18-19; 21-23; 24-28; 29-31. Once again the form lends itself to teaching, with the teacher asking: “Name three or four things that are small but wise” (30:24-28). Or “Name three or four things that evoke wonder” (30:18-19). Discussions would easily follow.
There are a few examples of the riddle in biblical literature. Again, the form is a playful one that lends itself to a pedagogical setting: “Who has woe? Who has sorrow?…Who has redness of eyes?” (23:29). Note that this is a real question-and-answer riddle with the answer in 23:30-35. The piece is obviously a warning against excessive drinking; a discussion of proper use of wine could follow. Note other examples of riddles in Judges 14:12-14 and 1 Kings 10:1-3. First Esdras 3 and 4 shows some royal bodyguards passing the time with word games!
Short sayings in the form of antithetic parallelism
These dominate chapters 10-30 of the book. For clear examples note the sayings in 10:4, 5, 7; 11:1, 12, 13, 14, 15. These sayings can be taken one at a time, read, reflected on, or discussed.
A tip for interpreting similes (comparisons using “like” or “as”): begin by concentrating on the “like” half of the saying (“Like a gold ring in a pig’s snout” 11:22; what is the point of picturing a gold ring in a swine’s snout?) and then moving on to the comparison (in both cases there is a waste of beauty); see also 25:3, 11-14, 18-20, 25-26, 28, and others. These sayings could also point to a pedagogical setting, with the teacher asking, “Why are these two alike?” Thus, “Why is a word fitly spoken like a beautiful piece of jewelry?” and an answer, “Using just the right word at just the right time is an experience of truth and beauty.”