In The Bible Study Handbook, Lindsay Olesberg observes how the Bible is in some ways like an encyclopaedia. Her point helped me realise my false assumption that the scriptures were merely a good storybook, without a coordinated overarching narrative or end in mind. This observation has been both a clarifying corrective and important directive for my own Bible reading and teaching, especially when it comes to the book of Proverbs.
The Bible: Encyclopaedia Or Epic?
Olesberg writes, “It is strange to read an encyclopaedia as if it were an epic novel, beginning at the beginning and reading straight through. That does not fit its nature. Likewise, it does not fit the nature of the Bible to read it ‘cover to cover’. It looks like a single-volume book and is the size of many books on your shelf, but it is actually a library, compromised of 66 different books that were written over 1000 years by many authors. In this respect, the Bible is more like an encyclopaedia than an epic novel’’.
She adds, “The Bible contains passages that break up the flow of the overall story: genealogies, census records, contracts, laws, building specifications, songs, aphorisms, personal letters and so on. Therefore, so many of us who make a New Year’s resolution to read straight through the Bible slow down through the end of Exodus and come to a screeching halt when we hit Leviticus!”
Each passage must be read in context to get to the heart of its meaning.
Olesberg’s point is that each book or passage must be read in its respective context to get to the heart of its meaning. On the other hand, even though the Bible is a remarkably diverse collection of books, they all aim towards a single culmination: the revelation of the Sovereign God and his grand plan for mankind. Keeping this balance helps reduce anxiety regarding why some books are harder to navigate than others.
Considering this, I began to ask more pertinent questions about Proverbs. Who wrote this book? When was it written? What was its purpose? Establishing these details pertaining to Proverbs gave me clarity on how to rightly handle the book.
Proverbs fits the genre of Old Testament wisdom literature. It is a collection of wise sayings and short stories. These offer insights into the proper way to live, honouring God and others. Proverbs, specifically, is an anthology of individual sayings that provide skill in the art of godly living.
Proverbs is an anthology of individual sayings that provide skill in the art of godly living.
These are like the wise sayings in our African tribes, handed down from our parents and extended family. Like them, the Proverbs are intended to give instruction to the younger person. Often built on observable phenomena in the world, these sayings inform life choices and outline consequences. But Proverbs is, in a sense, unique. For not only do the sayings give precision in all the matters above, they also have the character of God interwoven through them.
Wisdom Is Grounded In Knowing God
Moreover, grounding Proverbs in the Bible’s grand metanarrative, we must always take their historic Jewish origin seriously. In other words, we must remember that Israel were the:
- Covenantal people
- Heirs of God’s promises to Abraham
- Children of those delivered from Egypt
- Inhabitants of the promised land
Proverbs presents a righteous path that one can only choose because they know God.
They enjoyed God’s powerful presence and gracious forgiveness. Israel is a main character in the story God is telling. Thus Christians read Proverbs, similarly to the Old Testament Jew. We hear them as an invitation to live wisely in all of life because we know the wise God. In other words, Proverbs does not provide us with a list of mechanical dos and don’ts. The book presents a righteous path that one can only choose and stick with because they know and fear God first (Proverbs 1:7).
Proverbs Provides Two Ways To Live
Take King Agur’s famous prayer for example (Proverbs 30:7-9). While it is famously interpreted to overstate the negatives of being either poor or wealthy, the emphasis lies elsewhere.
The heart of Agur’s asking is not to have a lifetime of average comfort. Rather he prays for single-minded devotion to God. For he knows that God is all knowing (Proverbs 30:1-4) and a shield, whose words are flawless (Proverbs 30:5). It thus follows that Agur wants nothing to do with “lies and falsehood,” a temptation to the rich and poor alike. For deception is the exact opposite of the God he wants to honour in his prayer.
Agur is not praying for a lifetime of average comfort but single-minded devotion to God.
Lydia Brown brings this point out so well when she comments on Proverbs 1:8-7:27, “‘The way of the wicked is like deep darkness’ (Proverbs 4:18–19). The doctrine of the two ways, or paths, is found throughout Scripture, and it is the underlying message of Proverbs. There is the way of wisdom, and the way of folly, the path of covenant life and relationship with God or the path of idolatry”.
Brown shows that these two paths and their inevitable outcomes are portrayed throughout the Bible in:
- Psalm 1 and Jeremiah 6:16
- Jesus making himself known as the good way, the path to eternal life (Matthew 7:14)
- Paul’s contrast between law and grace (Romans 7:6)
She concludes, “Ultimately, wisdom teaches us that by submitting to God and trusting him, he will guide our feet along the right path (Proverbs 3:5–6)’’.
Wisdom For A Fallen World
On the flip side, it is worth remembering that the wisdom literature more broadly is marked by at least one more characteristic. God’s wisdom does not deny the reality of the fall and human sin. On this side of Eden, the wicked often prosper and the righteous are downtrodden. The wise man will often lose the fruit of his labour to a fool. It is precisely under this context that we can rightly understand the other complimentary wisdom literature books: Job and Ecclesiastes.
God’s wisdom does not deny the reality of the fall and human sin.
As Tim Keller writes, “If you only read Proverbs, you might become like one of Job’s friends, who believed good people always have good lives. But if you only read Ecclesiastes, you might think it virtually impossible to enjoy wellbeing and satisfaction within the confines of this world, ‘under the sun’. But we are to read all of Scripture, lest we get a distorted view (just as we would get a distorted picture if we only read just the Old Testament or the even just the New Testament)”.
Hear The Call Of Proverbs
The Proverbs gives a striking picture of Lady Wisdom crying aloud in the street. She says: “If you turn at my reproof, behold I will pour out my spirit” (Proverbs 1:23). And if you and I are to be wise, we do well to heed her voice. Seeing these realities has opened me up to the Bible I did not anticipate, or to be exact, the Proverbs I did not expect.