Theological Themes in Proverbs
The fear of the Lord
The sense of “fear” is not “to be afraid of” but to honor or respect. “The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom” frames the first section of the book (1:7; 9:10; see also 15:33; Psalm 111:10; Job 28:28) and “fear of the LORD” runs through the entire collection like a pedal note on a pipe organ, describing the right attitude of the person seeking Wisdom encompasses the qualities of experience, knowledge, and good judgment. The Old Testament book of Proverbs, which sometimes invokes a Woman as the personification of Wisdom, is a collection of aphorisms and moral teachings. Along with other biblical passages, it teaches, “The fear of the… (see, for example, Proverbs 1:29; 2:5; 3:7; 8:13; 16:6).
Living responsibly under God means practicing friendship and neighborliness. “A friend loves at all times” (17:17a); also 14:20-21; 18:24; 19:4, 6; 25:17; 27:6, 10, 14.
God the beginning
The first element in the wisdom that this biblical book advocates is a right relationship with God. The human side of this relationship is expressed in the notion of “the fear of the Lord.”
God the Creator
The God encountered in Proverbs is the Creator of the heavens and the earth. Put plainly in 3:19, “The LORD by wisdom founded the earth; by understanding he established the heavens”; see also 8:22-31. Absent from this book is a recital of God’s mighty acts in history; these themes are dealt with elsewhere (see, for example, Deuteronomy 26:1-15; The successor of Moses, Joshua led the Israelites into Canaan 24:1-28; Psalms 105; 114; 136:10-26; Prophet to the northern kingdom who married a prostitute to show God’s relationship to a faithless Israel 11:1-11).
God the guide and sustainer
The Creator has not abandoned the creation to run on its own (deism). God is continually working out God’s purposes in, with, and under the events happening on earth: “The human mind plans the way, but the LORD directs the steps” (16:9); see also 16:3; 19:21; 20:24; 21:30-31.
God the universal God of all peoples
The materials in Proverbs are not directed only to Israel. Wisdom does not cry out in the temples or synagogues, but in the public square, in the city gates, at the crossroads where people from all nations are gathered or passing through (1:20; 8:1-2). The wisdom teachers are open to good instructional materials from outside Israel; much of 22:17-24:22 has been appropriated from the teachers of Egypt.
Living responsibly under God means finding happiness by getting wisdom. “She [wisdom] is more precious than jewels, and nothing you desire can compare with her” (3:15). Godly wisdom is the way to happiness. And the way to godly wisdom is to get started by honoring God (1:7).
Living responsibly under God means practicing humility. “Let another praise you, and not your own mouth…” (27:2); also 6:16-19; 16:5; 18-19.
Living responsibly under God
The major concern of the book is not to teach about God, but rather to teach how one ought to live a responsible and happy life on earth. Though much of the book contains what might be called secular wisdom, that wisdom is always “under God.”
Living responsibly under God includes enjoying and appreciating marriage as God’s gift. “House and wealth are inherited from parents, but a prudent wife is from the LORD” (19:14); also 5:15-19. Appreciating one’s spouse is advised in the context of the 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… in 31:10-31.
Living responsibly under God means honoring parents. “My child, keep your father’s commandment, and do not forsake your mother’s teaching” (6:20); see also 6:21-22; 15:5; 22:6; 23:22.
Living responsibly under God includes helping the poor, the widow, and the orphan, both as individuals (14:21; 21:13; 22:9; 22:22-23; 23:10-11; 28:27; 29:7; 31:20, among many more examples) and as individuals in government. Such help is understood as the special responsibility of those in positions of power. “If a king judges the poor with equity, his throne will be established forever” (29:14; see also 28:15; 31:8-9).
Living responsibly under God means avoiding sexual promiscuity. The consequences of such promiscuous living are nothing less than death (7:27 as part of 7:6-27); also 5:1-14, 20-23.
Speaking and silence
Living responsibly under God includes gaining skill in the use of words and of silence. “A word fitly spoken is like apples of gold in a setting of silver” (25:11). See also 11:13; 13:3; 14:7; 17:28; 18:2, 21; 21:23; 26:23; 29:11, 20; and Sirach 20:5-8.
Wisdom is personified as a woman in Proverbs 1, 8, and 9 (and also in Job 28 and later in Sirach 24 and Wisdom of Third king of Israel who was known for wisdom and building the first Temple 7:7-9:18). Wisdom is a feminine noun in Hebrew (hokmah), as it is in Greek (sophia), but the personification of wisdom in the Old Testament is more than merely a grammatical issue. Woman Wisdom becomes a significant personal agent through which God works, especially in Creation, in biblical terms, is the universe as we know or perceive it. Genesis says that in the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. In the book of Revelation (which speaks of end times) the author declares that God created all things and… itself, in some ways not unlike the personified Word or Logos in John 1.
Living responsibly under God means being diligent in one’s work. “The hand of the diligent will rule, while the lazy will be put to forced labor” (12:24); also 6:6-11; 10:4-5; 12:11; 20:13; 26:13-16.